Luke Rolfes: Hi, Sarah! We at Laurel Review have been fans of your work for several years, and we are excited for your new collection of stories Incendiary Devices from Tolsun Books, releasing on March 14th. Congrats on your new publication!
Sarah Anne Strickley: Thank you! I’m a big fan of Laurel Review too.
LR: Let’s start with the collection as a whole. Violence and threats toward women are motifs running throughout this book. The cover image is a nude woman bathed in fire, and the opening piece, “A Story from the Perspective of the Flame,” reflects that exact detail. Women are threatened throughout these stories with sexual assault, kidnapping, dismemberment, and death. In totality, to my ear, these stories seem to sketch a brutal minefield for women that stretches over the last century. Can you talk a bit about the construction of this collection as a whole? How did you go about ordering and deciding on these pieces belonging together?
SAS: Thanks for so eloquently articulating the book’s thematic core. For many years, I struggled as a writer to slip a feminist sensibility into my stories—as though it were a dose of medicine that might go down a bit easier with some readers if only it were successfully concealed within a different storytelling substance. I was worried I’d lose readers if I were more direct; subsequently, I beat around many rhetorical bushes, expending an enormous amount of accommodating energy in the sublimation of my self, my view. And then, somewhat abruptly, I simply stopped doing that. I wanted to show what I saw, not gesture toward its existence on the periphery.
So, I decided to go straight at the thing: a collection of feminist stories. Why not? I had nothing to lose but the idea of an imagined reader—one I probably shouldn’t have been courting in the first place. Incendiary Devices is the book that resulted from that shift in my thinking about my art. Stories came in and out, but once I had that organizing principle, the path was fairly clear. I wanted to show that a feminist story doesn’t have to work in any one particular way and so part of my thinking had to do with creating a sense of formal variety and surprise; I’m also a sucker for intertextuality, so there are a number of retellings and mashups in the mix.
LR: That’s interesting! I’ve actually heard a few writers talk about a moment like that---where they stopped caring about an “imagined reader,” as you referred to it, and started to write exactly what they wanted to write. Do you think that this “letting go” or “trusting the self” is an important step for a writer to take?
SAS: I don’t know that it has to happen for everyone, but if you have an internal workshop voice that is keeping you from feeling authorized to write what you want to write, it might be necessary to graduate from the MFA of your brain in order to produce the work you want to produce. My internal workshop voice was keeping me honest by reminding me never to skimp on the work or take cheap shortcuts for dramatic effect, but it was also generating an imagined reader who was incredibly harsh and punishing in its criticism. I felt like I needed an armorer to write about things that happen every day in the lives of women all over the world. To be clear, this voice wasn’t generated by any specific experiences in any specific workshops (I’m not even trying to enter that debate); rather, learning to read like a writer introduced a level of internal critical discourse that somehow melded with an evil 90s soccer coach voice in my mind. I needed to exorcize that asshole.
LR: When I am thinking holistically about your books—Fall Together, Sister, and Incendiary Devices—I notice the rawness of human experience shining through again and again, especially in the experiences of coming of age, marriage, and parenthood. The way you portray this rawness is visceral and sensory. I can feel these experiences through the characters’ nerves, so to speak. I’m curious: Do you consider yourself a FEEL writer, rather than an image or sound writer? Does this rawness come naturally to your narratives, or is it something you specifically strive for?
SAS: I’m always very interested in deep imagining as a writer. I see it as an ethical responsibility (because if we can manage to imagine deeply, we might hope to avoid the trap of types), but it’s honestly where I find the most satisfaction in the writing process. I’ve learned to love revision in recent years, but the real thrills always come from occupying a voice, a milieu, a situation. I also try to aim at the big moments in a character’s life—the inflection points wherein the stakes are quite high. I like giving characters a chance to find out who they are, and while not all of them may like what they see, they do look. There's a real bravery in looking. When I’m deep in the thick of imagining, images do come to me unbidden and I also distribute them on subsequent passes through a story like little gems, but they tend to follow the imagining. I do try to listen to words and arrange them so that they acquire a sonic clarity, but that work often follows both deep imagining and the conjuring of imagery. FEEL, image, and then sound.
LR: I’d love to hear more about that tone-setting opening piece of flash fiction. If I had to guess, I would say it was either the first piece written for this collection or the last. How did “A Story from the Perspective of the Flame” come into existence?
SAS: This is a bit weird to reveal, but I saw a disturbing story in the news about women self-immolating in record numbers during the height of the pandemic and it haunted me until the idea to write a series of flash pieces from the POV of the flame finally arrived in my writer brain. Some of the women in these pieces are historical figures and others are ordinary women I’ve discovered in my research. The one that opens the book was the first one in the series. Initially, I’d stashed it somewhere in the middle of the collection because it’s a pretty wild idea, right? I wasn’t sure how that would fly with a publisher. But it was my editor at Tolsun Books, Risa Pappas, who correctly discerned the story as a frontispiece. The idea for the cover emerged from this particular story’s relocation and subsequent centering.
LR: One of my favorites in Incendiary Devices is “Dewey Dell: An American Ghost Story.” It draws from urban legend and American literature to craft a tale about abortion and birth control. A later piece, “Rear Window Redux,” draws from the classic Hitchcock film to tackle domestic violence. How do you balance homage with allusion and narrative? Could you talk about inspiration and construction in these?
SAS: Typically, I embark on a re-telling because there’s something about a story that sticks in my craw. My mind keeps turning it over and over. There might be some research involved, as there was in both “Dewey Dell” and “Amy,” and a long process of trying and failing to find a way to make a story comment on another text while also hanging together as a story. Sometimes, as in “Rear Window Redux,” the story emerges almost whole—in a long draft that then is subject to a process of chiseling away and reorganizing. I’m interested in the way patterns of storytelling work to control and determine who we are and I’m also interested in exploding, resisting, or reordering those patterns. I want to give readers enough of what they expect out of a re-telling of Little Women, for example, so that I can take the risk of doing something as formally or structurally challenging as including an AITA post in the middle of the thing. In a way, the homage or the allusion “buys” me the room/space to experiment. It’s a balancing act.
LR: That's interesting. I'd love to know more about the retellings and mashups in this book. How would you describe this book’s relationship to the original texts and films? Is Incendiary Devices, for instance, a tour bus that drives for a short time through these artifacts’ neighborhoods? Is Incendiary Devices an old hotel, and these artifacts are themed rooms that readers can stay in?
SAS: I really like both of those metaphors! If we’re going with an architectural theme, I’d say that Incendiary Devices is like one of those built environments that’s sort of winkingly aware of itself as a facsimile or a reproduction of other places. Kind of like Epcot. So, you can walk into Rear Window village and know a little of what that’s like (Look! it’s Grace Kelly!) while simultaneously knowing that it’s not Grace Kelly at all. And maybe Grace Kelly wasn’t Grace Kelly. Maybe our ideas about people, places, and things are constructs that we’ve all agreed to occupy as realisms—often to our own detriment. The book costs far less than a trip to Florida and is far less dangerous on an existential level, so it’s really a bargain if you think about it that way.
LR: “Chronology of a Disaster” serves as sort of an epilogue to your novella Sister. What made you want to revisit these characters again? Do you think there is more to say about them, or is this the end?
SAS: There are many more stories in the Sister storyworld, but I cut them all away to give the novella a coherent relationship with time. This particular story was first written as a shortish peek into the future of a primary character’s life—a way of understanding more about him. Then Sister came out and one of my Mom’s friends asked her to ask me what became of him. Did he and Sister get together after her husband passed? I didn’t know, so I finished the story as the country entered what we now refer to as the “lockdown” phase of the pandemic and that moment of surreal weirdness found its way into the storytelling. It became a story about a man pushing against expectation and finding the limits of that.
LR: Stories like “Local Missing Girl Found Dead Again” and “How to Tell Your Rape Story” utilize setting to heighten tension. Small, isolated towns. Communities with dark histories. It seems that in a lot of your stories violence and danger spring forth from places like city dumps, collapsed mines, and seedy riverbanks. Some characters lose their consciences the closer they draw to these forbidden places. Can you discuss your usage of place/setting in this book?
SAS: Oh, wow! I really like your idea of the characters losing their ethical moorings as they enter these dark territories. I do indeed think there’s a way in which certain places allow characters to experiment with self in a way that they might not otherwise explore. They’re away from the gaze of the authorities. Maybe this gives them the freedom to cut loose, be wild. Be bad. For the others who happen to wander into their paths, though, this can become very dangerous business. I remember learning at a very young age that I wasn’t allowed to be out at night because the dark represented the risk of sexual violence for me. I suppose I’ve been pretty pissed off about that ever since and this pissedoffedness has found its way into my fiction. I should make the point, too, that I think the patriarchy limits life’s possibilities for everyone. I have striven to show how that plays out in stories like “Rear Window Redux” and “Chronology of a Disaster,” which both feature male protagonists.
LR: One thing I noticed, especially in “Dismember Me, Baby,” is that time is often fluid, and you aren’t afraid to take big jumps in your narrative to another year or decade. Do you see your characters entire lives as fair game for these stories? Talk a bit about that artistic choice. When should writers feel it necessary to widen the scope of a character’s timeline?
SAS: I know that I can’t pull off the moves that Alice Munro makes in her stories—I look at a story like “Train,” to use one notorious example, and want to tear all of my stories into tiny pieces for burial in the yard—but I do aspire to make unexpected and bold leaps. In the case of “Dismember Me, Baby,” the idea came for a piece of flash and I wrote it very quickly and I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to know more. I kept walking into whatever room my husband was in and announcing that I was done with the story and then walking back to my desk and writing more. Surely I can’t go this far, I remember thinking. And then, of course, I did. I kept doing it. It felt immensely indulgent. When a story moves as far as fast as this one does, there’s a certain way in which it’s unavoidably about time. And so I had to think about what I wanted time to “do” to the meaning of the events that transpire in that opening scene. That’s when it all came together. Some stories only reveal themselves in this way to me; others, I know pretty much exactly where we’re headed. In both cases, I like to remain open to surprise and discovery but not beholden to them.
LR: Lastly, one of the things I appreciate about your writing is that you excel at the longer short story—somewhere in the 4000 to 8000 word range seems to be the sweet spot for your work. What about this length of story appeals to your specific stylistic tendencies? Do you find yourself drawn to longer short stories as an editor and reader?
SAS: Oh, golly. I love long stories, both reading and writing them. I’m sad to see so many venues for publishing long stories disappear because the immersive experience of occupying a storyworld for 20+ pages is uniquely moving to me. As the editor of a journal, I’ve endeavored to make space for long stories as a way of pushing back against the extinction event. I’m not saying that I think all stories should be long—I also champion flash and hybrids in my journal— but I want readers to want to have the option. Soon, I fear, we may not. And that would be a grave loss.
LR: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk about your work! What’s next for you and your writing?
SAS: Thanks so much for talking to me about the book. I really appreciate the chance to delve into it.
In the summer, I nudge forward a novel project that I’ve been characterizing (mainly to myself) as a feminist romp through the Kentucky cave system. The book takes some fantastical leaps, which is a new (and scary!) thing for me. During the academic year, I focus on shorter pieces— mainly CNF flash, but also some lyric essays. It’s possible these are cohering into a manuscript centered around the idea of the writing life, but it might be too early to say.
Bio: Sarah Anne Strickley is the author of the short story collection, Incendiary Devices: Stories (forthcoming from Tolsun Books), the novella, Sister (Summer Camp Publishing, 2021), and the short story collection, Fall Together (Gold Wake Press, 2018). She’s a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing fellowship, an Ohio Arts grant, a Glenn Schaeffer Award from the International Institute of Modern Letters, the Copper Nickel Editors’ Prize for Prose and other honors. Her stories and essays have appeared in Oxford American, A Public Space, Witness, Harvard Review, Gulf Coast, The Southeast Review, The Normal School, Ninth Letter, Hotel Amerika, Copper Nickel, storySouth and elsewhere. She’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and earned her PhD from the University of Cincinnati. She’s a term Assistant Professor of creative writing at the University of Louisville and serves as faculty editor of Miracle Monocle, UofL’s award-winning literary journal. She lives in Kentucky with her husband, the writer Ian Stansel, and their daughters.