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Anatomy of a Flash: Jessica Hollander

Jessica Hollander is pursuing her MFA at the University of Alabama. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Quarterly West, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sou’wester, and Hobart, among others. You can visit her here.

Her flash fiction, The Good Luck Doll appeared in the second issue of Corium Magazine. It’s a magnificent piece–unsettling and darkly comic.  Interview after the jump.

What made you write “The Good Luck Doll?” Was there a triggering event?

I’m in a writers’ group and we give each other prompts each month. The prompt for this one was “golem.”

I started this story when I was pregnant, and since I couldn’t imagine or was scared to imagine what having an actual kid would be like, I spent a good amount of time remembering my young self: weird obsessions and superstitions I had (for example, when I was in middle school my dad gave me this palm-sized necklace, a bulky African wood-carving that I decided was good luck and wore beneath my shirt every day for months. Can you imagine how that looked?)

But you don’t have much agency when you’re a kid. Your parents tell you what to do without bothering to explain why, and there are plenty of older and bigger kids who shoot rubber bands at your legs, and you’re made to feel you have little control over creative and intellectual pursuits (teachers say things like “she’s a natural,” or “she’s just not geologically inclined”). It’s a good day when we learn about luck and set out to find a certain stone or safety pin or fingernail clipping that might bring us all we desire.

But just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you have agency. To some degree, we all rely on luck or chance. For example, when getting pregnant.

This is one of the more disturbing stories I’ve read and at first I was so disturbed I didn’t like it, even after the second and third read. ‘Varieties of Disturbance’ as the Lydia Davis phrase goes. The couple doesn’t seem right for one another—Steve is clearly happy someone is able to do things for him in their new living situation. Also their sense of humor seems to be off as they try to get pregnant, they can’t even recognize the other’s jokes. The mother is upset and sends the doll to Claudia with ill humor. In the end nothing is resolved and they are left wishing, or are they? It seems the characters really don’t know if they want a child. How do you see the characters?

There’s so much fear associated with pregnancy. Yes, there’s hope too – you know, we’re perpetuating the species, “I Believe The Children Are The Future” – but people have fertility issues, miscarriages, and then there’s the pain of birth and the risk of SIDS and the horror of baby-snatchers, and the baby hasn’t peed in 24 hours, is that normal? I think with pregnancy (the before, during, and after) it’s easy to get obsessed with the end result and take very little joy in the process. It can be hard to keep your sense of humor when you’ve had sex three times a day for the past month and find you’re still not pregnant.

Claudia and Steve (and even the mother) are in the midst of this process – waiting around for their life to change. A lot of anger and insecurities surface. They mesh less. Power dynamics change or become more extreme, and what they used to share (jokes, a life outlook) becomes secondary or irritating. I don’t think these characters are particularly noble or loveable, but I think each one is sympathetic and wants to make things better, but they get confused as to how to do that. When Claudia pretends to be pregnant, there’s a glimpse at what is good in their relationship and I think there’s a bit of hope. But by the end of the story, they’ve caused so much damage. Still, for various reasons, people stay in damaged relationships.

Excluding the case of accidental pregnancies, deciding to have a kid is a commitment most make long before the kid arrives. Sacrifices must be made immediately. Your vision of the future completely changes. So does your relationship to your significant other. Here you are, nervous if having offspring is the right decision and if you’ll be able to handle it, and you just want the kid to be here so you can get on with it and stop sitting around worrying. Any obstacle to getting pregnant adds to the anxiety. It can bring out a lot of ugliness. But I think ugliness is interesting. Don’t you?

Following up on the characters, it seems their eccentricities, like making pancakes in animal shapes and then growling while eating—these touches make them a bit more likeable. Was there any conscious intent when adding these details?

Odd details and eccentricities are great because they allow for additional layers and metaphors that don’t feel so heavy-handed because they’re all in good fun. For example, I don’t have the two characters watching a show on the nature channel in which two lions hiss and snap at each other for control of a certain territory. Yes, we are animals with base instincts like eating and procreating, and we engage constantly in struggles for power. Claudia has had very little power her whole life, and then she has some with the “pregnancy,” and then she loses some, and who ends up with the power? Who takes control of the territory? Humans are horrible. But we also love pancakes.

There is very little dialogue in the piece but what is there is very telling. Especially when Steve says, “Am I a prize or what?” Are you more comfortable keeping dialogue to a minimum? And if so, why?

Dialogue is my favorite part of writing – although it wasn’t always. When I first started writing, I dumped lots of dialogue in my stories without seeing the voice of the characters as something separate from the narrative voice. Dialogue was serviceable. I didn’t have any fun with it.

Then a teacher suggested thinking of dialogue as poetry – why have characters speak at all if they’re not going to be interesting and surprising? I try to make my dialogue stand out as something that’s distinct from the narrative and adds another dimension to what’s happening in the story. I wouldn’t have a character say, “I’m going to the bathroom,” and then that character gets up and goes to the bathroom. Maybe the character could say, “Excuse me while I catapult myself from the window,” and then he goes to the bathroom. I love writing dialogue, but I never do it just to move the plot along. Because dialogue means so much to me, I sometimes end up being sparse with it.

You have a newborn yourself. How is this changing or not changing how and what you write about?

I have a difficult time writing about what’s happening in my life when it’s happening. Right now I’m in constant newborn-mode: I wake up when he cries, I barely leave the house for fear of disrupting his eat/nap/play-schedule, I spend hours a day shushing him to sleep (an activity I have little experience with – I was never good at requesting others in crowded movie theaters to be quiet). But does any of this make interesting fiction? Is any of the above interesting to you? I doubt it. Not yet. I’m too close to the daily misery (and, yes, the daily happiness) of new motherhood.

Instead I often write toward my fears – past fears and fears of the future. For all the reasons I’ve mentioned, I wrote a lot of dark pieces while I was pregnant – about the process of becoming pregnant and the impending life changes and all the scary things that can happen to babies. Now I find myself writing a lot of pieces from the perspective of parents with older kids, sorting through mistakes and misreadings and the various miseries and happinesses we inflict on each other when us humans live in close quarters.

I’m already afraid of what will be lost and what will be gained. We can all be scary and we can all be ugly, and so can life. All we can hope is we have some penny or crack in the wall or sweaty baseball hat or ragged doll that will turn out to be lucky.

2 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Flash: Jessica Hollander

  1. Love the creepiness of this story!

    Really like the pronoun bit:
    “Once he’d said, “My front door’s sticking again,” and she said, “The door might be yours but the stickiness belongs to the landlord.”


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