My frequent lament as a lifelong fan of short stories is that they should be more widely and warmly embraced by readers and other tastemakers of American literary culture. Truly, what’s not to love? The best short story writers offer us a deeply imagined world in only a few pages, and the skill required to pull this off is nothing if not formidable. With the craze for the short, mediated experience—the tweet, the cherry-picked playlists on our MP3s players, the 22-minute sitcom episode, it’s hard to understand why the short story continues to be overlooked by so many of us who read fiction.
In case it’s not already obvious, this is an exhortation to add story collections to your to-be-read pile, one collection in particular: Illinois native (and currently Wisconsin-based) Chris Fink’s Add This to the List of Things That You Are. In this book of 14 stories, Fink has offered us a virtuoso collection in which he addresses with unflinching insight, humor, and empathy his characters’ complicated interior lives, which so often are a welter of confusion and misguided love. I corresponded with Chris Fink about Add This to the List of Things That You Are via email and Google Docs for The National Book Review. -- Christine Sneed
Q: Setting is essential in these diverse and psychologically astute stories, whether they take place in the Midwest, New Zealand, Spain or Italy. Would you say that you often have the setting in mind before the characters or the story’s plot?
A: Setting might be the most overlooked element of the craft of fiction-writing, but it may be the most important element to me personally. I feel attached to place in a visceral way, and it’s something I pay attention to in real life and when I’m writing. I like to learn about the geography of different landscapes, as well as the flora and fauna of places I live and the places I visit--to say nothing of the customs and manners of the people living there. Steinbeck, maybe the greatest American writer of place, said that humans and their environment are an “inseparable unit.” Whether that’s true today, as it was in the 1930s, I don’t know. But even if you feel detached from place, the fact remains that setting is an important part of storytelling. You can use that to your advantage, as I try to do.
To answer your question directly, I do often think of places I know something about as possible settings for stories, even before I know what the story might be. Over the years, I spent many weeks in Arizona visiting my aging parents, for instance. At a certain point, I said to myself, I know something about this place. I should try to set a story here. Same goes for Spain and New Zealand, all of the “foreign” settings of the book. The upper Midwest I know like I know home, so that’s a different story.
Q: One of the most memorable elements in your stories is your exploration of American masculinity. Male rage is frequently in evidence and is sometimes directed at a story’s protagonist (I’m thinking of Timothy, the main character in both “Whistle or Lose It” and “Barrel Riders”). It’s scary and visceral and beautifully dramatized. I hesitate, but can’t resist asking, are any of these stories based on real events and people?
A: I did think a lot about physical violence when I was writing both “Whistle or Lose It” and “Barrel Riders.” In fact, violence is the main theme I hoped to explore in those stories. Both pieces had originally been part of a novel project, but I whittled them down. You can’t really write a novel about a theme, can you? Imagine if you asked someone what her novel was about and she said, “Violence.” I think I’ve had more luck with stories than long form fiction because I tend to think more in terms of theme and setting rather than story. I don’t mean to imply I don’t think about plot and story (I think a great deal about them), it’s just that I usually don’t address those elements of fiction first. I have a screenwriter friend, Scott Sublett, who once told me, “You love trees, I love the forest.” I think that about gets it.
To answer your question about the origins of the stories, I grew up in a culture where it was somewhat acceptable to resolve conflicts with physical violence. (I don’t mean domestic violence, unless you consider a parent’s corporal punishment of a child to be domestic violence). I’m talking mostly about male-to-male violence. Schoolyard disputes were often settled with fistfights, and the principal of my school still paddled the kids. That tendency to resolve a conflict with violence followed me further into adulthood than I would like to admit. Also, when you add alcohol to the mix, the violence could take an even darker turn. Physical violence was a dark fact of my past I thought would be interesting to explore on the page. I knew something about it, so I felt I could treat it with some authenticity. I wasn’t interested in exploring any right or wrong. In real life I’ll go on record to say that physical violence is usually the wrong way to go. But it’s not very interesting to say that in fiction.
Q: A few of your stories can be classified as flash fiction, e.g. the title story and “Blue Rock Shoot.” When do you know a story will be a flash piece instead of a longer story? Do you consider your flash pieces prose poems? (And do you write poetry too?)
A: I love flash fiction. If you’re a story writer, you’re already interested in condensing. It’s enticing to experiment with how short you can go. I write mini radio essays for NPR that have to be less than 300 words. I mean, you get started on any idea, and you’re past 300 words before you’re done clearing your throat.
It’s been said that the story is an end-oriented form. You often start a story as close to the end of the action as possible. I think it may have been [Julio] Cortazar who said that a novel, like a film, is a horizontal form, whereas a story, like a photograph, is a vertical form. It does its emotional work more quickly. A flash fiction is just like that, but more so. I also love sentences, and the shorter the form, the more the actual words are highlighted. I feel like you can experiment more with these short forms, and the reader will stay with you for a few pages, but maybe not longer. The list form of the title story, for instance: I’m not sure anyone would want to read a full story-length version of that piece.
Something about the pace of events (and the prose) in a story helps me know how long it should be. Things have to happen quickly in a flash fiction piece. The conflict must unspool in a hurry. There’s not a formula of course, but if you’re dealing with a moment, more than a panorama, and if image is just as prevalent as plot, then maybe you’re writing a flash fiction.
Poets will hate this, but I’ve been guilty of saying that the main difference between poets and prose writers is that poets hit the return key more often. I’m not really a poet, but I love words and sentences, and I love to try to express things succinctly. Poets are usually the best sentence writers. I do occasionally write poems, and maybe I’ve written a few passable ones, but I find that I’m a little too literal minded and oriented toward narrative to say what can best be said in poetry.
Q: To return to the question of setting, a number of your stories take place in or refer to two small towns located in Southern Wisconsin: Mount Horeb and Blue River, and you yourself grew up in a small town near the Wisconsin-Illinois border. What is it about this landscape and its inhabitants that inspire you as a writer?
A: I grew up on a gravel road along the banks of a little river that often flooded our home. Most of my neighbors were farmers. I learned to ride a bike on a horse trail. One of the nearest paved roads to my house we referred to as “the blacktop.” Our vacations we spent at a little one-room cabin in the Kettle Moraine with no hot water. I mean, I had an intensely rural childhood and adolescence. I don’t mean to try to establish some kind of rural credibility, it’s just that this was the place (and by extension, the people) that I knew about with the kind of intimacy you need to write fiction. Also, the fact that the Midwest is overlooked, is a flyover place, a kind of nowhere place, etc. . . . That appeals to my oppositional nature. The rural Midwest might be undesirable in popular culture, but it’s not exactly terra incognita. In college when I read Sherwood Anderson and Willa Cather and the early Hemingway stories, for instance, I learned that there was already a tradition of Midwestern literature. I guess the subject and place chose me, rather than the other way around. Flannery O’Connor said, “You can choose what to write about, but you can’t choose what you can breathe life into.”
Q: One of my favorite stories in the collection, “Trollway,” is narrated in second person, and it features the book’s only female point of view character. What was the spark that started this story?
A: I’m glad you like that story! I was teaching for a semester in England in the early 2000s and spending quite a bit of time in Spain. At the time, I was doing research for an academic paper on early Hemingway, which I presented in Italy, and I was attending quite a few corridas across Spain. If you’re an American interested in foreign experiences, sitting in a contrabarrera at Las Ventas in Madrid is about as foreign as it gets in Western Europe. Something about that culture drew me in, where much of the history isn’t buried but presented as an aesthetic public pageant. (In the story, I use the holy week ceremony, and not the bullfight, or flamenco for that matter, but they all feel related to me). Also, many people I knew at the time were transient, living here and there, doing a Fulbright, teaching abroad. So the idea of setting something in Spain with an expat couple was close to me. The story was always from a female perspective, though I did change the POV, which is something I often do. I find that if a story starts to feel stale, changing POV can bring new energy.
Finally, part of the “spark” for this story was a snippet of dialogue. I overheard someone say, “No secrets survive a honeymoon.” When I hear a little nugget like that, I rarely forget it, and it usually bubbles up somewhere in some future writing. In that case, the snippet of dialogue ended up being the driver of the plot of that story.
Q: “The Bush Robin Sings” is such a rich and imaginative story, set in New Zealand, narrated by a septuagenarian Scotsman, who is both a hunter and a naturalist. How much research did you do? And what did it entail?
A: I spent my first sabbatical in New Zealand. Years earlier, when I was teaching in California, a colleague of mine said, “New Zealand is like California a hundred years ago, before all the people wrecked it up.” I had never considered going to New Zealand, but after my colleague said that, New Zealand was at the top of my list. (I loved California, but I felt like I arrived decades too late to make a decent life there).
What my colleague said about New Zealand felt accurate. First, the landscape is just as sublime and geographically diverse as California, but it’s also desolate. Besides Auckland, there are no freeways in the entire country. Imagine that. Anyway, it’s also true that the history of New Zealand, including the colonial history, is much closer to the present. Their interior track system wasn’t developed until the mid 20th century. Some of their Daniel Boones are still walking around. But it’s an incredibly complex history of course. As an amateur naturalist, I was struck by all the paradoxes surrounding non-native species, for instance. (That’s not at all unrelated to character, if you believe what Steinbeck wrote about people and place).
In New Zealand, anyone can shoot a wild pig or a deer or a possum at any time. I mean, that’s so strange and counter to most of my conservation impulses... But, back to character: I was drawn to the sort of contrarian frontier character I witnessed there again and again. And the dialect. It’s such a colorful way of speaking with so many memorable idioms. I felt as though I could hear it and capture it on the page, but it’s a challenge for me to read that one aloud. I met people like Scotty when I was in New Zealand, but I did a lot of reading to get the history right.
Q: What are you working on now?
I have a partial novel completed that takes place in Wisconsin and California, but that’s been on the shelf while I’ve spent the last two years rewriting and revising this collection. The manuscript is at the dreaded 100 page mark. I heard Rebecca Makkai say once that many novelists stall about a third of the way through. According to Makkai, this mostly happens because writers haven’t thought through the whole arc of their story. That was actually inspiring for me to hear, and I felt let off the hook a little: No, your novel hasn’t failed (I heard her say), you’re just not sure what comes next.
In any case, that book might not be the next one I finish. Earlier I mentioned radio essays. I’ve been writing and producing monthly radio essays for NPR for more than three years. WNIJ maintains an archive here: https://www.northernpublicradio.org/term/chris-fink. I’ve been toying with the idea of collecting these into book form. I’m not sure what that would look like yet, and it might need a visual component. The essays do have a unifying theme--personal encounters with the natural world--and they’ve been popular on the radio, so I can imagine many of them working together in a book. We’ll see . . .
Christine Sneed is the author of the four books, the most recent of which is the story collection The Virginity of Famous Men. Her work has been included in publications such as The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, New England Review, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, and Glimmer Train. She has received the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, the 21st Century Award from the Chicago Public Library Foundation, the Chicago Writers’ Association Book of the Year Award, and a number of other awards.