Sophie van Llewyn lives in Germany. Her prose has been published or is forthcoming in the 2017 NFFD Anthology, Ambit, Banshee, Litro, New South Journal, The Guardian, etc. One of her flash fictions has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She tweets @sophie_van_l
Stephanie Hutton & Sophie van Llewyn Interview with Jonathan Cardew
A double header today! Thank you so much, Stephanie and Sophie, for joining us at Connotation Press with your wonderful collaborative piece, “Chimaera.”
First of all, let’s talk logistics! I’m sure many of our readers have considered working on a collaborative piece of fiction, but were always afraid to ask. Could you describe to us how this project came about, how the story idea was generated, and how you worked on it from concept to polished piece (including any hiccups, u-turns, and/or revelations along the way)?
SVL: The truth is, we never meant to write a collaborative piece! Stephanie and I are in the same writing group, Flash Force 5. One day, she posted a nearly finished flash, asking for advice. I loved it: the atmosphere, how evocative it was, the details (like Gloria’s nails, who, by the way, was named Greta in the initial version), the mysterious singer on the stage. The piece, at the time, ended with Greta/Gloria weaving her way back to Frank’s table. Stephanie was unsure where to take it from there. Strangely, a seed was planted in my head. After a few days, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the story. I was aching to write it! So I asked Stephanie if I could play around with it and she agreed— our collaboration was born. And here’s the thing: we’ve been editing each other’s work for so long, that we trust each other blindly. Stephanie allowed me to do whatever I wanted with her flash, and this gave me total freedom. And when I had to turn in the new version of the piece, I was confident that Stephanie’s editing decisions would be no less than perfect.
SH: My flash had characters, a setting, a start but fell flat. It was a piece I shared with Sophie around the time we were discussing virtual collaboration. She said she had an idea where the story could go and this was not what I expected! The shift in gear to the strange and magical represents one of our shared interests. It was exciting to see where she took my idea and characters so it became something so different. We took turns editing as I noticed one major difference was our sentence lengths. Sophie added in the ‘f’ word, which I wouldn’t have dared but in fact fitted the character exactly. I have complete trust in Sophie’s ideas and editing, and we are in contact most days virtually about writing and life!
The chimaera in this piece is a hybrid creature that ultimately sends the unsavoury main character over the edge. Who doesn’t love a good cathartic monster! What’s one of your favourite monsters from any art form or literature?
SVL: Griffins, I’d have to say. I love them in fantasy movies, computer games (don’t act so shocked, please. I loved Warcraft), and books. But griffins are also hybrid creatures, aren’t they? And predators.
SH: I have a soft spot for werewolves. On the fringes of our awareness lurk those other parts of ourselves, the animal part that responds with rage, abandon, freedom. There is something alluring about the pack and its cohesion, unstoppable.
I know that both of you are active with your writing on various social media platforms. Speaking of collaborations, writers have never been so connected in this new world, and I feel there are many benefits but also drawbacks. What do you love/like/dislike/hate/can’t abide by in this social media writer scene?
SVL: I would have never gotten into flash fiction, if it weren’t for Twitter. I’m not joking. I’m rather isolated here, in Germany, from what goes on in the English-speaking world, and isolated from the literary world, in general (I mean, I’m a doctor. I don’t have the same kind of access/opportunities someone who finished an MFA/MA in Creative Writing would have). I basically found out about flash fiction from AdHoc Fiction via Bath Flash Fiction Award via Bath Short Story Award (so, thank you, Jude Higgins!). I had just gotten into writing, and finished a historical novel in a few months, but with no idea on how to begin to edit it. I felt hopeless. Then, I tried writing a very short story for the AdHoc weekly competition— and my very first flash was longlisted, and published in their ebook. I had a tremendous sense of achievement. So, I spread my Twitter wings, began following other flash fiction magazines and authors, reading a lot, ordering flash books, and so on. Ta-da! There it is, the secret is out. My love story with flash began on social media.
SH: I agree. Without making writing connections on Twitter and now within a flash Facebook group and through direct messages, I don’t know if I would have continued to write. I came to writing later in life two years ago through a competition I saw on Twitter. Once you comment on work that you love, so many friendships and support build up. I’m amazed how little envy or competitiveness I’ve witnessed, the appreciation and excitement for other writers seems utterly genuine. Social media is perfect for those of us who don’t or can’t get out much in the real world, and helps to connect with people all over the world. Through Twitter I was invited into a critique group by Sophie, which I’m in no doubt has improved my writing so much. I write to be read, and social media allows that so easily with a group of wonderful followers who make it worthwhile. I think the downside for me is how much time can be swallowed up by scroll, scroll, scroll instead of writing, the procrastinator’s black hole.
You are both super-duper flash fiction writers! Can you share with us a signature piece of your flash, and also a piece that you have read and loved from another author recently?
SVL: Thank you so much, Jonathan! *blushes*
But let’s do this the other way around: Stephanie will share one of mine, and I’ll share one of hers. My favourite is ‘Gut’. I think this is brilliant: the dark humour, the perfectly honed language, the bits of authentic dialogue.
A piece I loved recently is ‘ Apology Note To My Roommate Irene After My Chimaera Destroyed Her Blue Suede Heels '. I stumbled upon it only days after completing my collaboration with Stephanie, and I was drawn by the chimaera in the title. The story is absolutely fantastic— although Kaely Horton’s chimaera is completely different from ours.
SH: My favourite piece of Sophie’s that is available online is Tinnitus in Lost Balloon – this is a perfect example of Sophie’s work which is always layered and beautiful. A recent favourite of mine is the powerful ‘The Microbiology of Laiq’ by Christopher Allen in Jellyfish Review such an innovative, precise way to explore a painful and relevant topic.
What’s next? What projects or publications do you have in the pipeline?
SVL: I’m currently quite busy fine-tuning a longer project, but I’m not really allowed to talk about it (yet!). But soon.
On a different note, I’m quite excited that a chapter from my novella-in-flash will be appearing at the end of the month in Ambit.
And I hope Stephanie and I will soon collaborate on a new piece. Working on ‘Chimaera’ was such a fun experience, and the entire process felt so organic, that I really wouldn’t want to push a second collaboration. It will come when it will come.
SH: I’m trying some different ideas but not sure which will turn to reality yet: a longer project, a flash collection inspired by fairytales, writing for children. I’m trying to learn how to write prose poetry well, for those flashes that aren’t quite flashes. I co-run a community based writing project The Writing Kiln, so have lots of plans for more workshops, day retreats and to host National Flash Fiction Day in my area in 2018. Following a flash class for people in recovery from substance use in London this year, I’m interested in developing ways to help people use writing therapeutically as a combination of my profession of Clinical Psychology and belief in the value of creative outlets.
Finally, let’s talk duets. Which two writers/artists/filmmakers etc. (past or present) would you like to see get it on collaboratively?
SVL: Jane Austen and Isabel Allende.
SH: I have been thinking about this tricky question for days! Rather than specific people, what came to mind was how wonderful it would be to combine flash fiction with dance. I think there could be real scope to ‘see’ the flash represented through dance, both the story and the flow of language, without detracting from the actual words.
Thanks ever so much for being our hybrid creature this issue!
Frank knocks back another whiskey and stops his top lip from curling at the vile flavour. He likes to keep himself in pain. The jazz singer sways off-beat, her chocolate curls moving moments behind. She smokes between verses. This isn’t the kind of place that worries about what the state says is banned. Frank knows the year of course — all his marbles are where they should be — but for all he knows, it could be 1979 right now: a vintage of bitter cigars, sweaty lust, and the uncertainty of syncopation.
Gloria scratches at the table with her decorated nails, one of which is a different shade; Frank hasn’t asked why. There are probably twenty-six year-old grooves in the wood, he thinks. Perhaps they spell something out. H-E-L-P. Not that Gloria would admit it of course. She’d blame millennials. Or Mexicans.
Frank reaches for her hand, but instead of grasping it softly, as he would have back in the day, he pinches the sides of the yellow-coloured nail between thumb and forefinger. He squeezes hard. Gloria says nothing; she doesn’t even try to pull her hand away. He grits his teeth, crushes harder. The pain carves a deep crease between her eyebrows, makes her whimper.
He laughs. That’s how he likes her— whimpering. The laugh creeps into a cough, rattling his ribs. Gloria winces, as he takes a handkerchief from his pocket and spits into it. She stands up, smoothing down her linen dress again and again with her hands. A slight nod of her head, and she’s off to the restroom.
The singer exhales a series of smoke rings as if to gain his attention. Then she starts the next song. It’s in Spanish. Consonants growl from the back of her throat and spurt from her tongue trapped between perfect teeth. Frank can’t look away from kohl-rimmed eyes that seek him out, pin him to the chair. And even though he speaks no language but English, he understands the message: he hasn’t got long left.
Around cluttered tables, Gloria weaves her way back. She stops in front of the stage, glaring at the singer. Frank watches how a ripple passes through her body, straightening her back, flicking her head backwards. The tips of her red hair barely brush her bare shoulders. She didn't want to wear the blue dress that unveils so much cleavage, so much leg, but Frank insisted. He was right. In this faded light, full of dust and shades of orange, like a sunset, her thighs look like they used to back in the day, when Frank would bury his fingers in them when they made love , so he could admire the purple marks that showed when she wore her short skirts. It was a bit like branding his cow. She didn’t look much like one back then.
Gloria stands upright and unmoving in her spot. He calls her name. She doesn’t turn. Instead, she sets a foot on the step that leads to the stage. He jumps up from his seat, shouting. His screams dissolve in coughing, his face turns the colour of blood he is spitting in his handkerchief. He throws his whiskey glass after her, but she isn’t on the step any longer. She’s on the stage, singing. It’s a different tune from the smoking singer’s, lower, sadder, but somehow, the two women are in harmony. Gloria’s hand grips the microphone, and she starts rubbing it gently. When did she learn to speak Spanish?
The singer moves closer to her, lays a hand over Gloria’s, and that is when their fingers mingle. Then the back of their hands, and their wrists, slowly merge into one. They are now a monster, two bodies sharing a single hand, grasping the microphone.
Frank is choking in his own blood while his wife sings about their wedding day. He should climb the stage, and drag her down, but he can’t move. The women dance, they undulate like pulsing waves, drawing closer and closer to each other. Blending. A hand, a half-bared breast, the hair, until there is only one woman, singing two different tunes. Her contours are as haloed as a reflection in a dirty window. She has long, curly red hair, kohl-rimmed eyes, a raspy voice and great thighs she keeps touching with her fingertips. Its fingertips. Their fingertips.There was a Greek name for what it is, but Frank has long forgotten it.
The bar is empty, yet Frank can’t pause to think about how this happened, because they are singing about swimming in the creek, and the liquorice snakes he stole from the neighbour’s kid, and how he laughed when his Grammy beat him with her flaccid slipper. Frank sits down, trying to sing along, but he doesn’t know the words.
The song melts into a sequence of disparate images: the touch of a hand lifting him, a voice, a spurt of a sweet liquid on his tongue. His eyes flicker, and close, and there is only darkness, until the coughing rips them open again.
They are standing in front of him. They take his hand, and hoist him up. They hug, squeezing the last trace of breath out of him. He tries to flail, but he is weak, as soft and flabby as a newborn.
He gurgles and foams and his head is whirling, when they let him loose, and leave.
“ I want to come with you,” he wheezes.
They chuckle. “Honey. But you’ve already gone.”