South Side Slopes author finds her voice in works of very few words
As a college student in the late 1980s, Sherrie Flick struggled to find her fictional voice. It wasn't until she decided to forgo longer stories in favor of shorter tales that everything clicked for the South Side Slopes resident.
“Once you find your voice as a writer, that's when the obsession kicks in,” says Flick, who will release her debut collection, “Whiskey, Etc.” (Queen's Ferry Press, $16.95), April 23 at the East End Book Exchange in Bloomfield. “I kept wanting to refine what I was doing and learn more about what it meant to write stories that were so short.”
Flick was originally influenced by short-story writers including Raymond Carver, Susan Minot and Amy Hempel. Her passion for compact and concise works led to flash fiction, a form first defined by James Thomas, Denise Thomas, and Tom Hazuka in 1992's “Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories.” Flash fiction prizes brevity and conciseness over length and expansiveness; thus, the cover refers to the works as “short (short) stories.”
“Of course there are limitations, especially with plot,” says Flick, who teaches in Chatham University's master of fine arts and food studies programs and is a freelance writer. “You cannot really develop a traditional arc with a story that's under a thousand words. But all of the other craft elements are up for grabs. You can develop character, and setting can be so important. You can have amazing dialogue.”
The 57 stories are divided into eight sections: “Songs,” “Pets,” “Coffee/Tea,” “Dessert,” “Art,” “Cars and Canoes,” “Soap” and “Whiskey.” These themes came about organically — there was no conscious effort to write stories about any subject — but are indicative of Flick's interests.
“We have a lot of rituals around soap,” Flick says. “This idea of doing the dishes while you're talking on the phone, the little decorative soaps we give as gifts. That was a theme that definitely surprised me looking through my work.”
There's an anachronistic feel to many of the stories. Characters read newspapers, not tablets. They don't use cellphones, they have long conversations, and they prepare and cook meals. There's a computer in the story “Anna,” but it's “a very old one with a blinking cursor,” Flick says, laughing.
“I guess it's because I'm of a certain age,” says Flick, 48. “It can be very poignant, that idea of the week's newspapers stacked in a corner. It's something we grew up with. I talk to my students about how we have so many more props to work with as fiction writers than they do. I love that rotary phones show up in my stories. I love the bulk of them and the shape, that tactile feeling.”
The characters appear almost like snapshots, brief images that flicker brightly and then fade at story's end. Because some readers find flash fiction to be “weird,” according to Flick, the characters are often viewed as peculiar or quirky.
But the author is not writing about outcasts or social misfits.
“They have rich interior lives, but for the most part they aren't eccentric,” Flick says. “There's the story ‘Breakfast' where the mother is singing operatically to her son about eggs and bacon; she's an eccentric. But the mother-son relationship is not an eccentric relationship in the story.”
Flick's previous book, the novel “Reconsidering Happiness,” was published in 2009. Because she's recognized as a flash-fiction writer — “if I'm known for anything,” she laughs — Flick thinks “Whiskey, Etc.” is her true debut. It's as if her love affair with stories and words is finally requited.
“This book is kind of my darling,” she says. “It sort of should have been first, but that's how the world works. It's interesting to me: I have this book , and this is the book I needed to have.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.