Sarah Freligh gives us a peek into her new collection
By Charlotte Hamrick
Often, when I read Sarah Freligh’s fiction, I think THIS is real life. Sarah writes so convincingly and with such relatability that I will often nod my head while reading or exclaim Hell yeah! I have really done this. I was excited when I heard about her newest book, A Brief Natural History of Women from Harbor Editions – that title! Oh yeah, it was my jam alright. Sarah graciously consented to a conversation about what I think is a stellar book with engaging characters, vivid imagery, and just plain fantastic stories.
What perspectives or beliefs have you challenged with this work?
This is such a good question – such a hard question – that I saved it for last:
The idea that a story can’t be short and complete. At least, I hope I have.
Talk about the relationship between personal experience and imagination in your writing.
I go back to two quotes that were important to me when I started writing fiction half a lifetime ago: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days” (Flannery O’Connor) and “Write what you know” (Ernest Hemingway). As a beginning writer, I applied a thin veneer of fiction to personal experience and called it a story. At some point along the way, I began to understand that the “information about life” O’Connor was referring to wasn’t just the been-there/done-that of lived experience, but emotional knowledge. And what we know by a certain age is sorrow, joy, despair, anger, betrayal, failure and triumph – all of it – and that is the fuel of fiction. So while my characters and stories are inventions, their emotions are not.
I have been known to steal experiences from friends and make them into stories.
Gosh, yes! Our friends and families are ripe with material, yeah? I find it a balancing act to incorporate good stuff from them into stories without sharing too much. How do you approach it?
By pushing the envelope of what’s imagined. I start with an inspiration, but by the time I’m finished, imagination has pushed the story far past the what of “what happened.” People, places, experiences – I hope—are unrecognizable. Inspiration is merely the fuel.
Which of the characters do you relate to the most and why?
Oh, this one’s easy: the girls in the office and their camaraderie. I suspect they have little to nothing in common other than the workplace and yet they become anchors for one another when the water of life gets rough. I’m also fond of Kat from “Mad,” the final story in the collection. Like Kat, I was face down in grief following the death of my brother. I wrote the story in the midst of the pandemic, and it was a way for me to process the grief I was carrying around. The story, in essence, created a home with enough space where I could finally unpack it.
Writing grief is hard for many writers. Did you feel a larger sense of peace after writing “Mad”?
Those early weeks and months of the pandemic are such a blur to me now, though I have a daily and very informal diary of what I did during that time, which wasn’t much: walk, write, swim in the lake, teach my online classes. It was a simple time and a very interior time–mentally and physically–since everything was shut down. In addition to my brother’s death, there was the added grief that comes from great change and also of the collective loss the world was experiencing. More than peace, I think I felt a sense of relief that I could put words in a certain order, that I could create an alternate world to live in for a while.
Which story did you have the hardest time writing?
No question: “A Brief Natural History of the Automobile.” I started writing it in the mid-90s and it was published in 2021, so nearly thirty years of doing the revision minuet – step forward, step back – with it. At some point I recast the story in second person and after a long hiatus from fiction, during which I wrote poetry, I came back to the story with fresh eyes and an understanding of metaphor – specifically the extended metaphor and how the narrator’s life is so inextricably linked to the automobile that she becomes the automobile. Knowing that allowed me to understand the “aboutness” of the story as well as its arc– she’s “driven” in the passive sense, a passenger in her own life, and it’s only at the end that she climbs into the driver’s seat and goes forward. I’m happy with the story and I don’t regret one minute of the long time it took to come to fruition. I’m also glad I lived long enough for it to happen.
It’s a stand-out story! It illustrates how the “Company Man” culture affected the family and left a mark on the life of the narrator yet she transcends it. You capture the cold war and Vietnam era so well, too. I really love a story that has cultural history and this is a perfect example.
Thank you! Yeah, it was a time of great change for Ford and the other automobile manufacturers, which really were cradle to grave employers for many people in Michigan. That all changed with arrival of the Volkswagen Beetle and the smaller Japanese cars, the Hondas and Toyotas. They were so much cheaper to drive than the gas-guzzling American cars and the industry was slow to respond. Factories shuttered or moved South or overseas and Detroit and all of Michigan really suffered.
If you were to write a spin-off about a side character, which would you pick?
I’m fooling around with a spin-off micro from the vantage point of the golf pro in “A Way,” but so far he’s so unreliable as to be elusive. Monsieur Bernard from “Other Tongues,” if only to figure out what happened to him (I have an idea). And Joe, the therapist, from “Mad.” All men, interestingly.
I love “Saginaw”. I well remember reading it in Emerge Journal and feeling seen. I think many women who grew up in a working-class family and worked menial jobs as a teen or young woman felt seen by this piece. Many of your pieces have a working-class theme. Is that something you consciously strive for or is it innate?
I grew up in a solidly middle-class, white-collar family but many of the jobs I worked when I was younger as well as an older, perpetually broke writer were punch-in, pay-by-the-hour jobs, so my stories – by virtue of experience—have one foot in that world, especially in restaurants. The writer and filmmaker John Sayles once said that high school is really the last democracy in that you take gym class with the guy who’s going to pick up your garbage in a few years. I think that’s true of restaurants as well, which are a real mix of race, ethnicity, and class. And the characters!
Who are your biggest influences?
Like many writers of flash fiction, Jayne Anne Phillips’ Sweethearts and later Black Tickets were my first influences. Hemingway’s In Our Time, most definitely. Kim Addonizio’s book Jimmy & Rita, a hybrid of poems, prose poems and flash published in the 1990s. Jerome Stern’s Micro Fiction, anthology of story’s that had won Florida State University’s 250-word prize; the winner got $250 and a crate of Florida oranges. Ditto Flash Fiction, edited by James Thomas, Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka. That’s the bible of shorties, really.
Having discovered flash fiction later in life, I’m excited to have this list! I keep seeing comments that Flash Fiction and Microfiction are recent creations. Clearly, your list blasts that notion. It feels like the internet has allowed the genre to be more visible and accessible. Have you seen an uptick in your success in publishing since the advent of online journals?
I’m thinking this is kind of a chicken and egg thing as far as which came first: the writers and their very short stories or the venues for the writing? No question that online is an ideal container for a very short story and it’s ultimately shareable, too. Twenty years ago, print was everything and online journals were considered not legit. That whole paradigm has been upended, thanks in no small part to social media.
As far as my work, I was flailing around with poetry after publishing Sad Math in 2015. The last piece I wrote before the book was published was “We Smoke,” which was subsequently selected for the anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, published by Norton in 2018. I had so much fun writing that story – it was like my words were horses that wanted to bust out of the corral of line breaks and once I let them, boom! I wrote more shorties and found many great places to send them.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given about writing?
Don’t get into too many habits, said by a Famous Keynote Speaker (FKS) at a long-ago literary conference. The reaction was general freakitude because, hey, you’re supposed to develop habits and stick to them, yes? Same place, same time? FKS explained that habits are great, but what happens to that 9-11 a.m. writing slot when your kid gets sick or you need snow tires and morning is the only time you can get an appointment? Far better, she said, to schedule 15-minute writing sessions daily, i.e., write when you can. I started following that advice when I had a visiting professorship and was teaching a 4-4 load and also going to school and ended up wring most of Sad Math in short sessions. I wrote longer when I could, but the short sessions added up, and most importantly, kept me facedown in what I was writing.
Sarah, you lead writing classes that I’ve heard are really immersive and wonderful. Would you like to share some information about upcoming opportunities to work with you?
I’m booking now for Winter 2024. In addition to the classes that are on my website at www.sarahfreligh.com, I plan to add two more—a two-week “Poetry for Prosers” and a special extravaganza for National Poetry Month in April. I plan to post descriptions later this summer, so stay tuned!
Sarah, it’s been a real treat communicating with you like this! Thank you, thank you for allowing me to interview you!
It’s been my great pleasure to answer your great questions!
Sarah Freligh is the author of five books, including Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis, and A Brief Natural History of Women, forthcoming in June 2023 from Harbor Editions. Recent work has appeared in the Cincinnati Review miCRo series, SmokeLong Quarterly, the Wigleaf 50, and in the anthologies New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton 2018), Best Microfiction (2019-22) and Best Small Fiction 2022. Among her awards are poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Saltonstall Foundation.
Charlotte Hamrick’s creative writing and photography has been published in a number of literary journals and anthologies including Still: The Journal, The Citron Review, Atticus Review, Reckon Review, Trampset, and New World Writing, among many others. Her fiction was selected for the Best Small Fictions 2022 anthology and she’s had several literary nominations including the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfiction. She is the former Creative Nonfiction Editor for Barren Magazine and current Creative Nonfiction Editor for The Citron Review. She also writes intermittently on her Substack, The Hidden Hour. She lives in New Orleans with her husband and a menagerie of rescued pets where she sometimes does things other than read and write.