Jacquelyn Malone - Fall 2009 Flash Fiction Contest Runner-Up

Monday, May 03, 2010

Jacquelyn Malone is a poet whose work has been published in multiple journals, including Poetry Magazine, Poetry Northwest, and Ploughshares. Previously, Jacquelyn won a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) fellowship grant as a poet, but her flash fiction piece is the first fiction piece she has sent out to be published. She recently completed a novel, which is the story of the murder of one twin by his brother, a story that takes place in a Southern fundamentalist farming community in the late 1950s. Jacquelyn has worked as a writer and editor in the software industry for over a decade. She has taught technical and scientific writing and editing at Northeastern University.

Jacquelyn's story, The Hair, is a must read. Head over to the contest page if you haven't had the opportunity to peruse this flash piece.

WOW: Jacquelyn, congratulations on earning runner-up honors in the Fall 2009 Flash Fiction contest. I've read The Hair several times and different elements stand out each time I read it. In the story, Ben suffers from a mental health problem. Did his son’s death quicken the symptoms?

Jacquelyn: When I wrote this story, a friend of mine had just lost a child. Her sadness reminded me of my mother’s—she never got over the death of my brother. Both occurrences made me certain that the death of a child is probably the most devastating emotional experience anyone can endure. As I began to think about the story, I wondered what would happen to someone already emotionally frail. What if the person were slightly paranoid? How would the trauma of a child’s death affect such a person?

I see Ben as someone whose reaction to Eddy’s death has been severe enough to disable him, but until the story begins, he has been taking medications that keep the paranoia under control.

WOW: I'm intrigued by the questions you considered. They definitely create tension and build a strong sense of empathy with readers. Establishing tension between characters is essential in moving a storyline forward. How does paranoia affect Mabel, Ben’s wife?

Jacquelyn: As a calm, perceptive person, Mabel is Ben’s opposite. She is worried about her husband and sees signs that indicate a renewal of what was an earlier severe mental breakdown.
WOW: You do an excellent job of creating tension and extending it throughout the piece. The momentum pushes toward the climax, creating an ending that is open to interpretation. Does Ben try to end his life, as well as Mabel’s?

Jacquelyn: I’m not sure Ben is out to kill Mabel as Mabel. He is out to get whatever took his son. He sees the same type wire in her hair, which means Mabel may no longer be Mabel. Whatever evil force took Eddy may now inhabit his wife. I saw his act as rash, instantaneous, and desperate. I wasn’t thinking of him trying to kill himself, though I can see why you might think that.

WOW: The closure made me think. That's a sign of strong storytelling. Jacquelyn, let's talk about a project you developed and won an NEA fellowship in poetry. Would you share the application process?
Jacquelyn: To apply for an NEA in poetry, a writer must have published a book of poems or 20 or more poems in five or more literary journals. I hadn’t published a book, but I had published over 20 poems within the time frame. The submission process included choosing 10 of what I thought were my best poems.

WOW: Congratulations on the award! The NEA awards help writers and artists focus on worthy projects. It's quite an accomplishment. You also have a varied writing background. You've taught technical and scientific writing in a college setting. How does the technical writing process differ from the creative process?

Jacquelyn: Technical writing and creative writing begin in two opposite poles of the brain, but in many ways they come together at some point. Technical writing is mostly about how-to. Whether readers are highly sophisticated or complete novices, they consult a technical manual to find an answer. If a manual must explain the concept behind a feature, that information needs to be clearly labeled and separate from the how-to portion. But in their own ways, both technical and creative writing demand precision. Have you ever purchased a kit or a gadget with complex and wordy instructions? When I open one of those booklets, I immediately want to tear it to bits if I can’t find the information I need really quickly. I don’t have a lot of patience with convoluted and unnecessary language.

Though poetry and fiction are not driven by facts and they may move into highly figurative and metaphorical expressions, they still demand the writer be concise and precise. I’ve learned a lot about writing when usability experts examined my technical writing because they focus right in on clarity and accuracy. What became second nature in technical writing became an important goal in other areas of writing.

WOW: That's a solid lesson for writers in any genre to master. You’re a successfully published poet. How does writing poetry prepare a writer for flash fiction or are they unrelated?

Jacquelyn: To tell a complete story in flash fiction the writer must be able to hint clearly, to compress the details. There’s no time for a background character sketch. (For example, the complete back story for The Hair is in this sentence: “When their son Eddy died and Ben went out on disability, Ben and Mabel converted the other side of their duplex to studios.”) To me the most important part of poetry is compression. I know that leaves out the great epics of literature, but even epics depict with economy. For me, the fun of reading a poem is taking leaps with the poet, and a reader can do that only if the poet is good at setting an emotional valence in the lines and carrying the reader along with suggestion rather than expository language. Flash fiction has some of the same need for squeezing the details for all their juice.

WOW: I agree! Every element of flash fiction must squeeze the juice! I may borrow that phrase from you. :) Writers learn those techniques by writing and writing and writing. Every writer has her own methodology. Share your process.

Jacquelyn: I think of writing as two separate processes. First is hanging on to an initial idea long enough to engage fairly deeply with it. I used to ride the commuter rail from Lowell to Boston, a forty-five minute ride. Since Lowell was the initial boarding stop, I got my choice of seats in what I knew was usually a quiet car, and the motion of the train provided a perfect lulling to let my mind percolate. I also find that watching running water or a fire have the same hypnotic affect and are a great boon to reverie, which for me is a condition for engaging deeply in my subject. The second stage, after I’ve figured out what I want to do, is to do it – the matter-of-fact toil of any writing, though when I get stuck I need to get back to a brain hypnotically lost in its subject.

WOW: We have something in common: the first step of the process. My percolating comes when I'm pushing the lawn mower on our acreage. It's a great way to form ideas. With your varied writing interests, you must keep busy. What projects are you currently working on?

Jacquelyn: Currently I’m researching material for what I hope will be a verse novel – a story about the conflicts in the hopes and needs of the British, the colonists, and various Indian tribes (especially the Cherokee) as the first white men and women ventured across the mountains of North Carolina into what became Tennessee. It’s early in the process, but I am interested in two aspects of the history: the failure of what seemed genuine good will on both the colonists and the Indian sides and the devastatingly harsh trials of the colonial women.
WOW: What a fascinating story! I'll make sure to check it out when it's completed! Jacquelyn, congratulations, again, on earning runner-up honors, and I want to thank you for sharing your views about writing with readers of The Muffin.
Interview by LuAnn Schindler; visit her website at http://luannschindler.com/


Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Congratulations, Jacquelyn! "The Hair" is an excellent story - the complex layers you developed are amazing, especially in such a short piece. Well done!

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