Life In, Life Out: A Conversation with Avital Gad-Cykman

front_cover copy 2My friend, Avital Gad-Cykman, has a collection of flash fiction published and available now with Matter Press, entitled Life In, Life Out. She is an award-winning and internationally published writer with a uniquely beautiful style and voice. I cannot recommend her work highly enough. I wanted to talk to Avital about the book, her life and her writing life. I started by asking her to talk a bit about her background. So, without further ado…

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When I look back, now that Kathy has asked me to tell about my background, I find it has had an ambiguity about it all along. I grew up in a small town not far from the Negev Desert in Israel, and I remember with longing the small house surrounded by a few others like it, open fields, golden dunes and then the beach. Later, I came to realize that because most of us children who lived there so freely, almost wildly, were the sons and daughters of holocaust survivors, there was a kind of tempting but cruel deep shadow right beside us, between us and our parents and between us and the world. I wrote about it in my story Islands of Salt that appears in Per Contra.

Still, I have fond memories from that town and then another by the beach, until the time my father passed away and everything changed. Someone told me that the coincidence of that loss with my then age of twelve is unfortunate, because my feeling that everything about me shuttered and yet hardened then is typical to many people who led uneventful life at that age but feel they left Paradise and entered (an adolescent) Hell just then.

Anyway, I had written poems and tiny plays since I learned to write, and after losing my father I moved to writing down poems full of my quarrel with God, when I wasn’t busy thinking about boys. Then, from the age of sixteen I lived on my own. My mother, too, became sick and passed away. It’s almost ironic that my parents’ constant worry for me turned around and was realized in their own absence from my life.

I couldn’t speak about it, not much, but since I had to express the fierce pain somehow, along with the passions and longings, and the absurd of the co-existence of pleasure and loss, I wrote diaries, and when they did not satisfy me, I tried this and that until I turned away from facts to imagination and wrote one short story–a flash as it’s called today–when I was already living in Brazil with my own family, and a friend from Canada and another from Australia, people I met in my early living through the Internet, both told me I should write more of it, and I did and became deeply involved with fiction.

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Kathy: What went into some of the choices you made for the book, i.e. why that title, why structured in two parts, why the titles for the two parts? To me, it feels like the first half of the book has more magic realism elements, the second half more straight realism. But I feel like more went into the chosen structure, so if you could talk a little about that…

Avital: It took me a while to come up with the title because the collection deals with war, strife, resistance, parenthood, childhood, passion and longing. While some flashes go into the psyche, others have their feet set well on the ground. I finally realized that they light a certain life, or a moment in life, and move on to another and another. So there came Life In. Life out.

The first part is more surrealistic. It’s titled Sudden Changes after one of the more dramatic flashes, because many flashes speak about that confrontation with the uncomfortable, unexpected and even bizarre. The second part, Minute Life Length, is more realistic, though there are moments in two or three flashes that are borrowed from the mind rather than from an earthy existence. I included in this part the flashes that played into one another in a slightly chronological way of a lifetime, which feels like a brief one.

Kathy: Who are your literary heroes or influences? In terms of flash, who are your favorite flash writers?

Avital: I love so many writers that if I imagine them as my heroes what comes to mine is a whole army of literary guardians, my superpower…From the times before I became a writer and still used to reread books I fondly remember David Grossman, whose Hebrew prose is magnificent, Mikail Bulgakov whose irony and passion create unique semi-existing worlds, Jean Genet whose provocative, sensuous writing questions everything, and Gabriel Garcie Marquez whose stories are worlds of their own. I am painfully aware of the fact that I didn’t have any female author whose books I followed, collected and devoured. I did read and reread Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebooks, but not her other works. Anyway, I have since became an avid reader of women authors, among them the insightful, sharp and varied Margaret Atwood, the intimate, psyche researcher Elena Ferrante, and the genius short story teller Alice Munro. There are so many other authors I love I simply can’t list them all. I should add rapidly a few from the younger generation: Amir Gutfreund who writes beautifully about my childhood and my Israel, or so it seems, Aleksandar Hemon who writes with humor and pain about exile among other things, and Jhumpa Lahiri whose short stories astound me with their exquisite storytelling. I am also blessed with friends: writers whose writing I adore and admire, but they are many and I’m afraid to start counting.

I can’t say I seek flashes over other forms of writing, but I love it. Many of the authors I’ve already mentioned write it beautifully. A master of it, however, is Julio Cortazar with his surreal worlds that may just be the world in which we live.

Kathy: I definitely see the influence of Marquez and Lahiri in your work, Avital. What are the themes you find yourself returning to in your writing? Over and over in your stories, mentions of war and peace, past wars, current fears, the idea of invasion and these I know are drawn from life, family, history and culture.

Avital: It is hard for me to determine my themes, because it seems to me that I write about whatever sparks my attention, an intense moment, emotion or situation, an intriguing idea, humorous or dream-like or words that encapsulate a story in them. However, when I read my flashes for a conversation about them and about the female body in literature written by women in general, I suddenly realized how lovers, pregnant women, mothers and others had a visceral sense of the world through their bodies. Then I read it to edit it, and I was struck by the thread of war that goes through them, along with emotions of resistance and dread. So, I guess that it depends on the readers (including me) and on their state of mind to find the persisting issues.back_cover (1) copy

Kathy: Avital, thank you so much! Your collection is stunning. Readers, you may click HERE to order Life In, Life Out. The book is also available for order from Amazon.

BIO: Avital Gad-Cykman is the winner of Margaret Atwood Society Magazine Prize and The Hawthorne Citation Contest. She is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for Iowa Fiction Award for story collections.

Her stories have appeared in magazines such as The Literary Review, Glimmer Train, McSweeney’s, Prism International, CALYX Journal, and Michigan Quarterly Review. Her work has also been featured in anthologies such as Sex for America, Politically Inspired Fiction, Stumbling and Raging, Politically Inspired Fiction, and W.W. Norton’s International Flash Anthology. She was born and raised in Israel and now she lives in Brazil. Contact her at avital.gc@gmail.com

Cancer Arm: A Thanksgiving Flash

fall foliage

Cancer Arm

It’s Thanksgiving and your mother appears and disappears at will. One second ago, she was touching your shoulder, whispering something funny. You think you might grab hold of her, bury your face in the folds of her neck, but you look up and she’s gone. It’s as if she’s a vapor, sprayed from a can. She smells like Dove soap.

She keeps “The Big Book of Cancer Symptoms” on the coffee table. You can’t fathom her guests happily leafing through it as she flies off to blend margaritas, yet there it sits, dwarfing “Rocky Mountain Sunsets: Complete with Poetry,” the book you gave her.

The book has diagrams you can follow, like a maze, starting with one symptom and then answering a series of questions, weaving your way down the page. Sometimes you’re led off to one side where the book tells you, “This is the common cold.” Or you’re led all the way to the bottom of the page where it says “See your doctor immediately” in red letters. The pages are embossed with your mother’s fingerprints.

It’s Thanksgiving and you always sit next to your brother-in-law, Peter, who is easily the smartest one of the whole bunch, yet nobody listens to him. Undaunted, Peter keeps on talking. He always knows when you’re lying, which is often. He’s a sort of savant lie detector. You ask him to pass the peas. He asks why you’re late. And you say, “long distance phone call from an old friend” and he says, “Bullshit” plucking a hair off your sweater and you say, “You’re right! Please pass the buns.”

Your mother listens to Deepak Chopra’s books on tape. It is a sort of project of hers. You always pronounce his name ChokeRa and she corrects you. Deepak Chopra says you shouldn’t think too much about cancer or you will get it.

Well then.

What your mother doesn’t know is that you’re terrified. You think about it all the time. Cancer cancer cancer. Cancer leg. Cancer arm. You’ve eaten too many cancer hot dogs and sausages in your life. You’ve gotten too many cancer sunburns. Cancer throat. Cancer head. Too much cancer sex.

Your thoughts have the power to change the structure of your cells, cancerizing them. You can feel it and it rattles you.

It’s Thanksgiving and you are six years old. Your knee socks are pulled up over your kneecaps. Rusty, your Golden Retriever, is under the table and now and then you drop a piece of turkey on the floor for him. What you’d really like is a Tollhouse cookie or some muskmelon, cut into chunks. You think Rusty’s distended stomach is from eating too much, though in truth, he hardly eats at all. He won’t make it to Christmas and neither will your father. Everyone knows this but you.

You cheated on your husband one month after you were married. Peter knows, but he doesn’t judge. Oh how you love Peter!

Peter leans over, says, “How are you, Doll?” and you want to say, “I’m hurting. I can’t sleep. All food tastes like old cheese and I’m alarmed” but you tell him you’re splendid. And he says, “You’re not” and you imagine the word biopsy floating between the two of you, in bubble letters.

The word sounds happy to you, almost drunken. Biopsy is whimsy’s first cousin. It is a daisy chain wrapped around the neck of a child. Who could worry over something so pretty?

Today, there are all these people. Your sister, Kate, and Peter. Your uncles who never married, Uncle Fred who served in Nam and Uncle Brian who still pulls quarters out of your ears and the neighbor couple, Martin and Marie, who come every year because they have no family of their own. There is way too much food and the table’s crowded and you’d still rather have a cookie or a wiener on a bun or a bowl of oatmeal than the slabs of steaming turkey breast, the outsized mounds of mashed potatoes. You have always hated this meal. You catch yourself leaning down to touch Rusty’s head, and this makes you laugh and cry at the same time.

It’s Thanksgiving and your mother’s house has gone golden and clotted with voices. Your mother waits for you to lean back so she can set down a plate of sweet potato pie. Exasperated, she flutters away, but you catch her wrist, draw her hand to your lips and kiss it, just in time.

(Originally published in Per Contra.)

Tension in Flash Fiction: A Prompt

Thanksgiving is almost upon us. I thought I’d issue a challenge to my readers to write a tense scene. Make weather another character. Use subtext. Involve a small animal. Here is an old story of mine to demonstrate. Claudia Smith Chen had been guest editing Hobart online, with the theme of “firsts and lasts” and she chose this story for her issue. Can you incorporate that theme into your flash? Have fun and happy holidays!

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Margaret & Beak Discuss Jazz For The Last Time

It rained hard all morning. They had to raise their voices to be heard over the noise of it. Beak’s toes, dangling out under the awning, were numb from the pelting, nearly frozen. Beak always wore sandals.

“Do you want to…” He leaned forward. “Do you want to hear some jazz this evening?”

They were drinking cafe outside the Brasserie du Montparnasse.

“Where?” Margaret asked. “To tell you the truth I’ve come to hate the jazz. No offense.”

Beak took no offense. He lit a slim, brown cigarette and drew on it. “But have you heard the flugelhorn? I mean, have you heard a particularly adept flugelhorn?”

Margaret allowed that she had not. There were many things she’d not heard. She felt, however, that she’d heard enough.

The waiter balanced a tray of fresh cafes, holding a menu over his head. They took the cups and nodded their thanks. The waiter rushed away. The rain blew sideways now, the daisy in the center of the table swung round in its vase. Beak pushed his chair back further under the awning, protecting his feet.

“Let’s leave,” Margaret said.

Beak spooned sugar into his cup and stirred in a leisurely fashion.

“Okay,” she said, “but after this. Immediately after this. Maybe we could see a film. Do you want to see a film? I’m so sick of the jazz.”

“What?”

“I’m so sick of the jazz!” She shivered. Really, it was not a good day. “My stomach hurts.”

Beak lifted his newspaper and flipped both sides back and folded it in half, running the side of his hand along the crease.

“It says here…”

“It’s the cafe. It’s too strong. My stomach’s a ball of acid right now.” Margaret wrapped her arms around her middle.

“Well, stop drinking it then. Here, I’ll take it.” Beak pulled her cup towards him. “It says here the flugelhorn is the deepest, most mysterious of the jazz instruments. Furthermore…”

“I’ll call Carolyn. Maybe she and Jack would like to see a film.” Margaret watched a drenched cat dash across the avenue. It raced up a chestnut tree after a squirrel.

“Furthermore, a particularly adept flugelhorn, the sound of it, the timbre, has the ability to transport. Did you hear that, Margaret? Transport! Now. Wouldn’t you like to be transported?”

“Beak, we’re the only ones out here. I’m cold. My stomach hurts. Do I want to be transported? Yes. Take me home.”

“Do you know that one side of your face is a little lower than the other?”

“Beak…”

“I’m serious! Your mouth, your eyelid. Margaret, have you had a stroke? Look, it stopped raining! Now you’re being silly. Sit down, sit down! I promise we’ll go in five minutes.”

“I wonder if we should get a divorce.”

“Now there’s a question! Sit down, we can talk about it. We can discuss it reasonably. Are you sure you’re up for it, though? Maybe we should discuss it tomorrow. We’ll go to a film tonight. We’ll go with Jack and Carolyn. We’ll have the best evening of our lives. We’ll get very drunk and then go home and have exceedingly passionate sex and in the morning, we’ll discuss it. But you…” Beak touched Margaret’s nose,”…won’t feel like it anymore.”

(This one’s an oldie, originally published in Hobart.)

Mothra, Sidereal, Kindling

mothraThese seem more like prose poetry, or hybrid pieces anyway:

Mothra

Her brother returned late at night. He opened his arms, showering her bed with wrapped and tied things. His face in the TV light dissolving, reconstituting. I’ve seen this one, he said. And she told him don’t leave, I’ll change it! Her hands in a panic, feeling all over, knocking things off.

Sidereal

When they were young, their father sent mittens in red and green, forgetting it was summer there and that their hands had become large and grasping. And that now they ran shirtless like pagans under southern stars. They took his gifts and dressed up the tree like a sentry, a monster with four hands.

Kindling

Her brother said careful, the snow globe! And as he moved his arms and legs broke off, broke apart, like kindling. The fine bones of his hands spidered across the floor. Gathered like that.

*Thanks, as ever, to Sam Rasnake for publishing this piece originally in Blue Fifth Review.

Some New Things: Interview with Brad Watson, Jeff Landon flash, & Lauren Becker’s book…

Brad Watson is apparently a kindred spirit:

“I’m old-fashioned and believe that the writer’s only real job — day jobs aside — is to write, and to write the best work one is capable of writing. I’m happy to go out, give readings or talks, visit classes or clubs — when and if anyone is interested — but even that is pretty distracting, work-wise. It interrupts work you’ve inevitably already begun on something new. I don’t really believe anyone knows for sure, yet, whether or not using social media to promote yourself works all that well. Maybe it does in those rare cases when someone does or creates something that, as they say, “goes viral.” In any case, my personality is not a good fit with self-promotion.”

I, too, have always felt uncomfortable with self-promotion and don’t like spending too much time on social media because I resent the time it takes away from real life and writing…however! I’ve made wonderful contacts with other writers that I wouldn’t have without it and for that I’m forever grateful. Writing is a tough and lonely gig. Read the rest of Watson’s interview in Fiction Southeast. Watson is the author of Aliens in The Prime of Their Lives, a collection of short stories I really liked and recommend. watson book

I was thrilled to see new flash fiction by a favorite writer, Jeff Landon, in Wigleaf. It’s called “Bobs” and here is an excerpt:

“We drink bourbon and beer, gobble pizza puffs, and watch the slide show of our gone lives with Amy: Bad teeth Bob with Amy on the boardwalk, her hands in his hair gone now from the chemotherapy. We watch the pictures and we are kindred and moony and Bob.”

Anyway, go read the whole story and Jeff’s accompanying postcard here and you can read a whole bunch of Jeff’s stories in Truck Dance, his collection of stories published by Matter Press. If you’re a fan of and/or writer of flash fiction, I can’t recommend it enough. Jeff’s writing is like none other, beautiful, heartbreaking, and funny.truck dance

I recently read Lauren Becker’s novella + story collection, published by Curbside Splendor books, If I Would Leave Myself Behind and it’s fantastic. I highly recommend this smart, edgy, vulnerable, exquisitely written collection. Here’s a taste:

“Tuesdays are quiet. If you don’t make them louder, you invite the tiny, final earthquake that turns cracks to holes.You should remember that early Tuesday nights are different from late Saturdays and maybe go to bed instead. The fault line shifted when he left, right after, like always. Sometime in the night or morning, I emptied the condom I found in the trash and made it irrelevant.”

if i would leave myself behind

Lastly, I have sort of quietly begun offering my services giving editing suggestions and feedback for flash fiction. Are people interested in this? I am considering putting an actual page up on this blog with a form to fill out and everything, so it all looks legit and professional. Stay tuned and let me know if you’re interested! Thanks.

Moments of Grace ~ from Dani Shapiro

Still-Writing-by-Dani-ShapiroHere, in Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, Dani Shapiro speaks of flawed, unpredictable, risk-taking, rule-breaking prose (my favorite kind):

“These instances of creative daring are moments of grace. They are moments when we get out of our own way. They break the rules, and break them beautifully. They arrive with no fanfare, but there is no mistaking them. They glide past our hesitation, our resistance, layers of reasons why we can’t, we mustn’t, we shouldn’t. They are accompanied by an almost childlike thrill. Why not, the whole universe seems to whisper: Why not now? Why not you? What’s the worse thing that can happen?”

I admit I’m reading and rereading this book like a bible. Somewhere along the line, I got in my own way, I think. I stopped taking the sort of thrilling chances that made writing such a blast for me. It started to matter too much what other people thought. Now, I’m writing things and not sending them out and not sharing them in an attempt to get back to that. I’m having fun again. I’m getting out of my own way.

Readers, stay tuned, as soon I’m going to post a recent conversation with my amazing writer friend, Avital Gad-Cykman, who has a beautiful flash fiction collection coming out from Matter Press. She herself is fascinating, so it stands to reason that her stories are, too. And her work exemplifies the sort of fresh originality and risk-taking that I so admire and attempt in my own work. I can’t wait to share the interview with you!

The Wide And Lonely World

I have a new short story published today in The Economy. The Economy is cool. They publish just a single poet, prose writer, and visual artist per issue, and they’ve published some of my favorite writers. So I was very flattered to be asked to contribute by editor, Schuyler Dickson.

Anyway, please go read The Wide and Lonely World. The story was inspired by this very midwestern gothic looking photo of my brothers and me, taken, I think in the summer of 1968 or ’69: Welcome to Missouri.