Tuesday, March 24, 2020
Interview with Jean Tomlinson: 2019 Fall Flash Fiction Contest Runner Up
Jean Tomlinson was a technical writer, editor and finally a senior editor for Fortune 500 companies before she decided to seek a change in direction by writing fiction.
She has been published in Money magazine and is currently working on a novel about the 1937 Mississippi River flood.
Jean lives in metro Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and daughter.
If you haven’t read it already, check out Jean’s story “The Red Velvet Dress.” Then return here for a chat with the author.
WOW: I think you’ve hit on, if not a universal, something many of us have felt, the idea that we are going to do things differently if not better than our own mothers. What was your inspiration for “The Red Velvet Dress”?
Jean: Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this WOW! interview for The Muffin.
Most children at some point have an inner dialogue that starts with “When I grow up, I won’t do it like her.” Mom’s ways seem old, outdated, and irrelevant, but then you become a mom, and it becomes important to pass your beliefs and values on to your own child. I wanted to examine what happens if that child’s life becomes dramatically, wildly different from mom’s life. Do those values transcend the differences in lifestyle?
Also, although I live in Atlanta now, I grew up in Arkansas, one of the poorest states in the nation. I think it’s important to hear the voices of hard-working people who often struggle financially and the voices of their children, many of whom choose to leave for greater economic opportunity. Do those grown children keep their parents’ values? Or, are those values sacrificed in the quest for financial success? How do these grown children feel about their childhood?
WOW: Thank you so much for helping being these voices forward in this story! Like the dress itself, flash fiction often seems fairly straightforward, but there is often a depth to it that only becomes clear as you reach the end of the story. How did you develop this meaning in your story?
Jean: I wrote this story in layers. I began by writing the story arc, but I knew that an understanding of the characters would be critical for the story to work. The story of Karenina’s name set up the conflict with her mom and Mom’s values.
Then I layered in Pop’s tender narrative about how his wife made him feel important to give readers a different take on the “romantic life.” I added the Valentine’s Day scenario and the sisters as children re-enacting it, including wearing the red dress, to make the dress symbolic and set up the ending.
WOW: This is obviously something that requires conscious effort. You are also working on a novel. Which form, the novel or flash fiction, is more challenging for you as a writer and why?
Jean: That’s a difficult question. Despite its compact size, flash fiction still requires a hook, a character arc, fully drawn-out characters, and a clearly defined setting. It’s challenging to pack all of that into a very limited word count.
However, writing a novel involves keeping “all the balls in the air”—that is, the story line moving forward, the characters true to themselves, and the point of view consistent over many chapters, all without bogging down in the middle; that is certainly a challenge.
Switching between the two forms works best for me. When I get stuck in one, I can work on the other, and usually come back with a fresh perspective.
WOW: The benefits of moving from one to the other makes a lot of sense to me. Your biography says that you worked as an editor. How has your experience editing the work of others shaped your own writing?
Jean: I think—or at least hope—that my work as an editor has made me accepting of critiques. I always told my writers that my only goal as an editor was to make them sound better. Sometimes I need to remind myself of that, but it’s absolutely true, so writers, listen to your editors.
Also, I try to be conscious of the need for the “just right” word. For many years, I signed off my emails to writers with this abbreviated form of a Mark Twain quote: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.” Especially in flash fiction, where space is at a premium, the right word is everything. In “The Red Velvet Dress,” I think the story of the sisters’ names—Anna and Karenina—tells the reader more than five paragraphs of narrative could have.
WOW: You have definitely packed a lot into the small space of that story. You have such a variety of writing experience. What are your plans for the future?
Jean: I love reading stories and making up stories. My husband says I am the only person he knows who can watch someone cross the street at a red light and make up a whole backstory for that person by the time the light changes, There are clues to stories everywhere; you just have to train yourself to be alert to those clues. So, as you would expect, I have notebook pages, scraps of paper, and napkins with notes regarding phrases I’ve heard, conversations I’ve witnessed, and situations that sounded interesting. After I finish my novel, I want to go through that material and see what can be developed into stories, in either short or long form. Also, of course, I want to flesh out the stories of some of those traffic light characters.
WOW: Hopefully we will get to meet some of these red light characters in future stories. Thank you for sharing your writing and your experience with our readers and, most of all, happy writing!
Interviewed by Sue Bradford Edwards