Hybrid Interview: Cheryl Pappas
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re happy to share this conversation between Cheryl Pappas and our editor in chief Kristin Tenor, who also essays about Pappas’s debut collection The Clarity of Hunger. —CRAFT
Essay by Kristin Tenor •
There is a certain longing found within Cheryl Pappas’s debut flash fiction collection, The Clarity of Hunger. The sixteen pieces included in the collection, many previously published in well-established literary journals such as The Chattahoochee Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Hayden’s Ferry Review, encompass a wide range of hungers and yearnings. From clandestine meetings between distant would-be lovers to the irreplicable safe haven of a mother’s love, the characters in The Clarity of Hunger have one thing in common—a desire to live a fulfilled life.
Several pieces focus on power dynamics as viewed through the feminine lens. Mother, daughter, sister, wife, lover, teenager, elderly woman—these women find themselves stuck in a monotony of sorts, wishing to break free from it, to be seen and heard. For instance, in “Nature,” none of the factory workers notice the protagonist, May, is frozen, bent over her sewing machine for twenty-four hours until: “One of the women looks into May’s eyes and sees a frozen lake inside each one.” This imagery encapsulates so beautifully the collective emotions so many of us hold inside until we, too, are brought to sit by the fire: “Her weight is so much that he almost falls over her, but he grabs her just in time. He leans in and looks in her eyes again; they are all water now and are pouring out tears into the fire. May stands up, all soft and alive.”
Pappas’s work invites the reader to feel at home. Every detail, every image in “The Root” carries weight and not only serves to define the root of the protagonist’s hunger but also asks us to tap into the core of our own memories and hungers: “Its smell is as kaleidoscopic as it is keen: a teenager’s drugstore perfume; a roast cooking in the apartment next door; a marsh at low tide; paste used in my second grade art class; rolls of hay formed in perfect circles seen through the car window.” Likewise, Pappas draws from common fairy tale tropes and parables to build connection and familiarity with the reader. In “Let It Out,” a witch in the forest serves as a metaphor for the rage and guilt the protagonist carries with her after her husband’s tragic death in a house fire. “Gretel’s Stepfather,” although concise at less than fifty words, paints a complex dynamic as the stepfather retraces Gretel’s path home. Both pieces rely on the reader’s prior experience with the fairy tale genre to convey mood and atmosphere. However, the unique dynamics introduced in each of these narratives subverts the reader’s expectations, creating an entirely new dimension—one that balances the unfamiliar and familiar in a way that both surprises and emotionally resonates.
A few pieces in The Clarity of Hunger also experiment with structure, borrowing their forms from other written media. “Hunger,” originally published in Atlas & Alice and the piece Pappas credits as the impetus for this collection, takes on the form of a series of math problems needing to be solved:
Suzy brings 20 balloons to the birthday party of her former lover.
Her former lover kisses her in the corner of the closed-off bedroom and pops 1 balloon in between their bodies.
How many times does the scene play out in her head for the next 2 months while she is doing dishes, folding the laundry, checking her messages?
Whereas, “Profile” takes on the form of a dating profile:
What I’m really looking for is someone who will crave my attention, over and over again. Who really knows how to dig me, who can crack a bottle of champagne over a ship with grace. Who has the keys to a Mercedes, who will take me on curvy highways littered with plastic keychains.
These borrowed forms—or hermit crabs—are innovative and provide a protective space for Pappas’s characters to express their vulnerabilities. The form’s constraint juxtaposed against such intimacy amplifies the narrative’s overall impact and draws empathy from the reader long after the last line has concluded.
Evocative, inventive, resonant—The Clarity of Hunger is a flash fiction collection not to be missed.
Cheryl and I had the pleasure of communicating with one another via email to discuss the inspiration and craft behind her debut collection, as well as what lessons and advice she has found most beneficial in her approach to the page.
Kristin Tenor: Congratulations on your debut flash fiction collection, The Clarity of Hunger, Cheryl. What an exciting time this must be for you. There’s such a wonderful range achieved in how you’ve curated these pieces. What was that process like? Did you begin with a particular theme in mind, or did it surface once you started placing these characters and pieces side by side?
Cheryl Pappas: Thank you so much, Kristin! This collection started with one flash, “Hunger,” which was originally published in Atlas & Alice. I knew that was the keystone piece going in; it includes several snapshots of people in their lives hungering for something—money, an old love, the destruction of wildlife. I loved the reach of that word and how stories could reveal yearning in unexpected ways. I had plenty of stories already and selected the ones that fit within that theme. I also wrote a few new ones with the theme of hunger clearly in mind (such as “The Root”).
KT: In an interview with Maria Shriver for O Magazine, the poet Mary Oliver said, “We all have a hungry heart, and one of the things we hunger for is happiness.” Would you say this is the case for the characters in your collection as well?
CP: Oof, happiness. I don’t think that’s the case for a lot of these characters. Some of them want safety, like Jim in “Friday Night.” Some want release, which is a kind of happiness: the woman in “The View from Here” wants to be released of wanting a relationship she clearly doesn’t have. Some want a secret, very private happiness, like the characters in “Stranger” and “Tending the Elephant.”
KT: In your piece, “Tending the Elephant,” a finalist in CRAFT’s 2020 Flash Fiction Contest judged by Leesa Cross-Smith, the elephant serves as such a beautiful metaphor for what lies just beyond reach for this woman as she yearns for the companionship of a man whose face she’s never seen but can only imagine. Can you tell us a little bit about how you approached this story? At what point did the elephant make itself known to you?
CP: This story first came to me in images. I saw two people washing an elephant at a great distance from each other. I was reading Anne Carson’s Eros and the Bittersweet at the time of writing this story. Everything she says is all right there in Sappho, but she makes it astonishingly clear. She has this wonderful line: “A space must be maintained or desire ends.” That’s where my elephant came in. His job was to fill that space between these two people who had a kind of love for each other. I was playing with the idea of the elephant in the room, too, and the act of taking care of the elephant is their way of tending their secret, their love, and what remains unsaid.
KT: Some pieces in The Clarity of Hunger experiment with structure. “Hunger” takes on the form of a math problem to be solved. “Homework,” a sort of Socratic multiple-choice test. On your website, you also offer a popular writing workshop focusing on hermit crab flash fiction. What about these borrowed forms most piques your interest?
CP: I love the way writing in borrowed forms surprises the writer in the draft stage. Writers in my class often say, “I don’t know where that came from; I just went with it.” It’s because you’re taking the subconscious unaware. It’s amazing to witness. I love the way the juxtapositions between form and story work together: you’ve got this cold, dead thing—the form—and then you interweave a very alive, human story within it. It can also be like music: the underlying structure is like a steady drumbeat while you play with story on top, around, and through the form.
KT: The sensory details and imagery in your microfiction piece “The Root” are incredibly evocative and resonant. I especially love the scents listed toward the end—“a teenager’s drugstore perfume, a roast cooking in the apartment next door; a marsh at low tide; paste used in my second grade art class; rolls of hay formed in perfect circles seen through the car window.” Are these details drawn from your own childhood memories?
CP: Absolutely. I can trace each one of those scents to memories. I hope a lot of people can. Especially the paste. Because I’ve yet to encounter it in my adult life (everyone uses glue now), the sense memory is very strong. The art teacher would plop this big tub of the smelly goo at the center of every long table, and we’d stick our hands in it to stick our papers together. It was messy and fun.
KT: Besides writing flash fiction you also write poetry. Your piece “Profile,” included in this collection, was originally published in Mulberry Fork Review, then reprinted in Derelict Lit as a prose poem. These genres share similar elements, yet how do you know when a character or image feels more suited for poetry rather than flash fiction and vice versa?
CP: I don’t always! This one could have gone either way, but it leans more into poetry because of the attention paid toward sound over story. When I wrote that piece, I let the narrative part of my brain relax. I listened instead to how the words crashed up against each other, not what the words meant. The phrase “curvy highways littered with plastic keychains” was pure sound to me. I just let it be. Even though it didn’t make sense on the surface, when I stepped back I saw how it feeds into this idea of overconsumption.
KT: Who have been your greatest flash fiction mentors and/or influences? Is there a particular piece of writing or revising advice you’ve received that has stayed with you?
CP: I have many I look up to and work with. Kathy Fish is amazingly generous with her time, and her workshops remain some of the best I’ve attended. Her “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild” taught me the power of using borrowed forms. Irish writer Peter Jordan is also someone whom I trust completely with my work. He and I exchange stories, but I always feel he’s giving more to me than the other way around! A simple but excellent piece of advice I heard from him is when borrowing forms, make sure you focus on story more than the shell. I think that’s right. The form is the vehicle, but the story is always what matters in the end.
KT: I’d love to take this opportunity to thank you once again, Cheryl, for taking the time to share your insights about The Clarity of Hunger. This is such a fantastic collection, and I’m so happy to have had the chance to connect with you. Before we conclude, I wonder what’s on the horizon for you. Do you see another collection coming together in the near future?
CP: Thank you so much! I’m working on a hybrid collection of flash and poetry called (for now) The Spaces That Contain Us. It’s about how people, particularly women, negotiate contained spaces, such as a kitchen, a nineteenth-century Victorian dress, a memory, or even the warming Earth itself, as well as our longing and desire for freedom within that space. I’m hoping to be finished with it by the end of the year. I lost my mother this summer, and I’m sure this manuscript will transform because of that. There will be new work when I’m ready.
CHERYL PAPPAS is the author of The Clarity of Hunger (word west press, 2021). Her stories have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Juked, The Chattahoochee Review, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. She runs the popular online Hermit Crab Flash Fiction Workshop.
KRISTIN TENOR currently serves as the editor in chief at CRAFT. Her short fiction and flash fiction appear or are forthcoming in various literary journals including The Midwest Review, Bending Genres, Milk Candy Review, Emerge Literary Journal, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, among others. She and her husband call Wisconsin home.