Interview with Emma Stough (MFA ‘19): On Being Selected for Flash Fiction America (W.W. Norton, 2023)
I recently caught up with MFA alum Emma Stough, whose story, “Jenny Watches The Exorcist,” was recently selected for inclusion in Flash Fiction America, just out from W.W. Norton. You can read my interview with Emma here:
How did you find out that your story would be included in the anthology?
I received an email from one of the anthology editors, Sherrie Flick!
What was your reaction?
My immediate reaction was to do some quick Googling to be sure this was for real—but once I did that, I was floored! Having my work in such a stellar anthology alongside some of my favorite flash writers is unbelievable. I feel so lucky to be included!
Could you tell us a little bit about the story? What is it about? Where did it first appear?
What struck me after watching The Exorcist for the first time was how quickly the little girl, Regan, goes back to “normal” after such a horrific possession. So I took that seed and let Jenny process all the oddities of The Exorcist through the lens of her own sleeplessness/hopelessness, finding ways that she and Regan overlap, like their lack of autonomy. To Jenny, that imprisonment and loss of control is scariest thing about possession, whether demonic or medical or self-inflicted.
Barrelhouse first published “Jenny Watches The Exorcist” in 2020, and I’m so grateful that now it has a second life!
What do you enjoy about writing flash fiction?
I think what impatience I have for the short story is forgiven by the flash form; you can get the same sparkling story but in such a small time, and with such a punch. And then to use a series of flash as an exercise in trying to create something bigger, that really rings my writerly bell.
What are you working on now?
I’m still writing flash and trying to wring out the occasional short story here and there, but my most exciting project is the long form something where Jenny emerged from. Flash has been a great tool in excavating her larger narrative. I’m thrilled to keep digging!
DBF “Industry Talk” with Literary Agents Suzanne Gluck and Andrea Blatt of WME
On a recent Thursday afternoon, MFA students met with literary agents Suzanne Gluck and Andrea Blatt as part of our Dorothea Benton Frank “Industry Talk” Series at the College of Charleston.
For the first part of their talk, Gluck and Blatt reviewed a selection of “pitch letters” (query letters from writers to potential agents that try to persuade the agent to read their manuscript) and shared tips for what makes for a successful letter. Both agents noted the importance of choosing the right “comp titles” (books that you feel are similar to yours) for your letter, the value of letting your voice speak through your letter (yes, you may use humor, if that’s appropriate to your book), and the merit of shaping your bio so that it ties back to your book (if your background directly relates to your subject matter, make that connection clear).
For the next part of their presentation, the agents divided the MFA students into two “workshop” groups where they reviewed student pitch letters and writing samples. Students took notes, asked questions, and got great ideas for shaping their creative projects into book-length manuscripts. Our writers were so lucky to have a one-on-one experience with two wonderful literary agents from the biggest literary agency in the world, William Morris Endeavor (WME). Many, many thanks to Suzanne and Andrea!
DBF Writing Series “Industry Talk” with Literary Agents Suzanne Gluck and Andrea Blatt, Thursday, 2/9, 3-4pm, Alumni Center
Meet Hanna Reynditskiy, Woodfin Fellow in Fiction
Tanner Crunelle interviewed Hanna Reynditskiy, our new Woodfin Fellow in Fiction. Read on to learn about Hanna’s inspirations, writing rituals, and favorite color.
When you explain your fiction to other people, how do you explain it to people who don’t read that much and to people who do like to read?
It’s pretty difficult for me to explain my fiction. I don’t usually talk too much about it, so explaining it is a difficult task for me in general. I usually say I write literary fiction. People who don’t read literary fiction will then ask me what literary fiction is and I’ll fumble and say, “Well actually I don’t really know what literary fiction is.” But I’ll try to give names to it. You know, like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, writers that I find myself gravitating toward, or more contemporary authors like Carmen Maria Machado, Joyce Carol Oates, and Haruki Murakami. Most people, even non-readers, know who the older giants are. So eventually, you get to a name that someone recognizes and you say, “That kind of fiction.” And if they want a further explanation, I’ll then attempt to talk about what fiction does. Which, for me, is trying to capture a reality, or truth, about life.
What truths do you think fiction is particularly disposed to? Or that you feel your writing of fiction is especially well positioned to elucidate?
It depends on the author. It also depends on the type of fiction. But I would say most fiction is geared toward subjective realities. How someone goes through life, how someone feels about life. Things that are very personal and subjective to us. Things that put us into the shoes of the narrator or the character so we can feel their truth for ourselves. For me personally, I try to investigate the multifaceted nature of truth, how things are often different than they appear.
Have you found that moving to Charleston is influencing your fiction writing and if so, how?
There’s the program itself, which is influential. You have a deadline and only a limited amount of time to get your story done. That’s not necessarily related to Charleston, the place, but I feel like deadlines are important for me. I have a hard time getting things done in a specific amount of time. But thinking in terms of place now: I’ve never been in a place so flat. That sounds kind of weird, but when you can see everything on the horizon, there’s something kind of strange about it. It’s as if things should be clear because it’s literally visible, but instead there’s something mysterious and opaque about it, especially within the swamps and woods that exist here. You also have this split of what Charleston is in the present (a beautiful city with well preserved structures) and what it was in the past (a site of historical horror) that creates a strange paradoxical duplexity. It is at once beautiful and horrifying.
Do you draw inspiration from any artists who are working in non-linguistic mediums? Or who work outside of fiction?
It depends. I think there’s something to visual art that relates to fiction. I did a lot of visual art when I was a kid, but I found it kind of limiting. That’s because, in visual art, you’re capturing a moment in time and that moment is solidified within a frame. There’s an element to that in fiction as well with each scene being fixed after it’s been written. But there’s more space for the imagination in fiction. But I suppose I’m starting to look at paintings nowadays and ask what the story is outside of the frame. Then there’s cinematography. Another thing I dabbled in. I’ll look to Hayao Miyazaki, Akira Kurosawa, and Wes Anderson for inspiration. Specifically, I’ll look at how they block scenes, how they linger on certain moments. But for the most part when I write a story I look to other fiction for inspiration.
Describe a typical occasion for your writing: where are you, what time of day is it. Do you have a ritual? How do you piece together a story?
I used to have a ritual of waking up before the sun rises and writing in partial darkness. But now with the program, I have to find time to write whenever, wherever, which is very difficult. But it’s productive because I’m forced to get something on the page and not rely on my ritual of waking up before the sunrise. Piecing together a story is always difficult. For me, it’s usually the idea that comes first, a sort of daydream. Something I read or saw or heard sparks my interest and I start to investigate it by dreaming about it. Then I have to keep having that dream while I write. I have to let it fall into the background while I focus on getting one sentence done and then another.
Are there any people who have left an especially pronounced mark on your writing and how?
I have a lot of inspirations when it comes to writing, but I would have to say Joyce Carol Oates is a big inspiration of mine. I’m currently thinking about her right now as I write. Kind of like what you were saying about having dialogues with philosophers, I like having that with other writers. I try to engage in the conversations they are having and move them toward more modern, or different, ways of thinking. So her. My dad comes to mind, too. He’s always helped me through the writing process and has sometimes acted as my editor. Since a young age, he’s tried to guide me in my writings. He also introduced me to my first love of cinematography.
Last question: have you always had a favorite color? Has it changed over time?
I loved the color blue as a kid. Any shade of turquoise or teal. Now it’s more of a light blue, and even a light pink. There’s something about those colors, light blue and light pink, that I always associated with my husband, Dennis. They’re such lovely, soft, vibrant colors. It’s hard for me to not think of him when I see those colors. He even wore those colors on our wedding day. His suit was light blue, the tie light pink.
Meet Tanner Crunelle, Woodfin Fellow in Poetry
Hanna Reynditskiy interviewed Tanner Crunelle, our new Woodin Fellow in Poetry. Read on to learn about Tanner’s inspirations, writing rituals, and influences.
What drew you to poetry and who are your biggest inspirations?
My favorite poet is Harryette Mullen because she writes about identity, but experimentally, through the condition of our immersion in language. Identity itself, as both a topic and analytic lens, is engaged in her writing, which I find profoundly freeing. What drew me into writing poetry? Really, it was studying and learning about poetry. That and how forms persist overtime. That’s another question I’m fascinated by. We may be modern, but what makes us historical is the persistence of form across time. So studying poetic form is a way to see how form persists and transmogrifies. Poetry gives us a rarefied discourse of meta-cognition. It allows us to think about thinking itself. I don’t know of many other art forms that do it so well, being that we are creatures of language.
Do you see yourself fitting into a certain movement or school of poets, and if so, who and why?
There are some really interesting things happening right now—and Harryette Mullen is a part of this—that is somehow tentative in its social, public identity. There’s somehow stability in that identity while also being foundationally unstable and open, coming from a sublation of confessional forms and a critique of language and poetic expression, especially that of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. So this is one “school” that seems to have rigorous philosophical commitments while also containing some of the rhetorical features of lyric poetry that convince us of the different formulations of human being. But I don’t uncritically agree with all they say and do. I think it’s much more interesting to think about my work in relation to these poets than to categorize myself as a part of their “school.”
What is your writing ritual and routine?
Usually I am accosted by a poem. So I am usually scribbling a first draft. Then there is the delightful task of trying to read my own handwriting! But I find that the most pleasurable part of writing poetry is revision, because it gets me closer to what lies at the core of a given mental formation, relation, affective state, or whatever else a poem may be interested in.
What topics, themes or tendencies do you notice bubbling up in your poetry?
Desire. Desire in relation to speaking. It’s not like, “Oh, I write about being a man who desires men.” I mean, there is some of that, because I am gay and I am writing poetry. But my poetry isn’t gay poetry, per se. So desire would be one. Sound, as a formal feature, is the single most prominent rhetorical feature of my poetry. All of that and our relation to sound, as subjects who are shaped by sound, but also speaking, which is a sonic act. In some ways I see my poetry addressing philosophers, so that’s one of the themes in my poetry. But they are ultimately very different styles of writing, that of critical study versus poetry. If I could tentatively distinguish between the two, philosophy and critical study lets me see truth obfuscated in the written words of others, whereas poetry lets me see the truth obfuscated in my own speaking.
How does music influence your poetry and who would you consider your favorite musician?
I am always perplexed by explanations of music that give music meaning. Music to me is almost like pure sense and abstraction. Pure sense in the way that we feel it in our bodies. It may evoke some feeling that connects us to others or inspires us into action, like when we’re marching, or the feeling of being held or contained by a song. And pure abstraction in the sense that music evokes unnamable states in our bodies. I grew up playing the drums, the timpani, so there is some quality of my poetry that retains this panache of a drum that is tuned, adds flare, and carries the orchestra forward. So there’s that quality to my poetry. When it comes to pop music, I really like Khruangbin, Sufjan Stevens, Beach House, Joni Mitchell. I don’t have a favorite musician. I have a set of musicians that I will consistently listen to and even rely on, but I like remaining open to many different types of music.
What are you reading right now (outside of class, of course!)
I’m reading Judith Butler’s The Force of Nonviolence, which is really a masterpiece. It’s about how to militantly combat violence, which is figured not just as aggression within ourselves on a subjective level, but also corporate degradation of the natural ecological environment, and war. War especially. It’s illuminating for me as someone who practices yoga and seeks tools for living nonviolently, but I hadn’t really considered nonviolence as an active force. I’m also reading Little Mr. Prose Poem by Russell Edson, which is a collected edition just released in October, and The Pleasure of the Text by Roland Barthes. I’m working through some of the big names, and I like to have books in different genres going at once, so I can satisfy my curiosity through whatever style of engaging with a text.
What are your plans after your MFA degree?
I will also finish my MA in Philosophy, Art, and Social Thought at the European Graduate School and seek admission to a PhD program in the critical humanities. I know my vocation is teaching. So I am preparing my mind and spirit for a career as an educator.
DBF Series “Industry Talk” with Executive Film Producer Michael Uslan, Feb. 2, 4pm, Addlestone 227
DBF Writing Series “Industry Talk” With Literary Agent Jamie Carr
Tanner Crunelle (Poetry, ’24) & Ellen Gwin (Poetry, ’24)
Our English Department has some amazing alumni. Jamie Carr, class of 2012, a literary agent for The Book Group, visited campus on Thursday, October 27th to speak with an audience of graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, and administrators. This visit was made possible by the Dorothea Benton Frank Writing Series, which brings well-known authors and publishing industry professionals to enrich the literary life of Charleston.
Born and raised in Lower Manhattan, Carr graduated from the College of Charleston with a B.A. in English in 2012. She then moved to Portland, where she earned an MFA in creative writing under the tutelage of Leni Zumas, the author of speculative fiction works such as Red Clocks. She felt taking this time was especially important for her own writing. “I sort of always loved reading and writing, and I wanted more time and space to be able to keep doing that, so I wound up moving to a really tiny MFA program in Portland, Oregon.” While an MFA student in Portland, Carr worked as an intern at Portland-based Tin House. After this experience, she wanted to be an editor. “When I was sitting around at table with people who were talking about books, thinking about books, taking books apart, putting them back together—that is when I was like, ‘Oh I want to work in publishing.’”
Upon moving back to New York with her aspirations to be an editor, Carr realized her real dream was to be “on the ground floor of books” as a literary agent. The secret life of books is indeed mysterious to many. It’s not as simple as moving a writer’s final draft from hard drive to bookshelf. Carr has seen firsthand how the publishing machine works.
She started in the Big Apple worming around the William Morris Endeavor talent agency. Her first job was in the mailroom. While there, she saw all facets of the publishing industry and was promoted to be able to buy her own projects. Now, as an agent for The Book Group, a woman-owned agency in Manhattan, her time is spent “juggling potential clients, reading manuscripts, prepping the author for submission,” and then, “selling it to a publisher.” There’s a lot of “zhuzhing” involved in publishing, Carr explained. To sell a work to editors at large firms, it must be explained strategically.
It’s essential for an author to get an agent if they are looking at big publishing houses. Carr explained why writers need agents saying, “Writers need agents because all of the big publishing houses do not take submissions unless they are through an agent.” The first contact with a publisher is often in a query letter. An author should be concise and direct, contact agents who represent books they like, and contact a small number of promising agents. Identifying relevant “comp titles” (abbreviation for “comparable titles”) in this stage is very important. The whole process should have the writer feel “empowered.”
At the end of Carr’s informative industry talk, she answered questions from the audience, emphasizing a sense of community. One student asked Carr if she would do anything different with her start in the publishing world. “I think in retrospect not being as nervous about [reaching out to people] and asking questions, and I wish I had talked more with everyone I met.” She also advised students to stay in touch with each other after completing the MFA. She has seen firsthand how former classmates can help with workshopping and professional networking even after graduation. Another student asked if a writer should change agents and editors each time they publish a new work. Carr answered, “Usually if there’s a really good relationship, most authors are with their agent for a while.” She did note, however, that “editors move around to different places.”
The MFA program also hosted an informal discussion with Carr over coffee. Questions ranged from literary genre to life in New York City as an agent, which she said suits her well. She spoke about the hard-won wisdom of maintaining the relationships built in a writing community, like at an MFA program. She had several relevant takes on how publishing is influenced by social media, social activism, and literary conventions revealed how publishing is, first and foremost, a business. It’s affected by people’s fractured attention spans and the rising cost of paper. However, Carr occupies a unique position. She explained how books fit into and, at times, challenge the market. With a commitment to accepting works by “marginalized voices,” Carr is the literary agent for poets like Tiana Clarke, fiction writers like Chloe Cole, and nonfiction authors such as Ella Dawson. She’s earning her stripes in the publishing world as a hardworking agent for a wide range of authors.
It takes a special person to advocate for art while also working in the business world. Jamie Carr makes us all proud to call ourselves CofC Cougars.
Congratulations to MFA alum Joshua Garcia on publishing his first book!
Congratulations to MFA alum Joshua Garcia (MFA ’21) whose book, Pentimento, was selected through Black Lawrence Press’s open reading period and will be published in the spring of 2024.
Garcia describes Pentimento as “a hybrid collection that peels back layers of belief, doubt, and identity to explore themes of repentance and renunciation. From an Italian word meaning ‘to repent,’ a pentimento is an instance in painting when traces of an artist’s earlier decisions or mistakes are visible through the final layer(s) of paint. Using modes of confession, ekphrasis, and biblical persona, Pentimento excavates a queerness entangled in one’s faith tradition.” Interspersed in the collection are lyric essays and lyric sequences which include photographic self-portraits.
Joshua Garcia’s poetry has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, The Georgia Review, Ninth Letter, North American Review, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the College of Charleston and was a 2021-22 Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University. He lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York.