“I wanted to explore the American relationship with the natural world in a different way, looking at European myth and folklore and how it relates (or doesn’t) to the landscape of the American West.”
Girlmine (Bull City Press, 2019)
What inspired you to become a writer? How do you stay inspired?
I’m the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of immigrants. My mother came to California from South Korea in the 1960s, and my father’s mother and his grandparents came from Norway and Sweden, settling in Brooklyn, New York, in the first decades of the twentieth century. Growing up, I was often around relatives who spoke another language or who had a very different background from my 1960s–1970s suburban upbringing. This inspired and continues to inspire my curiosity about other people’s stories—the ones that were told to me and the ones that were never told, the secrets.
What draws you to writing flash fictions?
I don’t usually call my very short stories “flash fiction,” but I do like the implications of the word “flash.” It suggests an explosion, a burst, a flare of some kind.
Do you have a favorite flash author?
Yes, Carl Sandburg. I like his stories in a book called Rootabaga Stories, from 1922, which I think is supposed to be a book of stories for children, but they are surreal, like American Kafka on the prairie. My favorite one of his stories is “The Two Skyscrapers Who Decided to Have a Child.” Is it OK if I quote something? The skyscrapers tell each other, “if we have a child she must be free to run across the prairie, to the mountains, to the sea. Yes, it must be a free child.” Their child is a cross-country train. And then there’s a terrible accident, a railroad accident. It’s a tragedy in six pages.
One noticeable aspect of Girlmine is its size. What led you to make such a compact collection?
Bull City Press, the publisher, calls Girlmine a micro-chapbook. It’s part of a series called Inch, which used to be a small-format literary magazine and now features the work of one author in each chapbook, varying between fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. So the size of the collection was determined by the requirements of the micro-chapbook format.
In Girlmine, you allude to Daphne, Apollo, and other mythological figures. Could you say more about this?
In my previous story collection, Recapture, there’s a lot of questioning of the natural world, especially places like national parks and scenic landscapes. For example, in a story called “Grand Canyon II,” the premise is that the Grand Canyon is off-limits to visitors because of a disaster. Grand Canyon II is a convincing replacement created through 3D printing. In another story, “Utah WildMall Rangers,” park rangers work in an environment where the canyon country landscape is sort of perpetually Instagram-ready, with scheduled rainbows—but the place starts to malfunction. With these new stories in Girlmine, I wanted to explore the American relationship with the natural world in a different way, looking at European myth and folklore and how it relates (or doesn’t) to the landscape of the American West. So, for example, in Girlmine, the story called “Daphne: The Aspen Version” begins: “In ancient Greece, Daphne flees Apollo and is changed into a laurel tree. In Colorado, in the Uncompahgre National Forest, she becomes an aspen, taking root on the steep north-facing slopes below Lone Cone, looking toward Mount Wilson and El Diente. It happens in August, bow-hunting season.” I liked the combination of myth and a detailed, accurate description of setting. The story takes place near where I used to live in southwestern Colorado, in a part of the forest where I’ve camped and hiked many times.
What would you say the overall message about women is in Girlmine?
Let’s see. The collection overall has no message about women, though the male characters in the stories may believe such messages exist. In the sequencing of the stories, the girls and women may seem initially to be closer to nature or more capable of transformation, but by the end, the lonely male Norwegian house spirit, who has accidentally emigrated and is trapped in America, also transforms himself.
Is there a story in Girlmine that borrows or remixes real events from your life?
The last story, “Assimilation, Sunset Park,” is the most directly inspired by real events. Not the idea of a house spirit! That part is inspired by Norwegian folklore. But the details of emigration from Stavanger, Norway, and the house in Brooklyn are based on emigration stories from my father’s family.
Did the title Girlmine come after you chose that story to be the opening story, or did you choose the title and write a story based on it?
The story and its title came first. When I gathered these stories together, it seemed like a title that would fit the whole collection, with its emphasis on experiences that are in some way enchanted or treasured, for better or for worse.
Are you working on another short story collection? If so, what are some themes you’re exploring?
I’m working on some new short stories. I’m also working on a nonfiction book manuscript about the sense of home and the places where my Korean, Norwegian, and Swedish ancestors lived. By this I mean both their actual houses, some of which are still standing today, as well as their larger communities. In the book, I revisit these places, many of which I’ve been lucky enough to visit in person, and explore my own lifelong search, as a multiracial American, for a place to call home. There’s a connection between the stories in Girlmine that reference Scandinavian culture and this nonfiction project. The general focus of my new writing is the intersection of emigration history with stories of the American West.
Erica Soon Olsen was born in Hollywood, California. She is the author of Recapture & Other Stories (Torrey House Press), a collection of short fiction about the once and future West, and a micro-chapbook, Girlmine (Inch #40, Bull City Press). Her stories and essays have also appeared in Gulf Coast, High Desert Journal, ZYZZYVA, and other literary magazines. She lives in northeastern Utah.