Erica Plouffe Lazure was a runner up in the 2020 Bath Novella in Flash Award with her brilliant novella, Sugar Mountain .
You can read Michael Loveday’s judge’s comments on the novella in his report linked here. And Flash Frontier has posted a video of Erica reading a story from the novella which gives the flavour of the whole story, on the Flash Frontier You tube channel as part of the lead up to National Flash Fiction Day in New Zealand. In this fascinating interview, Erica talks about her writing process and how she finds time to write flash in her busy teaching year. Plus some great tips for those who want to embark on writing a novella-in-flash. We are very much looking forward to seeing Sugar Mountain in print, when it is published by Ad Hoc Fiction later this year.
- Can you give us a brief synopsis of your novella in flash?
Sugar Mountain explores how children experience the world and how, bit by bit, can lose their innocence as they learn to deal with hard truths about themselves, and others.
- What inspired it?
’m not exactly sure what inspired it, except to say that, when I’m in a story writing mode, certain voices surface as I write and it becomes my job to put those voices on the page. For this batch of stories, the voices of children and young adults kept coming to the fore, and before I realized it, the theme emerged, and how I might create from it a story arc. Childhood is rife with pleasures and joy, but within those experiences lie danger or the potential for it.
So similar to ‘Sugar Mountain’—Neil Young’s song about childhood and what lies just beyond it—my collection begins on the fairway at a carnival, and then the electricity dies in the thick of the fun. And in every piece, the high each of my young narrators experience comes with an often-soul-searching low, except the last chapter, “Saved by DJ Big Man With Beard,” which captures the sonic boom energy of a nightclub dance party, and sends them off into the dark of the night, sated with music energy and happy with damp hair and flushed faces. In re-reading the collection, I can see the landscape of the town where I grew up in Massachusetts—the pizza parlor, the library, the railroad tracks behind my great uncle’s house, the restaurant and salon where my mom once worked, the roller skating rink. So as much as these stories are fiction, I have certainly mined the landscape and memories of my childhood as an inroad to telling them.
- I am sure readers who are interested in writing in this form would love to know more about your writing process. Did it take some time for you to arrive at the final order for example?
The way my brain works, is that I can’t be too rigid with organizing or planning out my ideas or thinking about the big picture until I have some creative material already on the page. I often tell my students that they should trust that their subconscious is working hard on something important, and that you have to keep writing in order to bring that into your conscious mind. And I try to remember that when I embark upon a new project: that there are questions looming that are bigger than the single story I’m trying to tell, but I have to be patient and craft a few of them to find out what exactly that is.
- All this may have changed in the present circumstances, but do you have a special place/time to write where you live? Music on or off? Pets as distractions or muses?
- I live in New Hampshire and I teach at a boarding school, and so usually (even with COVID restrictions) my daily pace of life is rather fast and exhausting, and so I don’t have much time to delve into the long form. I do steal snippets of time to write during free periods, or when I’m doing writing exercises with my students, but the teaching job is challenging and much of my creativity is poured into my classes. That said, each February, I try to write a flash story a day with my partner, Luke. We’ll exchange prompts via email when we wake up, and then send each other whatever we created before we go to sleep. The required sharing keeps us accountable to each other, and we understand that the drafts we send are just that: drafts. The exercise primes my brain to “look for” a story as I go about my day, and reminds me that underneath all the other obligations I have, I am also a writer.
I tend to write on my living room sofa with a guitar nearby, or sometimes in bed. I don’t like working at a desk and at times I start a story handwritten in my notebook, and then transfer it into the computer. I also like to write when I’m traveling—it is incredibly hard to do because the “on the move” energy is very different than the “hole up and write” energy, but if I give myself a half hour each day, at the Airbnb or a café, I never regret it. The immediacy of your voice while traveling is palpable, and even if you write something sloppy, you can always trim it up and take it in new places when you sit down to revise. Airplanes are also great for story writing, because you can’t affordably distract yourself by surfing the web. So your imagination gets your full attention.
I tend not to listen to music when I write; in fact, I put in earplugs when I’m getting down and dirty with a story and really need to concentrate. I will, however, pull out my guitar and play a song or two if I paint myself in a corner with a story and I’m not sure how to get out of it. The vibration of the guitar, singing along to a melody, somehow resets me on the cellular level and sends me back into the story refreshed.
Alas, I don’t have pets but would like some. Dog or cat, someday. I travel too much right now to keep a pet. It’s tempting right now, knowing that for the next year I won’t be going too far from home. But it would break my heart to have to leave them kenneled when I travel.
- And following on from the last question, If you had a soundtrack for your novella, what sort of music would be playing?
Certainly, ‘Sugar Mountain.’ by Neil Young; ‘Changes’ by David Bowie—they were both epigrams on the original version of the novella draft. Also, “Tunnel of Love” by Bruce Springsteen, “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’,” by De La Soul, “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty, “The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell, “D’yer Mak’er” by Led Zeppelin. “Baba O’Reilly” by The Who. There are definitely more to this playlist but that’s what I’ve got so far. Also: “Thriller” by Michael Jackson.
- Pitfalls and pleasures of writing in this form?
I love the flash form, that an entire world can be captured in a snapshot of words. I also like to study miniature versions of things—tiny crocheted creatures or dollhouse items. My classroom seminar table is literally rife with a tiny army of rubber animals. My students are unfailingly drawn to them, and will sit near the ones they like, so I always change up the animals’ location so they’ll sit in a different seat.
Kind of in the spirit of “miniature” creations, I also do a form of collage using origami paper, x-acto knives, glue, and toothpicks, on a relatively small format. Donald Barthelme once said that collage is the artform of the 20th (and I would argue 21st) century, given our culture’s collective penchant for contrasting and clashing voices and experiences and media. Lately I’ve been admiring the artwork of Romare Bearden, a Jazz-era collagist, and think about how all of his work uses a range of media and form to craft these gorgeous portrait collages of people and places from that time.
So, a collection of flash stories, or a novella-in-stories, feels like a collage, or a burst of snapshots, all in conversation with each other, and each piece (I hope) feels like a carefully crafted gift to whoever reads it. Perhaps it makes sense that I’m drawn to writing that is equally compact and compressed, and relies on a range of voices and experiences to convey its fullness.
A pitfall? I would have to say there are times when I’ve tried to sustain the energy of the story beyond what I’ve written—to answer my dad’s perennial question, “Yes, but what happens next?” when he reads my flash stories—and I simply can’t do it. It’s like the characters are with me for this one small moment offering me their life-in-miniature, and their energy dissipates. My biggest struggle (at times) is venturing outside the “frame” my imagination has constructed.
- What is your best tip for anyone who wants to embark on writing a novella -in -flash for our next competition?
My tip is to look at the work you’ve already written and try to ferret from it two or three key themes, or voices, or patterns, and consider not only how the characters might (with a little tweaking) overlap and speak to each other. Chances are the questions you ask of yourself and the stories you tell will be in sync and when you find the pattern or the underlying motive in the voice or the geographical keystone, then (perhaps) you’ve got yourself a novella-in-flash.