On Monday, we published Amanda Jean Akers’s third-place finalist, “Heirlooms,” selected by Sherrie Flick. Today, we are excited to share with you this interview, in which Melissa Hinshaw asks about meaning and image. Dig in below:
This story, more than most we read in the flash contest, befuddled us as much as it enchanted us. Is it a mournful piece, begrudging the inevitable, or a celebratory piece, revealing growth and connection? I think both, but tell us more about how those factors—or others—play a role for you in your writing.
Looking back at “Heirlooms,” I ‘d have to agree with you. I don’t normally choose to write with aspects of my personal life in mind, but what had inspired me were three things: tomatoes, salt, and my grandmother. I kept fiddling with the image of her, sitting at the white kitchen table, eating a plump tomato like an apple, salting in between bites—her favorite. But that’s as far as I got. For a long time, I kept getting stuck on words. Nothing felt good enough for me, for my grandmother, so I stopped. Then, the story took a turn when I went to the dentist. My own dental visit brought me the beginning of “Heirlooms.” I was told something similar to the character in this piece, and it brought me to tears. I was embarrassed and needed an outlet and salted tomatoes were all I could think about it. During this time, I was in the process of moving from the Midwest to South Korea. My mind was scrambled, and I did not have the time to process most things going on around me. My writing was at a standstill. I had been struggling with writer’s block for years and had forced myself to make something good out of bits and pieces. I did not feel like myself. Or, maybe I didn’t know who myself was. Toward the middle, I thought of my younger sister. I may not have inherited my grandmother’s love for heirlooms and cherry tomatoes, but she did pass down her rosacea to my sister. Near the end, the character became someone else. “Heirlooms” began in my bedroom in Ohio and was finished in my first apartment in Seoul. I felt like someone new—still do. The base of my story went from my grandmother, to myself, to my sister, to someone. I do not know who the main character of my story is. Maybe there is a part of me in her and we’re getting to know one another and I still don’t know what to do with my hands.
So much of this story’s power lies in objects and images. You squeeze so many into the first short line alone! How was the process of writing this story for you—did the images and objects come first as an idea, or was this more concept driven?
I love details. Like most of my other pieces, this one was image driven. Sometimes that image is a color, a word floating in my head, a sound, or a single line. It starts as a thought I can’t let go of and grows. When I write, I focus on the colors, the emotion of the image. I like to immerse readers with words, encouraging them to live through my writing. My work tends to be short. I only have a few lines to pull someone in and really get their blood flowing. My rejection pile deserves all the credit when it comes to my first line, attention-grabbers. You’ve only got one shot to make a good first impression. And, with writing, sometimes that’s less than a mouthful of words.
I love the well-chosen signals that we’re in a contemporary story despite potentially the otherwise fabley, magical realist language: “Bloody Mary,” “third-date-lipstick stains,” “TUMS.” What writers or other influences have helped shape this style of writing for you?
My degree is in creative writing with a focus in magical realism. I tend to read a lot of Haruki Murakmi, Jorge Borges, and, of course, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Writing about the mundane and putting a spin on the “what-if” is what I most like to do.
Looking back on this piece, it’s hard to imagine it without the dentist, and yet it feels so arbitrary and unrelated to tomatoes when I think of them outside the context of “Heirlooms”. How did you find that connection or inspiration when writing this?
I may have rambled a little earlier on about this, but what inspired me to write about the dentist was my own dental appointment I had gone to when I was conceptualizing this piece. I felt the dentist gave the story substance, a little more grounding. He’s a character who most people have come into contact with at some point in their lives, someone that may leave you with a bit of uneasiness. That’s where I was at that point in my life.
If you had to expand this piece of flash into a novel, what might be one or some of the main plot threads?
To be honest, I don’t really know. For me, the piece is over. But, I have been stewing on the thought of a girl whose head is turning into an onion, because her hair has been falling out and she heard onion juice promotes new growth. Maybe they’d meet, introduce themselves, and carry on.
Interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw