Author Katie Burgess gives Sundress intern Maria Esquinca a glimpse into her persistence as a writer of flash fiction — the moon landings, postpartum depression, humor, and heartbreak in her stories, and growing up conservative Southern Baptist — all themes that influence her Sundress chapbook, Wind on the Moon!
Maria Esquinca: I’m curious as to why you’re drawn to flash? What sorts of freedoms does it allow you? What restrictions?
Katie Burgess: For a long time I felt like I would never be able to write flash. I loved reading it because of how weird and playful it can be. I think flash can get away with being really strange, because the story is over before the reader knows what hit them. But I couldn’t figure out how to be that concise and still tell a complete story. I had three flash pieces in my MFA thesis, and my committee pretty much hated them. One of the pieces was about an astronaut admitting that he’d faked the moon landing, and I couldn’t bring myself to let it go. It eventually became the title story in “Wind on the Moon,” after I spent ten years revising it and sending it out and having it get rejected. (I don’t recommend doing that, but it’s what I did.) Now that I’ve gotten the hang of it more—or now that I’m at least averaging less than one decade per story—I really don’t feel restricted in any way writing flash. It’s so flexible.
ME: Can you talk about parents, parenting, and the precarious situations of your collection?
KB: A lot of these stories were written either while I was pregnant with my son or during the first year after he was born. I had pretty bad postpartum depression, and right as I was starting to get better, fucking Trump was elected. So at that point I was basically reading Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” and sobbing all the time? All. The. Time. And when I was able to write anything, it tended to come from that place. “If You Lived Here” was originally about a mother and a baby. They’re going around the mall, and the mother wonders if the stroller will be too cumbersome if they have to escape a mass shooting. That version of the story got rejected a dozen or so times before I finally realized I needed to take the baby out. The pathos was way over the top with the baby in there. Sometimes the anxiety of parenting is too much to handle, even in fiction.
ME: Can you talk about why you choose to narrate some of these stories through the voice of young females?
KB: I mostly write narrators who are close to my own demographic. There’s a great essay by Daniel José Older about writing the Other, and at one point he says, “Forget the other—can you write you?” I do often make them younger than I am because I have the benefit of hindsight. I can think about what it meant to be eighteen a lot more clearly now than I could when I was eighteen.
ME: Can you talk about the queer characters in your collection? What are your hopes for them?
KB: I hope they have amazing lives full of love and happiness. And revenge. A whole lot of revenge, against everyone who ever wronged them. I mean, the best revenge is to live well, and I hope they do that, but I also want them to get the petty kind of revenge, and I want them to savor it. “Variables” came from thinking about the LGBTQIA people I know who are so kind to their non-affirming parents, giving them chance after undeserved chance, and how exhausting that must be. “The Chronicles of Steve” is more silly. It’s me responding to the whole “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” thing with “oH, gOD madE AdaM anD eVE.”
ME: There’s a line in “The Emptiness Walks With You,” which reads “You’re walking down a dark road, thinking about emptiness, how singular it is that there should be a word to describe a quantity of nothing, and soon you feel the emptiness around you, and the emptiness walks with you.” Can you talk about this line—this feeling?
KB: It’s a line from a story in the main character’s English textbook, and it’s meant to be literary-sounding gibberish. It’s there to make the character angry. No one in his life understands him, and then this pretentious story is trying to say it knows what he’s thinking. (If any readers do get something out of that line, I guess this is where the death of the author comes in.) That story was inspired by a writer I went to grad school with. We were in a meeting to decide what to accept for the literary journal’s next issue, and he started yelling about how much he hated second-person narration. He said, “It’s all ‘You’re walking down the street, and you do this,’ and I’m like ‘No I’m not! I’m reading a story!’” I like the second person, but I also enjoyed his rant.
ME: Can you talk about “Egg Baby” and the role of nurturing and caretaking in this collection?
KB: I think Jennifer in “Egg Baby” might be the only competent caretaker in the collection? Sure, she makes the one joke about putting her child in the refrigerator. But when things get messed up, she’s the one who can fix it. In most of the other stories, the caretakers are absent, negligent, or mentally unwell. Or lying to their kid about having been to space. Again, that comes from the time in my life when I wrote them, when all I could think about was how my child was like this delicate little egg that I was sure to break because of everything I was doing wrong.
ME: There are definitely some funny moments in this collection. Can you talk about writing humor? How did you learn to write humor?
KB: I’ve always been drawn to it—probably as a way of avoiding Big Feelings. Once in a workshop, I got a comment that said, “This story is hilarious—I think with a few revisions, it could be heartbreaking.” All I could think was WHY would I want to do that? I am the opposite of Wilco—I am not trying to break your heart! But then I heard Jennine Capó Crucet say this really great thing at a Q&A, basically that if you want to make something funnier in a piece of writing, put something sad right next to it. And that’s something I try to do now. As for how I learned, I started out by imitating anything I found funny. I read this Garfield cartoon in seventh grade where Jon wrote a super gross poem about a dead toad. I thought it was the funniest thing ever because I have always had extremely highbrow taste. I read it to a friend of mine, and then she and I wrote several dozen more stanzas to it, making each one more and more disgusting. I showed them to my English teacher, and I may have made her want to quit her job. Now I do improv, which I recommend to any writer, even if you don’t want to write comedy; you learn so much about narrative and character development. I’m not saying that just because improv is a cult. I swear.
ME: And finally, can you speak to your engagement with God/the Bible in this collection?
KB: I was brought up in a fairly conservative Southern Baptist church, and from there I self-radicalized a lot. I read a book in high school called He Came to Set the Captives Free. It was about spiritual warfare, the idea that Satan is constantly lurking around, trying to trap you. I got to a point where I would lie awake every night and pray I wouldn’t get possessed. If a friend turned the radio to a secular music station, I would whisper, “In Jesus’ name, I command you to leave this place,” to any demons who might happen by. I was terrified that my grandparents were getting mixed up in witchcraft because they were taking yoga for seniors. This went on for years. So yeah, I have some baggage there. I criticize the abuses that can happen when you take everything literally. And “Workshop Note on The Universe” is all about the difficulty of believing in an omnipotent, omnibenevolent deity. (God might be the worst caretaker in the collection.) I don’t think religion is inherently harmful, though. I think it can be weaponized easily because it’s a space where people let themselves be vulnerable. But everyone also needs to have that space in some form. May I recommend improv?
Katie Burgess is the editor of Emrys Journal. She lives in South Carolina, where she performs with Alchemy Comedy Theater. More of her writing can be found at katieburgess.fun.
María Esquinca is an MFA candidate at the University of Miami. She is the winner of the 2018 Alfred Boas Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her poetry has appeared in The Florida Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Scalawag, Acentos Review, No Tender Fences: An An Anthology of Immigrant & First-Generation American Poetry, and is forthcoming from Waxwing. A fronteriza, she was born in Ciudad Juárez, México and grew up in El Paso, Texas. You can find her on Twitter @m_esquinca.