Cease, Cows contributor Christopher DiCicco has just published a new collection of stories titled So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds ().
In the first of our new series of author interviews, DiCicco shares his thoughts about the collection with our head editor Chuck Augello.
CA: How would you describe your collection to readers unfamiliar with your work?
CD: Weird. Sad. Playful. Like a cartoon platypus who is ultimately depressed but learning to fly. The collection is an odd assortment. Some of the stories are entrenched in a kind of everyday realism while some of those same stories cross into absurdity—what I mean, is I’ll write a story about a missing mom through the lens of a boy who wants to be a dog or a story about a father yelling something funny as he falls to his unavoidable death. The stories are little walks in the Park of Coping with Loss and Dissatisfaction. I joke when I say that, but I think a lot people know the place, and my stories definitely travel there, skipping down different paths. It’s not all sad, though. The stories in the collection explore some fantastical things, and I hope some readers can enjoy that in the darkest moments there can be wonder.
CA: Most of the stories in So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds are flash fiction. As a fiction writer, what about the flash format is attractive to you?
CD: The bright light? I kid, I kid. But seriously, the attraction starts with the darkness. My stories often tackle pain, absurd or normal, and—you don’t want to live there. Some authors talk about how they craft worlds and heart-moving stories you’d happily supplant yourself into in order to escape your own life—my stories are selfish. You don’t want to escape there. That’s what I did writing them. The flash format takes you there, shows you around, let’s you feel something, and ever so kindly lets you leave as quickly as you came. Flash, it’s a story, a whole story, but it’s one where the writer knows not to linger. It would just be a lie, like talking about the drapes when the elephant in the room is asleep on the living room sofa.
CA: You have some great story titles. A favorite is “The Worst Thing about Hell is You Have to Climb Down to It,” although “What I Learned Beneath Your Shirt” is a close second. Do your titles usually come first, or do they arise from the process of writing the story?
CD: Thank you for saying so. My story titles come at the beginning of the process. They’re often the first (or a close second) piece of the story I write. My theory on titles is that I’m either naming the piece, like I would a child where I want the title to capture the idea of who the story is and will grow to be—or, and often this is the case, it’s my first line. It’s like calling your friend over and telling her, “Hey, you know the worst thing about hell is you have to climb down to it?” and then you go into it. You explain what you mean…the rest of the story. The title is my point, like, hey, I’ll show you what I mean in a second.
CA: Several of your stories involve characters telling stories, like the father in the title story. What appeals to you about stories-within-stories?
CD: I suppose it’s two-fold. On one level, I’m very interested in the storyteller. Who are they? What have they gone through. I like writing stories where I can show the end result, the teller delivering the past and the present. When the character, my narrator, tells his or her story, it allows me to relinquish more of the control and let’s the story become their own. Yeah, of course, it’s technique. I’m creating this illusion for the reader that this story belongs to my narrator, allowing me to develop the character/narrator as much as the story, but I love the idea of the removed observer. It’s not exactly their story per say, but it dramatically changes them. You can’t un-see some things—so what’s that person’s story? What did they see that has made them who they are?
CA: In “So Bright We Quit Our Shadows,” published by CC, the characters are trapped by an unforgiving, penetrating sun. In several of your stories characters are at the mercy of impersonal forces, as if the world has grown too big for us and the best we can do is hang on to our decency, our humanity. Can you comment on that?
CD: Sure. Those impersonal forces you mention, the ones that have us clinging to our humanity, I see them more as making us decent. At their mercy, we become human. They make us real. When the world crashes down on us, when we have nothing left, we cast aside a lot of the trivial stuff and live, and there’s a story there, whether it’s a painful one or not, and the characters there, well, they’re so human, it’s definitely worth writing about to me.
CA: Your work is often surreal, weaving the fantastic into everyday lives. Do you consider your style to be in the slipstream tradition?
CD: Fabulism, magical realism, new magical, minimalism—I do it all! But seriously, I’m definitely a product of something, and that something seems to blend elements of my childhood interests. Sometimes it seems like whatever the end result is that it’s weird enough to slip out of the standard genres, but that’s where my mind goes when writing stories. I suppose similar minds fall into the slipstream tradition, somewhere between literary fiction, science fiction, and magical realism. So yeah, I consider myself part of it.
CA: Which story in the collection took you the longest to get right? Why?
CD: If I had my way I’d still be revising most of my stories, so the idea of getting a story right is a bit hard for me. There are moments, days even, where I think a story is right where I want it, and then one morning I’ll wake up, flip open the computer, and read and hate and read and believe every word, every phrase, every idea is shit and sounds like shit and should have never been written. But I’ve come to understand that, so I know now to flip the computer shut again, and to walk away. I suppose there was a month or so, maybe more, where that happened a lot, so it made all the stories I was working on feel particularly difficult to get right. I was trying my hand at a novel, and it was ruining me. I love flash. I love the short story. Those things appeal to me more than any other medium, so when I was attempting the novel, everything else I wrote left a bad taste in my mouth. I’d come to one of my short stories, and I’d read a line aloud, and it would sound so silly and wrong to me because it lacked a novel’s detail. It was a hard place to be as a writer, and it almost destroyed me.
CA: If you could have lunch with one fictional character, who would it be?
CD: By the way, are we talking about one of my characters or any character from any book? If it’s the latter, then I’d like to have a trout lunch with the narrator from Trout Fishing in America or maybe with Trout Fishing in America himself, as he is his own character from time to time. A close runner-up would be Eli from Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, as he made sense to me.
If we were talking about one of my characters, then I’m not sure. Most I feel I know, that I’ve broken bread with them in my head plenty of times, but maybe, if we had both finished work for the day, and there were an open pub serving dark beer and warm food, maybe I’d like to sit down with Pop from “Pieces of My Junkyard Father.”
CA: Who are some of your influences? What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?
CD: Lots of influences. Lots. Over the summer I took it hard to poetry, and then to the works of Richard Brautigan. A Confederate General from Big Sur, The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western. Revenge of the Lawn. In Watermelon Sugar. I’ve been reading over a lot of his work, and yeah, he’s not so much new or alive, but his writing really does what it wants. Some of it, I’m just shaking my head at, but I respect it, so it’s been quite inspirational to me. And yeah, Trout Fishing in America. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read that in the last year. Any time I felt my prose getting stiff, any time I felt my stories limited, I read a chapter and remembered that this guy could break the rules before I even knew there were rules.
CA: What are you working on now?
CD: Well, I took this past summer to explore poetry and ended up producing a chapbook’s worth. Before that, I was getting silly with hybrid form, writing children’s stories for adults. But right now, I’m just slowly working my way back into what I love—the minimalist story. I’d call it flash, but I don’t always get my stories in under exactly 1000 words.
CA: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
And oh yeah, that whole thing about finding a time and place that is your writing zone, that’s terrific advice, but don’t let it get out of hand or it’ll govern you and you’ll only be able to write at 5:00 am in the morning sitting on a lukewarm wooden rocking chair. But knowing that you write better in the morning, well, that’s good for a writer. Learn what you like, repeat.
Chuck Augello is Head Editor of Cease, Cows. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, two cats, and several cows that refuse to cease. His work has appeared in One Story, Juked, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, and other fine places. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut and contributes interviews to The Review Review. He’s currently at work on a novel.