Meet Flash Fiction Runner Up, Emily Keener!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Having spent nearly every summer of her young life stuffed in a tent with her mom and brothers, Emily Keener feels most alive when she’s outdoors and slightly out of her comfort zone. She’s worked as an educator at parks and nature centers across the country and now makes a living as an instructional designer. Emily has always enjoyed writing—from journaling in the woods as a kid to sketching silly stories for her niece and nephews—and one day she hopes to break into the children’s nonfiction market. She also dreams of writing interpretive material for the National Park Service. Last year, she and her husband welcomed a beautiful baby girl, who loves to caw at the birds flying over their home near the Mississippi River.

Interview by Sue Bradford Edwards

WOW: What was the inspiration for Release Mission?

Emily: I should tell you right away that it entering WOW's flash fiction contest was a big move for me. It was the first time I had entered a fiction writing contest and my palms were actually sweating when I hit submit! Still, it felt good ... like a release. But, lucky for me, I made it out alive.

Last year I overheard some college students talking about a caged animal "freaking out" when it was released into the wild. They were saying captive animals forget how to be wild. It made me think about a young man from my home town who tried to jail break an animal from the zoo. He was caught and incarcerated. It made me think of all the well-intentioned, but maybe ill-conceived, plans we have when we're young, especially when we're young and radical, and how we can be so sure that our guts are our best guides. That was the inspiration for Release Mission.

WOW: I’m so glad you worked up the courage to enter the contest. Can you tell our readers how the story evolved from first idea to story submission?

Emily: When I started writing, I got carried away with all the details about the snowy owl - what he looked like, where he came from, where he was. The "flash" part of flash fiction was quickly falling apart. So, I scrapped most of that.

I started writing a new character, Rachel, who eventually did a better job of getting the story off the ground. She let me get to the point from the first paragraph; rather than starting with details about the owl, I started with her alone in the woods, preparing for her mission. Rachel also let me show the role humans played in the bird's life much more efficiently than a third person narrator alone. Her intervening hand was like the hand that removed the bird from his home, the one that cared for him in captivity, the one that might have tried to reach in his cage for a pet.

WOW: The addition of that character really shaped the story. How did you decide what to include in the story (details about guard’s routine) and what to leave out (details about the main character)?

Emily: So many details were left out of this story in the end. I knew it was time to start chopping when I kept going beyond the word limit and Rachel hadn't even moved from her post outside the zoo. I kept thinking, how am I going to get her out of there with this bird? That was the question that kept bringing me back to the cutting board. It helped me see that I did not need to share much about the guard, other than the details that would allow Rachel to know when to move: his routine and his jingling keys. Everything else could go.

I also felt like readers should know where Rachel was coming from - why did she want to free a bird in the first place? I wanted people to see she wasn't a total weirdo, just a little misguided. I included enough background to show her motivation for releasing the bird, and for not backing out, which is why I thought her belonging to an environmental group was important. People seem more likely to carry out an outrageous act when others are rooting them on, or when others feel let down by their inaction. I wanted to show what was pushing Rachel to do something that might seem a little crazy.

WOW: Giving that part of her background definitely helped the reader understand her motivation. I How does your personal experience in the outdoors impact your writing?

Emily: My background in the outdoors has focused my writing habits on nature, mostly because that's where I like to pay attention! I like to write about the things going on outside - squirrel exchanges, bird attacks, ant interactions, and the like. Birds are fun to watch because they chatter and socialize and sometimes do shocking things, like bully each other and torment other animals. It's fun to look out the window and wonder what's going on in this great, big breathing world where you cannot always understand the language, yet somehow you find meaning.

WOW: In your bio, you reveal that you want to publish children’s nonfiction as well as write interpretive material for the Park Service. Can you tell us more about each of these goals?

Emily: I enjoy writing nonfiction because it reminds me that some of the most beautiful, surreal parts of this world are not fantasy at all. In my uncensored thoughts and notes, I tend to anthropomorphize and sometimes I think of myself and the human experience as separate from the rest of the world. I know it's illogical, but sometimes that's where thoughts go. So, nonfiction is like an exercise for me. It helps me get into a more scientific mindset because it involves research, fact-checking, testing ideas, collaborating with experts - all are good ways to learn something new and get out of your own head for a while.

Writing for the National Park Service is one of my dreams. When I was young, my mom and grandparents would take us to national parks each summer. When we saw a roadside sign or exhibit, we would stop for a stretch and read and wonder together. These are the greatest memories I have. This is why I treasure our national parks and monuments and why I hope to one day write a piece (or more!) with the NPS. But, it's also something I need to work on. I have taken some interpretive writing courses, written out a list of possible avenues for these kind of writing projects, sent out a few probing messages to organizations that contract with the parks, but I haven't quite hit the target.
There's a Sesame Street bit that talks about "the power of yet." It just hasn't happened yet.

Well, I guess you can tell I live with a toddler. I'm referencing Sesame Street in adult conversations. Oh my.

Other than writing a few magazine pitches and an article here and there, I'm about as green as they get when it comes to writing nonfiction for children. I'm actually considering taking your nonfiction class on the subject this spring, because I think I could benefit from understanding the market better. In the end, though, I know I need to write and write a lot! I'm not doing the best job of that right now. But, I'm really great at rejection - ha! - and learning from feedback, so I'm well on my way.

Our Winter Flash Fiction Contest is OPEN.
For details and entry, visit our contest page.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--Thanks for doing this interview.

Emily, I read your story. What a surprise ending. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

And I was blown away by your "power of yet" tidbit. That is a keeper...

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