Mini-Interview with Jolene McIlwain

Why do you write flash? What makes it different for you?

Before I switched to literature, I was a studio art major where I learned to appreciate how choices in materials or canvas size could limit or liberate you. Small never meant easier, simpler. Prior to studying flash as a writer, I taught its form in literary analysis/theory courses at Duquesne and Chatham universities. We looked closely at prose poems, micros, and flash from multiple lenses or theories: feminist, Marxist, post-colonial, psychological. One of the first books I taught back in 2002 was an anthology called Micro Fiction by Jerome Stern. These “close reading” exercises helped students engage with many styles, to note specific choices the writers made, to recognize the importance of a word or phrase, of tone and repetition. Years later, I included a craft book in the class (The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction) as well as links to many online pieces, and offered an activity in which students would try their hands at writing in several styles. One day we might try Annie Proulx’s style, as in “55 Miles to the Gas Pump,” and on another day, we’d try out Peter Markus’s style, as in “Good, Brother.” They had so much fun with it. I did, too. Writing flash was both wildly exhilarating and extremely frustrating and difficult—just like welding steel sculptures or molding clay. What I loved most is that we could attempt these 250—1,000 word pieces again, and again, all the while finding our own unique styles, our own voices.

What’s your writerly lifejacket: character or plot?

Great question! I think my lifejacket is character if that also includes “character as setting.” I love to fashion a place, its language, its tics, its unique details, as specifically as possible. One of the first pieces of flash I read (it was anthologized as a prose poem) was Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel.” She does an amazing job in characterizing both the colonel and this space where he “lived” physically, psychologically, and politically. (I’ll never forget the parrot, the daughter filing her nails, those ears!) And to open a piece with “What you have heard is true” is so cool.

If you could recommend one flash story or writer, who/what would it be?

I can’t recommend only one (!) but I can list a few that informed my vision of what flash can do on an emotional level and a structural level, specifically around time in narrative. David Foster Wallace’s “Incarnations of Burned Children,” Aimee Bender’s  “The Rememberer,” and Robert Olen Butler’s collection, Severance. And, then, wait! I can’t forget Jayne Anne Phillips’s Black Tickets!

Writing style: Quick and messy or slow and precise?

Messy and slow. My Shakespeare teacher Raymond Thomas gave this advice long ago: “Keep a sketchbook. Write or draw something in it every day.” My story ideas, as my sketchbooks and iPhone “Notes” reveal, are always dreadfully messy at first and then I eke my way toward something that (I hope) makes sense, usually suffering over a word, just one word, for days.

What element or part of your “real life” do you think most influences your writing?

“Meeting” new occupations/hobbies. The slang or jargon of each occupation draws me in. The first time I visited an Amish sawmill I immediately began taking notes and used those notes for a story called “Seed to Full.” In the weeks after one of my son’s science field trips to a local trout stream—which included fly-tying, fly-fishing, and the release of fingerlings—I couldn’t stop finding ways to use the language of angling in the pieces I wrote. I used to work as an X-ray technologist where I encountered a procedure called a hysterosalpingogram—one used to diagnose infertility. That word shows up in my most recent publication in The Cincinnati Review, “Drumming.”

What story of yours do you wish got more recognition?

I’ve been so lucky to place stories at journals with very supportive editors. They offered kindness and investment from the start, sometimes discussions around accompanying artwork (two of my published pieces include photographs I’d taken), and sharp edits—like, really, diamond scalpel sharp.

That said, I have a story out in the ether right now that’s getting so, so, SO many form rejections. I think it doesn’t want to get accepted because it’s loving hanging out in submission queues drinking tequila.

Jolene McIlwain’s writing appears online at The Cincinnati Review, Prairie SchoonerRiver TeethAtticus ReviewPrime Number Magazine, and elsewhere, and was recently nominated for a Pushcart and selected as a contest finalist by Glimmer Train, and semi-finalist in Nimrod’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize and both American Short Fiction’s Short and Short(er) Fiction contests. She’s an associate flash fiction editor at jmww and is currently working on a linked collection of short fiction and novel set in the hills of the Appalachian plateau of western Pennsylvania. She tweets at @jolene_mcilwain

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