BackStory: Five Questions with Amy Barnes

BackStory: Five Questions with Amy Barnes
Author of The Garden Statue

What inspired you to write ‘The Garden Statue’?

I read an article on 18th century monks that lived in gardens as precursors to garden gnomes. But there was more to the story than that. The living garden statues were a reflection of the culture and class norms of the time. The wealthy wouldn’t settle for stone statuary or decorations. The living statues minimized the working class and further emphasized the class divisions of the time. From that initial article, I envisioned a fictional short account of what being one of those living statues might have been like. There was a certain amount of desperation to just make money for basic requirements that I tried to convey through the piece.

What is your favourite piece of historical flash, prose poetry or hybrid work? What do you like about it?

My favorite piece of historical short fiction is “A Pair of Silk Stockings” by Anne Chopin. Written in 1896 and published in 1897, the short fiction encapsulates the main character’s life at the time is easily transported to current day. There is something that appeals to me in her ability to write in a contemporary voice that translates easily to current day. I can easily imagine finding $100 in a coat pocket only to struggle with what was the best way to spend it: self-care or something more practical. In the short story, there are hints of early promotions for certain products; the main character considers buying certain things because they are popular or in style.

How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?

The background research for this piece was limited to existing articles and images. Finding out that living garden statues/hermits took a direct line to current garden gnomes was a very visual process. It was a short jump to try and explore a fictional character’s experience in that setting. The short fiction piece became very sensory in nature as I wrote it. It felt like the main character needed to have that dimension. For the time that I wrote the piece, I tried to imagine how the character might have felt through those sensory details. Including a sense of place (in society and in the garden itself) was an important aspect of what I wanted to convey in even a short space.

What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite?

My favourite part of the writing part is discovering that creative spark or inspiration that leads to a new story – that moment of thinking of a way to explore something that expected in a way that becomes unexpected. While editing may be my least favourite part of the process on the surface, I have grown as a writer to discover that editing can be as revealing as the initial writing process. Being able to edit my writing into something that better tells the story can be just as creative as the initial process. I also find the process of writing flash or even micro fiction a cathartic, creative process. Having the parameters of only 100 or 400 words means that every word counts in a different way. I think that my least favourite part has now become just the waiting after submitting, finding the patience to wait on a decision.

We are open to imagined and alternate histories as long as each story rings true of itself. How important is historical accuracy to you in your own writing?

I believe in historical accuracy as it does bring that credibility to fiction. However, as in fictional piece, the historical aspects apply mainly to setting and contemporary pieces of the story that need to be believable. Beyond that, there is a creative leeway in giving the fictional characters a voice based on history, but also with the added scope and lens of current day. Even if I resist putting that modern lens on historical fiction, there is a time-traveling quality that manages to sneak through in the creative process. I think that enriches rather than detracts from historical fiction. There is a naivete and yet, an omniscient history-hopping quality that co-exists in the best historical fiction.

Words I edited out of my piece include: I omitted repetitions of breath and breathes. I also started out with a more religious slant because it was part of the history of garden hermits. Those references fell away before submitting because I went in the direction of just an ordinary person. In the flash format, the religious backstory took up too much space. But, I think there are still touches of it in the forced silence, stillness and maybe even a destitution that has lead the character to objectify themselves in this way. In that way, I think I was true to the history of the original garden gnomes. The main character could still be a religious figure, it just became something that whispered around the character.

An interesting note that became part of the process occurred after the writing. As I recorded the audio version, I discovered I had omitted other key details. I had initially envisioned the narrator as being male, based on the history I had read. That opened up a discussion with the FlashBack Fiction editors. I asked them if it was okay that I was reading the story in a female voice when I had seen the narrator as the historical male version. I realized reading through the text that while I had included a lot of sensory details, I had omitted any gender references to the garden statue character. The woman having the party was identified as female. One of the other guests was identified as male. And yet, in stripping the narrator of their humanity to portray the class structure differences inherent in the story, I also had removed gender by name but conveyed to many of the story’s early readers that the narrator was female. I read the piece as myself with that female voice. Additionally, I noticed I didn’t define a time or setting. Again, without an intention. I had the original time period in mind and tried to add small details to indicate that. I even had email discussions with the editors and did some historical research about the correct currency amount for the contemporary time. I’m not sure I wrote the setting/character that way because it was a small space. I do think it works in a way that maybe 3,000 words with very clear definition might not have. In the end, I have learned more about the short piece of fiction, perceptions and my own writing through the process of writing, editing, the recording and these notes. Ironically, these author notes are three times as long as the actual piece.

Editor’s Note: When discussing with Amy what image to use for the piece, we ended up having some great conversations about how to represent this story visually and what assumptions we make as we read and write. Amy’s piece doesn’t specify a gender, however as soon as we choose an image, there’s a danger of narrowing down the potential interpretations. In the end, we landed on this one, and hope it does the story justice. As for the recording, we always love to hear authors read their words in their own voices, no matter who the characters are or what the story is about!

Amy Barnes lives near Nashville, Tennessee. Her writing has been published by a range of sites and in anthologies including Drabblez, The New Southern Fugitives, McSweeney’s, Parabola, A Woman’s Right to Bare Arms and Women on a Wire. She is also a reader for CRAFT, Narratively, Barren Magazine and Ink&Nebula. She is working on a short story collection based in the southern United States.  You can find Amy on Faceb, Instagram or Twitter @amygcb.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.