'He was not made of skin': An interview with Caitlin Scarano

To herald the arrival of "The Best Small Fictions 2016," I interviewed Caitlin Scarano, whose story "Pitcher of Cream" caught my eye as I read through the collection (although many other stories did as well, and it was hard to pick just one author to interview!). The series is edited by Tara Masih, and this year's guest editor is Stuart Dybek.

I thought our readership would be interested in Caitlin's story, which weaves elements from various genres and modes of storytelling into a taut, quick-cutting flash piece on loss, loneliness, and self-reliance.

This piece has elements that feel plucked from fairy tale, folk tale, and horror story, assembled from materials like oxblood, sourdough, tree phantoms, cream. As you built this world, were there specific stories, themes, or traditions that you called on?

The setting and mood of the story are most influenced by the years I spent living in a dry cabin in Fairbanks, Alaska in a forest of spruce and birch trees. I think of this as a story of winter, as well as loss. As with most of my works of flash fiction, I was going for a dreamlike reality as opposed to a strictly realistic one. I definitely was playing into conventions of folklore and fairy tales, but, at the same time, I wanted to actively subvert some of those conventions and surprise the reader and myself (for example, there is no princess, no savior, no lesson, no happy ending). I didn't think much about the horror genre when writing this piece; I just aimed for ambiguity and viscerality, which made room for darkness, as it often does. An influence here has to be Lois Lowry's "The Giver" and "Gathering Blue" – connected novels in Lowry's quartet which show how these different, futuristic communities progressed or regressed after some catastrophic global event. 


The world you’ve created in “Pitcher of Cream” is shaped by things lost and found. We see loss and change sneaking even into forgotten corners of time and space, and only the strong surviving to tell about it. Could you tell us a bit more about your narrator, and how she’s coping with loss and hardship?

All we really know about this narrator is that, much like this community, she's gone through some unspecified trauma that caused her to lose her family. Her role in this loss remains (intentionally) unclear. For her husband to leave her is one thing, an act probably on his part, but for her children to leave or for her to lose track of them – I think there is something more unsettling there. 

I wanted this piece to have a feminist bent. I wanted the reader to think about the conditions of this woman's life and circumstance, even if the world itself is not fully hammered down. Obviously, this community has gone through some trauma or is facing a threat, perhaps something of their own making, perhaps some mistake the men made that the women have to deal with ("The townsmen would not believe me if I tried to teach them the patterns I've discovered, how things secretly align. Like the woman I am, I keep to my house, my mule, my tasks").

The story is dystopian or post-apocalyptic on a both a community, social level and a personal, private level. Yes, the town, this place, is altered and struggling, but she is further isolated by her own suffering. Her days are filled with tasks (making bread, chopping wood, melting snow for water, etc), but these motions are just that – hollow gestures after the loss of her family. She keeps a homestead but there is no one to keep it for. Then the boy appears.


The question “Where are your people?” is the heart of this piece. It’s a question that never gets answered, at least in the way we’d expect. What answers do you hope readers take away from this story?

Ultimately, like most narratives, this story is about loneliness, the condition of being human and thus never fully able to bridge the distance between oneself and another ("But the space between our houses grows while I sleep"). But there are methods that can bring you closer to someone else, certain acts of intimacy and radical care, even if they are momentary. Hold on to your people in whatever way makes sense might be a take-away.


There’s an uneasiness that permeates this story, a constant questioning of what things really are. For example, the boy is “not made of skin” and the pines might “grow organs and hands.” Could you talk about any specific language choices you made to create that atmosphere and sustain it?

The language choices here were driven by imagery. There are certain images that I circle in my poetry, sometimes for years, and I don't always know why or what they relate to. I've written about a pitcher of cream (sometimes it is a white pitcher with black liquid in it, other times a black pitcher with cream or milk in it) for several years. Usually, this image appears in conjunction with my mother, which is interesting because this story is about an anti-mother (now we're getting into something Freudian!). My mom is awesome though.

Small children, especially boys in snow, haunt my writing. While I lived in Alaska, I often wrote about this little boy (in poetry and fiction). I was in a long-term relationship at the time, and, I think, I pictured this child as someone who was on his way, a would-be product of that relationship, had it lasted. I think at this age (I am in my late twenties), women inevitably think about the children they will or will not have as society pressures us to do so or justify why we haven't.  


You write a lot of poetry, so I’m curious how your writing process differs between drafting and refining a poem vs. a flash fiction piece. Do you have writing habits that transfer? Or are these two different processes for you?

These processes are fairly different for me, probably because I'm just less experienced in writing flash. I have an MFA in poetry and I'm currently completing a PhD in poetry, but I am most drawn to writing (my own and the work of others) that resists genre. 

When I'm working on a poem I feel like I'm more in charge (for some reason I am picturing a lion tamer in a top hat here, which feels both weird and appropriate). I keep a tighter leash on the language in a poem and try to foresee the tangents that the ideas and images are gesturing toward. I also micro-edit more actively at the end of each line. 

I've found that flash fiction can be the most challenging genre for students in an introductory writing course. I think this is because writers new to the form are unsure how to build a world in such a small amount of space; they want to explain too much. I love the form for its brevity – less space for me to do things wrong, perhaps. I really do get to trust my instincts (subconscious?) more when writing flash and exercise less control. Sometimes it works! This story basically came out in one draft. I polished once or twice afterward, but knew somehow not to mess with it too much. 


Who/what are you reading right now?

I am currently studying for a preliminary examination (based on a reading list of about 100 texts that I designed with the help of my advisors), which I'll take in November. I'm basically trying to read a book a day or every two days. Some recent ones that stuck with me include Audre Lorde's "The Black Unicorn," Danez Smith's "[insert] boy" (reading these two back to back was jarring and powerful), Lidia Yuknavitch's "The Chronology of Water," and David Shield’s "Reality Hunger: A Manifesto." I also read the new Harry Potter play and need to talk about it with someone!


Who are some writers, living or dead, who you feel have influenced your fiction and poetry?

Largest current literary crush (influence is always so hard to pin down) is definitely Maggie Nelson. I also cannot praise David Vann enough. He has been my favorite writer for the past several years. I thought long-form fiction was dead for a while, but he revived it for me. Read him now if you haven't already.

Although I don't often write about ecology or the environment, I am drawn to nonfiction writing that does. (Confession: I wish I'd been a naturalist.) Sherry Simpson has an amazing mind when it comes to observing and analyzing the relationships between humans and the natural world. The late Eva Saulitis was a writer as well as a whale biologist in Prince William Sound, Alaska. I was very influenced by her books "Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist" and "Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas." 


Are there other mediums (music, TV, performance art, etc.) that you draw inspiration from?

I've never been asked this question! I can't think of specific music or visual artists or TV shows that have directly inspired recent works. But how can we not be influenced by everything we encounter? As I said earlier, I think this story came mainly from a cabin I lived in (or the memory of that cabin), which seems pretty random in retrospect. I guess one of the best things we can do as artists is be receptive to all kinds of experiences and influences.


Do you have any current projects or upcoming publications you’d like to tell us about?

I have a new chapbook manuscript that I am really excited about that I am about to start sending out; hopefully someone will find it worth publishing. It is about sickness as a both a construct and an actuality, and how different types of sickness can manifest in real and imagined violence done to a body (the self or the other).

Otherwise, my latest publication can be found here

Caitlin Scarano writes poetry and flash fiction. She is currently pursuing a PhD in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee PhD creative writing program. She was the winner of the 2015 Indiana Review poetry prize, and was a finalist for the 2014 Best of the Net Anthology. She has two poetry chapbooks, The White Dog Year (dancing girl press, 2015) and The Salt and Shadow Coiled (Zoo Cake Press, 2015).