Interview with Anne Andersen, Summer 2017 Flash Fiction Runner Up

Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Today we have a special interview for you. Anne Andersen is one of the runners-up in the Summer Flash Fiction contest and she snared this honor with not one but two stories. Take the time to experience Disposition and Half Way before you read this interview with a writer who subtly reveals clues about the backstory and motivation of her characters, weaving together layered stories in this short format.

Anne’s Bio:

Anne Andersen grew up in Norway with two brothers and a mother who made up stories for them every night. The most popular story was about a boy called Me Too who travelled with a little fox each day to a faraway place where they adventured as all the siblings contributed to the story. Since then imagining all sorts of new worlds became an addiction. Coming to the US as a teenager and visiting a variety of places including Antarctica and Spitsbergen has added to her notebooks full of writing ideas.

Anne writes bad poetry, short stories and is still working diligently on her first science fiction novel. She is a perfectionist and is afraid to call it finished, but with weekly therapy hopes to remedy that. Several of her poems and short stories have been accepted for publication. Her story, Porcelain, was a runner up in our Fall Flash Fiction Contest 2016.
This interview was conducted by Sue Bradford Edwards.

WOW!: What was the inspiration behind Disposition?

Anne: I had written two short stories that ended up with my mother telling me she didn’t want to read any more of my stories because they upset her too much. So, I thought I was on to something. That was at a lower point in my life and stories about people going through difficult emotional events resonated with me. I decided to write 10 stories with the theme of ‘despair’.

Disposition is the story about a soldier about to be deployed and leaving his wife and new baby. Some time ago a good friend talked about how hard it was when her husband used to deploy. Everyone knows a soldier and everyone can in one way or another relate to separation and loss.

As I contemplated despair, a strong visual image came to me of a man in uniform sitting alone on an old sofa with a newborn baby draped over his shoulder. I imagined what he might be struggling with. The story idea didn’t come in one clean lightning bolt but developed as I wrote and kept reminding myself of that original image as it became the backbone of the story.

WOW!: Disposition is such a complicated story, layer upon layer. Each time I read it something previously unnoticed leaps out at me. How do you create such a complex story in such a short format?

Anne: That is an awesome compliment. My goal is to write stories that are layered and complex underneath the basic story. I love subtext and never like reading stories where the author spoon feeds the reader so they never need to think. My goal is to have people engage and think a little. I struggle to make sure everything is there for the reader so they can figure out the layers of the story. It’s a difficult balance because some readers can get by with less and others need a lot more to understand the story. My writing group often confuses me with conflicting feedback. In the end I must trust a few of them who read like me.

Initially this story started as 1200 words and had several themes, or tiny sub-stories. These were the stories of the soldier leaving, how his wife dealt with it, what the soldier’s options were, the relationships between the three characters. These layers were obviously easier to show with more words. 

But when I cut to 750 words I didn’t want to dumb down the story. I sharply examined each point of the story to figure out exactly what the kernel of goodness was. Then I preserved that and made sure it was written clearly enough so the reader would understand. (It often doesn’t take more than a couple words to add a hint of a new layer, something of who the character is beyond the story or some hint of another motivation etc.) I needed to figure out exactly what I wanted to convey about this soldier before I could possibly make that evident to the reader. That was the hard part, I realized I was trying to make the part about the potential girlfriend too big and that distracted from the main point. But, I didn’t want to eliminate it entirely. I had to find a balance where only one story took center focus. The story was less clear at 1200 words than it is now at 750 words.

WOW!: In this story, Dave is clearly hiding something from his wife. You never specifically say what it is although you drop hints. Why don’t you reveal all?

Anne: If I had made the girlfriend layer bigger it would have taken the reader down a side path and defocused on his problem with his wife. That might be good in a longer story with more room to explore bigger issues. That doesn’t work in flash fiction. I could have chosen the girlfriend story, but I felt that might have been too cliché, and it would have increased what I considered cheap conflict. I needed to laser focus on one issue. I chose the marriage, because in real life most decent guys will try, at least initially, to focus on their marriage.

The other part of that is, I like stories where in the end you can guess what happens, where there is a tiny question you can ponder. You can wonder if things are on their way to become settled between Dave and his wife. You can also imagine this may happen again and maybe next time it won’t go quite so well. Real life is messy. Fiction reflects that.

WOW!: When writing a piece of flash fiction like Disposition, what advice do you have for readers on what information to hold back and what to push forward?

Anne: Figure out exactly what you want to say and say only that. I hint at other things. I feel that makes the characters real and complex. For example, the wife is moving out of their house, he is a doctor in the Navy, the brother is friendly with the wife, they have a baby.

In flash fiction you can only develop one idea. If you dilute the story, even accidentally give a second idea too much space, it weakens the main story.

A story is choices. No matter what you choose to push forward you need to hold the other things back, hint at them or eliminate them. You need to find a balance where one storyline shines clear, and only do as little as you can get away with even on that. People don’t need to be hit over the head to understand. If you say: She wore that red dress again. Picture what the reader imagines about THAT woman in THAT red dress. That’s only six words. And, the key word in the sentence is a very overlooked word…that.

WOW!: You certainly do a lot with small details that can easily be overlooked. Let’s discuss your second story. How did Half Way change from initial draft to this final form?

Anne: In the initial draft, I knew I wanted to present what might be going on in the life of a little understood patient. I knew what the main story would be. Often my flash stories have two or three competing ideas and all but one of those need to be eliminated.

Unfortunately in the first draft I had not made the main story clear. I knew who the patient was but didn’t know exactly what that patient was doing with his life. When the caretaker entered I had two points of view, and it diluted the patient’s personal story as seen by the reader. Subsequently I made sure everything was only from the PoV of the patient, yet written in a way that the reader could make sense of the events as they unfolded.

WOW!: I know you have a hard time declaring a piece finished. How did you know this one was ready to send in?

Anne: Both these stories would not be done if there were still too much to wonder about in the story. In a tiny story anything, even interesting points, that leads the reader away from the main focus doesn’t have room. When everything in this story leads to the same place, when the reader is focused on where the actual story leads, when the main plot is understandable from start to finish, I call it done. And, then I start fighting with grammar, tense and punctuation, not my strength.

WOW!: Although you work in health care, the nurse in Half Way is a secondary character. Given your experience as a physician I was surprised by this. Why didn’t you make her the PoV character?

Anne: This question is easy to answer. ‘Everyone’ writes from the PoV of the healthcare worker. But how many times do you read a story from the PoV of a mentally ill patient? We can all understand what the nurse thinks about this situation. I wanted the reader to ponder what it might be like to be inside the mind of someone who is incapable of seeing the world as we do. It’s what fiction does best, teaching, and exploring new places.

WOW!: You’ve certainly accomplished that exploration in this story. In Half Way, Mr. Schopenhauer could be considered an unreliable narrator. What advice do you have for writers who want to create an unreliable narrator but are uncertain where to start?

Anne: The hard part for me wasn’t getting into the mind of the patient. When a writer enters any character’s mind the writer has a responsibility to understand what that character understands, then present that as honestly as possible to the reader. Once I decided to write from the PoV of a mentally ill patient I had to understand what that patient might see and think and understand even though that is definitely not a normal or even comfortable place to be. For me, that wasn’t the hard part, once I figured out what Mr. Schopenhauer wanted from life. He wanted to be independent.

The hard part of writing about this unreliable narrator was cheating enough on the PoV that the reader would understand what was happening in the story, even though the character didn’t always understand it. As an example, the phone in her hand that he didn’t understand is an image we easily recognize and that didn’t need to be explained. When the caretaker talks about pills, we understand that the patient might not fully follow what the caretaker understands. Readers can follow a conversation the caretaker is having with someone else. The patient, our PoV character, might not even have heard what she said, so we theoretically shouldn’t have heard it either.

As readers we needed to be grounded in facts we can understand for the story to progress. The reader needs what I consider PoV cheats to follow story events. Another example, he spoke of rain, I believe she used the word shower. I could have left his idea of rain to the reader to puzzle out, but not every reader would have figured it out. That particular point could easily be communicated to the reader through the caretaker, so why intentionally obfuscate?

WOW!: In both stories, the POV character is dealing with despair. What advice do you have for readers on how to do this but end, as you have, with a note of hope?

Anne: I was, for a time, dealing with despair. At least in my fiction. But I’m eternally optimistic. There is so much bad stuff in the world, I don’t mind swimming in misery alongside my character. I love the Dark Side. I also believe that no matter how bad the situation is there can be a glimpse of beauty, something positive, something hopeful, even in the absolute worst situation. Life is full of contradictions, so is fiction. We all need to learn to look for things that makes our lives better. We can all choose to see that misty breath shimmering on cold air as you slowly freeze to death on the Larson Ice Shelf, a glimmer along the edge of your handcuffs, or how after a severe beating your leg doesn’t hurt…. My characters seem to all have that same trait.

WOW!: They definitely seem to practice Olympic level optimism. Last but not least, can you tell our readers how your novel is coming?

Anne: I wish you hadn’t asked me that question. It sparks guilt and the need to get my butt back in the chair. A friend gave me a severe talking to today, she gave me permission to do something that seemed to break writing rules I’m trying too hard to obey.

I know all my characters well, with the exception of the main character. Well, I do know her well, but she’s all over the place. I believed I had to pin her down to a defined personality. It’s been keeping me from writing. I now have permission to think of her as an unsettled, confused, inconsistent person. That’s just who she is, to begin with. I’m aiming for March. Yes, this March.

Thanks for the interview, your questions are challenging and insightful. I can’t wait to submit another story to the WOW! Contest.

WOW!: And we can’t wait to read both another flash fiction story and that novel! Thank you for taking the time to share your in-sights and inspirations with all of us.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--Thanks for doing this interview.

Anne--Congratulations. I read both stories and enjoyed them. I could especially relate to "Half Way," because my father died after dealing with Alzheimer's for more than a decade. The addled thinking of your main character made me think of what a gauzy-mind world Dad lived in. (My son is graduating from medical school in May and joined the Air Force to pay for school. I hope I never have to relate to "Disposition." :)

Sue has set 5-minute goals. I know too well how a large project like a novel can loom over us. Could you set aside 5, 10 or 15 minutes a day to work on it? (Tomorrow I'm posting about an accountability group. Perhaps that might appeal to you?)

Good luck with your future writing endeavors (said loudly) and good luck with your novel (said in a whisper, and delivered with a nudge).

Angela Mackintosh said...

Awesome interview, ladies!

Anne ~ I loved both your stories and I'm so glad you believed in them and submitted even though they upset your mother. My dad is the same way! He won't read my work.

"Disposition" has excellent dialogue, and it's great that cutting out 450 words made it clearer! I often use that as an exercise to get to the meat of the piece. I really liked how you didn't straight out talk about the girlfriend, but we all knew. You did a great job with hinting.

"Half Way" is a masterpiece. The POV totally made it. Since Sioux's talking about her father, I have to say, I relate to this piece because my mother suffered from major delusions right before she died. Perhaps she was schizophrenic, although never diagnosed, and the talk about angels felt familiar and real to me. You did a great job of providing us with enough information to let us know what was going on while staying true to the narrator's voice.

I hope you do keep working on your novel! Your writing is edgy and fresh. You have a unique style and voice that I really enjoy reading. I also love the dark side! :)

Unknown said...

Nice going Anne! I really felt what your characters were feeling and with such few words. Keep writing, girlfriend!!!

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