I know, I know. I’m forty-five. Everyone’s like, What are you doing? You’re just kids. You don’t even know yourselves yet.
You wanted to honor your fiance’s large Chinese-American family, as well as your own family, which comes from places in the heartland where mofungo might be something people would treat with Gold Bond. How did that work out?
Well, we did spot our florist on the day of the wedding foraging for flowers on the side of the road.
Also, we catered it with food trucks. Mofungo featured prominently.
The streetcar museum where it was held was in an industrial area. It was under a train bridge covered in graffiti. I think the location frightened our families. But thankfully no trains came during the ceremony.
So, yeah, I think we nailed it.
One wedding guest said of Baltimore, “This is a place where you’d have to want to live.” That stuck with you. Why? And don’t forget to talk about your purse being stolen.
Maybe it stuck with me because I was like, Really? Why wouldn’t you want to live here?
All right, fine. Let’s table the purse thing and get to the question behind the question. You’ve always been drawn to the bizarre/funny/sad combo platter. Why do you keep ordering that?
When I finished college, I wanted to be a stand-up comic. So I took a job at a comedy club as a receptionist. It turned out, though, that the position mostly entailed answering phones for the strip club in the basement. This was in DC, before it got all fixed up. I sat there, day after day, reading a chart off the wall that said who was dancing. Men would call, and I’d say, “Well, tonight, we have Lola, Boom-Boom, and Bubbles.” That was the summer I decided to pursue fiction writing instead of stand-up comedy. There was nuance in the experience that was both funny and sad. And I think that’s the truth about life – it’s beautiful and tragic and absurd. A German art film that makes you want to slit your wrists is just as much a lie as a Hollywood film with a pat, happy ending. If you did a mash-up of the two, I’d watch that movie. (#Coen brothers?)
And Baltimore fits into this how?
I think it’s the cast of characters. In my neighborhood, there’s a guy who wears dark glasses and very short shorts and loafers with no socks and he rides a three-wheeled bike everywhere. One day after the road was re-paved, I saw him spray-painting the lines back onto it with a can of spray paint from the hardware store, the lines uneven and wavy. Come what may, he was going to make sure cars stopped at the stop sign. It might be okay to flash a lot of leg when pedaling a bike, but what? We’re totally uncivilized?
There’s another guy who is thin and old with a white beard, and he limps, and he only seems able to say, “Heyyyyy!” He’s the “Hey Guy,” and everyone knows him and his cheerfulness.
One day, I met an old lady with a set hair-do, the kind my grandma used to get once a week. She came up to me and said, “Hon, I think a bird crapped in my hair. Can you get the crap out of my hair?” And she tilted her head down and there was the white blob of crap, gelatinous, wobbling there on the hard surface of the hair, and I just grabbed it with my bare hand. I didn’t really think about it. There was something so intimate about the exchange, I could have cried. This is why Baltimore is the setting of my new short story collection, Get a Grip, or at least the Baltimore I know so far.
The city in the book is partly real and partly imagined. I’ll take a street in my neighborhood and put stores on it that aren’t really there. Or I’ll put a VA hospital on Pratt Street, when there’s nothing of the sort. The stories also wander into the suburbs between Baltimore and DC, because I grew up down there.
Writing fiction is like that dream where your boss shows up and he’s really your boss, but you both work at Buckingham Palace instead of at Chipotle. The places and characters can be inspired by real life, but they have to become half-dream in order for the story to really work for me. I distance myself from reality in order to see it.
What about the damn purse?
Well, that’s just it. When I moved here, I started getting all of these messages from friends back in England. I had lived there for five years. They were like, “Baltimore? Do you think that’s a good idea?” And it turned out that England had just gotten The Wire that year. And it’s true that someone smashed the window of my friend’s car that year and stole my purse. But guess what? It didn’t happen in Baltimore. I was visiting her in Charlottesville, and we were hiking in the mountains outside the city, which is why I hid my purse in the car. A friend had to drive down with my spare set of car keys and some cash so I could get home. I thought it was so funny that I lived in this city with a rough reputation and got robbed out in the beautiful rolling countryside. I ended up writing a story, “Little Big Show,” about something like that happening to a guy who’s visiting his sister down there. I became interested in the idea of What would happen if you took everything away from someone, especially someone whose stuff was a buffer to the world? We’re probably all like that to a certain extent – I felt so lost without my flash drive and my tinted lip balm.
To be clear, you’re not from Baltimore.
No. Shut up.
Why didn’t you write about other places where you lived? I mean, you were in England and France for five years. Did you have a prolific European period, like writers from the 1920’s?
That was how I imagined it (how did you know?). But in reality, I found it very hard. I mainly lived in England. I didn’t know it would matter so much that no one sounded like me. The best way I can describe it is that I felt like I was a musician with no monitor to hear what I was playing. In the most literal sense, I couldn’t find a voice for what I was writing. I didn’t have the accent of the people around me, but I started to lose track of mine. After a few years, I had a sabbatical in France. My French is so poor that I understood very little of the language around me. I could tune out the voices and hear myself again. I wrote a lot. I completed my previous book, Smoky Ordinary, a collection of short stories set in a made-up Virginia town that’s similar to where I grew up. I had to go away, maybe, to write about home.
In closing, talk about the season the Ravens are having.
I’d rather not.
All right, how about this – Is the city going to be okay?
It wasn’t okay to start with. Maybe that’s the thing a transplant can see, all of the disparities that aren’t as extreme in other places? But what’s also easy to see is how much people here care about the city. It’s brave to keep something with sharp edges close to the heart. I’m idealistic enough to believe that matters.
Any last words?
KATHY FLANN’s fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, The North American Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, New Stories from the South, and other publications. Her short story collection, Get a Grip, won the George Garrett Award and was released by Texas Review Press in the fall of 2015. A previous collection, Smoky Ordinary, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and was published by Snake Nation Press. For five years, she taught creative writing at the University of Cumbria in England, where she created mini-courses for the BBC’s Get Writing website and served on the board of the National Association of Writers in Education. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Sozopol Fiction Seminars in Bulgaria, and Le Moulin à Nef in France. She is an associate professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.