Charmaine Wilkerson’s prize winning novella-in-flash, How to Make a Window Snake, is a spinning constellation that orbits one family’s grief, circling around and around what cannot be said…or forgotten. Her narrative is crisp, dense and deep–the entire iceberg under the water. Paired with the two runners-up for the Bath Novella-in-Flash award, A Safer Way to Fall by Joanna Campbell, and Things I Dream About When I’m Not Sleeping by Ingrid Jendrzejewski, How to Make a Window Snake is a trifeca of a book and an incredible showcase of the form.
Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, describe this story in 6 words.
Charmaine Wilkerson: Loving family. Menacing lake. Fake snake.
NS: Talk about the novella in flash form. How do you see it as different than, say a flash novel? Or not?
CW: The magical thing about the novella-in-flash is that each chapter can be read like a stand-alone piece of flash fiction, even though the parts add up to a larger story. By contrast, I tend to think that a flash novel can be more loosely structured, especially if it runs two or three hundred pages, as long as the chapters are short and pack the same sensory or emotional punch that I expect from a piece of flash fiction. Your own Monster Opera does that. And, in my mind, the term flash novel could be applied to books like George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
NS: I absolutely agree (and thank you!) Was this story being written already or did it happen as a result of the form? Chicken or Egg? Have you tried to tell this story in other ways?
CW: Chicken, definitely. Actually, this story was more like a bunch of baby chicks, fuzzy little mini stories, dashing back and forth across the same dirt yard, pecking at different themes here and there, until one day, a mother hen waddled over and said, Hey, you chicks, you’re all part of my brood, so get on over here! I didn’t try to tell this story in any other way, though I did write other flashes in this series that were not included in the novella.
NS: My very favorite thing about this story is your use of repetition—each story stands alone but echoes the previous stories—circular rather than linear. But the repetition feels necessary, not superfluous. Talk about that choice.
CW: Thank you. Finally, someone who doesn’t complain when I repeat myself! Seriously, I do tend to come back to certain words or phrases or rhythms when I write, though not always. In this novella, the repetition emerged naturally but I took time to sharpen the pattern during the final editing stages. I saw this as a way to strengthen the connections between the chapters, since the narrative goes back and forth in time and skips from one character’s point of view to the next.
NS: I find it interesting that the family in this story is circling around their own griefs—what do you think the story/form says about grief?
CW: One aspect of the human experience that continues to intrigue me is how, despite the power which grief has to alter us, we may still be able to love and play and have meaningful and satsifying lives. I found that writing about these different characters in short passages made it easier to mix these dimensions and, also, introduce other issues which they were facing.
NS: Are there other books whose form inspired you as you were creating this?
CW: One book I can recall going back to while writing this story was My Very End of the Universe, an anthology put out by Rose Metal Press with stories by five masters of the form. The authors’ accompanying essays held great resonance for me, especially Meg Pokrass’s discussion of creating a narrative from “scraps” and Aaron Teel’s discussion of “mimicking memory” through flash fiction. It felt as though these two essays were speaking to what I was writing that year.
NS: How to Make a Window Snake won the first Bath Novella-in-Flash award and was published in one book with the runners up, A Safer Way to Fall by Joanna Campbell and Things I Dream About When I’m Not Sleeping by Ingrid Jendrzejewski. How do you see these novellas playing off of each other?
CW: I am immensely grateful to the Bath Flash Fiction group and Ad Hoc Fiction for embracing this form of expression. It was very exciting to see such different stories selected by one judge, Meg Pokrass, and published together. The language used from cover to cover ranges from chatty to poetic to surreal. What I think these novellas-in-flash have in common is an intense gaze, heightened by details that leave a trail of emotion in their wake.
NS: I found it extremely unusual that none of your stories were published before the manuscript was submitted. How wonderfully risky! Your thoughts around publishing excerpts vs saving it all?
CW: The decision to share excerpts beforehand should be determined by the individual writer, based on their objectives and how those aims fit with the requirements of the magazines and book publishers on their wish list. In my case, not publishing individual flashes wasn’t really a risky move because they were all such new stories, anyway. I did submit a couple of the flashes to other outlets but soon received word that I had won the Bath competition, so that was that.
NS: What is your best advice to someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
CW: When I write fiction, I don’t think of it as a book. I think of it, first and always, as a story, or just an idea that needs to be captured. And I don’t always write what I’m thinking. I might take a snapshot or record natural sound on my mobile phone. I have a lot of recordings of water—the sea, a lake, a brook. The sound helps me to see things. Someone else might prefer to sit down and plot out everything ahead of time. What’s important is that you allow yourself to do whatever works for you in the drafting stages of a story, whatever helps you slip into that creative stream.
NS: Thank you for playing, Charmaine!
To buy How to Make a Window Snake: https://bookshop.adhocfiction.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=65&products_id=182
Charmaine Wilkerson lives in Rome, Italy. Her stories and essays have appeared in various anthologies and magazines, including Best Microfiction 2019, 100 Word Story, The Common, New Flash Fiction Review, FlashBack Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Bending Genres, Reflex Fiction and Spelk. Her novella How to Make a Window Snake won the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award in 2017 and the UK’s Saboteur Award for Best Novella in 2018.