Life as a Series of Small Gestures: Talking with Jennifer Fliss

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There are more than forty distinct and dangerous worlds in Jennifer Fliss’s debut story collection, The Predatory Animal Ball, out now from Okay Donkey. With a multitude of characters and keenly drawn details that somehow feel familiar even in their strangeness, each piece offers emotional resonance and an opportunity to grapple with the biggest questions. From thirty-three dead moths to a mouse who befriends her own reflection, every page creates space for empathy even among the smallest of creatures.

Jennifer Fliss has written over two hundred stories and essays. Her work has appeared in F(r)iction, PANK, Hobart, The Rumpus, Best Small Fictions, Washington Post, and elsewhere. She was a Pen Parentis fellow and the recipient of a Grant for Artists’ Progress Award from Artist Trust. She is based in Seattle, WA.

Fliss and I corresponded via email this fall about the way writing feels magical, how the writing process can offer healing, and where hope emerges when there is so much to grieve and there are predators at every turn.

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The Rumpus: The opening line of The Predatory Animal Ball’s first story, “Pigeons,” ends with a disturbing image of an injury. A bit later, there is the line, “…the pigeon bobbed its head, talking in its pigeon language. Its I wish I was a dove language.” I could go on, but I want to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say my heart was immediately engaged with this bird who is enduring so much and still wishes it was a dove. Can you talk about how this story sets the tone for what’s to come in the book?

Jennifer Fliss: This first piece is actually from something I really saw on the streets of Seattle, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It is so heartbreaking and startling, this bird going about its life as best as it possibly can in the face of such horror and undoubted pain. It’s an example of the way we humans do such harm and we just have to live with it, make the best of our lives anyway. That somehow, this is the natural order of things. We humans are really the apex predator in so many ways.

As for the rest of the book, find me a person who hasn’t wished to be someone else in some way. The eponymous story “The Predatory Animal Ball” is literally about sneaking into a party that is not for you. The things you took from “Pigeons” are things humans do so heartbreakingly well: hurting each other and being made to feel like we’re not good enough as we are. These are two of the big themes in the collection.

Rumpus: One story that blends the two themes of injury and disparagement is “The Great Bear,” where the protagonist is an outsider in her childhood home. You’ve captured the feeling of alienation so well, both through the interactions between the characters and through the winter setting. Is there a point, when you’re drafting a story, when you realize which tools are doing the heavy lifting for the piece? Do you have a particular way of noticing where the story wants to go?

Fliss: Writing feels magical. I don’t believe in a greater power, but it really feels as if I don’t have much control, or rather, I don’t do a lot of thinking about what I’m writing. It starts from some idea of mine and I see where the (figurative) pen takes me. It’s not usually too far in that I understand the path. The things that signal that path come naturally, and without much difficulty.

After that realization, I put in what feels a little more like “work” to build connections to create a more full story. In “The Great Bear,” when my protagonist was walking around in the snow, a little aimless, she looked up and saw Ursa Major. From that moment forward, I knew this was going to guide the story. I then did a little research on constellations and mythology. Though that moment didn’t happen until the end of the story, when I went back to reread and revise the story, I tried to fold everything around those points.

Overall, when I write, I envision the scenes and they unfold in front of me, and I’m just the one recording what happens.

Rumpus: It’s uncanny that in the example we’re talking about, “The Great Bear,” that it was a constellation that guided you to knowing where the story wanted to go. I love that!

It sounds like you’re talking about surrendering to a fictive dream, as they say. Do you have any techniques that regularly help you get to that point when you’re drafting?

Fliss: That’s right! I’m really not one of those people who knows much about the stars and constellations and the mythology that surrounds them. In fact, it’s kind of neat, because I get to learn things when I do this sort of research.

I wish I could say I have techniques to access this kind of direction, but I really don’t. It just happens.

Rumpus: It’s like you said before, that writing feels magical. Can you share about how the collection came together?

Fliss: I tend to write on familiar themes: abuse, misogyny, and also hope. Always hope. When I wrote the first iteration of “The Predatory Animal Ball,” the story was a fairy tale and much longer! Though stylistically, it was different from other stories of mine, it was thematically related. In our world, we are finally seeing our predators for what they are. In the workplace, misogyny, bigotry, the medical field, violence against children—predators are at every turn. I really wanted to highlight that here. By putting in the literal predators in the eponymous story, I almost want to hit readers over the head with the idea that we need to pay attention to our surroundings.

Rumpus: At a certain point, perhaps because of the short duration of the stories, it almost feels like the pieces deliver a series of blows. Yet, because of the varied styles and voices, at times the reading experience also reminded me of being present at a concert, the stories as short and discrete as songs. What were some of your concerns and criteria as you compiled the book?

Fliss: I think I want it to feel more like a roller coaster than a train ride (or like a well-curated concert). We, as readers, get bored if everything is the same, even if it’s safer. We crave excitement, danger. I really wanted to make sure The Predatory Animal Ball did that. That it wasn’t one-note, and maybe the reader could breathe before they were socked again.

That said, I don’t want it to only feel like the reader is being punched down, over and over. My intention was also to imbue the collection with hope. My young life was filled with blows—every day, a new abuse—but as an adult, I’ve been really fortunate to have a good life. After thinking about this question, I also want people to come away from that series of blows, and then in the end, know it can get better. I ended the collection with a baby, and while the baby isn’t the protagonist, I think there is always inherent hope when a new life comes into the world.

Rumpus: I agree. In the last story, that gesture of the grandmother with the baby feels like a circle-of-life moment. There is a quiet hope there.

This makes me think of the way gestures operate in “Candy Necklace.” For example, when the father wraps the necklace around the narrator’s wrist, it’s a tender moment that instills hope. Flannery O’Connor talked about how, “the real heart of the story lies… [in] an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected.” Do you find yourself writing toward gestures?

Fliss: I love using small gestures. I like using things we don’t often think about. In particular, with grief, let’s say after the loss of a loved one, we always read about the funeral, the shiva, the trying to find love after loss, etc. We don’t hear enough about the pain in throwing away the still-damp toothbrush, canceling dentist appointments, or unenrolling a now-passed child from school. These are small devastations, and they fill our time and break our hearts when grieving. Why don’t they make it to the page or screen more often? I really try to observe in real life what these small things do to us: Do they break our heart? Do they fill our bucket? Because life is mostly made up of small gestures, not sweeping grandiosities. The latter is for blockbuster films. It’s rarely real life. I really want to try to capture that in my writing.

Rumpus: “Do they fill our bucket?” is such a beautiful way to put that!

Fliss: I learned it from my daughter. The idea is that we all carry a bucket with us all day long, and we can help fill others’ buckets, but we don’t want to take away from people’s buckets, and we don’t want to allow others to take from our buckets, either. Be a bucket filler!

Rumpus: Many of the stories in this book portray grief in a convincing and exquisite manner. Your specificity is remarkable and effective. How do you see the grief in the book functioning, alongside all the predators?

Fliss: Grief is universal. We usually associate it with feelings, after a loved one dies, but it’s so much more than that. It can be the grief that follows an illness or injury, the grief of not getting something we really wanted. It can be what we feel when our hope is unfulfilled. Predators are both bucket-takers and grief-enablers. They can emotionally or physically drain our buckets. They suck the life out of us, literally and figuratively.

I still hold onto the grief that comes from not having parents, in the way so many people did. I lived in an abusive and neglectful home, and my father was absolutely a predator. When I write him, he always has animalistic predatory features: leering eyes, claws, etc. Decades later, I’m grown now with a family of my own, but I still grieve over what my younger self didn’t have. Grief manifests in so many ways. It can also push us to not be “grief enablers” to others. Our experiences with grief show us what to look for. When I write, I try to be conscious of this.

Rumpus: I’m sorry you went through that. Would you say your work as a writer has been a part of your healing?

Fliss: I don’t write as a therapy session, but in the act of writing, I find myself healing as a by-product. To have found something I love to do, a way of making sense of the world around me, that’s incredible! Childhood me, cowering under a table hiding from my father, didn’t have the tools to make sense of the world around me. Now, I have a whole tool belt. No, a tool shed, or maybe an entire Lowe’s! In writing, I discover the words to discuss my experiences, both on the page and off. It encourages introspection and critical thinking.

Often I find some healing and meaning when people reach out to me to tell me that what I’ve written has touched them in some way, that they can relate to it. I would have loved to have known that I wasn’t alone when I was younger, pre-internet. Writing and reading connect us to people. For me, those connections are integral parts of the healing.

Rumpus: You’ve mentioned that the earlier drafts of your stories tend to come out in one pass. Do you find them starting with a particular element? A character, or line, or premise?

Fliss: Truly, I’m lying in bed at night and something comes to mind, usually an item or a job or hobby. I think, Well, that’s so random, but someone has to do that. Someone has to work at the factory to make that random thing: the eyes that are used on stuffed animals, forks, birthday candles, dominoes. Someone has to sit in a meeting to discuss what the font will be on the label on the bottom of the surge protector. This world is made up of such weirdness, but a lot of it doesn’t get much press. So it’s usually an element for me, over a character or premise. It starts really small, usually: a candy necklace, a talking plush dog, or hotel towels. Then, when I sit to write, I just see where it takes me. It’s really quite fun. Every day when I open my eyes and ears, I set about observing. There’s so much we can tell stories about, inspiration is everywhere.

Rumpus: This collection has forty stories, and that’s a fraction of your body of work. How do you organize your projects? Do you have a system in place?

Fliss: I have no system. I have a zillion stories and essays at various stages of completion. Sometimes it’s a word, sometimes it’s four thousand words. They live in folders, simply called “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction.” I just mentally know what I’m working on. I generally have about ten things in the immediate making at any given time. Every so often, when I feel a little uninspired, I’ll go back into older files, open them up, and see if anything comes.

Rumpus: Many of these stories play with structure, from the haunting, rising temperatures of “Degrees,” to the contemplative mosaic in “Towels,” to the aching minutes passing in “The Last Time They Came. The First Time I Understood,” just to name a few. How do you engage with structure during your process?

Fliss: I love playing with structure. There are unending styles and frames we can write within. Hermit crab stories, in particular, where I combine visual art with literary writing, are honestly just enjoyable for me.

When we stop and look, it’s fascinating to see the ways our lives are telling our stories. Is it our daily calendar? Our Google searches? Our grocery lists? I love thinking about this, and then utilizing it in stories. There’s text everywhere in our lives. We’re always staring at a sign in a subway car or the back of a cereal box or the side of a soda can. We read them all. They’re all potential avenues for reaching an audience and for telling stories.

For “Towels,” in particular—I’ve always been weirdly interested in the tags on towels. All those hieroglyphics about how to wash them? Who decided that? What was that meeting like? How did they determine that, for decades, people would be able to decipher them? I would almost meditate on them when I was growing up. I have no idea why. I guess they were always hanging beside the toilet, and maybe I didn’t have other reading material. I’d start thinking about all the diverse places towels show up. That is just magic for me. It’s like a game.

I love a traditionally structured story. I can fall in so deeply, without being aware of the writer. That can be a pitfall with something structured differently: You’re aware the author is telling a story. I do worry about being gimmicky, and it can be a hard balance for sure. I just want to tell writers to go wild with their imaginings. Anything can be a story.

Rumpus: It’s exciting. I always enjoy seeing the writer’s fingerprints on a story. I agree with you about striking that balance to resist being gimmicky. How do you avoid it?

Fliss: Sometimes I don’t. And those usually don’t go anywhere. I can usually tell, but sometimes I can’t quite, and the rejections pile up and I’m like, Oh yeah, these editors and readers know what’s up. I write from a place deep in my heart; I tear up when I write some things because they’re so close to my experience. My childhood was so traumatic, and today, my desire for happiness for others is at the forefront of my thinking. I’m sentimental, and I think maybe empathic? So, when I’m writing a more gimmicky piece, I usually have it balanced with a serious and heartfelt subject. I hope the reader can feel that.

Rumpus: While drawing from this emotional terrain, is there a period when a new draft slides between fiction and nonfiction? How do you ultimately decide with a piece like that?

Fliss: When I start a piece, I’m usually quite clear on if it’s nonfiction or fiction. It’s interesting that my more hybrid visual pieces tend to be nonfiction. I’ve only just realized this by answering this question! I find that fascinating to think about. I think it might be a kind of obfuscation. Saying something plainly is much more difficult for me than alluding to it, or talking about it in an indirect way.

My fiction is absolutely informed by my reality and experiences, but my nonfiction kind of lives on its own. Though what I learn about writing fiction, in a craft way, informs my nonfiction, in a practical, narrative manner. They’re very separate in my head, when I sit to write, but they help each other become stronger, separate entities. You know, like how someone’s piano abilities can assist their dancing and vice versa. It’s all rhythm.

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Photograph of Jennifer Fliss by Tim Fliss.


Ruth LeFaive’s work appears in The Best Small Fictions 2018, Little Fiction, Longreads, Split Lip Magazine, The Offing, and elsewhere. Her fiction won CRAFT's 2020 Flash Fiction Contest, placed 2nd in Fractured Lit's 2020 Micro Fiction Prize, and was a finalist in the 2021 SmokeLong Grand Micro Contest. She lives in Los Angeles. More from this author →