Fiction Spotlight: Sharma Shields

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the first installment of our Fiction Showcase. Each month, Memorious will highlight the work of one of our fiction contributors who has gone on to publish his or her book.  This month’s featured artist is Sharma Shields, the author of “Morsels” (featured way, way back in issue #2), who released her first collection of stories, Favorite Monster (Autumn House), in April 2012.

Aside from her appearance in Memorious, Sharma’s fiction has appeared in such places as The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, Fugue, and NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction.” She is also the recipient of such prizes as the Tim McGinnis Award for Humor and the A.B. Guthrie Award for Outstanding Prose, and she received an Artist Project Grant from Washington State’s Artist Trust. She currently resides in Spokane with her family.

We were lucky to have “Morsels” appear in our second issue of the journal. Was the story your first publication? Did you begin your publishing career wanting to focus on flash fiction?

You were lucky?  I was lucky!  Thank you for publishing “Morsels,” especially considering that, at the time, I had absolutely zero credentials to my name.

Yes, “Morsels” was my first publication, followed soon thereafter by another flash fiction piece, “The Tylenol Cheerleader” (Monkey Bicycle).  Those are the two shortest pieces in my story collection.

Although I never intended to write flash fiction alone, I’ve always loved the medium, and I return to it again and again.  I just finished a novel that I’m editing now, but I’ve also started a new project about husbands and wives that I’m picturing as a series of very short pieces (300-1,200 words, tops).  The brevity of the pieces makes them a bit easier to write and especially to edit, which is key now that I have a toddler and a newborn ruling the household.

My very first writing workshop, with David Shields at the University of Washington (summer of ’97), was spent writing nothing but 300 word pieces.  We read Jerome Stern’s anthology, Micro Fiction, which really is one of the most brilliant books for educating a would-be writer on the essentials: voice, narrative arch, even plot.

I loved other flash fiction reads, too.  In high school I was sort of obsessed with Alan Lightman’s strange little book, Einstein’s Dreams.  My mom inexplicably placed that book next to the toilet and I would read it anytime I sat there (yeah, yeah, TMI).  While working as a bookseller in Seattle at the University Book Store, I encountered Lydia Davis’s Samuel Johnson is Indignant, which I’m pretty sure I ripped off at some point in grad school, although I did a poor job of it.  I most recently read Diane William’s collection, Vicky Swanky is a Beauty.  I loved it — so surprising and amusing, and I love that it makes you slow down, makes you reread and doubt your first interpretations.  I was wondering where the hell she’d developed that style but now I’m reading Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, and I’m like, OH!  Maybe she has some roots here!  They have similar senses of surprise/humor.

I also love my buddy J. Robert Lennon’s story collection, Pieces for the Left Hand, which will likely go down in history as a classic of the flash fiction genre.  When done well, flash fiction houses some of the cleanest prose out there, where every word has been agonized over — Pieces for the Left Hand is really expertly written, so that there is never an unnecessary word.

Flash fiction was not something that was overtly encouraged at the University of Montana.  Workshopped stories were expected to be longer and more traditional, which was a good thing, really, because it taught me how to sustain tension, how to expand on a sense of place, and how to perfect a voice.  But every now and again we received an assignment in class that would result in a piece of flash fiction, and I always had a blast with those.

“Morsels” was one such assignment.  I was in a workshop with Walter Kirn, a visiting writer at the time (and a really, really sweet guy), and I wrote it for his class.  I can’t remember the exact nature of the assignment, but a lot of what Kirn discussed had to do with humor.  Anyway, we were all sitting outside, in a little semi-circle, facing Kirn.  It was the end of my last quarter of graduate school and it was a beautiful Montanan day, green and blue and shining.  I had hand-scrawled “Morsels” very sloppily on a piece of lined notebook paper.  I remember, after I read it aloud, that I was surprised by how much Kirn and my classmates seemed to like it.  It had seemed rather throwaway to me, but I took it home and typed it up and added the bizarre ending (her vomit comes to life and she flushes the toilet) and then I sent it off to you guys, and you graciously published it.  I’m still so elated by that — it was killer news, to finally have a story published.

Also, isn’t it weird that I mentioned toilets twice in this response?  That must be some kind of literary-interview first.

“Morsels” is a wonderfully dark piece, largely because of the narrator’s own morbid thoughts. To that end, how well would you say the story fits in your collection, Favorite Monster?

Well, this will sound grandiose, but I think “Morsels” is the reason why the collection was finally published.  Here’s why:

In 2009, the collection was a finalist for a couple of other awards, The Flannery O’Connor Award and the New American Press Award.  At that time, it had “Morsels” in it.  Then, in a dumb move where I was over-thinking things too much — perhaps my biggest problem as a writer — I extracted it and a few other shorter pieces, thinking its omission would allow the collection, length-wise and theme-wise, to cohere.  Big mistake.  It got no bites in 2010.  It wasn’t even a finalist at places where it had been a finalist previously.  It was a let down, to say the least.

It occurred to me that my collection was better, stronger, with the varying lengths, and with the added quirkiness that these shorter stories provided, so I put them back into the collection and mailed the manuscript off again in 2011.  Only a couple of weeks later, I heard I was a finalist for the Autumn House Fiction Prize, and only a couple of weeks after that, Michael Simms of Autumn House called me to say that Stewart O’Nan had selected my book as the winner.

So, really, I think “Morsels” helped save the day on this one.  I think it’s a quick shot of humor, morbid and bizarre and brief, that really compliments the black humor and strangeness of the longer stories.  And I think the short length allows the reader to dip in and resurface quickly, which makes it a refreshing swimming hole between two larger, denser pieces.

What would you say your favorite places are to mine for your darker works?

With writing, I tend to go directly to what frightens me.  Death, for example.

I was raised with the concept of God and hell and all that, and church made death seem sort of benign, at least if you were perfect in your intentions and actions, which I never was.  Eventually I realized that the whole, “He goes to heaven, she goes to hell” thing was a load of b.s.  I mean, being a good person is so much more complex than that black-and-white nonsense.  As my world expanded, religious notions of the afterlife simply did not have a sensible place in it.  So then I wondered, well, if not that, then what is there when we die?  Maybe nothing.  We die.  Our consciousness dissolves.  We change from a sentient being to a non-sentient bit of organic material.  That doesn’t sound so terrible to me anymore, but I used to be really freaked out by that notion.  So, “Morsels” is the retelling of this mental journey, where a young woman worries about mortality but then, in her weird way, confronts and accepts — even deals in — its ubiquity.

“Morsels” is a piece I wrote in my twenties, when my own death seemed a tragic, looming thing.  Now, locked into my mid-thirties, my greatest fears have evolved from being afraid of death to being afraid for the well-being of my young children.  I worry unreasonably over the state of my marriage, I worry helplessly about the inevitable passing of loved ones.  I worry that my novel will never see the light of day.  I can be an anxious person, but my anxieties and fears have changed, maybe even matured.  These evolved fears no doubt lurk in my most recently completed work, hopefully having shape-shifted into some odd form that makes them more interesting and approachable.  I think it’s good not to take my worries too seriously, even if they do have serious roots.  Hence the black humor, I suppose.

We encourage you to check out Sharma’s fiction in Memorious and in her new book, and we hope you’ll stop by her website (sharmashields.com) and tell her hello for us. Check back next month as we highlight another Memorious fiction contributor.

 For original fiction, poetry, art, interviews, and art song, visit our magazine at www.memorious.org

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