After a brief hiatus to discus my favorite flash fiction markets, I’m back with a dynamite story to spotlight. This one, from Tara Stillions Whitehead, is entitled “17” and was published in April of this year in Maudlin House. Maudlin House is one of my favorite markets (as recognized in Flash Flood (Part II)). But I don’t think I can do a better job of explaining what Maudlin House is better than them. As they explain: “Maudlin House is a bridge between new form fiction and experimental lit that takes on mainstream pop culture through the lens of 21st-century indie art.” It is with great excitement that I invite you to click below and read Tara’s story and then return for a brief interview where she explores the process of turning real life events into fiction.
FAVORITE LINE: But Janae is yelling now and someone is laughing and I’m being sucked out the drain of a door and into the passenger seat.
I love this line for a couple reasons. One, the phrase “I’m being sucked out the drain of a door” so beautifully and perfectly captures what this day and this moment and this place is like for this young girl. And one of my favorite reasons I love to read is to find these moments when a writer captures a seemingly innocuous act (leaving a house) in such a fresh and new and illuminating way, with just a few words. Secondly, this one line feels like a microcosm for the whole story. The chaos of someone yelling and someone laughing, and then these girls, being sucked down one drain and into another, as if there is an inertia and force beyond their control. And what is that force? Youth? Freedom? The inertia of bad choices?
And of course, the best part of doing the FLASH on the FIVE series is being able to pick the brains of wildly talented writers. Here is what Tara had to say about the writing of “17”:
1) I'm always curious about where stories come from, that first tiny seed. What was the inspiration or idea-spark for “17”?
Discussions of origin are usually tricky for me, but this story's roots are so deep and irremovable, if anything, it discloses more of who I am and where I come from.
Honestly, “17” is one of those stories I thought would never get written because it’s so confessional and so darkly unbelievable, I couldn’t conceive of how to use the experience it is based on in a way that wasn’t gratuitous or sensational.
When I was 17, my two girlfriends and I used to hang out with this well-to-do bachelor who partied hard and supplied us with money and drugs whenever we wanted. He lived in this condo on the quay of a saltwater lagoon—which is actually named Agua Hedionda, so I can’t take credit for that. The condo was across the street from my best friend’s house, which is terrifying to think about now. Her mother, a rare book collector handsomely alimonied by her Hollywood ex-husband and remarried to a millionaire, knew we went there and was friendly with him. She actually played his mob wife in a high school film I wrote and directed and used for the application portfolio that got me into USC film school.
Anyway, one day one of my girlfriends and I showed up at this man’s house, scheming to get him to take us out on his boat, and just like in the story, we encountered his new roommate, a laconic ex-marine with zero social skills. The guy was creepy, like Vincent D’Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket unhinged. That’s the visual I had in my mind while writing the story. Because after what happened, the man’s face was inaccessible to me. I’d blocked it out.
Long story short: nearly everything that happens to the narrator in the story happened to me. We did some coke. We drank some beers. We cranked the music to eleven. Then the guy pulled out a shoe box full of pictures. Him in fatigues. Smiling like he’s posing for a fishing and hunting magazine. I was a straight-A student, but I had zero point of reference for what I was looking at. I knew nothing about the Gulf War. I knew nothing about U.S. military conflicts post-Vietnam. I had little reaction to it at the time. I just remember the bodies seeming so small and unrecognizable in death, like rag dolls. In recalling the incident for the purposes of writing, and as my theme developed, I made the conscious decision to establish the victims as children. I know now that they were likely not. This is where the fiction element started to take over. This is where other decisions about the story’s purpose—beyond confessional catharsis—started to materialize. I write a lot of nonfiction and creative nonfiction, but when I am pulling from personal experience, I always ask myself, “Is this the best use of the material? What am I confessing, and whom am I helping?” This is where many texts I set out to write as nonfiction make the transition to fiction. I cannot write confessional for the sake of saving myself, which is I think why I was never able to write about the incident. Also, I had some years of therapy and recovery to get through before I could safely use a lot of personal experiences.
So, I sat on the experience for about twenty years, and when I took a week-long flash workshop year—my first in eight and half years, since grad school—the prompts triggered hard reflection on the year 2001 (for whatever reason), which is the year when the incident occurred. Things precipitated pretty quickly from there.
2) I love how you casually drop in Janae’s disappearance near the end of the second paragraph. It’s such a gut punch and serves as the riptide that lingers below the surface for the rest of the story. Can you talk to that decision. Did you always know Janae’s fate and what went into the decision to reveal it when/how you did?
The decision to reveal Janae’s fate came when the story decided it wasn’t going to be creative nonfiction anymore. Her fate is why the story wasn’t written until twenty years after the encounter with the man and the shoe box.
In the first draft of the story, Janae never died. It was a straightforward, chronological plot progression that clung desperately to the facts of the events as they occurred. I don’t know if it’s my cinematic roots (I’m a filmmaker and a film professor) or my interest in narrative disruption, but my revision process usually involves creating opportunities to challenge reader expectations and push conventions. I’ll look at what a story can but shouldn’t be able to do. In this story, I went the Greek chorus route and forecasted the ending at the beginning. In this case, the story becomes a mystery of narrative unraveling—how are we getting to that place? as opposed to where are we going?—and unburdens the reader. Again, we see this in cinema a lot. I think of Alan Ball’s American Beauty or Paul Haggis’s Crash. In each of these cases, the ending is laid out, and the story becomes less about suspense and more about process. There are probably better examples of this than are coming to mind now.
Beyond my stylization, the decision to have Janae die was also a personal one. My Janae disappeared a few years after I went away to college. We had an intense falling out that was the result of her heavy drug use and my moving on to film school, which she openly resented and criticized. I remember taking a road trip up to Santa Cruz with my USC roommates and her, drunk and high in the backseat, berating me and telling me I thought I was hot shit but would never be good enough. As someone in recovery now, I am able to reflect on that situation with much more compassion than I could at 22. That was the last time I saw my Janae. I don’t know where she is now. I heard she had been in jail for heroin and meth. There have only been a few sightings I’ve been made aware of. Her sister saw her in a Las Vegas Ross five or six years ago. She said Janae was clearly still using and showed zero recognition. She was a ghost.
3) Agua Hedionda, PCH, Camp Pendleton, a MAACO in Anaheim, etc. I love how solidly you ground us in a specific setting. How do you generally see setting functioning in flash fiction where you have less space – and what about in this story specifically?
Great question. I feel like a story carrying this much monstrosity could be overwhelming in the abstract, and “grounding” it in a specific place and time makes it more believable. Because, really, that was what I feared, that the story would seem unbelievable. Also, while I allowed myself to fictionalize as much as I needed to, I wanted to gratify the underlying confession by reconceiving a familiar world. That required anchoring details in the concrete. To be honest, some of the facts were too good to change. For example, Agua Hedionda (stinky water) is the actual name of the lagoon, and the PCH, which separates the lagoon from the Pacific Ocean, is this historic and anthemic artery that defined my coastal youth and years in college. I was constantly traveling it—we all were—in a perpetual state of mission or escape. A lot of symbolism is already built into this story through the real life architecture.
Regarding flash—the space is limited, so you have to carefully curate the reader experience in a way that doesn’t slow down the narrative with unnecessary detail (you will run out of “room”) or throw the reader into an anti-gravity chamber with no world to hold onto. A thousand words feels claustrophobic, but if you are economical in your symbolism and diegesis, you can stage a space that feels ten times bigger than it is. I think smart specificity—in setting, dialogue, and action—is the key to phenomenal flash.
4) Clearly Janae has the central tragic story here, and Bob and Soup are really engaging side characters, but I see our narrator has much more than merely a lens in which to show us these characters. What do you see as her story in this piece?
These are great questions. The impact the originating event had on me when it happened is not what it is now. I wanted to convey the naivete (borderline desensitization?) of a 17-year-old for whom danger and risky behavior are the baseline. When she walks back into the bar at the end of the story, she’s choosing distraction over processing Soup’s murders or Bob’s physical threats.
Something that turns me off when I read a lot of stories dealing with transgressive people and behaviors—specifically drug use or coming of age—is the tendency to moralize the characters or proselytize the reader. I’m often not concerned with moral resolutions. This is why the narrator doesn’t come to any epiphany at the end of the story. She’s looking for distraction. She’s unaware of her mortality yet. It is the hope, however, that the reader’s realization, their recognition of danger and a loss of innocence, results in dramatic irony. Then again, I don’t know. Maybe my choice of narrator is just me working out the psychology of my younger self on the page. I think that’s okay, too.
5) What are you working on now, and where can we see more of your writing?
It will be an exciting year and a half as I enter publication and promotion of two books. The first, my hybrid chapbook titled Blood Histories, will be released by Galileo Press on 7/14/2021. My editor designed it like an “album” where each dispatch is a “track” that represents part of a woman’s journey towards creating her own legacy and how she deals with the inherited traumas along the way.
My full-length hybrid collection, The Year of the Monster, is due out from Unsolicited Press on 9/27/2022. The book, which incorporates a lot of hybrid text, specifically screenplay, took about thirteen years to complete and is something I am very excited to share.