Jenny Ferguson is a Canadian writer, editor, and teacher from many places. Her debut book, Border Markers (NeWest Press), a collection of interrelated flash fictions, was released this September. Brad de Roo chatted with her about the ambiguity of genres, the ubiquity of ghosts, and the reorienting power of flash. “Flash-or-micro fiction, as genre,” Jenny said, “likes to end on a turn, or a moment that asks the reader to re-evaluate what s/he has read.”
What appeals to you about flash fiction?
I’m going to tell you a story. Stick with me and I’ll get to flash.
The me who wrote this book, she was very concerned with stories being complete and full. She desired control, and she understood that control could come through words if the shape she used to hold the words had a beginning, a middle, and an end.
We can all laugh at her for a minute. It’s okay. Really. She was very young. And somewhat silly in how hard she clung to these ideas.
She thought she could control Border Markers and the large, deep, scary Alice-in-the-middle-of-falling story inside her if she had control, a shape to coral her words.
She didn’t know words are a thing we have little control over even though we assume we do (especially if we write them down, if we smack an ISBN on them). Words change, shift, are living things, are other, othered, othering… meaning shifts with time and with point-of-view and with each utterance.
The me who wrote this book knew novels were big things—had written a few terrible ones already—and didn’t want to repeat that process.
She probably hadn’t read any flash at this point (remember, she’s obsessed with novels; she doesn’t even like short stories), and she knew to graduate with her degree she had to write a thesis.
Also, once, she had actually driven her car into a gas pump. By accident. She was very, very young.
And so thinking about this large, scary story she wanted to write, she knew if she started with a scene, just a scene, the book would come together.
The scene ended up being “The Story of the New Bumper.” And it felt right, even whole, even though it was quite a short scene.
Moving forward, she threw what she knew about novels, and scenes, and chapters out the second story window of her Windsor, ON apartment into the river. Later she found the words flash-or-micro fiction to prop up what she was doing.
Having grown up in Essex County along the Detroit river, I’d like to note that this particular body of water had the reputation throughout my childhood as being a place to throw unwanted things and impeding ideas. Once you shed your attachment to the novel, what particularly did you learn about words and scenes? Did the unwanted things wash up as suddenly smoothed and sparkly forms? Or did a whole new river-breeze waft over things?
I’d like to note that I’ve never thrown anything other than insubstantial idea-like things into the Detroit river. I do not litter.
I also want to note, I have never taken anything out of the Detroit river.
I did write a book within about a half-kilometre of said body of water. Did I learn anything? Maybe that my undergrad TAs and professors were right? I did suffer from wordiness. Border Markers might have been a targeted attempt to see if fewer words could paint a large, sweeping canvas.
Now, I like to introduce beginning writers to flash. It’s a great form to target elements of story and craft.
Do you have any favourite authors who utilize flash fiction?
Gosh, I really wish all my books weren’t packed in boxes right now or I’d be providing a reading list.
Off the top of my head, I’ll offer you two:
Leonard Cohen’s “When I Left the King…” (from Book of Mercy) thrills me every time I read it. Some may argue it’s poetry and I won’t fight them. But “When I Left the King…” is flash-or-micro fiction too. I don’t like Cohen as a novelist, but in these brief moments he constructs the world out of words for me.
Roxane Gay can do no wrong. Let’s get that out there right now. Bad Feminist. An Untamed State. Even the books I haven’t read, her forthcoming YA novel, The Year I Learned Everything, and story collection Difficult Women, all gold. But when it comes to flash, I’ll direct you to Ayati. Read the whole book, love it, share it, talk about it—but linger over “You Never Knew How the Waters Ran So Cruel, So Deep” if you want to see what flash can do.
I enjoy some of Lydia Davis’ and Amy Hempel’s forays into flash. Have you read them at all?
Flash Fiction Forward edited by James Thomas and Robert Shapard was my flash-or-micro “bible” while I was writing Border Markers. So yes, Amy Hempel and Lydia Davis were among my early reads in the genre!
Is there such a thing as prairie fiction? If so, what sort of traits does it have?
Does your book fit in with such a description?
I might be the wrong person to ask, but I’ll try. Maybe I’ll just muddle things. But I’ve learned that muddle is good, muddle can be productive.
Myself, I’m a hybrid: born in Montreal, raised some in Toronto, some in Calgary, some in Lloydminster. I have family in B.C., left Canada for five years to live in the U.S., travel as often as I can, and now reside in Nova Scotia. I don’t think you can call me a “prairie writer” and therefore dub Border Markers prairie fiction by default.
Border Markers is set on the prairie, but also in South and Central America, and Mexico. I don’t think we can call it prairie fiction simply because a large part of the novel takes place in Alberta/Saskatchewan.
Do the characters have a certain prairie aesthetic about them? Do they understand themselves against their town and the prairie landscape?
Would most of my characters argue it’s a “bunnyhug” and not a “hooded sweatshirt”?
I have no idea if this is productive muddle. But it’s the muddle I’m leaving you with.
A number of characters in the book are deeply haunted by past experiences. Is there a sense in which writing is a haunting? Is it at times also like an exorcism? In other words, does writing conjure ghosts?
We live in the world populated by ghosts. Every hour of the day. Everywhere.
Some of us are aware of this. Some of us ignore our awareness. Some of us refuse to see what’s in front of us—a refusal so firm it becomes an erasure of sorts.
And some of us write the world where we see the ghosts, where we talk to them.
Do such conversations help wind a story up, or do they generate more ghost stories? Or is there some combination of resolution and generation at phantom play?
No. What I’m saying is it’s a worldview. A way of looking at the world to begin with.
Not simply a way of writing.
Any sense of what direction you’ll be travelling next? Has writing this book given your life any new border markers?
I wrote this book in 2010. So I’ve been travelling.
What I’ve learned since? I can’t help but linger over borders. They inform my work. Maybe it won’t always be so, but for now, it is.
While writing my most recent novel, I read and annotated The Indian Act, that heinous piece of legislation our country uses against First Nations peoples. If that isn’t a border in Indigenous peoples lives and to a productive relationship between those nations and the government of Canada, I don’t know what is.
My work-in-progress is looking at a teen who is HIV+ and the borders her community throws in her way smashed up against those she creates herself. And I haven’t written it yet, but she’s going to cross the border into Mexico at some point in search of a friend’s deported mother—and the cure to her friend’s strange (read: ghostly) condition.
Borders. They’re my thing.