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Creating Characters and Plots in Tiny Spaces: An Interview with Amy Cipolla Barnes, author of Child Craft

In her new collection Child Craft (Belle Point Press), Amy Cipolla Barnes explores the many ways a child’s life is “crafted” through experiences, perceptions, and family. It’s an imaginative take on a familiar topic, and readers should enjoy Barnes’s intelligent prose and sharp eye for the small things in life that carry great significance. Her story “Page Six” was published by Cease, Cows in September 2022. For more from Amy Cipolla Barnes, purchase your copy of Child Craft here.

CHILD CRAFT book cover

Barnes shared her thoughts in a recent interview with Cease, Cows.

Chuck Augello: Describe Child Craft to potential readers. What should they expect when they pick up the book?

Amy Cipolla Barnes: The short answer: Child Craft is a hybrid collection of fiction, CNF, and essays. The longer answer: it was written as kind of a continuation of my other collections. Mother Figures focused more on – mothers. Ambrotypes – on mothers and relationships. Child Craft was written to focus more on childhood at all stages, from different viewpoints and in different situations. It is labeled as a hybrid collection but I don’t specify which piece is fiction and which is CNF or essay. I’ve had multiple people ask which is which. While the title is a play on my childhood encyclopedias’ name; I also see it as a collection on crafting (several stories mention craft materials) in the literal sense, but also in the figurative sense – the crafting of a child through their experiences and those of their parents, caregivers, and community.

CA: Many of the stories feature illustrations. Tell us about them.

AB: I asked my editor if we could include the illustrations as a callback to the original Childcraft volumes with their illustrations and photographs, but also to invoke a feeling of nostalgia in the art’s simplicity. The endplate illustrations are extra special to me because they were created specifically in response to two of the included flashes by a writer/artist friend, Melissa Llanes Brownlee. I found a personal pull to have some illustrations included because most of my childhood books had either line drawings (like in my Child Craft collection), photographs, or watercolor or oil artwork. That feeling of nostalgia goes beyond simply evoking those books; it is a further layer of my own childhood hopefully infused a little more than through the words. Each one of my cover art pieces was carefully chosen or created; having interior art too feels special to me. Having commissioned art thrills my creative soul!

CA: What attracts you to writing flash fiction?

AB: I also write articles for lifestyle magazines and mostly wrote short fiction up until 5 years ago. I always thought that stories should be longer because they “needed” to be somehow; most of my earlier fiction is in the short story length range. I’m not sure of the moment I switched over to flash fiction primarily, but there’s something in the challenge to be brief, to create characters and settings and plots that exist in such a tiny space – that drives me forward.

CA: One of my favorites was “Drowning on Main Street,” which begins with Mama wading through streets flooded with beer. Tell us about the story’s inspiration.

AB: I often find inspiration through news stories or documentaries, writing them down in my phone’s notes app until the idea sparks a story. “Drowning on Main Street” has at its core a historical documentary that looked at a molasses plant flooding a town, killing many of its inhabitants, and leaving the scent of the syrup for decades to come. It felt like a news story that childhood me would have picked up on even though it happened many years earlier. From that story, I looked at how other liquids or catastrophes could “drown” a small town and ended up with those events as defining the town, but also becoming secondary to the interactions between Mama and her children.

CA: “The Art of Brutalism” is set two days after the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma in 1995. What inspired you to write about that incident?

AB: This collection is a hybrid one by definition, but I haven’t specified which stories are fictional or CNF, not even to my editor. In the case of this story, she thought this was fictional. It’s actually based on a trip my sister and I took at the time. It was a shocking journey that sits in my mind next to seeing the Challenger explode on a high school television strapped to a stand, Mt. Saint Helen’s erupting (referenced in “Secondhand”), and 9/11 (in “Spielgabe”).

CA: “My Mother is an Abandoned Kmart” is in the running for best story title ever. How do you approach titling your stories?

AB: Thank you! Titles often come to me before the story does and I fill in from there. I have a bit of a fascination with dead malls and stores, having worked at a few of them in the 1990s. There’s something evocative about seeing a label scar for a defunct store and wondering about its history and ultimate demise. In the case of this story, I was trying for the juxtaposition of a mom who feels abandoned in the suburbs, a little literal but also the whole scarred experience of the mother/daughter relationship. I also like to vary how titles look: one word, other times a phrase pulled from the text, and sometimes starting the first sentence of the flash continued into the story like this one.

Regarding the overall book title, I looked to my childhood when I was fascinated with the Childcraft encyclopedias. I often work from title to story, instead of creating a title at the end. In the case of Child Craft, I wrote the title down and gathered flashes, micros, and essays/CNF that felt like they formed an “encyclopedia” of sorts through childhood, but also looked at how the concepts of “child” and “craft” influence adulthood, much like I still remember the Childcraft books. The title is intended as a play on the original Childcraft but also a double meaning of “crafting childhood” or “crafting a child” as they move through different stages of a broad narrative voice growing up without specifying what is fictional and what is not.

CA: “Page Six” was originally published in Cease, Cows. It’s a brief, powerful story that opens with the image of a boy whose ears are stuffed with newspaper. What was the inspiration for this story?   

AB: Thank you for selecting and publishing “Page Six!” The inspiration came from a very visual source. I was a 2021-2022 Artwire fellow in Nashville. We attended Oz Arts events, writing immediate and longer responses to the art and performances. This story came from an immediate short response to Miwa Matreyek’s multimedia Infinitely Yours and Myth & Infrastructure. The visual images in her performance art inspired the flash.

CA: What are some of the challenges in putting together a collection? Were the individual stories written with the idea of the collection already conceived?

AB: I got some great advice from Christopher Allen of SmokeLong Quarterly on how to work towards a collection well before I even had enough pieces to form one. He said to choose some basic broad themes and write in them. I had in my head what I didn’t want to write about – mothers and daughters. But in true creative fashion, I ended up writing “what I know.” Each one of my collections has some element of both, including one entitled Mother Figures and another Child Craft.

CA: There’s no shortage of ways to spend one’s time. Why do you choose to write fiction?

AB: I’ve also written *something* whether it was SEO content about fur storage or colon cleanses or short stories about the American South or travel advice. I think sometimes writing fiction feels too hard or too easy to do and it often gets misconstrued as being “easier” somehow because you are “making things up.” In my non-fiction writing, I have to do a lot of fact-checking, research, and interviews. In that way, writing fiction can be a little freeing but I also have a tendency to include pop culture references or things like the molasses disaster. I find fiction interesting because it is a way to blur the lines of difficult topics. If I wrote a nonfiction article on child loss, I would have three experts and interviews with women who had lost a child; if I write a fictional account that hints at the same topic, I can still write about the topic and have people feel something but there’s the ability to lighten the topic even a tiny amount. That’s a hard balance but there’s also some catharsis there AND the need for me to add a content/trigger warning which seems to happen in phases.

So, why do I choose to write fiction? I love to read fiction. The honor of continuing the tradition of storytelling is another pull. Leaving my words behind as a bit of a legacy. Telling the stories of made-up characters that become part of the fabric of other fictional people and places – that feels like I’m part of crafting something that might endure. And that brings me back to the title of this collection – Child Craft – it takes on that meaning as well. I am a parent first and author second but the two worlds definitely collide and inspire and hug each other on many occasions.

Chuck Augello (Contributing Editor) is the author of The Revolving Heart, a Best Books of 2020 selection by Kirkus Reviews. His work has appeared in One Story, SmokeLong Quarterly, Literary Hub, The Coachella Review, and other fine journals. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut, a website exploring the life and art of Kurt Vonnegut. His novel, A Better Heart, was released in November 2021.

Amy Cipolla Barnes is the author of Ambrotypes (word west press) and Mother Figures (ELJ Editions). Her words have appeared in many publications, including The Citron Review, JMWW, trampset, Flash Frog, No Contact Mag, Leon Review, Complete Sentence, The Bureau Dispatch, Nurture Lit, X-R-A-Y Lit, McSweeney’s, Southern Living, SmokeLong Quarterly, and others. She’s been nominated for Best of the Net, the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfiction, Best Small Fictions, and long-listed for Wigleaf50 in 2021, 2022, and 2023. She’s a Fractured Lit Associate Editor, Gone Lawn coeditor, Ruby Lit assistant editor and reads for The MacGuffin, Best Small Fictions, and Narratively. Find her on Twitter at @amygcb.