We were fortunate to publish “Crocodile” on Monday, our 2020 Flash Fiction Contest winner, selected by Sherrie Flick. Be sure to read the winning story and then our Interview with the Winner below:
I just love this story’s third-person omniscient child narrator—that is two very hard-to-do things done at once! What edits or considerations about this did you make while writing to make this piece so successful?
Thank you! I have lots to say on this subject, it turns out. While the narrator seems somewhat “all-seeing” (to address the “omniscient” part of your question), we are really only able to “see all” from Sunshine’s vantage point, which is inherently colored by her relationship to her various family members and by the fact that she is a child. When the narrator observes that Sunshine’s mother only talks about Cajuns in a disparaging way because Sunshine’s father is Cajun, I think we’re glimpsing not only some parental tension through a child’s eyes, but (heartbreakingly, to me!) the child’s inferences based on that tension. The narrator’s insights are clouded by Sunshine’s subjectivity, something I found so interesting to write.
I want to add that this doesn’t mean the narrator’s insights don’t have truth to them; I think children really are “all-seeing”—but perhaps less literally than the word “omniscient” might connote.
I did give the narration of this story quite a bit of consideration, to say the least! The story was in fact sculpted from a much larger project I had worked on for many years—a novel that’s in my agent’s hands as we speak, actually. The character relationships in “Crocodile” are different than in the novel, and the momentum of the story is much different, but the voice itself is very close to the voice of the narrator in the novel—and was therefore something I had years to develop and fine-tune. The fun part of creating this particular piece came from deciding what was important to say in so few words, and how to create tension within events and character dynamics that, in a novel, you’d have basically unlimited word count to make happen! But the subjective third person narration and the voice itself have been with me for many years now, and it felt natural to bring them along for the ride in “Crocodile.”
With the lurking presence of adolescence in this piece, it’s hard to not read “Crocodile” extremely metaphorically as well as literally. Did you start out with the metaphor as a concept, or arrive at it somehow—and either way, how did you get there?
Ha—adolescence does lurk! Way back in my early twenties, I had an idea for a story about a woman with a tattoo on her arm that was secretly representative of her dead baby. Sounds both maudlin and boring, right? It was. I tried to write it and got about one sentence in before realizing I had absolutely no story—only the dead baby metaphor tattoo thing. Remembering this, I am cringing.
I’ve learned that writing from abstract to literal—or metaphor first, storytelling second—is a very effective strategy for swiftly crushing the life from a story. The more useful approach for me is writing from a place of curiosity—about an image, about setting, about character dynamics. Much of this story came, initially, from strange imagery floating around in my imagination. I’ve actually found—frustratingly enough—that the less clarity of vision I initially have around how a part of a story will serve the meaning, the better. (This was true of the early stages of both the novel and of this story derived from the novel.) If I can just stay with the curiosity about where the hell a story is leading me, I arrive somewhere interesting. Then, I can work with the material to emphasize and highlight any meaning in ways that feel right—but it’s much more organic (and less cringy tattoo metaphor of zero substance). I’ll add, too, that this approach can feel very difficult for me. It flies in the face of control and perfectionism—the siren calls of all artists, I think.
If “Crocodile” had a literary family—authors or specific books/stories—who would be in it? Who would be the mother? The brother? Etc?
Oooo! What a great question. Its mother would be a godlike amalgamation of Virginia Woolf and Arundhati Roy. Its father would be a venerable but very human (i.e. heavy drinking) William Faulkner. But let’s inject some appropriate humility into this fictional family and add that my story is probably the runt of the litter.
There’s something so confident and coming-of-age-ish in that short last line, despite the possible danger. How did you know that was the right note to end on?
Even because of the possible danger, maybe—I tend to think danger is inherent in any coming of age story.
Knowing the ending goes back to the intuitive writing comment I made earlier. I’m a very amateur painter, and I’m learning how easy it is to tinker with a painting until I’ve completely overworked it. But if I can stay tuned in to when instinct says to just stop painting and—this can be the hard part—actually listen to that instinct, then the work has a chance of being mildly interesting. I’ve had at least a decade more practice with writing than I have with painting, so I’m more practiced with listening to the moment something in me says to stop writing, and I’m more practiced with, as I said earlier, following my story to a strange place without concern for meaning or even function. Figuring out the ending works in that way, too. It’s initially instinctive, and I do find that instinct often leads me to both meaning and function, anyway, without needing my conscious mind to step in and interfere…at least not too much.
One of my favorite fun questions last—if “Crocodile” had a soundtrack, what songs would be on it?
This question makes me really imagine the story in a fun cinematic way. I love that! I think when Sunshine is underwater, the only soundtrack would be quiet underwater-type sounds. When she’s on the surface of the water, though, I think there’s music coming from Joanna Louise’s portable radio (I didn’t know she had a portable radio until this interview question, but it turns out she does, made from a kind of aqua-colored plastic)—something rock-and-roll-ish to really contrast with the underwater quiet, like the Credence Clearwater Revival version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Is that weird? That’s probably why I like this idea. A lot, actually. Any directors or screenwriters out there want to help me turn this into a short film?
Interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw