Interview: Chelsea Stickle
Acclaimed shortform author Chelsea Stickle has recently published two chapbooks: Breaking Points, which explores crucial moments in women’s lives through a variety of flash forms; and Everything’s Changing, which conjures images of transformation, both magical and otherwise.
Chelsea took time out of her schedule to talk with me about the unique artistry of the prose chapbook form. More than a simple gathering of tiny stories, a thoughtfully curated chapbook can communicate an overarching message that exceeds the impact of any single story. Chelsea’s flash pieces explore the struggle of women and girls as they try to survive in a world that perpetually works against them. In her books, she reinforces this theme through editorial strategies such as pairing stories with similar elements. But, in spite of this similarity in theme, each of her books features an unmistakably different tone. Chelsea discusses her experience with varying the order of her stories and how those changes affect the reader’s experience of her work. Will the final note leave you feeling devastated or uplifted? My thanks to Chelsea for delving into her curation process, and for this peek at “the beauty of small perfect things.”
Myna Chang: Both of your chapbooks brim with sharp prose and striking situations. Your first book, Breaking Points, uses a variety of forms to explore those things that can—and do—break us. Your most recent book, Everything’s Changing, takes a more surrealist approach, with the idea of transformation. What are the differences in these two collections, in terms of content as well as style? How did you arrive at the overall themes? Were you in a different headspace from one book to the next?
Chelsea Stickle: All writers have obsessions. When I first thought about assembling a chapbook, my instinct was to lean into those obsessions. After all, they’re part of what makes my work different. Early on in the pandemic, I put together Breaking Points. I think my instinct to write hermit crab essays has shifted into writing more surreal pieces. I’ll take a story that would either bore me to tell straight, or would be easier for readers to ignore if told straight, and I give it an extra something. A different form. A different reality. You’ll find similarities in the themes of both chapbooks. Women and girls struggling to get by in a world that’s not only not built for them, but also discourages them from living up to their real potential in a variety of ways. The angle and approach are what’s different. I like to think of them as two sides of the same coin. And you’ll probably find more hope in Everything’s Changing. While Breaking Points ends in the metaphorical gutter, Everything’s Changing looks up at the stars. If we’re lucky, we get another day to figure it all out.
MC: How did you curate the stories for each? Were they written with the specific chapbook in mind? Did you have to write strategically to fill in any gaps?
CS: With Breaking Points, I was looking for realistic stories with women and girls on the edge of breaking or realizing something important. That narrowed the possibilities of what to include. I had plenty of options, though, so I didn’t need to write anything to fill in gaps. When I made the decision to only include realistic stories in Breaking Points, I immediately started making a list for a more fabulist chapbook. I was going to call it Postcard Town after my micro that made it into Best Microfiction 2021. I didn’t consciously set out to fill in the gaps. But I did find myself writing fewer realistic stories. Suddenly the things I wanted to say involved a bathroom full of magic mushrooms, people literally falling apart, and ghosts…so many ghosts! It’s a world I’m comfortable in. I grew up reading Diana Wynne Jones, so stories that take a fantastical turn even though they’re ostensibly set in our world are comfortable for me. Every once in a while, I’d glance at the Postcard Town table of contents, add to it, and think about it. It wasn’t until I’d written “Worship What Keeps You Alive” and “Ghost Girl Ballet” that I felt it was time to put them all together and see if it worked. Like with Breaking Points, reading my work in bulk revealed my obsessions to me. They were the proverbial lump of clay, and once they were in front of me, the chapbook started to take shape.
MC: I’m curious about the order of the stories. Does the sequence reveal any connections that might not have come to light if the stories had been ordered differently? Do you think the overall vibe of the books would have shifted if the stories had been placed in a different order?
CS: Absolutely. I take great care in the ordering of stories. It’s extremely important to me. My first-round ordering involves grouping them thematically and creating a kind of arc. Then I lay them out on the floor, so I can see the first and last lines of each story. I line them up and see if they lead into each other. When you’re ordering a collection, you’re building a house. Just like stories teach you how to read them, a good collection does the same. The author is leading you toward what they want you to think about. The stories influence and bleed into each other. Ordering is vital.
For Breaking Points, we fiddled with the order a lot. But I always knew the first and last stories would stay. It begins with a woman disappearing and ends with a woman refusing to disappear. The women in the stories get progressively more active, more noncompliant until you’ve got a woman demanding, “Can you see me now?” I wanted that last line to reverberate retroactively through the whole book. I wanted you to carry that with you afterward.
When I was putting Everything’s Changing together, I wanted it to have more hope than Breaking Points. I didn’t want to destroy you. So, I put “Ghost Girl Ballet” last with the hope that you’ll feel the way I feel about having another day to get things right. Then the shit hit the fan in my personal life. It made me want to move “I Told You I Would Take Your Hand” to the end. It’s a story where the bittersweet hope comes at a real personal cost. Like, sure, you get this new kind of protection, but you also need it because the world hasn’t changed, you have. It would’ve been a very different vibe. It might’ve been too dark. “Ghost Girl Ballet” isn’t exactly light and fun either. They’re the ghosts of murdered little girls trying to find purpose in a pointless eternal afterlife by doing ballet. Somehow that story always feels light to me. But at that point the books were already in production. So, if you want to mess around and read it in a different order, try “I Told You I Would Take Your Hand” last.
MC: What speaks to you about the chapbook form? Do you feel flash chapbooks are greeted with the same enthusiasm as full collections?
CS: Chapbooks are a fucking fantastic form! They’re the flash fiction of the library, so they have the same benefits. They get in, get out, and leave you breathless. A good chapbook will knock you out. Make you want to read it all in one sitting. Ignore calls, ignore texts, ignore the dog barking. A tiny world has opened up and you have to go to it. For me the appeal of writing chapbooks is the ability to really go full “concept album”; Nancy Stohlman talks about this in Going Short, and it’s excellent advice. The shorter the length, the more specific the concept album. In a perfect world I’ll have a shelf full of concept albums that all sound and feel different.
Chapbooks aren’t greeted with the same enthusiasm as full collections, but maybe it’s time people free their minds and open themselves up to the beauty of small, perfect things.
MC: What has the publishing process been like for you? Has this experience caused you to change the way you develop or edit your stories? Did you learn anything from the first book that helped with the second?
CS: Since I worked with two different presses, it’s difficult to say. Each press has their unique way of going about things. The first book helped me know what to expect (how to ask for blurbs, etc.), and that did make the process easier the second time around. But I learned more about editing from the lit mag editors who took the time on the first go-round of these stories.
MC: Has publishing these collections resulted in any changes for you, professionally or personally? What are the rewards? Is it worth the work?
CS: They made me officially an author, so that’s different. I have books for sale. People take you more seriously when they can pay for your work. There is joy and validation every time someone wants to publish your work. Every acceptance feels wonderful that way.
When Breaking Points was accepted, I was completely floored. I couldn’t believe I’d even made the longlist. Big swings that lead to big acceptances give me confidence. I know we’re not supposed to care what other people think, but it does make a difference. If you’re going into something completely yourself and you leave everything on the page and someone says, “I love this, I want to publish this and give you money,” of course, that’s going to mean something! Someone believes in your fullest, weirdest self, and that is a gift.
If you’re really lucky, readers reach out and tell you how much your words mean to them. They feel less alone, you feel less alone. It’s incredibly special. That being said, it is a lot of work and there are no guarantees, so you have to love your project. Don’t do it just because you think you should.
MC: Is there anything you wish you’d known before beginning the chapbook journey? Anything you’ll do differently next time? (Will there be a next time?)
CS: After my first chapbook I decided to hire a publicist for my second. Lori Hettler made publicity easy. It’s made a real difference in how many people—who I wouldn’t have reached otherwise—are discovering my work.
I hope there’s a next time! I intend to find a publisher for my Screaming Meemies series next. And like with my first two chapbooks, I’ve got some other ideas percolating in the back of my mind. Only time will tell which comes to the forefront first!
MC: In general, what would you like to see in the future of chapbook publishing?
CS: What I’d really love to see is an online outlet that covers chapbooks exclusively. A go-to place where I could learn about new releases from all the presses and really find what I’m looking for as a reader, rather than going from press to press and keeping my fingers crossed. People always ask me where to submit chapbooks, and an outlet like that could really help them! It’s a pretty big hole in the landscape, and whoever fills it would have my undying affection.
MC: What are you excited about right now?
CS: The future! I’m really excited about the stories I’m writing now. I feel like I’ve entered a new era. I’m excited for everyone else to experience it!
In other news, Suzanne Hicks, Allison Renner, and I are starting a Zoom book club called Shorter Is Better where we read chapbooks and novellas from small presses then gather on Zoom to talk about them! Finally, I’ll be able to talk about small-press books I love with other people who’ve also read them. It’ll be a great opportunity to build community and celebrate often-overlooked work that deserves an audience.
CHELSEA STICKLE is the author of the flash fiction chapbooks Everything’s Changing (Thirty West Publishing, 2023) and Breaking Points (Black Lawrence Press, 2021). Her stories appear in CHEAP POP, CRAFT, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and others. Her micros have been selected for Best Microfiction 2021 and the Wigleaf Top 50 in 2022. She’s an assistant fiction editor for Pithead Chapel and an associate fiction editor for Pidgeonholes. She lives in Annapolis, Maryland, with her black rabbit, George, and a forest of houseplants. Find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.
MYNA CHANG (she/her) is the author of the chapbook The Potential of Radio and Rain, now in its second printing. Her writing has been selected for Flash Fiction America (W. W. Norton), Best Small Fictions, and CRAFT. She has won the Lascaux Prize in Creative Nonfiction and the New Millennium Award in Flash Fiction. She hosts the Electric Sheep Speculative Reading Series. Find her online @MynaChang.