Interview with Isabella David, First Place Flash Fiction Winner

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Isabella David is a writer, poet, homemaker, actor, an editor-at-large at Easy Street, and a fangirl of that fantasy state called sleep. Her first chapbook, The Voices of Women, a title that references her ambition to be a character actor, was short-listed for the Venture Award by Flipped Eye Publishing and published by Finishing Line Press in 2016. She’s also the winner of the 2014 Danahy Fiction Prize for her short story, “If the Meek Inherit the Earth, They’ll Have Sons-of-Bitches for Lawyers,” published in Tampa Review’s 50th anniversary edition. Her poetry has been recognized for merit in Atlanta Review’s 2015 International Poetry Competition and listed as a finalist in the 2015 Cape Cod Cultural Center Poetry Competition. She’s currently at work on a book of poems about love, life, whiskey, and, potentially, sleep—ah, sleep!—as well as an autobiographical novel that may or may not end up being YA, depending on how many years of autobiography end up in there. You can find more of her work at or follow her on Twitter or Instagram @IsabellaMDavid.

interview by Marcia Peterson

WOW: Congratulations on your first place win in our Spring 2017 Flash Fiction competition! What inspired you to enter the contest?

Isabella: Thank you so much again! It was such a great honor. I was inspired to enter when I first encountered this contest a while back. I thought all the stories were wonderful, and I loved the idea of telling a story in only 750 words. The only flash I'd encountered up to that point had 1,000-2,000 word limits. The 750 word limit and the contest's emphasis on telling a story presented an extra challenge that kindled my creativity. Also, I find anything that helps curb my natural tendency towards loquacity to be really helpful. I have written three not terribly good (in fact pretty terrible) 90,000 word novels so far no problem! It was a learning process, though, so I don't regret the time spent on them. However, I've put them aside and haven't shown them to anyone, barring one of my closest friends, an editor and a novelist in her own right, and someone I show everything to anyway as we work together at Easy Street, and I adore her. Camille Griep. Her critiques were incisive, and, most of all, honest, which can be difficult to come by. My husband is my biggest cheerleader, but sometimes, when you know you're not getting something right, it can be useful to have someone you trust, who helps you articulate what the issues are. From Cami's feedback, I saw that I needed to work on controlling my story. The words would just get away from me. As someone who loves long, discursive texts, I was dismissive of flash and micro fiction when I first heard of the form, but I quickly fell in love when I actually began to read and then write them. I believe that's how I first found this contest. I was looking around for places to enter a flash story. It was a few years back now and mixed in with that time in my life when I had two babies in diapers, so I don't quite recall the particulars, but I was actually awarded an honorable mention in, I think it was, your fall 2014 contest for "Practice Terrible Acts of Cruelty and Senseless Acts of Loneliness"? I remembered reading all the winning entries from that fall, loving the stories and feeling inspired to keep trying to write something that could tell a big story in a tiny space. I felt that, in comparison, my entry that fall was more of a character study. However, the honorable mention also has made me want to expand that earlier story. I still think there's something there! Maybe it's not meant to be a flash or maybe it's meant to be a little longer or even shorter. Sometimes stories take time to reveal themselves to you; that's one of the big reasons I love writing them. You have to put aside your ego as much as you can and let the story tell itself to you, and that can take time. Anyway, I'm so happy and honored to have accomplished telling a story that resonated with others in as few words as possible!

WOW: Can you tell us what encouraged the idea behind your story, Children of a Lesser Guru?

Isabella: I can't recall where I read this Junot Díaz interview... (Oh dear, I'm seeing a baby brain theme emerging here). He was describing either being in an MFA class or teaching one, or maybe both, and how most of the students were middle class and white and only wrote stories featuring middle class and white characters and how exclusionary that felt to him. I'm very sensitive about that, because my family is so multi-cultural. My French father, much like the father in my WOW story, married several times. As a consequence of that, I have a French older half-sister, an American full sister, and two Haitian-French younger half-sisters. My step-mother's family was a similar mix of cultures-- French, Haitian, Indian. We joke we grew up in this mini U.N.. My mother is a New Yorker, but we grew up in Charlottesville, mostly, which is another story these days and the subject of another short piece I'm working on currently.

At any rate, Díaz's interview, combined what I'd already been thinking about on my own, being upset that I couldn't give my little sisters children's book with non-white protagonists-- this was a few years back but there are still shockingly few of them-- made me want to challenge myself to be non-exclusionary and to explore other kinds of experiences. I think the most diverse summers of my life were spent living in Saint Maarten where my father was running a five-star resort, and those summers have proven to be a rich source of inspiration. On a daily basis, we'd hear at least half a dozen languages being spoken: Dutch, French, Spanish, Creole, English mutilated in a million different ways (especially by our French father), and Papiemento. We'd drive with my father to work, and we'd stop to pick up hotel employees who'd emerge looking runway-ready from these shacks without running water, and we'd drive off to the resort where sometimes there'd be guests staying there like the Queen of Holland. It was the most beautiful but brutal place I've ever seen, and I think our experience there was unique from the usual kind of tourist experiences in a place like that. My worst regret is that my dad wrote a Herman Wouk-type spy novel about that hotel and gave me a draft, and I lost it! I have another story of his, thank goodness. Luckily, he emailed it to me. It's about his role in helping Chileans escape from Pinochet to the French Embassy. He writes really well but doesn't speak English that well. The result is incredible: very funny and very moving. Talk about an amazing flash story. I'd love to work on polishing that story with him. Anyway, that Díaz interview kindled my desire to explore experiences as diverse as possible but from an honest place.I have two other, longer stories I've written about the Caribbean infused with that aesthetic of the very poor and very rich living side by side, but all told from a semi-autobiographical point of view. If I'd told that story from a different point of view, I don't think I could have captured it as honestly.

WOW: What key elements do you think make a great piece of flash fiction?

Isabella: This is such a great question. I've been thinking about this a lot both as a writer and as an editor. I read submissions for Easy Street, and I've been shocked by how many heaps and heaps of great stories are out there. It's difficult to have to turn down excellent pieces, but there's only so much space. I don't really enjoy critiquing others, actually. I used to work as a high school teacher, that was my first job out of college, and the most formative aspect of that job was learning how much I enjoyed encouraging others to "follow their bliss", not to get too cheesy or anything. It was great to watch sulky kids light up about anything from imitating the Crocodile Hunter (I think he's called?) to learning they enjoyed cooking or drawing graphic novels or whatever it was. Anyway, it remains a big challenge for me to critique other's writing for that reason. However, I know how much I appreciate feedback myself, so I also try to remember that: that it's not really all that helpful to simply encourage others once they're a certain age. I think you ALWAYS encourage children. But you grow up and you want to improve your craft, not just kindle your enthusiasm, and that means you have to get to a point where you can profit from feedback. That was a struggle for me, but acting helped me take criticism much more lightly. Revising an action can help make a scene work, so why not be willing to revise words? Words seem so much more indelible, but they're not. Change one word and you can change a whole story.

Which brings me to one solid piece of advice I think I feel comfortable giving, a key element that isn't even really a structural thing: it's how many stories I also see in the slushpile that haven't been edited enough. I must have written and re-written "Children of a Lesser Guru" a thousand times. Once you've lived with a story like that, I feel like you start to see when other's haven't quite invested that same kind of time. I see a lot of submissions that have the potential to be really great but just lack a little polish. And especially when you're talking about flash, telling a story in such a small space, every single syllable has to count. Another thing I see a lot of is stories that take too long to get started. It's amazing to me how often a story or poem or essay can be improved by removing the first line or paragraph or even page. "Kill your darlings" is one of the best pieces of writing advice I've ever heard. If the word or image or sentence doesn't serve the story as a whole, jettison it, even if you're super proud of it. You can usually use it somewhere else anyway! Plus, people's attention spans, especially nowadays, are notoriously fickle. I think I read a statistic somewhere, and quoted it in another essay I wrote called "How I Fell Back in Love With Reading", that people these days have shorter attention spans than goldfish. Think of the goldfish when you're writing!

Speaking of which, it surprises me how often people toss away their initial opportunity to hook you with a title. A good title is like a firm handshake; you're inclined to be a little more welcoming of what that person has to say. I've been guilty of that myself, but it's something I really push myself to take into account. On the other hand, what do I know? As Anne Lamott points out in Bird by Bird, my favorite book on writing, there is no formula for how to write a good story. Even the greatest writers out there have to figure it out, word by word, every single time. I found that comforting, to know the experts are struggling as much as I am. With short stories, I do feel like there is a little more of a formula, but novels and flash fiction are both uniquely challenging in different ways. There are so many ways to tell a great flash story! Maybe because it's a little more like poetry? I love the all-too-brief and very sensual love stories that Leesa Cross-Smith tells or "Two in One", this Chekhov story I just read today in The Paris Review that's basically nothing more than an inner monologue but tells you novels-worth about Russia and the human condition. And then there's my all-time favorite flash, "Alma" by Junot Díaz. Each word is succulent and perfect and the story packs a punch.

WOW: As a busy mom and writer/editor/actor, how do you find time to work on projects like your book of poems and your novel? What works best for you?

Isabella: Balance is one of my biggest struggles. I had an epiphany about this issue at the beginning of this summer, and the timing of that epiphany was no coincidence. I finally enrolled my son in part-time daycare at the beginning of summer. Philadelphia isn't as crowded as New York, but he was on a waiting list for six months. It all worked out, though. He was eager and ready to go to daycare with his big sister when he started at about twenty-one months, and I wasn't even sad by then. It was so great to see him proudly carrying his little lunch box, ready to tackle the day. I was grappling with the question of balance, because I knew I was about to have a lot more time to work again for the first time in almost four years. My daughter is four and a half and has been in and out of part-time daycare from about the same age as my son. It took me forever to make this change, but I've finally figured out I owe it to myself to make priorities, which also means letting go of other things I enjoy-- watching bad TV or learning to sew or learning Italian or blogging about sustainable fashion, something that some of my friends have made into full-time pursuits! My number one priority is being an almost full-time mom, especially while my children are so little. After that, I'd like to grow as an artist. I look for ways to combine editing, acting, and writing. I thought about it recently and realized my favorite part about acting was working on short films or as a dayplayer/ character actor in feature films. I think the latter will have to be on hold for a while longer as I don't have the time to travel to New York to audition, but I can certainly work one or two weekends a year on a short. One of my theater friends is now in Houston, and I'm going to participate in a theater fundraiser for Harvey relief efforts by writing part of a script. Things like that. Short films usually film in one or two afternoons or evenings and you get cast based on your prior work, so it's not a huge commitment. I could even write a script for one! I love collaborating with other talented artists. It's brought me a lot of joy. I won't necessarily make a huge career out of that kind of work, but I realized that's not what I need from it. Something about the combination of the two, writing and acting, seems to help spark my love of the craft of storytelling in general. However, I'm also trying to be much more realistic about time constraints, so I have consciously made my main priority as an artist learning to be a better writer. Two of my favorite writers, Colette and Jean Rhys, wrote about their work on the stage, so I'm again hoping those passions can be mutually beneficial, so long as I maintain a reasonable balance. Spending time with friends is one thing I've had to sadly cut back on, but I have wonderful friendships with the other editors I work with and again that helps inspire me as a writer, so it's not as hard to juggle these different activities as it might look on the surface. With two hyper-active toddlers, it's still something I struggle with on a daily basis, so if anyone out there has any advice for me I'd appreciate it!

WOW:Thanks so much for chatting with us today, Isabella. Before you go, do you have any tips for our readers who may be thinking about entering writing contests?

Isabella: That was fun! Thanks again. I enjoyed thinking about craft and process, and I hope these ideas can be helpful to someone else.

As far as writing contest tips go, Poets and Writers lists so many great contests. It's my favorite resource. If you're thinking of entering a contest, definitely check out the literary magazine or website first and get a feel for their content.

As far as more practical tips go, as I noted above, make sure your work is as polished as possible. I'm not talking about grammatical errors. Obviously, you don't want those, but also make sure, especially when you're writing flash, that all the words are necessary. Ask yourself when your story actually starts and cut out everything above that beginning line. Italo Calvino wrote my other favorite book on writing. This brief, beautiful book of essays, Six Memos for the Next Millennium. The memos are titled: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. I can't remember what the last one means, so maybe it's time to reread that book, but lightness and quickness always stuck in my head and seem particularly helpful catchwords to remember for flash. If your story is really starting one paragraph down, you've already committed the sin of slowness from the reader's point of view, doesn't matter how brilliant your first paragraph is if it's not serving the story. Also, again, give your story a title that grabs the readers attention from the get-go.

Most of all, as I learned myself from this experience, never give up! As I love to tell my daughter-- admittedly, I stole this line from a children's book, Rosie Revere, Engineer,"You can do it!"



WOW! Women On Writing now hosts two quarterly contests: one for fiction writers and one for nonfiction writers. We’ve hosted the flash fiction contest since 2006, and over the years, writers have asked us to open up an essay contest. So we are happy to add the essay contest to our offerings. We look forward to reading your work!

Click on the links below to jump to:

Quarterly Flash Fiction Contest

Quarterly Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest


Sioux Roslawski said...

Marcia--Thanks for posting this interview.

And Isabella--I wonder if you've ever considered doing a multi-voice story/novel. It sounds like you've got lots of voices swirling around in your head. You could summon them... and write an incredibly moving tale.

Just a suggestion...

Angela Mackintosh said...

Isabella! This is an amazing interview with so many nuggets of wisdom and writing advice. I loved hearing about the inspiration behind your story and think sharing diverse stories and mixed culture families is something we need more of. I don't read children's books but hope there is more today than when I grew up. Back in the 70s there wasn't any for someone like me--half Asian--and I think if there was it would've made a huge difference in my life. I didn't know anyone else like me, so I felt like the only one. Thanks for the interview, and congrats on your win. I adore your story! (PS. You are so right on about titles, and yours is superb.)

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