A Chat with Author Iris N. Schwartz

Hi everyone. As promised, here is my recent Q & A with Iris N. Schwartz, in support of the publication of her new book of flash fiction, My Secret Life with Chris Noth and Other Stories! It is a terrific collection of stories, out now from Poets Wear Prada. Please read on…

My Secret Life with Chris Noth and Other Stories by Iris N. Schwartz $12.00

Published October, 2017, by POETS WEAR PRADA, Hoboken, NJ

Hi, Iris! As not only a long-time colleague of yours, but also a huge fan of both your fiction and poetry, I am really excited to be talking to you today about your new book, My Secret Life with Chris Noth and Other Stories. Congratulations on its publication!

First of all – why Chris Noth?

My story “My Secret Life with Chris Noth” came about because Jellyfish Review, a literary journal that had previously published my story “Ever After,” put out a call for story submissions re: celebrities. Chris Noth, star of two Law & Order franchises and Sex in the City, immediately came to mind. And that is what the kids call the origin story for MSLWCN.

Was there a personal reason why you chose Chris Noth for a story about celebrities?

I thought he’d make an appealing object of desire.

Okay! Enough said… You’re a prolific writer, with so many flash and microfiction pieces to choose from. Who made the selection of the stories that are included in My Secret Life with Chris Noth and Other Stories?

I selected the stories included in the book. My publisher, POETS WEAR PRADA (PWP), told me to select what I wanted to include in this first collection. I chose pieces to reflect a broad range of protagonists and environments.

Do you sense an overriding theme to this specific collection? Or a particular reason why these stories were selected?

One overriding theme is the main character striving for her or his true self. This includes, especially for younger protagonists, searching for authenticity while clashing with familial or societal strictures. An additional theme is facing difficult circumstances with courage, creativity, and humor.

A lot like how you’ve lived your own life. In fact, so much of your flash fiction feels highly personal – as if, through the razor-sharp details you include about your characters – the reader is getting insights into your life and how you’ve lived it. What is your process for telling a fictional story that also includes these “autobiographical clues” to your own life, while indeed keeping it a work of fiction?

I don’t know that I have a process for it! For a long time I consciously resisted writing anything based on events and people in my life. Eventually, I began to write what I wanted to write after opening my laptop. Or what I didn’t know I wanted or needed to write. More recently, I’ve written stories intentionally based on events and/or characters from my life. I revise to protect the innocent and the guilty. On the other hand, some family members and friends have asked if a particular story is about me or them when I very fastidiously made everything up! In general, I try to give all my characters particulars, such as quirks, compulsions, or physical features that make them believable.

We first met at a reading at Barnes & Noble, in New York City, at Astor Place. This was way back in 1998, when you were primarily known on the downtown scene as a poet. At what point did you transition from writing poetry to writing flash fiction?

Marilyn, we’ve known each other a long time. (It’s a good thing we were twelve when we met!) I didn’t transition from poet to fiction writer. I began writing fiction while in grade school; I started writing poetry in my twenties, while still writing fiction. On the way to where I am now I’ve had short stories, poems, creative nonfiction, and one novella (with which you were involved as an editor) published. And I began writing a novel in flash-length chapters (before I knew the definition, and the feel, of flash).

What was that initial spark of attraction – do you remember the moment when you thought, “I want to try my hand at this?” [writing flash fiction]. How long did it take before you felt confident enough to start sending your flash fiction pieces out to publishers?

I started writing flash stories more than two years ago, after reading Damn Sure Right, a collection by flash exponent Meg Pokrass, whom I’d befriended on Facebook. As soon as I began writing flash and microfiction, I understood I’d discovered my true métier. (Plus, it didn’t hurt that my acceptance rate [by publishers] nearly doubled what I’d achieved before writing flash.)

Your pieces are so emotionally satisfying to read; they really pack an unexpected punch in a small amount of space. [DISCLAIMER to readers: I have sometimes assisted Iris with edits and suggestions for her works-in-progress, which includes several pieces that wound up in My Secret Life with Chris Noth and Other Stories.] What is the average word-count for flash fiction pieces, in general?

Thank you (re “unexpected punch”). The word count for flash fiction is an upper limit of 1,000 words; mine often average from 350 to 800. Unless I’m working on a piece with predetermined limits, each story dictates its own length. Then there’s microfiction, with an upper word top, generally, of 300. I enjoy working within confines, and am especially challenged by the 100-word upper limit.

What is your process for taking an emotional idea/concept and then capturing it on the page in such a limited word count? Is this a process that you can describe?

If I write microfiction with a 300 word-count upper limit, for example, I write the whole story, aiming for about 400 to 500 words to start. I indicate the word count for that rough draft. Then I edit. I try to delete as much excess verbiage as possible, but, inevitably, the more I whittle down, the more I spot something duplicative, or in need of a synonym, etc. I almost always finish after multiple versions, until I feel, maybe at version 10, that the story is tight.

With your background of so many years writing and publishing poetry, do you think that’s given you the skills you need to keep your imagery so tight? Or are the creations of poetry and flash fiction approached differently? 

Yes, poetry has pressed me to write with fewer and better words, as have poetry workshops taken with Angelo Verga. Reading my work to other writers, and poets, too, or having them read my work, helps immensely — especially when I’m stuck. I’ve also taken fiction writing classes — with Peter Trachtenberg and with Meredith Sue Willis — that introduced me to the work of significant writers and helped me improve my pruning. As did a flash writing workshop I took with Meg Pokrass this past summer. Reading good writing is a must. The fact that I edit my own fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, as well as that of other writers and poets, compels me to choose words wisely.

In fact, you’ve been my editor, now, on all of my projects over the last several years. You have a great eye! And – to switch gears, here – as someone who has worked with you for a couple of decades now in various aspects of publishing and editing, I can attest to the fact that you have a real knack for capturing the allure, the comfort, the eroticism, and the humor of food, and especially in how it relates to various neighborhoods in New York City. Can you comment on this?

Comment on it? I can write a book about it! Alcohol and drugs never held much allure for me. Cigarettes? I smoked two with a friend when I was 14, to look cool in front of a couple of boys. Instead, I choked furiously. The boys moved on. No more cigarettes for me.

But food held my hand when I felt miserably alone, celebrated high marks with me, and sometimes found its way into the bedroom. I work to reduce its role in my life. I need to eat when I’m hungry, don’t need to eat when I feel — whatever I feel. I prefer to eat good food, in reasonable amounts, and leave the erotic and compulsive descriptions to my characters, should they wish to pursue that.

I’ve heard there might be a follow-up book for you with Poets Wear Prada. Is this correct?

Yes, a second collection of stories with PWP is scheduled to be published, probably in fall or early winter of 2018.

That’s great! I can’t wait to read another round of your stories. It’s always a real delight for me to spend time delving into your fiction.

What are the various ways that readers can find you on the web?

My Amazon Author page.

My aboutme.com page.

My Poets & Writers page.

My Facebook page.

Thanks, Iris, for taking time out to engage in a little “Q & A” with me today! Again, congratulations on the publication of My Secret Life with Chris Noth and Other Stories, published by POETS WEAR PRADA.

Marilyn, thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to talk with you!

A mish-mash of heartache

I know, it’s been forever since I’ve been able to get to this blog.  This month has just barreled along.  Every project imaginable seeming to intersect with one another, so that I have had way too much to do and am getting not a whole lot completed. Yet.

Still no official word on how much my mortgage has been pre-approved for, so this limbo I’ve been living in for one whole year now is really getting tiresome.  [Read: Depressing.] Now that I know for sure that I have to move again, I really, really, REALLY want to just move and unpack my boxes, take a look at all my cool STUFF once again, and start living my life.  Books, movies, music, furniture — there’s so much of my stuff that I’d like to have access to! And, yes, photo albums.

This weekend marks not only what would have been Tom Petty’s 67th birthday — (if you live in a cave, perhaps you don’t know that Tom Petty suddenly died a couple weeks ago) —

Tom Petty, as he looked a zillion years ago, on his first album cover; an album I bought when I was a wee bonny lass; an album I still have somewhere in deep storage and can’t get at…

But also, this weekend marks the anniversary of the death of my very best friend in all of life and the world as we knew it. Paul died 18 years ago tomorrow, and I am astounded that 18 years can disappear in the wink of eye. What went by even more quickly, gentle readers, were the 22 years that he and I were best friends.

I cannot imagine that I am old enough to have a best friend who has been dead for 18 years. And, no insults intended for any folks I know who are still alive, however, life has simply been pretty empty without him in it.

I knew it would be that way the day he died. That everything would be a little less beautiful from then on. He was so funny, so talented, so adventurous, so compassionate, kind, caring. And he always had my back. He was the living definition of a best friend. (We met in the high school drama department. He built our high school theater sets. He went on to work in the movies as a set designer/set builder.)

Anyway. I was hoping to find a digital photo of him to post here today, but alas, I could not find one. And ALL of my tons of non-digital photos of him are packed away in boxes that are in deep storage, too. So frustrating.  I want my life back.

However, while searching through tons of flash drives for possible JPEGS of Paul, I found a ton of other photos that broke my heart. So it’s been a  rough morning. But cathartic, too, I suppose.

Earlier this month would have been John Lennon’s 77th birthday, had he not been murdered, 37 years ago, only a handful of weeks after I had moved to New York City.  John Lennon was my very first hero, from the time I was 10 years old. I found this lovely photo of him on a flash drive:

John Lennon with son, Julian.

I also found 2 rather different photos of myself taken by my dear, departed friend Paul:

Me, on the porch of Paul’s beach house in North Carolina, when he was working on the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.
Me, in the bedroom of my East Village apartment, in 1984, when Paul was visiting from DC for Thanksgiving. I’m a spry 24-year-old here.

I also found a digital photo of a photo from my long-ago wedding. Hard to remember that I used to not have a ton of silver hair…

And hard to believe we’ve been divorced now for 14 years, after having been together for 11 years before that. But we’ve managed to stay friends…

And a few years before one of my alleged “friends” turned out to be the most awesome b*tch, EVER, I used to have fond memories of Paris. I no longer have fond memories of Paris, so it was startling to discover these photos on a flash drive and to recall that I once loved Paris. From my first trip to Paris, when I was so happy:

Looking down at the street from my friend’s apartment on the Left Bank, late at night. I can still hear the laughter and the clanking dishes coming up from that cafe.
Her cottage in the country was right on the river. here’s a shot of her boat…
And — if you can believe how lovely this is!– the weeping willows at the edge of her yard, right on the river.

It was a strange feeling, to recall that I had once loved Paris. I guess it’s time to reclaim parts of my life from people who totally suck. What do you think, gang?

And then I also found this photo. This was the beginning of the feral cat madness! Here are Tom, Huckleberry, and Becky, on the swing in the backyard of my old house. This was when the 3 were stray kittens, abandoned by a neighbor who moved away and simply left them. The kittens began living in my backyard. In this photo, I hadn’t been able to trap them yet. This was before they had a truckload of un-adoptable feral kittens in my basement.  Yes, before my life was overtaken by the lovely 8 cats who now allow me to live with them (actually, I love them dearly):

Tom, Huckleberry, and Becky enjoying the great outdoors, as wild, untamed kittens! I think was in early fall of 2012.

I also found quite a big bunch of digital photos from the old house, back when the house & yard were beautiful, before the developers contracted to buy it (and never did, after dragging it on for 3 1/2 years) and then the house fell to pieces. Such a sad, sad thing for me. But here, again — I never allow myself to think of the old house, because it became such a nightmare of heartache for me. To suddenly see these photos of how lovely it was before it all fell to ruin. It awoke all those feelings I had buried away of how much I had loved that house.

Of course the saddest part was, that Bunny died the day after we moved from the old house and moved into the current rental that I’m in.

And that was exactly one year ago.

So this weekend also marks the first anniversary of Bunny’s death. I miss her so much.

A selfie of me and Bunny at the old house. I can’t remember which one of us snapped the candid shot! Probably me, since Bunny almost never had her phone with her.

Oh gosh. Well, all right. Life goes on, regardless of how happy I am, or often am not, about that idea.

However. On the happy front, a long-time friend of mine in NYC, Iris N. Schwartz, has a new book out! Keep glued to this blog for a great Q & A that I did with her earlier this month, in support of her new book.

Have a great weekend, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, gang. And keep in mind that time freakin’ FLIES, so love the heck out of whatever and whoever you love while it’s all still vibrantly alive in front of you. A word to the wise is sufficient, as the saying goes.

Thanks for visiting. See ya.


R.I.P. Tom Petty

It seems another one of my girlhood heroes has crossed over the Great Divide.

I tried to figure out which of Tom Petty’s songs could be considered my absolute favorite and it was too difficult to pin down. Instead, I regale you with my favorite song that he did with The Traveling Wilburys. (Another one of those songs that resonates more & more intensely, the older I get.)

Vaya con dios, amigoKiss the joy as it flies, gang. I’m just sayin’…