Exploring the art of prose


Hybrid Interview: Finnian Burnett

Image is the book cover for THE PRICE OF COOKIES by Finnian Burnett; title card for the new hybrid interview with Michelle Sinclair.

In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re thrilled to share this conversation between Finnian Burnett and Michelle Sinclair, who also essays about Burnett’s new novella-in-flash, The Price of Cookies.  —CRAFT


Essay by Michelle Sinclair •

If one were asked to compare the experience of reading to that of eating a dessert, would it be so far-fetched to connect reading flash fiction and enjoying a cookie? Both are “bite-sized” and satisfying, surprising for their subtlety and power of suggestion, and often responsible for inciting a desire for more. If one takes the comparison further and decides that yes, indulging in a cookie or flash fiction can be sensual experiences full of possible flavours and textures, could reading a series of linked flash stories be akin to eating a full box of cookies?

In preparing the recipe for a story, the flash fiction writer must consider each word for its meaning, layers, and nuance. It therefore takes a practiced writer to create an entire world of flash stories that leaves the reader feeling fully satiated. Finnian Burnett often writes about people who are conscious of and cautious about their bodies: their work carries the emotional, thematic weight of gender identity, fatness, mental health, and disability. Though these subjects can be challenging to confront, the manner in which they’re treated by Burnett is often joyful and illuminating.

The Price of Cookies, Burnett’s new novella-in-flash, revolves around a cast of characters living in a small town. If one pictures the town in the circular shape of a cookie, one would find the lovely bakery at its center. From there, twenty-four overlapping stories reach towards the circumference, representing a community. Together, the stories interrogate the community’s appetites—for friendship, family, feuds, and forgiveness. A woman cares for her sister’s children as they face their mother’s impending death; a man leaves his wife for the town baker and endures the consequences of homophobia; a wife mourns her husband who died on a routine patrol. Elements (or ingredients) of one story appear to have been gently kneaded into the next story, resulting in another blend for an entirely different treat. Though many stories touch on difficult subjects, Burnett manages to convey a world that summons memories of summer days, swirling batter in a plastic bowl. It can feel at once familiar yet singular, whimsical, and heartbreaking.

One might wonder how Burnett seamlessly conveys the connection and tension between one story and the next. How can they find enough compelling details to create an intricate network of two dozen characters, without losing control of the narrative? Burnett moves the reader through brief snapshots—invoking associations, connotations, and even nostalgia through carefully considered construction. Burnett also has to consider what should be omitted from the “recipe” (for example, raisins).

The prose is well-sifted to balance the complexity of the stories, as each character grapples with grief, loss, and loneliness. Also, each character’s experiences blend into others, as the point of view shifts from story to story. Some characters explain their perspective in first person, some in the more daunting second person, others in third, and still others in the first-person plural. As is common in flash stories, the reader is also invited to do some work: to read between lines, to seek clarity through interpretation, to remain comfortable with a certain level of ambiguity.

Modern readers are often accused, perhaps unfairly, of shorter attention spans. This allegation could be one reason for the proliferation of flash writing in recent years. That said, readers may also be drawn to flash fiction’s unique ability to provide specificity of experience, while leaving enough room to reach for greater human truths. Flash fiction cannot provide too many answers, and must ask just as many questions. The foundation of Burnett’s work is curiosity, and they invite readers to join them in posing important inquiries.

Reading The Price of Cookies can create the feeling that one has dropped into a town wherein everyone knows one another’s most enticing secrets. The collection is cinematographic, as Burnett provides no backstory or exposition—the reader is immediately confronted by (and compelled to understand) the characters’ challenges and their search for connection. Of course the humble cookie makes a cameo in almost every story, successful in representing a variety of emotions: not only grief, guilt, and regret, but also, comfort.

I came across Finnian Burnett a few years ago because their name kept popping up on a Facebook page for Canadian writers. I read their impressive first novella-in-flash, The Clothes Make the Man. In addition to being nominated for a number of prestigious awards, Finnian is often acknowledged by other writers for their helpful, kind, funny, encouraging messages. I wanted to know more about this generous, talented literary citizen who not only writes novellas-in-flash, but also finds time (and wins awards) for their short stories, creative nonfiction, and novels—including a collaborative novel.

Finnian is currently working on an epistolary novel about a trans man trying to reconcile a complex relationship with his dead mother. In the following interview, I ask them about how they address the complexities of mental health and gender identity in such an expansive way, how they reconcile their projects with teaching, and how their teaching gives them hope for the future.

Michelle Sinclair: I admire your decision to write a novella-in-flash. You made structural and stylistic choices that one may not be able to sustain in a longer piece, yet you introduce characters so seamlessly and reveal relationships so naturally, I must ask the question, exactly how many sticky notes did you use? To put that question more seriously, how did you keep track of the characters and all the various currents of emotion?

Finnian Burnett: I don’t use sticky notes but I have a notebook where I jot notes. I also use receipts, the backs of print outs, and various other scratch papers around my desk. It’s an absolute mess and someday, when I’m dead, someone is going to find five novels worth of notes on thousands of scraps of paper all over my house. I mostly drafted this collection without keeping track of anything and just letting each story develop on its own. In rewrites, I had to connect people more, work on the themes, decide which stories were too much like another.


MS: Why did you choose the novella-in-flash format for this piece of work? Did the collection begin as one or two stories that eventually coalesced into a broader whole, or did you know setting out that flash was the best format for this particular project? What advantage does this format have over a more traditional novella? Was it difficult to dip in and out of these characters’ lives? Were you left feeling that you wanted more time with them, or were you able to see the community in your mind and know that you were reaching for a more universal picture?

FB: I’m normally such a planner. I plot my novels along an arc, plan for character growth and development, and I generally know the ending before I start writing. With The Price of Cookies, and my other novella-in-flash, The Clothes Make the Man, I didn’t plan anything. Each work started with a stand-alone story. After I wrote the flash piece, “The Price of Cookies,” I wanted more of the clerk—I felt there was a story there in the brief glimpses of exhaustion and worry she expressed.

I tend to see the characters in my head when I’m working, so I know that Kelvin, for example, is vulnerable, yet trying to present a tough exterior, and Raj is kind and loving and so very hurt that he was attacked in the town he’d thought had adopted him. It felt natural to write about the characters and when I’d finished one story, I already knew which character from that story would appear in the next. The tapestry of their lives fit into this format so well and I felt they were all connected, by their common flaws, desires, fears, and not just by their geographic or familial ties.


MS: The novella centers on a community and its appetites: for acceptance, forgiveness, or cookies. The stories trace the outlines of the characters’ love and loss, guilt and grief, and these themes are highlighted through their complex relationships with food. Sometimes the cookies serve to exacerbate guilt and grief, and sometimes they allow the characters to feel nurtured and loved or to find some consolation. I have a bad habit of thinking about stories in terms of themes and messages when I know that sometimes I should just take them at face value, as stories. As you were writing, did you think the combination of characters in this story would serve to create a full image or message? Am I far off when I guess that the price of cookies in the novella is connected to the price of loving another person?

FB: I’m so glad you picked up on the complexity of our relationship with food. Food and emotions are strongly connected in my life—I write a lot about disordered eating and overcoming a lifetime of yo-yo dieting, so the idea of connecting everyone’s lives with their interactions around food felt real to me. I’ve used food both to celebrate good times and to try to fill the void in bad times. Baked goods, especially, hold strong memories and ties for people—we take cupcakes to children’s classrooms, bake cakes for funerals, go to cookie parties over the holidays. And yes, the cookies in this story were also meant to be a metaphor. The price of loving another person and also, the price for not loving because it feels like the easy route.

I always want to leave my readers with questions, some sense that I left some threads unexplored, or I left some stories not quite complete. People are unpredictable, and when we turn away from Mr. Leopold and his breakfast of lies or leave the brother in prison, what do they do next? The meaning of a text belongs to the reader once it’s been read. So, the underlying messages, the unanswered questions, the themes and metaphors—they all belong to the reader, and I love giving them space to explore those ideas on their own without me offering a tidy package to unwrap at the end.


MS: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about flash fiction? Do you prefer it to longer forms of fiction, and if so, why?

FB: Flash fiction is a playground for writers. It’s the perfect place to explore your voice, play with unusual dialogue formation, try different points of view. I often tell my writing students that if you spent a year or more writing an experimental novel and it doesn’t work out, you’ve lost an awful lot of time. But if you spend a few minutes or an hour writing an odd flash fiction piece, all you’ve done is honed your writing skills, even if the piece doesn’t work out. The lessons I take from flash carry over to my longform works: establishing the importance of scene, getting deep into characters, giving the reader a visceral experience with physical details.


MS: Who is your favorite character in the novella, and why?

FB: Isn’t that like asking someone their favourite kid? I love them all—how’s that for a cop-out answer? Even the messed-up ones, even the ones who seem to have no redeeming qualities. They feel so real to me, so alive. We’re all messed up. We’re all unredeemable in some way, aren’t we?


I wanted to have empathy for all my characters, to try to understand them, even when they can’t understand themselves. So many of them are just going through life, bewildered by human emotions, by the ways in which people, including themselves, behave. Aren’t we all?


MS: You often work in collaboration with another writer (please tell us about that project), but I wonder how that process differs from writing on your own. Do you think it would be possible to write such a complex set of stories with someone else?

FB: I have just finished writing a collaborative novel with author Andrew Buckley, who I absolutely adore—I refer to him as my BFF and my hetero lifemate. It’s a speculative comedy. We’ve been holding information about it close to our vests, but the experience has been deliciously delightful. My other WIP, Arthur, Undressed, is very much a solo literary exploration of gender and body image and working on it can be painful and so very slow. Interspersed with that process is my time with Andrew in which we giggle and offer ever more ridiculous ideas and meet weekly on Zoom to happily talk about our work. Even now, going through the first round of revisions on the collaborative novel, I find myself laughing aloud while reading. We’ve both written and rewritten so much of the book, and our writing styles are so perfectly matched that we can’t tell who wrote which parts. It’s been a beautiful balm for my soul as I struggle through the process of getting Arthur’s story on paper—a worthwhile endeavour, but sometimes so difficult. Andrew and I come together with no ego, always willing to look at any idea and talk about the ways we want to write each scene. We have committed to writing more books together because the first one went so well.

I think collaboration works so well for us because we’re writing such fun, lighthearted books. I don’t think I could work on something like Arthur, Undressed with another person because it’s so tender and vulnerable and it’s too wrapped up in my own life experiences. I think I’d be married to my own ideas of how the narrative should be conveyed on the page.


MS: You are a teacher. I wonder how your personal experiences inform your work and your teaching. What are some of the current discussions with students about identity representation in writing?

FB: This upcoming generation kills me. So many of them don’t even bother to label themselves—I have students who have boyfriends, girlfriends, personfriends. They talk about race and culture, and they have conversations around consent and gender dynamics. I shared a story with my undergrad creative writing class by Sage Tyrtle called “Elevator Pitch for a Dystopian Young Adult Novel.” The last line of the story is, “There is just rage.” My students quote that to me all the time now. “There is no lipstick. There is just rage.” There’s this sense of community, of wanting to do better, mingled with the underlying fear and anger about a world destroyed beyond their hope of changing it, and still they live and love. I love them so much. Teaching has changed my life—it has felt natural to move into a place of giving workshops and teaching for adult learners of creative writing because of my experience teaching in higher ed. Trying to keep the attention of mostly teenagers in core English classes has given me a lot of practice in designing engaging courses.


MS: You also write nonfiction. Do many people ask how much of yourself finds its way into your fiction? How do you find the balance between what might be raw and real for you, and what is raw and real for your characters?

FB: Part of me seeps into almost everything I write, but even so, I find creative nonfiction so much more difficult. I always seem to dig into the darkest parts of my life and sometimes, memories come out that I didn’t know I even still thought about. The piece I wrote for the CBC nonfiction contest was raw and the response to that vulnerability, while largely positive, was terrifying. When I found out I’d made the shortlist and it was going to be published, I remember telling my wife that I almost wished I’d never submitted it. But I ended up hearing from so many people who could relate to that particular aspect of my own trauma and I was ultimately happy I shared it. I just finished writing a piece for the next nonfiction contest, this time about disordered eating and fatness, and even though my current novel encompasses those topics, it’s always scarier to write the nonfiction piece. The novel is fiction so no one will ever really know how much of that is me. Nonfiction is a flag that says, Here I am. Learn about all of my inner pain.


MS: I’d love to know more about whether or how you see current gender dynamics/identity representation changing the fiction younger people are writing.

FB: I would love to elaborate on current fiction. I’m seeing so many excellent stories from younger writers that just nail diversity and representation. Thinking specifically about a book I just finished called Bianca Torre Is Afraid of Everything by Justine Pucella Winans about a nonbinary birder with anxiety, and The No-Girlfriend Rule by Christen Randall about a fat, geeky gamer girl. Both are what I would generally call queer books, but I don’t think they’re labeled as such. The characters just exist as people who are either outside of the societal expectation of gender norms or traditional binary hetero relationships. I’m here for it. I’m an old person who adores what young people are bringing to the table, and I like to think when I’m in my seventies, eighties, nineties, if I live that long, I’ll still be seeking out YA and New Adult books for the joy of discovery they bring to my life.


MS: What is your favourite type of cookie? (Chocolate chip is the correct answer.)

FB: I’m going to say chocolate chip, but let it be known if there’s a table full of cookies and the chocolate chip cookies look a little overbaked, I’m going to grab a ginger cookie or a snickerdoodle or an oatmeal raisin or something. I can’t stand dry, hard cookies. My wife made some ginger cookies last Christmas that were so soft and delicious, I had to hide them in the freezer so we wouldn’t eat them all. I then found out frozen ginger cookies are also delicious.


FINNIAN BURNETT is a writer whose work explores the intersections of the human body, mental health, and gender identity. They are a recipient of a Canada Council for the Arts grant, a finalist in the 2023 CBC Nonfiction Prize, and a 2024 Pushcart nominee. Their work appears in Blank Spaces Magazine, Reflex Press, Daily Science Fiction, Pulp Literature, CBC Books, and more. Finn is currently working on an epistolary novel about a trans man trying to reconcile his feelings about food, gender, and a complicated relationship with his dead mother. When not writing or teaching, Finnian enjoys cold-weather walking, Star Trek, and cat memes. Find them on Instagram @FinnianBurnett.

MICHELLE SINCLAIR worked as a human and labour rights policy analyst for many years. She studied international development and social work at McGill University and creative writing at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Her work appears in Literary Review of Canada, The Antigonish Review, PRISM International, and other journals. Her first novel, Almost Visible, received The Miramichi Reader’s Best Fiction of 2022 Award. She lives in Ottawa with her spouse, three children, and three pets, where she is at work on a second novel. Find her on Instagram @michelle.sinclair.7737.