FLASH-WRITERS: TRUST YOUR READER: a conversation with Nancy Ludmerer, author of Collateral Damage: 48 Stories (Snake Nation Press, 2022)
by Kathryn Kulpa
I had the pleasure of interviewing Nancy Ludmerer, a student in one of my Cleaver flash fiction workshops, about her full-length flash collection Collateral Damage: 48 Stories, published by Snake Nation Press. Nancy’s work, both fiction and nonfiction, has been widely published in journals, and she moves effortlessly from brief, lyrical microfiction to longer, more complex stories that push the boundaries of flash fiction. A master of compression, she can unfold a lifetime in a paragraph, as she does in this piece from the collection, originally published in Night Train:
When Benjy started to choke on a piece of celery stuffed with scallion cream cheese, I turned from the buffet table and asked, are you okay, and when he shook his head, I said raise your arms but he kept choking, so I slapped him on the back of his fancy new suit, and then two words clicked in my head Heimlich maneuver so I punched my fist into his stomach even though this was the wrong way to do it, but I couldn’t think, couldn’t think of the right way, his gray eyes huge and terrified, I had never seen him that scared, so I cried we need help over here Benjamin is choking and then she was there, Dinah, the wicked stepmother in her fuchsia gown, the airline stewardess (flight attendant, Benjy had corrected me once, don’t be sexist, ma) and she clasped her arms around him from behind and jerked back hard and the celery flew across the room on angel’s wings and I said thank you God while this woman who had wrecked our lives ten years earlier hugged my son and I knew then, on his Bar Mitzvah day, that for everything there is a purpose under heaven.
Five Questions for Nancy Ludmerer:
Kathryn: I love your cover image! Was it something you chose, or did the publishers provide it? Can you tell me a little bit about the photographer and the subject?
Nancy: After accepting the book for publication, Jean Arambula of Snake Nation Press almost immediately asked my thoughts for the cover. The book is in two sections: Part I “Collateral Damage” and Part II “In the Repair Shop.” The stories in Part I turn on a loss and end in uncertainty. Those in Part II tend to offer hope or redemption at the end. It may be fleeting but it’s there. Before responding to Jean, I looked at the websites of three or four artists who are friends and whose work I admire. Chrystie Sherman is a brilliant photographer; the cover photograph, featured on her website, immediately spoke to me because, as I perceived it, it depicted an artist repairing a massive sculpture. There were so many details I loved, from the relative size of the artist and the work to the small mannequin of a graceful woman off to one side. Given Snake Nation’s limited budget, I paid to use the photograph and was thrilled with how it came out. Something else rather extraordinary: Chrystie took the photo several years ago in Ukraine, one of many journeys she took—to India, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, Cuba, and Eastern Europe—to photograph the remnants of Jewish communities there. You can see more of her wonderful work at chrystiesherman.com
Kathryn: Thanks, Nancy! I love the sense of scale in that cover photograph, from the larger-than-life sculpture to the human artist to the tiny wooden figure. Everything is relative, and the details are perfect, down to the smallest object. That’s also true of the stories in this collection. “Bar Mitzvah” was one of my favorite pieces, especially the airline stewardess/flight attendant correction and “Don’t be sexist, Ma!” The story’s form, the mad rush of that one breathless paragraph, fits the subject perfectly, and it’s a wonderful exploration of some of the recurring themes, like the mysterious role of fate in people’s lives, also seen in “Dream Job” and “There I Will Take Your Hand” and “Tale of a Fish.”
I think this is leading me to question two. Do you see fate—the working of chance, or perhaps God—as one of the themes of the book? There are stories where characters agonize over what is the right action to take, sometimes to comic effect, as in “Hal’s Sleep Showroom” and “Reasons Why You Should or Shouldn’t Sleep With Your Son’s Piano Teacher,” and other stories (“Dream Job,” “There I Will Take Your Hand”) where a random happening or thoughtless choice have life-shattering consequences. How much control do any of us really have over our lives?
Nancy: Your question reminds me of Hamlet’s response to Horatio in Act V, Scene II: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” The book recognizes the things we cannot control, yet that doesn’t stop the characters from trying to “shape [their] ends.” None of us can escape loss, but how we respond to it can shape the future. In some stories, the protagonist cedes control—an example would be “St Malo” where the protagonist stays with a man who diminishes her. In others, the narrator has made a decision she wishes she could undo. One of these, addressed to a cat, is aptly called “The Decision.”
For me, one of the most heartbreaking stories is “Clementine” where a young girl, forced to take her dog Clementine to the ASPCA because her family can’t afford to keep her, dreams of a bright future for Clementine (in spite of her friend’s dire prediction) because the dog’s bark is always saying “yes!” As readers (and as the writer), we worry terribly for Clementine’s future—and the narrator’s—but for all of us, saying “yes” is critical to continuing after devastating loss. In “There I Will Take Your Hand” the grandfather finally tells his adult granddaughter a long-held secret about his childhood in Vienna, revealing that he had a sister who perished in the Holocaust when she was unable to go on Kindertransport and he went in her place. What happened certainly was not in his control (he was six at the time) but telling his granddaughter about his sister, after not speaking about her for decades, most definitely is.
I often say I know I’ve found the perfect ending to a story when I read it aloud and can’t help crying as I approach the end. I usually get over it with repeated readings but “Clementine” and “There I Will Take Your Hand” are among the stories where I still have a difficult time reading aloud the final sentences.
Kathryn: Those two stories and “The Decision” definitely got to me as a reader. Another question I have is about the structure. As someone who has worked on putting together flash chapbooks, but not yet a full-length flash collection, I’m fascinated by how writers structure a long(ish) collection of very short pieces. In your acknowledgments, you thank your son for suggesting you put together a collection a decade ago, and I wonder if you see this as a kind of career retrospective—your best work over a number of years? Or did you pick stories that fit together best, or that expressed the ideas of ‘collateral damage’ and ‘repair’? Did the title come first, and then the stories, or did you choose the title after looking at how the group of stories you’d chosen worked together as a whole?
Nancy: Collateral Damage: 48 Stories is definitely a career retrospective. The “oldest” story in the collection was published in 1996; the two most recent in March 2022. That said, there are many stories that didn’t make it in. The four stories in Collateral Damage that are not flash fiction still are no more than around 2000 to 2700 words; I have other 5000- to 7000-word stories that I never considered including. There are also many flash stories I’m proud of—“How Are You?” (published in Vestal Review) and “Learning the Trade in Tenancingo” (published in KYSO Flash), among them—that are not included in Collateral Damage because they are ‘making the rounds’ in other collections with a different focus. Regarding those two stories, I have under submission to various presses a story collection (both full-length and flash) in which all the stories concern the law in some way (tentative title In the Shadow of the Law).
When I first thought about what stories might belong in Collateral Damage, I was aware that many of my stories concern children, who are often the collateral damage of their elders’ mistakes and bad behavior. But soon that expanded to include stories where a marriage or relationship itself is the collateral damage, or even a narrator’s self-image is damaged, as in “Do You Remember Me?” As for the title Collateral Damage, it came first. Indeed, before it was the title of the collection, it was the title of a microfiction, the first story in the book. With most stories, I remember the moment or experience or prompt that eventually led (perhaps years later) to the story, but with this micro “Collateral Damage”—where a common housefly, a witness to domestic violence, is the “collateral damage”—its origins remain a mystery.
Kathryn: Another structure question, but focused more on individual stories. There are many kinds of stories here, from tiny micros to flash fiction to traditional-length short stories, but flash definitely dominates the mix. Can you talk a little about how you came to writing flash fiction? I know you mentioned Pamela Painter’s class in your acknowledgements. Are there other workshops, anthologies, or writers who inspired you? Does flash feel like your natural voice now, or do you find yourself alternating between flash and long-form prose depending on what kind of story you want to tell? I noticed some of these pieces, like “13 Tips for Photographing Your Nephew’s Bar Mitzvah When You Still Can’t Forgive Your Brother-in-Law,” make excellent use of a hermit crab structure. Do you find that writing to a specific form, such as a list, or setting a strict word limit can be a way to make creativity bloom?
Nancy: I began writing flash fiction over 30 years ago in a workshop taught by the wonderful Pamela Painter at the University of Vermont summer program. The next summer I followed her to the Kenyon summer program, where I returned many times, frequently studying with Nancy Zafris, another extraordinary teacher and writer. (Collateral Damage: 48 Stories is dedicated to the memory of my parents and Nancy, who became a dear friend.) Having to produce one or two stories a day in Pamela’s and Nancy’s workshops was exhausting but also confidence-building, as were some acceptances that followed.
Back at home, where I was a full-time lawyer and single mom, I could manage to revise and polish a flash fiction; this was harder with a 15- or 20-page story. The form is one I particularly love. Indeed, some of my favorite writers are masters of flash (as well as longer works), including Chekhov, Kafka, Paley, and Tillie Olsen. In terms of creative inspiration, I don’t consider myself a master of the hermit-crab form (“13 Tips” is one of my rare hermit-crab successes), but do find prompts and word limits helpful. For years, Beth Ann Bauman’s weekly Filling the Well workshops (previously at the West Side Y in New York City, now on Zoom) have kept me writing even when life intervenes. As to whether flash is my natural voice, I’m not sure. I’m thrilled to say that my novella-in-flash chapbook, set in 17th-century Venice, is soon to be published by WTAW Press. When it comes to my longer work, Karen Bender’s advice and guidance have been invaluable.
Kathryn: Finally, so many of these stories are about failed relationships and family structures. Romances that fizzle out (“Waiting,” which reminded me of that wonderful Stuart Dybek story “We Didn’t”), children disappointed by their parents (“Foley Square, July 2019,” “Fathers,” “Family Day”), single parents struggling to cope after death or divorce (“Adventureland,” “Security Device”) and partners conflicted about the overwhelming responsibility of parenthood (“Hal’s Sleep Showroom”). Yet other stories, like “There I Will Take Your Hand” and “Cara Cara,” present a more tender picture of family bonds. This makes me think again of the titles of the two sections, “Collateral Damage” and “In the Repair Shop.” Did you think consciously about including more ‘hopeful’ stories to balance out the darker pieces? More broadly, is it necessary for art to provide us with hope or redemption, or is it enough for it to reflect something true about life, even if it’s a tough truth?
Nancy: I definitely chose to include stories that end on a more hopeful note in Part II of the book. The original manuscript I submitted to Snake Nation Press had the same number of stories as the published version, but was not divided into “damage” and “repair.” Given the two years that elapsed between submission and acceptance (mainly due to COVID), SNP let me revise the manuscript to include around ten new stories and make other changes and deletions. In that process I realized it made sense to divide the book into two sections, giving readers some breathing room. As it is, readers occasionally tell me they need to stop after reading a story and continue later because each story creates its own universe. Another way I see this is that, in flash, the reader must fill in the blanks, what’s left unsaid. As a writer of flash, you must trust your reader to do some work and engage readers enough so they are willing to do it. (And yes, Stuart Dybek’s brilliant story “We Didn’t” remains an inspiration; I was beyond thrilled that he wrote a blurb for Collateral Damage).
There are several stories that could have worked in either section, ‘damage’ or ‘repair.’ In the final revision stage, my goal was to make the sections roughly equal. In response to the final part of your question, I don’t think a story has to provide hope or redemption. If it changes or engages the reader in some way, that is enough.
Collateral Damage:48 Stories (134 pages, $20, ISBN 978-1-7346810-7-9) is available from Snake Nation Press and signed copies are available on Amazon. Additional purchasing information is available at nancyludmerer.com.
Kathryn Kulpa is the author of Girls on Film, a flash chapbook (Paper Nautilus); Who’s the Skirt?, a micro-chapbook (Origami Poems Press); Pleasant Drugs, a short story collection (Mid-List Press); and Cooking Tips for the Demon-Haunted, forthcoming from New Rivers Press. Her work can be found in Flash Frog, Five South, Ghost Parachute, Milk Candy Review, Unbroken, and Wigleaf, and her stories have been chosen for Best Microfiction and the Wigleaf longlist and nominated for Best Small Fictions and the Pushcart Prize. Kathryn is a senior flash editor at Cleaver and leads writing workshops.