Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Holly Connors is talking with Maria Elena Alonso-Sierra, author of The Fish Tank: And Other Short Stories
FQ: The genre for The Fish Tank (short story) is a departure from your previous novels, which are more mystery/romantic suspense. Why did you choose to put together a collection of short stories?
ALONSO-SIERRA: Many moons ago, I wrote several short stories for a narrative class at the university and for a critique group. But it wasn't until I sent The Fish Tank to the University of Cork's Carried in Waves Contest, and the story placed as finalist, that I believed I had honed my craft enough to tackle the genre. It was also a moment in life where things were rough, (I had lost my mother to dementia), and I couldn't get into the groove of my detective story. I came to the realization that I needed some time off, but, at the same time, I didn't want to stop writing altogether, So, because of that, I decided to write shorter stories. I stopped writing the novel for a while, took the stories I had already created, added to the pile with others, and the collection was created.
FQ: You mention in your author's note at the beginning of the book the difficulty in writing short stories. Would you share with our readers (some of whom may be thinking of trying their hand at short stories) some of the unique challenges with writing in this genre?
ALONSO-SIERRA: Wow. That is a tough question. Short stories need to be compact episodes of a moment in a life. That is the best way to describe what you need to do to write one, at least, for me. One has to gauge how to create the main character with enough information so the reader can visualize (without back-storying the reader to death) the character's personality and conflict at the same time. The point of view, I think, is also critical to set the mood and the impact you want to convey. What would make the story more powerful? For example, in my story, The Fish Tank, I had to make a decision if I was going to let the adults tell the story or the child. I chose the child because it would be more horrific to learn the situation as the child listened, as the child saw, and how the child reacted to the events happening, especially how she behaved that was not normal for a child her age. As a writer, you also have to decide how long it will be -- does the story need more development to tell its story entirely, or does it need to be extended. In Jerry's Gift, I didn't need to go into full backstory, or start it earlier in Maureen's life. The story revolved around the gift, and how she was going to profit from it. So the story begins a few moments before the gift is revealed.
There are so many things I can go into for the writing of the short story, but the most important one is reading them. I strongly recommend potential writers of short stories to read Poe, O. Henri, Maupassant, Jackson, Twain (for humor), Chekov, Flannery O'Connor, Stoker, and others. The list is long. I've read them all, and then some. Analyze them. See why the stories are so good. Where in the conflict they start. How they end. The reasons they impacted you. How much dialogue vs. narrative. And most important, as a writer, what works with your voice and style. Don't try to imitate. Learn and blend the craft into your own storytelling.
FQ: Rites of Passage was a very sweet story about a mother who didn't want to disappoint her young son so she bravely agreed to ride the roller coaster. The build-up of fear and excitement she felt was so real. How did you lock on to those feelings so realistically? Was it something you had experienced?
ALONSO-SIERRA: Actually, I love roller coasters. But, what my character experiences, happens to me in some elevators. So I took the feelings I go through getting into them and applied it to her. I analyzed how I needed to psych myself to go forward, how I felt as the door closes, the sensations as the elevator starts moving. Then I blended that with my experiences on roller coaster ride. And, voilá.
FQ: Again in your author's note, you describe the "soul-tearing" you experienced when writing the four stories in the "Cuban Diaspora" section. Did it help you come to terms with your own experiences as you put words to paper?
ALONSO-SIERRA: Yes and no. This is not unique to writers who write exile narratives or novels. The scab will always be there. The melancholy of what was lost is still there. The hurt will not ever quite go away. But now that the story is told, it was a bit cathartic. The roiling emotions the writing brought (many times I had to step away from the story and do something else. Many times I walked away to cry at the innocence lost, at the life lost) are less traumatic. The memories don't hurt as deeply.
FQ: You say that each Cuban story contained at least a little of what you personally experienced. Were you Matilde of The Fish Tank? Was there really a beautiful doll that came along on the trip and (without giving the ending away) was Matilde's dress truly so unique?
ALONSO-SIERRA: I sort of was the little girl in The Fish Tank. My family and I were stuck in the pacera for many hours and experienced many of the things the adults mention in the story. The beautiful doll was one I had to leave behind, which did belong to my mother and had been handed down several generations. And, Matilde's dress was more unique than most, although some tried to do the same. I can't say anymore...
FQ: The Cuban stories left me with many different emotions - sadness, satisfaction, a little idea of what Cubans' suffered, and even a bit of happiness. The bubbles in a story filled with a family's despair at having to hide everything, even their laundry detergent, while upsetting, had a bit of humor in it. Was that intentional? Perhaps to lift the mood? Or was it simply what happened?
ALONSO-SIERRA: Actually, it is based on what happened to us. But the humor of the situation is the twenty-twenty hindsight, where you can find humor in the moments of terror or horror. The situation becomes absurd, to a point. And I did that, not to alleviate the situation, but to emphasize it. It also helps the reader take a few breaths of relief.
FQ: Several of your short stories succinctly tie everything together in the last line of that story, such as that used in Lullaby. Do you know how these stories will end, what you'll say at the end, before you start to write or does it come to you as you write?
ALONSO-SIERRA: No. I don't know what the last line of the story will say. I know, more or less, how the story will end, but not what I will say to wrap it up. It comes as I write.
FQ: Detective Nick Larson - I love his character. Will we be seeing more of him? Perhaps a novel?
ALONSO-SIERRA: Yes, indeed. I am writing the novel as we speak. It should be published sometime in 2018. Yay!
FQ: You have held a lot of professional occupations - dancer, singer, teacher, to name a few. Do all these previous jobs/experiences help you as a writer?
ALONSO-SIERRA: Definitely. Every occupation has its obsession, its frustration, its emotions - both positive and negative. I add a lot of what I have learned about human nature and myself to my characters.
FQ: You mention that you're a lover of "all things medieval." Any plans to write a novel set in medieval times?
ALONSO-SIERRA: I have ideas, but that would involve a lot of research, so I'm placing it in the back burner for now. Once all the other stories in my head are written, I'll tackle that one. It should be a lot of fun!
To learn more about The Fish Tank: And Other Short Stories please read the review.