Interview with Roberta Anthes: 2016 Fall Flash Fiction Contest Runner Up

Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Roberta’s Bio:

Roberta lives in Fairfax, California with her boyfriend, Wil, and his daughter, Zoe. She tutors part time at The College of Marin and is a caregiver to her mother, Dorothy. She has previously published non-fiction in The Southern California Review and fiction in The Writer’s Digest Show Us Your Shorts Collection.

Before she ran off to California with Wil, she was the Head Women’s Cross Country, Track and Field Coach at Rutgers University in New Jersey for twenty-three years. She also taught Expository Writing at Rutgers, where she earned a Ph.D. in English in 1982. An avid runner herself, she was the first woman to compete in the sport at Villanova University as an undergraduate. Her novella, My Bo and Me, was based on her experiences as a coach and athlete and placed in the Miami University Novella Contest.

She is grateful to Tom Centolella and all the writers in his creative writing class for their insights and ongoing support over the years.

Take the time to read Roberta’s story, "House Rules," and then come back to see what she has to say about writing this story and writing in general.

WOW: What was the inspiration behind “House Rules”?

Roberta: First, I’d like to thank you for recognizing my story in your wonderful contest.  I’m thrilled to have taken part and to be recognized among such fine writers.  Your staff has been so encouraging as well, and that means a lot to a novice writer.

Two things inspired the story:  the character of my former landlady when I was in my twenties and a break-up with my then-boyfriend.  In real life, my boyfriend left a stuffed animal in the vestibule with a note.  My landlady called me up right away to let me know.  But I wondered what would’ve happened if she had chosen not to call me!  I decided to write the story to find out.  I didn’t know the ending, really, until I wrote it. I just got into her head and let her talk.

WOW: How do you decide which details to include and which to leave out? For example, we learn the dog’s name but not the boyfriend’s name.

Roberta: This is a great question. I tried to stay in character, so to speak, and chose details as I thought she would’ve chosen them.  Cuddles, the dog, was integral to her life and someone she would acknowledge by name. The boyfriend was someone she wanted gone, and by not naming him she could, in a sense, deny his existence.

I should confess that this story was 1250 words when I first wrote it. I was stuck for something to write for my writing class and looked up a random prompt online.  The prompt said to dig out an old story that somehow didn’t make it. Then, without re-reading it, reduce it to its essence.  I decided to take a shot at it with this story.  When I finished, I could not believe that I had cut out approximately 750 words!  When I finally did re-read the original story, I also couldn’t believe that I once thought all those other words and details were interesting.  What was I thinking?!  In this case, less was definitely more.  I’d kept Mrs. Bradley’s character intact and was able to tell the story without the irrelevancies that had somehow charmed me in the first draft.  Perhaps the fact that the story had sat in a drawer for several years made it easier for me to give those details up.  I was less attached.

WOW:  That’s quite a reduction in total word count. Great job! But you are also an academic. What did you learn working towards your PhD in English that our readers would find helpful?

Roberta: Hmmmm . . . certainly I read lots of incredible literature and that gave me some insight into what it looked like.  Analyzing great writing made me realize how important each word is, what the rhythm of a sentence did for the flow of a work, how form and punctuation helped define meaning. It brought me in very close to what it meant to compose.

But writing about literature and actually trying to create it feel very different to me.  I’ve never viewed myself as a very creative person; academia, although quite difficult, came more easily.  I felt more comfortable (and maybe less exposed?) when reviewing someone else’s writing than when trying to put my own on a blank page. 

The other aspect of grad study that helped me, and would help anyone trying to write, is the discipline required.  Earning the PhD was an endurance exercise.  I wish I could marshal more of that focus now when trying to write fiction.

WOW: Tell us about your writing routine.  How has it changed since you retired?

Roberta: Well, I never had any routine before I retired because I was always working and had no time to write.  I think I wrote one creative piece in 23 years!  As a college track coach, I recruited in the evening and traveled on the weekends. And as a teacher I was always grading papers.  So my writing only began once I retired.  

At first, I was pretty dedicated and would write each day.  I got up each morning, went for a run, ate breakfast, and then sat down for a few hours to write. I attended Tom Centolella’s writing class at The College of Marin and loved, loved, loved going back to school and having someone else teach me.  He was and still is an inspiring teacher.  

But now, as a caregiver to my mom, I find less and less time and energy for writing. I remember reading about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s experience at Brook Farm, where a community of fabulous writers thought working the land together would enrich their writing. But real life on the farm was exhausting, and they found it very difficult to be creative after a hard day’s work.  I find that to be true now as well.  Caregiving is enriching in its own way and I wouldn’t trade it, but it leaves little room for pondering and ruminating—which I find necessary for writing. So, these days, I try to improve some old pieces like House Rules and write short pieces when I can.

WOW:  A lot of our readers are probably in the same position, trying to squeeze writing in around family responsibilities.  Like you, they might find that writing short and rewriting might be the way to go.  What final words of advice do you have for anyone who is new to writing flash fiction?

Roberta: The “flash” is important, so the prose can’t have much heaviness.  Put it all down on paper and then re-work and distill.  Put it aside for a while and then come back to it.  You’ll be a bit more ruthless once you’ve let go of those favorite phrases and details that may be weighing your prose down.  Also, read it to your friends and fellow writers.  If they don’t “get it,” believe them and review your story.  I had a lot of trouble understanding why my friends didn’t grasp my 1250 word version of House Rules.  But they were right and I’m glad they were honest.

WOW:  Thank you for your answers!  Using POV to determine what details to
include would also help strengthen my characters.  Thank you for the advice.  I’m looking forward to reading more of your work.

Interviewed by Sue Bradford Edwards


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--Thanks for doing this interview.

Roberta--Your story "House Rules" has certainly been stripped down to the bare bones. I enjoyed it (and even chuckled a couple of times).

Good luck with your future writing endeavors. And enjoy your mother while you can...

Marcia Peterson said...

Great interview questions and interesting/helpful answers. Congratulations Roberta on your top ten contest win!

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