“To me, “Gretel’s Escape” fuses fantasy with feminism and discomfort in such a recognizable and palatable way.”
A Bright and Pleading Dagger (Rose Metal Press, 2018)
Every short story in “A Bright and Pleading Dagger” is centered around women and their relationships with men, other women, and society. What made you decide to write your first chapbook on this subject and why is feminism so important to you?
The chapbook’s thematic overlays were less of a thoughtful decision and more of an impulse. Feminism and women’s issues are finely woven into my own experiences and interests, so it’s natural for me to be so focused on them and to allow them to form the backbone of a lot of my work. But more than that, there’s a lot of movement happening in the realm of women’s rights. And with that forward movement there’s been a lot of pushback from people who feel threatened by a woman’s demand to be treated fairly. I like being around strong women and allies. I like to have conversations with them, to listen to them and read their work, and I always want to be a part of that conversation.
Each of your openers are different, from beginning with concrete nouns to description of character to gripping detail. Even something as everyday as an artist painting grabs the reader, because she is being watched, and we want to know by whom and for what reason. Was there a process of trial and error in gripping openers for your stories, or did you know from the get-go which would work best?
I’m not sure why it works out this way, but my openers are probably the component of my stories that change the least. On the other hand, I tend to labor over endings for what feels like forever. I’m rarely one-hundred-percent enthused with how my stories end, but I tend to feel pretty confident about how I start them off.
Do you write while listening to music, and were there any songs in particular that you had on repeat while writing “A Bright and Pleading Dagger”?
When I’m actually writing, I’m picky about sound. Sometimes I’ll listen to jazz or instrumental pieces, but I don’t write as well if I’m listening to a song with lyrics in it. If there are lyrics present, I end up just listening to those and tend to find myself enraptured in those stories. But on that note, a lot of the songs from The Mountain Goats inspired me. I got to talk a little bit about the Mountain Goats when I wrote a chapbook playlist for Largehearted Boy’s website a couple months ago. While the playlist doesn’t necessarily mean that those songs were on repeat while I wrote, I’ve listened to them a whole lot while driving, running, or just hanging out, and I’m certain they’ve influenced my writing in a variety of ways.
“To the butcher, the inside of a hog’s ribcage is much like the beauty of a vacant skyscraper stairwell. She drums her fingers against each rib like a child running up the steps two at a time.” Your short stories are full of minute details that create vivid images without ever breaking the pace of the plotline. Do these unique, often grotesque descriptions come naturally to you, or do they come together later during the editing process?
Those sort of details tend to come naturally; they’re some of my favorite lines to write. I usually edit as I go along, so I don’t tend to move on from a description until it feels realized. If I just wrote a basic outline of a story without those minute details, the writing process wouldn’t be nearly as fun.
What were some of your favorite books growing up? Do you think they helped shape your writing style, or did that develop later in your life?
I read pretty widely growing up. Everything from Harry Potter to Jim Morrison’s poetry to this non-fiction book about American serial killers that belonged to my mom. I think I enjoyed reading anything that was strange or mind-boggling in some way. Anything that dealt with the weird world of adults was excellent, and that often fit the mind-boggling bill as well. To some extent, I think my early readings led to some of the topics I write about, but I think writing style came much later. I wrote stories growing up, but I didn’t really have a strong sense of the effect my words had. That came later as a college student when I developed a firmer understanding of why I liked the books and stories I did.
Each story in “A Bright and Pleading Dagger” has a vastly different point of view, from an established butcher to a middle school girl crushing on her best friend. Was it difficult to get into the mindset of so many characters at once? Did you use any organizational methods, such as a spreadsheet of character bios, to keep them from blending together in your head?
I don’t have any organizational methods, which is strange to admit since outside of writing, I consider myself a pretty organized person. I’m big into to-do lists, for example. But when it comes to my stories, I never worry about characters getting mixed up. I think that’s also because I don’t work on more than one or two stories at once, so there’s not a whole lot of room for confusion. Flash generally asks for a smaller cast of characters, which is part of it, but I’d likely consider a spreadsheet if I were writing a novel.
Your story “Crush” uses an uncommon point of view but accomplishes the task better than any other that would have all but required author intrusion. The second person view opens up opportunities with this story that a first or third person view would not have, creating a personal feeling and relationship to this girl. Is this story autobiographical in any way? If so, what effect did revisiting your former emotions have on your writing method?
It’s not autobiographical in any obvious way other than the fact that I’ve also had a grade school crush. In the sixth grade I was convinced that I was in love with someone who I’d never really even spoken to, but I never invited them over to my house or anything like that. In fact, I eventually struck up the nerve to give them chocolate on Valentine’s Day. It was a school day and I don’t even think I had the courage to deliver it to them directly; one of my friends did. In any case, the chocolate was accepted; I was not. But excitement and frustration were part of the mix, just like in “Crush”, and writing about those sorts of experiences when you’re far removed from them can be a surprising amount of fun.
One of the ways you were able to promote “A Bright and Pleading Dagger” was through a book trailer. Why did you choose “Gretel’s Escape” to be the feature piece of the trailer?
I was tremendously excited that Rose Metal Press was willing to fund a book trailer for the chapbook. Initially, I was trying to find a story that was short enough to read in its entirety during those few minutes. Stories like “Death of an Ortolan” and “The Comedienne” were also quite short, but something about “Gretel’s Escape” felt more representative of the stories in “A Bright and Pleading Dagger” as a whole. To me, “Gretel’s Escape” fuses fantasy with feminism and discomfort in such a recognizable and palatable way. I also knew that most listeners knew the story of Hansel and Gretel, so there was a connection there that seemed likely to reach a wide range of potential readers.
Each of the stories in your chapbook seem very independent; each with its own focus, individual characters, and unique points of view. Connecting them all underneath one overarching theme is a challenging task, but you accomplished it quite well by using “A Bright and Pleading Dagger”. Does this title refer to the women your stories focus on, or the social and societal standards they seem to be rejecting?
To me, the title refers to a bit of both. But it also serves as a reference to the ways that survivors of trauma—whether it be sexual, societal, etc.—learn to mentally weaponize themselves against their abusers and the world at large. When the narrator of “A Bright and Pleading Dagger” sees the night sky’s stars as a weapon during one of her worst moments, or when the shunned protagonist of “The Comedienne” turns a pile of glass shards into something even more dangerous, they’re both exploring and questioning their own strength and their ability to protect themselves against the negative forces in their lives.
If you were given the option to turn any of the stories in “A Bright and Pleading Dagger” into a full-length novel, which one would you choose and why?
I think “A Bright and Pleading Dagger” could be novel-length if I were a writer who were more interested in writing long-form prose. While I enjoy the story as-is, there’s potential for further character exploration, more uncomfortable challenges, and increased exploration of how those sets of challenges might affect a teenage girl who’s moving toward adulthood. It would also be an interesting experience to write more toward the Savannah setting, since it’s the city I currently live in and largely untapped outside of ghost stories or historical explorations.
Where and in what way does your personal life coincide with or affect your writing life? Are they two separate things, or do your experiences inspire your writing?
My daily and life experiences affect my writing to some extent, though probably more in a retroactive sense. I don’t tend to draw bold correlations between my current life and what’s happening in a story. But if something interesting happens, I may incorporate some aspect of that event into a story years down the line, once I’m less emotionally-invested and able to process things more objectively.
Which story in your chapbook has the most meaningful backstory; is this a different story than your favorite?
That’s hard to say. If I’m thinking of meaningful backstory in an autobiographical sense, then maybe “Bulldog” or “A Bright and Pleading Dagger” would be standouts. But if I’m thinking of meaningful backstory in the writing sense, I’d probably say “Death of an Ortolan,” which is also one of my favorite pieces in the chapbook. When I wrote “Death of an Ortolan,” I was burnt out on grad school, more or less broke, and in an uncomfortable living situation. As a result, I was putting a whole lot of myself into writing as a form of expression and, to some extent, as a form of escapism. I wrote that story in one evening and immediately sent it out to a few literary journals I thought might be interested. (Fortunately, Passages North, liked it and gave it a home.) It felt good to fully focus on this one tiny narrative for one evening, feel confident about it, and get it out there in the world without going through another fiction workshop.
What is the last written piece, and was it difficult to find a fit for it within the criteria of a developing chapbook?
The last written piece was probably “The Comedienne,” but it was written before I even knew the collection was going to be a collection. Visualizing my stories in tandem isn’t a strength of mine, so I generally just try to focus on making each one meaningful and successful as a standalone fiction. It was afterwards that I thought of putting these stories into a chapbook, and it happened when I was reviewing each piece that I found there was enough thematic similarity between them that I could make it work.
Are you currently working on anything? If so, what can you tell us about it?
Aside from flash fiction, I have a novella-in-progress that I occasionally work on. It’s my small attempt at meeting a novel half way, and it’s been a new challenge. Otherwise, I’m enjoying writing book reviews right now. I have a recently-published review of Not That Bad (edited by Roxane Gay) in VIDA Review Reviews, and another review of a flash fiction chapbook that I’m working on for another outlet. In between writing, reading, and teaching, I don’t carve out much time to discuss literature with my peers, so writing book reviews feels like a way to challenge myself intellectually while still contributing to the conversation in a meaningful way.
Nicole Rivas teaches writing in Savannah, GA and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Alabama. Her chapbook of flash fiction, A Bright and Pleading Dagger, was the winner of the Rose Metal Press 12th Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest. She can be found at www.nicolemrivas.com and on Twitter @nicolemrivas.