Jacqui Reiko Teruya’s winning flash story was published on Monday (and you can read it in full here). Today, we’re excited to share this interview with our winner, in which we discuss the writing process, literary influences, and pairing the story with a song. Read on below.
Congratulations on winning our Summer 2018 Flash Fiction Contest! “How to Spot a Whale” jumped out to all of us right away as a contender for this contest. The opening line just grabs you: “Do not look impressed when Roberta tells you about narwhals—” Where did this story come from?
This came from a longer story that I was struggling with about a father who has left his family for months at a time to study whales in northern Canada. I was having a hard time finding what the protagonist knew and understood from her vantage point and the imperative mood seemed to unlock a lot of it for me, but then it took on a form of its own away from the original longer story.
We’re always so excited to be someone’s first publication; what was it like to get that news?
I actually didn’t believe it. I was in a coffee shop with one of my oldest friends and I made her read the email twice. I think that is what is most surprising to me in this process: the doubt actually has gotten stronger and more pronounced than it was before. There is a sense or a fear, maybe, that I’ll get an email saying “just kidding!” A friend of mine had a keychain made with “How to Spot a Whale” engraved on it, I guess so I can look at it, hold it in my hand, and remember that it is real and out there now.
If you had to pair “How to Spot a Whale” with a song, what would you choose?
Did I spend half a day thinking about this? Maybe. I love this question and I think it is so hard to figure out how to pair something. Tonally, thematically, what I was listening to, etc. I don’t usually listen to music when I write, or if I do it’s instrumental. But I think I’d pair it with “No Concern of Yours” by Punch Brothers mostly because I’ve spent a lot of time driving around Maine listening to these guys so there is something about the story’s setting that links it to bluegrass in my mind.
I’m interested in the process behind the writing: the routines, the editing, the favorite places to write, etc. What does this process look like for you? Any unusual habits?
My process is endlessly frustrating. I line edit as I go which often jams up my train of thought and I lose momentum on a story. Then I usually abandon one story and hop to a partial I abandoned before. I essentially need to have enough stories in my queue so that I can story hop until I settle into one for the long haul. Flash has been a useful tool in allowing me to play, to work through blocks, to line edit my heart out. My most productive times are late at night and I usually have to read everything out loud while I drink seltzer and try to not eat everything in the house.
Who would you cite as your influences? Who made this story possible for you?
Amy Hempel and Noy Holland I think were my introduction to smaller fictions. I read “The New Lodger” to my class each semester. Celeste Ng in general, but especially “How to Be Chinese” helped with this particular story. Short fiction outside of flash: James Baldwin, Karen Russell, Helen Oyeyemi, Don Lee, Laura van den Berg.
Interviewed by Cole Meyer