Interview with Anne Andersen: 2016 Fall Flash Fiction Contest Runner Up
Anne Andersen’s Bio:
Anne accomplished a lifelong goal when at age four she was awarded her first library card. Imagining all sorts of new worlds became an addiction. Growing up in Norway, coming to the US as a teenager and visiting a variety of places including Antarctica and Spitsbergen has added to her notebooks full of writing ideas.
Anne has written stories and studied writing all her life and has regularly attended courses including the University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Festival. She loves learning pretty much anything and has studied a strange variety of subjects including ceramics, acting, painting, politics, science stuff, history and finally ending up as an Emergency Medicine doctor. That last one has her grumbling every time someone saves a character by removing the bullet.
Anne writes bad poetry, short stories and is working diligently on her first science fiction novel. She is a perfectionist and is afraid to call it finished, but with weekly therapy hopes to remedy that. Her great support is her writing group, who have been meeting every Tuesday for over four years. She’s amazed they’re still on speaking terms.
Take the time to read Anne’s story, Porcelaine, and then join us for a chat with the author.
WOW: First of all, congratulations! Porcelaine is such a nuanced, meaningful story. How did it change from idea to final submission?
Anne: First, I want to thank you for the privilege of having my story published on your website. It’s exciting to be noticed. As a novice writer good feedback is so hard to come by, and it’s a thrill to be interviewed.
The idea for this story came to me three years ago when I wrote several 1000 word stories to prove to myself I could actually finish something. Everything I’d done was never good enough to be called…finished. I’m not sure where my mind was because all the stories dealt with the theme of despair. Something most writers are familiar with, I suppose. I knew the stories were possibly good but I didn’t have the skill to write them well enough. So I let them sit and continued writing and studying writing, reading books on writing, taking courses on writing, listening to great blogs on writing and I spent time with my writing group.
Then from a group-mate I learned about the WOW! contest and pulled that story out and decided I now had skills to make it better. I needed to slim a third of the word count and looked for the absolute essential core of the story. I made it unfold in a way that showed the reader what the protagonist experienced, in her denial, until she faced reality, the moment where she accepted what she had denied and therefore let the reader see what she hadn’t been able to see. My writing group helped make sure there was clarity, and found a few corny phrases and all that. And then I tweaked words and sentences until I found the courage to say it was finished, and pressed the Enter button.
WOW: You leave so much to your reader’s imagination. How do you decide what to include (details about the floor) and what to leave out (why they were there)?
Anne: I had a wonderful teacher, Sands Hall, who actually managed to teach me what Point of View meant. It’s both an easy and very difficult concept. I still struggle with it but it helps me decide exactly what should be told, shown, to the reader. I struggle between two opposite poles when I write. I’m a control freak and know so much about my story world and characters’ wants and looks that I want the reader to see everything exactly the way I see it.
But on the other side, what really engages a reader is using their imagination, to picture it using their own experiences, for themselves. If an angry woman in pink is walking down the street one reader might picture a Chanel suit and someone else their old Aunt Martha’s shabby dress. And they feel her anger in their own personal way, maybe not the way I’m trying to unnecessarily micromanage. That’s the power of writing.
To choose what to show readers I look very closely at the protagonist and what she’s capable of feeling and seeing right in that story moment. If she’s happy she might notice the sun shining through pretty curtains. If she’s angry she only sees the piece of egg hanging off her husband’s beard and doesn’t notice the sun or the curtains.
In this story my character was in complete denial, so she focused on specks on the floor or the blowing leaf so she wouldn’t think about why they were there, until she was slowly forced to confront where she was and why she was there, and became able to see those details she’d missed. If I’d shown things to the reader when the protagonist couldn’t see them, it would have broken from the protagonist’s point of view. It wouldn’t have unfolded like a puzzle, a puzzle that the clever reader could probably guess before the character did.
WOW: Why did you choose to write a science fiction novel instead of a medical procedural?
Anne: I wish I could stick to one genre, but my interests are so varied I keep getting into problems whenever I worry about who my audience will be. So I write for someone who is pretty much interested in everything.
I get better feedback when I write about life issues, pain, death, despair, fear and all the things we deal with as real people. I know that stuff better and it flows more easily for me. I think it’s easy and sometimes cheap to use things like that to get people emotionally engaged in your writing. If I write badly about sex, or write badly about a child abused or tortured people get emotionally invested. But there is no quality. I think that’s one reason I stay away from it, it’s too easy to manipulate people’s emotion just by choosing the right subject, then writing about it irresponsibly.
So my love is science fiction, not the technical stuff but Star Wars, people like us who struggle in a more fun setting. Characters are more important to me than action. So I have a great character. She learns who she is and what is her inner strength in a very human way. She meets the wrong man, her powerful fathers disapprove, and has to choose between different complicated worlds, has to decide what is truly important to her. Love becomes important to her but so is her world. She’s not a simple mind to be blinded by one emotion, whatever that emotion might be, love, revenge, fear. She’s a bit like me, complex. I can use everything I know and love in this story. Genocide, love, medicine, technology, humor, etc. I’ve written about 100,000 words and most of it is garbage. But there is a great skeleton now. Hopefully one day, my goal is by November, I’ll manage it. I say November because by NaNoWriMo I need to do something brand new so I don’t go insane working on this book until I die.
This story concept began as a revolt against George Lucas and how there were ten guys I wanted to be like, and no women. Leia was someone’s sister, daughter, lover. She wasn’t anyone herself. Nobody made action or hero movies with a woman main character except Ridley Scott. Sigourney Weaver was the only real main character female hero. And, please don’t include Lara Croft. She was written for men to look at, not as a role model for women. Patrick O’Brian, J.R.R.Tolkien and Roger Zelazny, though I nearly worship those authors, didn’t do enough with women characters. A few female authors did a great job with women including Laurell Hamilton in her early books and Lois McMaster Bujold. I want to write about women like that, women who hold their own, women who make important decisions in their lives and affect the world and try hard, even with their crippling blind spots and flaws, to make their world(s) better.
WOW: I have to ask since you brought it up – what is wrong with removing the bullet to save the character’s life? What other types of problems do you spot in literature because of your background as an Emergency Medicine doctor?
Anne: This is one of my pet irritations, and thinking about your question it’s tempting to give you a textbook full of explanations. But, let’s ignore all the complicated medical details and let’s simplify the problem, that’s all writers need to do. Unless they want to write a lot of medical details, which can be interesting, too. You need very little medical knowledge to write a great book where people are injured or sick. But you do have to think about reality.
Hollywood thinking is big, visual, overdramatic and conflict-y. It’s why physical fights are such a staple in fiction, especial movie fiction. So, let’s say a writer wants their character sick, hurt or in a fight. I just watched The Accountant, a movie where Matt Damon was beaten, the fight was very long, he was injured severely to all parts of his body, then towards the end he was struck very hard in the face at least five times point blank. Then he sat down, moving easily, and had an emotional conversation with his attacker. No broken bones, no swelling, all his teeth in place, perfect nose, no blood, clear thinking. Imagine yourself, really imagine yourself being hit knuckle-hard in the ribs just once. Or some huge guy repeatedly pounds an iron fist to your nose, eyes, teeth, concussion, neck pain, broken facial bones, big cuts, unconsciousness, no doubt. Then, a week in the hospital, crutches, physical therapy for six weeks. When will you even remember why you wanted to talk to the guy? You can write the exact same exciting fight then end it with the same conversation, just do it realistically. Make different choices. Maybe don’t hit his face… Think about real life.
Let’s talk about generic cowboy guns and think about bullets in a simple way. Let’s ignore the different speeds of bullets and military weapons that treat the body like a bowl of Jell-O to be fractured and do wide paths of deadly damage, let’s ignore bullets that spin elliptical paths and break apart into shrapnel pieces that move separately and let’s ignore bullets that flatten like pancakes and move wide, making huge tubular paths of soupy damage. Let’s ignore all but the simple cowboy gun.
When someone is shot the bullet enters the skin, moves forward cutting a little path of damage and then it stops, somewhere. As a writer, all you need to think about is: What outcome do you want for your character? Do you want them to die? Immediately; head or heart shot. Slowly; gut shot, putrid leaking of intestine, infection, death, or you can damage a medium or even little blood vessel or nick a liver with its slowly seeping blood over minutes, hours or even days without a doctor’s help. What do you want the outcome to be?
By the way, most bullets are steel, not lead, they generally don’t hurt your character staying inside the body. I remember a woman shot in the chest by her boyfriend. She didn’t need surgery; she just needed a chest tube to suck the air out of her chest, where it leaked from the hole in her lung. Two days later I made rounds and she coughed up the bullet that obviously had ended up in one of her bigger breathing tubes. Otherwise she’d still have it in her chest to this day, maybe to be picked up by TSA the next time she flew to Paris.
Which brings up the next issue. You have a bullet inside a character. Your character has some sort of tiny hole in the skin and a tiny tunnel that leads right to that bullet. Why in the world would you want to make that tiny tunnel huge, cut through a lot of uninjured parts of the body, cut through normal blood vessels and make them bleed, to take out a bullet that’s sitting quietly doing no harm? It’s not going anywhere. Rarely does a surgeon remove a bullet. Why? Because they would have to cause harm, sometimes a lot of damage, to reach it. You don’t save someone by removing the bullet. You save someone, by pressure or sewing up the places that are bleeding, not by making more bleeding sites if you can avoid it.
Writers want the drama of saving the character’s life and the ticking clock of getting to that bullet. They want the hero to act decisively and bravely. So it does makes some writerly sense to do it this way. But it’s completely irrational. Writers believe it because bullets have been stressfully removed for 50 years in so many movies and books it’s become fact. Its seductive conflict, its easy and cliché. A little thought will make for a much better and unique heroic situation. Maybe your hero can say: “Don’t be silly, Franz. The bullet isn’t the problem, let’s put pressure right on that pumping artery and hope the bullet didn’t nick the nerve, because if he loses the fine motor control in his hand we’re all screwed. He’s the only one who can defuse that alien bomb. And let’s send the kids to find some water before that battery acid causes even more damage to his eyes. No… too late.”
WOW: How does your work inform your own writing?
Anne: The easy answer to this is that for all of us, whatever life we lead, as writers we can look to our rich experiences as humans in a world of conflict. We have so much to draw from both literally or emotionally. I mean, experiences like the death of a coworker, slipping down rainy stairs and not being hurt, the cat throwing up on your pillow. You have to catch these moments and recognize what they are for you as a writer. One of my writing instructors, Lon Otto, taught me to make a grist list of experiences to search through as we’re writing, experiences we can remember and refer to that help drag up the needed emotions. Just one line will do the job as reminder of something important that happened to us.
If you work in public service such as social, police, medical work you often witness the more dramatic moments of life. Sometimes they offer very emotional stories, or add a layer to a story. I think if you look for it you can get those experiences anywhere. I must say that I’ve been very lucky in my experiences in general. I’ve not been afraid to stir the pot, to try new things, to make mistakes, to travel, to talk to strangers. Many experiences haven’t been pleasant but they’ve made me learn, think deep, and in my subconscious there’s a lot to muck about with.
Imagining things isn’t a problem I have. My problem is more one of being exposed. I’m an introvert and I’m afraid someone will ask me how I could write that character so well, the one who tortures or hurts people or exposes themselves to things I’d never in a million years do. Unfortunately I’m very good at going there in my head. I have a bookshelf full of works on torture, war, genocide, social misery, and disaster management. It fascinates me, and takes me writerly places.
Thanks so much for the interview. Your questions were amazingly thought-provoking.
WOW: And thank you for your answers! I’ve learned a thing or two about how to work with POV as well as how to pull my life into my writing. And thank you for working so hard to bring us more great women characters.
Interviewed by Sue Bradford Edwards