Meet the Writer is a feature for which I interview authors who identify as women or nonbinary. We talk less about a single book or work and more about where they’ve been and how their lives affect their writing. Today, please welcome Jennifer Fliss (she/her). Fliss hangs out on Twitter at @writesforlife. She’s an outdoorsy person who also tries new things, like learning to play the ukulele and having the courage to brave the flying trapeze. Learn more about Fliss and her work on her website.
Grab the Lapels: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?
Jennifer Fliss: Didn’t everyone want to be a marine biologist? What was it about the underwater world and its animals? Later, my interest morphed into other underwater discoveries. I was obsessed with shipwrecks, the idea of Atlantis. The slow decay of the Titanic. (I was highly unimpressed when the movie Titanic came out; the focus was really more the romance and not the sinking of the ship). This interest definitely factored into my creative work later. I am still obsessed with abandoned settings. So many of my stories take place in that in between place, and the land/sea border is one of them. A seaside village, an abandoned lighthouse, a cold winter beach.
Also, I think sea creatures seem so mythical to us. We humans are land-bound, with our little feet and lungs. So, I think we look at sea animals in this otherworldly way. I have written stories with octopuses and sirens, selkies and lionfish. The real and the imagined sea creatures are rife with story potential.
GTL: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
JF: I experienced extreme trauma as a child. My father was abusive, and I lived with that and neglect for years and years. This was before the internet, and so I had no way of knowing that this experience wasn’t unique. I felt so alone. I began scribbling in notebooks — my thoughts and fears and hopes. It was my outlet, my way to process what was happening to me. Not counting a high school creative writing class, my first short story was veiled fiction about what really happened to me: a kid riding the subway at all hours to avoid going home to her abusive father. I enjoyed that process and learned that the fictional parts were quite enjoyable to write. Even that was empowering.
Then I began to write more fiction. More stories. It wasn’t for about a decade after my father’s death that I dared to begin to write nonfiction, to write about my own experiences plain and obvious. It’s still hard and it’s still a process, where I slowly revealed my experiences. Then, I began to hear from readers who could relate and how they appreciated this article or that essay and that made all the difference.
Today, I love to write. I could gush about it like a crush. Oh sure, there are parts that are difficult for me, like revision, but generating work, coming up with story ideas, that’s incredibly fun for me and limitless! There isn’t enough time to write all that I want to.
GTL: How have you developed creatively since then?
JF: When I began to write, I had never taken a class, aside from one semester in high school. When I first moved to Seattle, I sat next to a literary agent. I had never published my work and hadn’t even thought about how you would even do that. I was gushing about my love of writing for the entire six hours, and the agent gave me her card and told me to send her something. So I did. She read an entire collection manuscript that I’d put together and then gave me feedback! (Now that I know more about agents I see just how generous this was). Overall, she said there was a lot of promise but that a lot of it was too subtle. I didn’t quite know what that meant, so I signed up for a class. I’m so glad I did.
It was a fiction fundamentals class, but it REALLY taught me some of the basics that I didn’t know, things like the Point of View of the narrator and tenses need to be consistent, and of course, a lot more. You know, whoever it was who said you have to learn the rules before you can break them, well, yeah. I had to learn the rules. And now I do break them — I love to break them! — but I still have an understanding about what makes a story work, which I think you need. This also helps incredibly when I edit stories for people.
GTL: What happens when you’re not happy with your writing?
JF: I am always happy writing. I know that’s not exactly what you’re asking. If there is a story that isn’t working, that I can’t happily chug along with, I close the file and open something else up. I have a million partially-started stories. And, I have a million more ideas on things I’d like to write. I don’t force myself to write every day. I write when inspired. Some writers have said, no, no then you’re not a real writer. But I disagree. This is how I write, and I write plenty because I am inspired very often.
I can almost always find inspiration in something. In fact, I’m currently working on a creative nonfiction piece about storage facilities in America. Storage facilities — not often on the list of inspiring topics. I also recently finished a story about popcorn ceilings. Inspiration is literally everywhere. I am happy utilizing that, and if I’m writing something and not feeling inspired — as you say, not happy with it, I just put it aside. Maybe I’ll return to it, or maybe not.
GTL: Did you learn anything from writing your book, The Predatory Animal Ball?
JF: I’ve learned to think about my stories put together. For the most part, if you’re putting together a collection, you have to think about how those stories are cohesively part of something bigger, similar themes, ideas, styles. Looking at the breadth of my work, I see that I touch upon abuse a lot, the power struggles of women under a misogynistic world, how the underdog subverts that world. There is definitely thematic overlap, characters archetypes, and stylistic devices I return to.
When I write stories, I just write for the sake of that particular inspiration, but when I put them together for a collection, I had to look at my work as a whole. It’s a fascinating exercise even if one never wants to put a book together.
GTL: Why do you think your book would be a good choice for a book club pick?
JF: Collections aren’t often book club picks, which is a shame. Because for the reason I mention in the above question, you get a glimpse of the author in a way you don’t with a novel. You can compare her stories, see her at different angles. Same with the theme. Reading several stories allows multiple access points into thematic conversations. And there’s also the simple answer that there might be something for everyone. You aren’t stuck in a story you don’t like; just turn a few pages and then you have a new story. Book clubs often center around one memoir or nonfiction book or novel. In this one, they can take many stories and see how they play with each other, how they stand in contrast to each other, what a character from one would do if faced with a character from another. Maybe they can do a role-playing game! Honestly, I’d LOVE to see a bunch of Predatory Animal Ball LARPers gallivanting through the woods under the guise of “book club.”