Interview with Valerie Fioravanti

Valerie Fioravanti will be reading March 10. Details here.  Her work has appeared in many literary journals, including North American Review, Night Train, and Cimarron Review. She received a Fulbright Fellowship to Italy, and her story collection, Garbage Night at the Opera, was recently a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She lives in Sacramento, where she teaches private workshops from her home and runs the Stories on Stage reading series. Check out her website to read some of her work.

WTAW: You’re primarily a short story writer, at this point, is that true? And assuming it is, what is it that you love about the short story form?

Valerie: Well, I’m primarily known as a short story writer, and I do love the form, but I’ve written two novels, and am working on a third. The first was the novel in the drawer, and I consider it my pre-MFA program, for all that it taught me. The second I may go back to, but it got squeezed out, first by my story collection,Garbage Night at the Opera, which I worked on concurrently, and then by my Italy novel,Bel Casino, when I received a Fulbright Fellowship to Italy to do the preliminary research.

I tend to be more of a slow-and-steady writer, letting work sit for months, revising and refining over many drafts, always working on multiple projects at once. I love revision and taking drafts in new directions. That’s much easier to do with stories and essays than it is with novels. I recently realized that I’m only a story or two shy of a second collection, so I think my book-length work is reaching a critical mass—right now, I have one book that I feel is ready, but in the next year or two, I may have three or four.

You were a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award — congratulations! Talk about short story collections. What are some of your favorites, classic and most recently published or read.

Thank you. The first collection by a single author that blew me away was Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which I read because it won the Pulitzer Prize. At that point, I only cared about novels, but his work stayed with me, so I read Margaret Atwood’s stories next, since she was one of my favorite novelists, then Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Amy Bloom…now I’m pretty much always reading a story collection or anthology, a novel, and nonfiction at once, trading off depending upon my mood. Recent story collections I’ve read and admired are Becky Hagenston’s Strange Weather, Lori Ostlund’s Bigness of the World, and Mary Akers’ Women Up on Blocks. The collection I chose to teach this quarter was ElizbethStrout’s Olive Kitteridge.

Do certain motifs run through your own work? Motifs or obsessions.What are they? Discuss!

I’m clearly obsessed with gentrification, with how neighborhoods change over time. Garbage Night at the Opera spans thirty years inGreenpoint, Brooklyn as it de-industrializes, languishes for a generation, then gentrifies. One novel was set in Alphabet City during its transformation into themore rentable East Village, although those issues stayed in the background. I’ve written a lot of travel fiction, for obvious reasons, and I’m already pondering my next novel, which I’d like to set in the NGO world of humanitarian aid/development. For the past year or so I’ve been a bit obsessed with adolescence in both fiction and creative nonfiction, although the two pieces I’m working on now may purge that era from my system.

You teach flash fiction. What is so fabulous about flash fiction?

Well, I think it’s a great form to learn by. I have an exercise I use, which I owe in part to the amazing Mc McIlvoy, where I ask students to take the first paragraph of a story and take it in five different directions, not revising so much as re-envisioning an entirely different story each time, just to point toward the possibilities inherent in any work of fiction. I think working with different variations of one piece can really help students “get”characterization, POV, or particular details building toward a central impression.

In terms of my own flash, both with fiction and creative nonfiction, I’minterested in packing as much as I can into a tight, dense space. The urge is to do more, more, more with less. I blame this on having so many poet friends.

Are there common misconceptions about flash fiction, that you’ve come across? What are they; how do you clear them up (say with your students.)

I would say the tendency toward the generic or superficial is a problem in student flash writing, mainly because they are writing stories too complex or too large in scope or timespan than they can handle at present. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious, because failure is an excellent teacher. However, if you’re always trying to do too much, you may never get to the point where you dig in deep and really start to “get” those details that bring a character or circumstance to life. I advocate for going smaller, getting in closer—not a relationship, but a date, or a kiss. Once you’ve developed a knack for the particular, it will be easier to widen that lens and do more with less.

You also run a reading series. Why is it so important that such a thing be available?

Well, I believe that art is for everyone, that it should be both accessible and affordable in all its variations. There’s a lot of moaning about how literary fiction is irrelevant, and I’ve had my share of self-pitying moments as a writer. But, if you want a larger audience for good fiction, what are you doing to build one?

Do you listen to music when you write? If yes, what?

No—too distracting.

Do you have any habits to dispel the build up of creative tension when you are trying to write or are impeded from writing?

When my mood turns dark, I ask, “Are you writing?” The answer is almost always no, and I’ve learned to just drop everything because writing is a transformative act. I will feel better after I’ve gone into my creative space, however briefly. That said, I am very fond of food and shelter, so I’ve learned to forgive myself and my circumstances when reality impinges upon my writing time.

Stones or Beatles?

Stones for when I need to work through resentment or rage. Beatles when I want to decompress or believe.I have a tough time with either/or questions. The answer is almost always both. I crave variety, or am simply more comfortable with expansion over reduction. I can’t even choose genres—I’ve published in all three, although my focus in poetry is the prose poem.I can say that I primarily write fiction, but I wrote more nonfiction drafts last year. Most of my fiction time was spent revising.

The question I should have asked?

What are you reading right now? Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Breathe the Air (novel), Suzanne Rivecca’s Death is not an Option (stories), and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright Sided (nonfiction).