For the last issue of Lammergeier before the break, we interviewed Melissa Benton Barker, author of "Altitude" back in Issue 5 and "Hold Still" in Issue 16. Join us for a discussion about the price of aging and self-erasure, the rise of flash fiction, and anchoring speculative worlds in the emotional action of a story.
Ethan Brightbill: Like your previous story, "Hold Still" renders a relationship between two women in sharp detail while keeping the speculative elements of the world they exist in just out of focus. We only get hints at why Misha and the protagonist undergo the operation, and there's even less about the operation itself. However, the connection to women's social value as they age felt clear to me. What was going through your head when you wrote this story? And without giving too much away, what do you want the reader to come away with?
Melissa Benton Barker: I had a lot on my mind when I was writing this very short piece. Unrealistic beauty standards, the pressures women often put on one another to adhere to certain standards (perhaps unintentionally), the price of aging, invisibility. In the end, I wondered what would happen if there were a procedure that, instead of erasing the appearance of aging, would instead make the patient/victim so numb to emotion and experience that she would cease to feel her life, therefore she would be inured both to aging and its consequences. Instead of becoming invisible, she would voluntarily (figuratively) erase herself. And I do think our culture asks us to do this, to an extent, without even thinking about it speculatively. We have to actively resist erasing ourselves.
EB: With stories like "Hold Still" or "Altitude," how do you balance keeping the reader informed with the sense of mystery that characterizes your writing? How do you know when your worlds are too in or out of focus?
MBB: With both of these stories I didn’t really know where I was headed when I began writing them. For me, the speculative world tends to arise out of what is happening emotionally in the story. The world-building comes second. After I get the first draft out of my system, I try to figure out what the story might be about. With both “Altitude” and “Hold Still,” I added a lot of information about the world the characters live in, but then, later in the revision process, I culled these details to the minimum necessary for the world to feel real to the reader. I want to avoid bogging stories down with explanation. After that, it’s absolutely necessary to have a trusted second reader give me feedback about whether there are enough details, whether it’s making sense. My friends Rebecca Kuder and Jahzerah Brooks are great at helping me out in this way.
EB: You also co-edit the flash fiction section at CRAFT. What do you look for in flash fiction? And who are your favorite authors in the genre?
MBB: When I’m reading flash for CRAFT, I’m less interested in traditional narrative and more interested in finding a spark that feels emotionally resonant. I think flash really lends itself to experimentation and surprise. Flash also calls for language to be precise and unwasted. Ideally, the form the writer chooses propels and enhances the content of the story. When I was beginning as a writer, I learned that very short stories were possible by reading Grace Paley and Amy Hempel, who both continue to be incredibly instructive writers for me. Flash is really blossoming as a genre right now. What I love most about reading for CRAFT is being introduced to the work of so many of the wonderful people writing contemporary flash. It’s impossible to name just a few favorites.
EB: What are you working on now, writing-related or otherwise? What's on your horizon?
MBB: I have a flash fiction collection out for submission, fingers crossed. I am also putting together a collection of traditional-length short fiction. This is still in the early stages with several stories in the revision process and some that haven’t been written yet at all. There are a few characters who seem to want to reappear in multiple stories, so maybe it will be a linked collection. That’s exciting to imagine.
EB: Finally, what’s your favorite bone?
MBB: I love the vertebrae. All of them. When I think about all the movement these little bones allow us to do, it’s pretty incredible. They are precious little bones, and we need to move in ways that take good care of them.