Amy Perry is a graduate student for sociology and teaching assistant at the University of Missouri - St. Louis, as well as a part-time barista at a Barnes and Noble cafe, which has, if not inspired her love for coffee and reading, at least cemented it. She has previously been published in her university's two literary magazines, and won third place in the WOW! Women on Writing Summer '08 Flash Fiction Contest with her piece Ueno. When not writing, working or learning, she spends her time tending to the needs of her spoiled kitten Stark (pictured here clinging to her shoulders), and reading Marvel Comics.
Do check out Amy's entry, Much Like Flying, and then join us back here for a little one-on-one with her.
Interview by Jill Earl
WOW: First, congratulations to you, Amy! How are you taking in being selected as a runner-up in our Spring ’09 Contest?
AMY: I am extremely honored. It sounds pessimistic, but every time I enter a contest, it's with the assumption that I'm going to lose--I hate having my hopes hinge on any one thing only to end up disappointed. I've read quite a few winning entries and several interviews, and the skill of the individuals who enter these contests is astounding. Competition is fierce; I went into it expecting nothing, but ended up surprised and thrilled.
WOW: Your entry proves that your writing skill is comparable to that of the other entrants, and we’re so glad that your entered our contest! Speaking of your entry, you chose to focus on a rather difficult subject, a girl contemplating suicide and the outcome. Was there an event or person that prompted you to write this?
AMY: No specific event, no. I hesitate to say all, but I think a good portion of those who have weathered the storms of middle school and high school have experienced suicidal ideation, with varying degrees of intensity. And yet, in spite of that, we as a society are hesitant to discuss suicide without reverting to stereotypes. I wanted the focus of the story to be a more nuanced portrayal of suicide than one typically sees in mainstream media.
It's a difficult subject to write about without seeming to trivialize it, and I'm sure some would make the argument that I am trivializing it, because what is clearly a significant event (throwing oneself in front of an oncoming train) is treated as just a hiccup in the day's plans for all those who bear witness to it. It seems preposterous, but that's what I was going for. When the girl justifies her need to leave by claiming she has a math test, and the station attendant accepts it, I want people to stop and go "wait, what?"
The girl is clearly troubled, she suffers from a profound sense of alienation, and that alienation is a result of an interplay between active neglect, passive disinterest, and well-meaning naiveté. As a society, we like answers that can fit into a newspaper headline. Who's at fault here? The mother? The teacher? The station attendant? The girl? Society? The truth is it may be all of the above or none of the above, but in our knee jerk attempt to digest the story we're apt to grab and cling onto the answer that, if it isn't the most obvious, at least makes the most sense to us as uninvolved observers. But in doing so, we tend to whitewash all other contributing factors out, and that stunts our understanding.
This story is just the corner piece to a much bigger puzzle; it contains no obvious answers, and the hows and whys are largely absent. Readers have to fill in the blanks, and in doing so, it makes them think. That was my intent, anyway.
WOW: I think you were successful, for I did find myself saying, “Wait, what?” more than a few times. I can’t recall reading a story concerning suicide portrayed in this way. I found it refreshing, actually, and didn’t feel that the subject had been trivialized. It didn’t have a neat ending and that was appreciated. As they read, I hope our readers will enjoy filling in the blanks for themselves.
What about the title for your story, how did you come to select it?
AMY: The title came to me shortly after the idea to the story did, which is unusual, because the typical short story process for me includes a teeth grinding session at the end while I try to come up with some word or phrase that embodies the piece as a whole. This time I had the title in mind as I wrote, and my writing was somewhat shaped by it. It's a powerful image to me, the distinction between jumping to end one's life and learning to fly. The difference, of course, is that we're not built to fly. And then there's that pesky thing called gravity. But just because we can't, doesn't mean we don't try.
WOW: ‘Teeth grinding session’. I think that’s a perfect description for what many writers go through when trying to create titles for works. It’s encouraging to know that others may have similar struggles in this process.
Amy, you’re not a newcomer to our flash fiction competition, you previously placed third in our Summer ’08 Contest. What do you think has helped you in producing winning contest entries?
AMY: Well I almost feel like flash fiction is a cheat for me, because it emphasizes the things I think I've got some degree of skill at (strong ideas, clear voice), while at the same time downplaying my weaknesses (story abandonment). I guess one thing that helped me was having a good feel for the kind of story you can tell with only seven hundred words. Not every idea can be adapted successfully to flash fiction, and with both this entry and the one prior, there were several unsuccessful attempts that I quickly realized just didn't have the right feel for the type of story I was trying to write.
WOW: I continue to be a great admirer of those who can write flash fiction! You need to be successful in capturing the reader’s interest by conveying strong ideas and a clear voice. Flash fiction truly is a great exercise in writing short and tight.
Your bio mentions that you love reading Marvel Comics. How fun! Which are your favorites? Have you found inspiration from any of them for your writing?
AMY: My comic book reading comes and goes in waves. As a child, I grew up on X-Men (with a father who collected Marvel Comics as a child, what hope did I have?), but I've since moved on to other series. I'll read just about any series (except Spider-Man, which comes out too often for me to keep up, and Hulk, which just can't keep my interest), but the ones I really enjoy, the ones that I consider to be reread worthy, are the ones that strike the right balance between action and characterization. Brubaker's run on Daredevil and Captain America, Bendis' Alias, and Fraction's Iron Fist are at the top of my list.
Inspiration-wise, it's hard to say. There's a big gap between your typical super hero comic and the type of story that I tend to write, but I do take note of writers that successfully make the absurd (a grown man wearing red leather adorned with devil horns) interesting and relatable. Since I do tend to write characters that fall outside the mainstream, I guess you could say I take inspiration from the way some writers handle masked men in capes.
WOW: Your father collected Marvel Comics when he was little? Guess you had to have some liking for them. I love your comment about being inspired by writers “making the absurd interesting and relatable.” There was absurdity in your piece, making it all the more intriguing.
Now, let's talk about themes. Are there specific ones you like to explore when you write?
AMY: Boundaries. Ethical boundaries, moral boundaries, gender, religion and other social boundaries. If I'm not prowling back and forth along the edge of what is taken for granted, I tend to get bored with my writing, and if I'm bored, I know there's a good chance other people will be too. I like that the process of writing makes me think.
WOW: So, as you're challenged by exploring various boundaries, you challenge your readers to come along with you for the ride. I think that’s a great way for both readers and writers to stretch and grow. I thought that you achieved a good balance in making your story so descriptive. How were you able to achieve this?
AMY: When you're writing flash fiction, you have to budget your words well. In this story I wanted to leave a strong image of the subway station, which I did by closing the story with some of the same descriptions I opened with. It gives the story a sense of continuity out of what is otherwise a very brief encounter between station attendant and girl.
Beyond that, I wanted to experiment with hyphenated descriptions. Just doubling the word (black-black and blue-blue) emphasizes it in a way that might otherwise take seven or eight words. The same with tying a color to a word (red-wet, grease-black). It's all about budgeting, and there was some degree of agonizing over which word to use, what images to keep, and which to throw out.
WOW: What a great technique you’ve utilized with hyphenated descriptions. Helps a lot with trimming word count. Maybe I’ll try that with my own writing.
Earlier you discussed achieving balance in creating a descriptive story. Speaking of balance, in your day-to-day life, you’re writing, pursuing graduate studies in sociology, you’re a teaching assistant at the University of Missouri, and you work part time at Barnes and Noble. Add to all that, hanging out with your kitten Stark. Pray tell us your secret for keeping your head together in all this.
AMY: I'm not so sure I always manage to keep my head together, to be honest. There are times (midterms, finals) when everything is coming at me all at once that I feel like tugging my hair out. But I try to keep it all in perspective, and remind myself that winter break (or summer break) lies just beyond that next hill. Stark helps me get from point A to point B, and I have a hard time believing there exists a more spoiled kitten in the world.
WOW: Breaks are beautiful things! And, it’s always good to have an assistant to help one keep her perspective, human or otherwise. (laughs)
What about current writing projects? Can you share with us what you’re working on now?
AMY: What, you mean besides schoolwork? Although I don't have any concrete projects to date, I am working on steadily increasing my portfolio of short stories, and I have a few ideas for novels kicking around in my head, but mostly I'm trying to keep ahead of my schoolwork so that it doesn't all pile up on me come November (if I succeed in doing so, it will be the first time since I set foot in college).
WOW: Here’s hoping you’ll stay ahead of your schoolwork, while building up that portfolio. You’ve offered some great advice for our readers. Is there anything else you’d like to pass along?
AMY: Never be afraid to improve. By that, I mean take constructive criticism for what it is--a chance to get better. Writing is intensely personal, and having someone tear apart a story that means something to you is a lot harder than having someone edit your English paper, but you have to put some distance between yourself and it in order to get better. Unless you wrote it for yourself, the ultimate goal is for other people to read it, right? Their opinions matter.
But at the same time, remember: you're the writer, you know what works best. If someone proposes a change to your story that you think would just absolutely ruin it (or at least lessen its intended effect), then don't listen to them. Get a second opinion. Remember that no one is the be all, end all authority of writing, there are as many opinions on writing as there are writers.
And adopt a cat. At the end of the day, it's nice to come home to a friendly face, even if that friendly face tries to steal your sushi.
WOW: Glad you pointed out how helpful it is to get a second opinion when it comes to constructive criticism because of varied opinions on writing. I’ve had to learn that myself, along with growing a thicker skin. As you said earlier, this process helps writers improve their craft.
One last question. Is your kitten named after Tony Stark, Iron Man from Marvel Comics? If so, would that make her “Iron Kitten”?
AMY: Yes, my kitten Stark is named after Tony Stark (Iron Man). I enjoyed the Iron Man movie much more than The Dark Knight, which was touted as the super hero film of the year, the decade, or all time, depending on who you asked. But I've never been a DC girl. When I adopted a new kitten last year, I was stumped when it came to a name, but somehow Stark just seemed right, despite that kitten being female. And yes, the way she flings herself at the dog, who's in a completely different weight class, you'd definitely think she was "Iron Kitty".
WOW: I admit to being a former DC Comics girl who saw The Dark Knight and really liked it. Still want to see Iron Man too!
Amy, it was such a pleasure chatting with you today. Best wishes to you in both your academic and writing career and to “Iron Kitty” too. Looking forward to see more of your work in the future and good luck!