“Out, Brief Candle” by Hannah Rose Roberts was selected by Kim Chinquee as the grand prize winner of the 2022 Flash Fiction Contest. First, read this magnificent story, published Monday, and then read an interview with the author conducted by assistant editor Jen Dupree!
I guess I’ll ask the obvious question: How did this idea come to you?
For a couple of years I’ve participated in NYC Midnight’s flash competition, where you’re given 48 hours to write a story from a randomized set of prompts. I ended up with the genre “ghost story” twice—first paired with “jukebox,” and second with “eyedropper.” I ultimately wrote stories about people communing with their dead using each of those objects, which led me to wonder: if I have sight and sound covered, could I expand this set of flashes to cover all five of the senses? And Out, Brief Candle was my first attempt to answer that question.
Scent is, I think, one of the under-utilized senses in fiction writing and so it’s interesting to me that’s where the focus of this piece is (right from the very first line). Talk a little bit about using scent as a vehicle to carry the story and if that’s something you do in your other writing.
Historically I’ve been as likely to underuse scent in my writing as the next person—I don’t have a great sense of smell, or taste for that matter (I may start sweating if you ask me to describe the notes of coffee or wine), and it feels all-too-easy to end up with a scent descriptor that’s either cliché or inaccurate. After I chose the premise of this story, I wondered if I’d painted myself into a corner: What scents, other than “cookies baking at Grandma’s house,” evoke nostalgia? But in the process of writing it—particularly while being in a long-distance relationship—I started to recognize that when you miss someone, any scent you tie to them can transport you.
You use a great deal of restraint in this piece. Talk about the decision to not reveal the exact circumstances of Luis’ death. Was that something you initially wrote and then edited out?
I love writing flash exactly because of the restraint it forces. It overwhelms me to approach a parameter-free page…I’d much rather work within an existing constraint, be it length or topic. In the case of this story, I decided from the get-go that the details of the accident didn’t matter—whatever happened, Marlow knows that a thousand other people have lost their partners the same way. Her grief is not unique, only unique to her, and the reader doesn’t need to know what happened to imagine how it must feel.
I particularly like the reference to “kintsugi” and what Luis says about it: The brokenness elevates the art. This moment struck me as the hinge on which the entire story turns and I’m interested to hear how you came to it and if it was always as it is in the piece now, that is, brief and somewhere in the middle.
That’s so interesting to hear, because I worried it might read as cheesy—maybe because I first learned of that concept from a Death Cab for Cutie album. I was drawn to the redemptive nature of kintsugi, the way it salvages what might not seem worth repairing, as well as the fact that no two pieces of pottery break the same way. (“Our scars make us who we are” and all that.) I also thought it was important to introduce kintsugi as a thing that intrigued Luis rather than Marlow, because when you lose someone you want all of them back, even their quirks and hyperfixations.
It’s hard to write about grief in a way that feels personal and yet new in some way. You’ve done that here, and I’m really interested in what the process of this story looked like for you. Did it feel overly melodramatic or trite or overwritten in the first draft? How did you pull back while deepening Marlow’s experience in particular?
As someone whose narrative voice tends towards dry humor, writing an earnest piece like this always feels melodramatic at one point or other. I wrote the line “But what else was there to say about grief, except that it was hers now?” because that’s how I felt approaching the story, and it ended up being my favorite sentence of the whole thing.
When approaching the ol’ “show don’t tell” adage with my students, I try to emphasize its importance in conveying character feelings. You can say “a farm” or “an elevator” or “an old man” with no further comment, but “she was happy” will mean a different thing to every reader. So I wanted to comment on Marlow’s grief-strickenness as little as possible, and focus on her observations and reactions. She’s reverted to practical mode, or is at least trying to, because facing her emotions is too tall of an order.
In addition to the exact circumstances of Luis’ death, there’s a lot we don’t know in this story—how long were Marlow and Luis together? How old are they? What do they do for work? I like these omissions because they leave room for a kind of conversation between the reader and writer, but I wonder what your thought process was regarding how much and what particular backstory to leave out.
I took the “easy way” with these characters in that I imagined Marlow as my own age, living in my own city—all the scents I mention in the last scene are nods to LA. I’d just started talking to a guy named Luis online at the time, and I thought, sure, that’s a good name. (We’re now, incidentally, talking about having a wedding of our own.) I’m also an in media res fangirl—my friends know I plan to get that phrase tattooed someday—so I knew I wanted to start the story after the accident. (This was probably my saving grace, because otherwise it would have been easy to get tangled up in fleshing Luis-as-a-person out.) From there, it became a matter of keeping the facts as sparse as possible so I could “cash in” most of my 1000 words on occupying the scene. Who cares where Luis worked? He worked somewhere they’d send a tacky card. Who cares how old Marlow is? She just aged ten years overnight.
What’s your writing process like?
As someone with ADHD, the answer to this question is ever changing. I’ve actually found scent to be helpful in this regard, as I’ve adopted a habit some poet friends of mine use, lighting a candle to “set the tone” for writing time. I was skeptical at first, but it really does help me to mentally differentiate between “sitting at home working” and “sitting at home writing.” Otherwise, I need the stimulus of a coffee shop and/or writing buddy to get anywhere—thankfully I have friends who host a weekly write-in. And to get my thoughts flowing enough to write in the first place, I need either a long walk, a long drive, or a long shower. It’s non-negotiable.
What are you working on now?
For my MFA thesis project, I’m working on a memoir about the megachurch in South Florida where I spent my formative years—think Educated meets The Righteous Gemstones, with an alligator or two thrown in. Celebrity pastor exposés have become zeitgeisty lately, but I’m attempting a more personal approach, tackling the problems with charisma-based religious hierarchies without losing the humanity of the people involved.
And when I work on that project, I light my favorite citrus-scented candle.
Interviewed by Jen Dupree