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an Interview w/ Says the Speck (KJP 2016) author Elly Finzer

By: Gabriel Ricard

 

Kleft Jaw: Judging by the dedication in Says the Speck, it sounds like Mrs. Hughes was a pretty significant influence on you. Can you elaborate on that possibility a little, as well as the message in the dedication?

 

Elly Finzer: Mrs. Alice Hughes was my sixth grade teacher at McKinney Elementary School in Hillsboro, Oregon. My family had moved, and I was, once again, the new kid. My plastic bifocals, stringy hair, and a wardrobe full of hideous dresses did not (surprisingly, I know) lead me down a glittering path of popularity and “squad goals.” But Mrs. Hughes required us to keep a journal that we were to turn in at the end of the year for our English project. I wrote in it faithfully (I still have that tattered notebook, by the way), and when she gave it back to me, graded, she left a yellow sticky note on it. It read: I fully expect to see you published in ten years, Michelle. –Mrs. Hughes. And that was it—that was the push I needed to fully embrace writing as a craft, and possible career. She was the first person to express her confidence in me, and I have never forgotten how powerful it was to be believed in so wholeheartedly.

 

As to the rest of that nebulous dedication: Moon is my daughter’s middle name. She is a better human than I am, as it should be with children. I really don’t know how I got so lucky in the kid department, but she has changed me in a very cellular, vital way and I cannot adequately explain how taken I am with her.

 

KJ: Talk to us about the title of your new book coming out through Kleft Jaw Press, and how that title ties into the three parts that breaks down the actual content of the book.

 

EF: Oh that title…it came to me while reading a Calvin & Hobbes comic strip: Calvin is standing under a huge black sky, blanketed by tiny stars. In the middle panel he shouts, “I’m significant!” and then in the final panel he muses quietly, “Screams the dust speck.” “Says the Speck” captured what I wanted to say in the collection a bit better, so I altered my inspiration to suit my needs, as we artists often do. It says a lot about my belief system: I mean, yeah we are, to a great humorous effect, grossly insignificant– relative to the vastness of the known galaxies. But we keep kicking up dirt, calling out to the stars, creating, living, making something out of our chromosomes—despite the seeming futility, and the awful unknown of what else is out there/next. In a strange way, that determined fight to wrest some kind of meaning out of our humdrum every day IS the significance—it’s everything.

 

The three sections are broken down into poems and stories that reflect an “I,” a “You,” and then “We.” The first section has a semi-autobiographical voice/narrator common to all the pieces. The second was very influenced by real people throughout my life, but to be clear, great artistic license was taken and these shouldn’t necessarily be read as true accounts. The third switches from poetry to prose—it brings the “I” and “You” together and fills out the experience of wanting to matter that seems to be common in humanity. The final section’s title is also a riff on Lewis Carrol’s Cheshire Cat quote in Alice in Wonderland: “we’re all mad here.”

 

KJ: Is there one part of the three that you kind of like more than the other two?

 

EF: I like the final section more than I thought I would. I’ve been a poet since I was ten, but I didn’t flex my prose writing muscles until a few years ago. It makes sense—I’m a voracious reader and now I’ve found a way to tell my own stories, too.

 

KJ: A lot of these stories/poems are on the absolutely brutal, wrenching side of things. As much as I love this book, I’m almost hesitant to tell someone to read the whole thing in one sitting. Did you realize what kind of an intense, cumulative effect this book might have on people, when taken as a whole?

 

EF: Whew, well, the short answer is yes, I knew. I mean—I’ve lived this. I’ve buried so many people I can’t remember the number anymore. I’ve become a somewhat productive adult-like person despite abuse, addiction, homelessness, abandonment, unfaithfulness, broken marriages, lost faith, lost babies. I agree with you—it’s heavy to take in over one reading. But, it took me 15 years to write it, so I wouldn’t hold it against a reader if they took this book in chunks too.

 

KJ: At the same time, I also feel like there are strong messages and glimmers of hope in some of these stories. Would you say there is an optimistic element to the book as a whole? If so, what kind of relationship does it have with the darker, even bleaker elements of Says the Speck?

 

EF: The miracle in all this is that I still find life so endearing, that I am completely enamored by the possibilities that lie in wait, and that I still believe in magic—in people, and in this blasted world. It’s deep inside some of the work—but it’s there, my insistence that waking up to another day can be more than a death sentence. Contrary to my work, I’m an aggressively cheerful person off the page, and I think that ability to live in the light has been a result of facing down some of the worst that people and life can give someone. My particular brand of optimism is symbiotic with the bleakest (truest) parts of my book. It’s not quite a simple cause/effect or yin/yang binary thing—but more of an acknowledgement that these brutal things have shaped me and at some point I had to decide whether my growth would pause, rendering me a victim, or if I would push past the shit and find some semblance of an existence I could be proud of. This book is evidence of my choice.

 

KJ: In terms of an intense story offering a strong, optimistic resolution, I was particularly knocked back by the deeply moving The Diagnosis/a Choice. Given the subject matter, was that a difficult story to tell? If so, how?

 

EF: Ahhhh! This was the hardest piece to keep in the book. It’s so vulnerable, and one of the few completely autobiographical pieces I have in Says the Speck. This piece captured one of the most terrifying times in my entire life and even after I wrote it, I wasn’t sure I could send it out into the world. My family is very religious, and I was scared that I would be judged harshly for contemplating termination. My wider circle of people are fairly liberal/atheist and I was afraid they wouldn’t understand why/how I would willingly take on a situation that had such potential for adversity. It’s one thing to survive stuff thrown at you through no fault of your own, but to choose to walk into the fire? That’s a frightening prospect. And then, there’s my son—the subject of this piece. I tried to maintain my sense of his dignity when I wrote it; I want him to be okay with this story when’s he old enough to read it. *Fingers crossed*

 

KJ: I swear that I heard something about this book about 2, 3 years ago, but I could very definitely be wrong about that. Was this a project that you’ve been working at for a long time?

 

EF: You’re not wrong! The first draft of my MS was completed in July 2014. My editor is VERY patient. It’s gone through a very necessary evolution and I am so proud of the final draft.

 

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KJ: Any other projects from you that we can look forward to?

 

EF: Yes! I’m working on a collection of mostly-true short stories called So F***ing Special. After the super heaviness of Speck, I’m exploring humor writing. It’s really fucking fun.

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