To see more works from Alissa Hattman please visit her website: https://www.alissahattman.com/
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Raki Kopernik: You have a beautiful new zine chapbook out called, Post, which consists of a collection of postcards written to various people and places. Do you consider it a zine or a chapbook, and what is the difference?
Alissa Hattman: I say Post is a zine, primarily because it’s with a zine press, Zines & Things. With chapbooks I often think of poetry, but the pieces in Post are more poetic. There are plenty of flash fiction collections published in chapbooks as well. The category is a little blurry.
RK: Post is so moving and romantic. What was the inspiration and process for this project?
AH: It was inspired by a postcard constellation writing challenge put on by the journal, American Short Fiction in November of 2020. The challenge was to write one postcard per day in response to prompts. It was November during the election, which was a really hard time for me to be creative. It helped to start the day with a prompt with that constraint of just what fits on a postcard, which is really about 250 words at most. I’d write for about an hour, finish the post card, then mail it off to a friend.
RK: Oh I didn’t realize you actually mailed them out. So you took a picture of each one to keep for the project? Did you know you were going to put them all together in a zine?
AH: I didn’t, but I’ve learned to keep all of what I write, which I’ve been doing for many years, even though some of it doesn’t end up anywhere. Yeah, I was keeping a running document of all of the responses to the prompts and posting them on Instagram, so I had photos.
As the project went on a friend asked how it was going. I shared with her some of what I’d written and she said it read like a narrative, like a snapshot of our time. When I finished the project I discovered that Zines & Things had an open call for submissions. Because of the nature of it being a little weird as a series of postcards, I thought a zine press would be interested in the form.
RK: Did you already know about Zines & Things and the work they put out?
AH: My friend Jessica Wadleigh is one of the publishers so I’ve known about them for a few years. Jessica just put out a zine called, Traveling While Trans. It’s wonderful and important and I think everyone should read it. She goes deep into the emotional effects of being frisked by TSA and the violence that happens because of her identity and how she looks. They publish a lot of other zines too. I think they’re putting out a comic zine next.
RK: Why are zines and indie presses important?
AH: I think it’s more important than ever to have indie presses right now, if you think about what the big five are publishing and all the inequities in publishing. Recently the report came out that it’s something like 76% white, 74% cis women, 81% straight, 89% non-disabled. I’m quoting from a report that came out in 2015. What I understand is that it hasn’t really changed that much even though there’s been so much push back.
Small presses are more willing to champion emerging authors and formally inventive writing. They value the quality of writing and what it adds to the conversation, even if that means risking sales. I think indie presses are one way of creating more diverse and equitable spaces for voices and for being experimental and playful in form.
RK: Breaking the formulas of narrative, like already knowing what’s going to happen.
AH: Right. Breaking those narrative conventions and that narrative arc, especially with stories and fiction that we read over and over again. There are so many great people talking about this right now. I just finished reading Mathew Salesses’ book, Craft in the Real World. He makes a great case for writers, especially in the U.S, to engage more with international literature, to see these ways of storytelling that we haven’t been taught. What we see in mass market fiction is the same story over and over. Indie presses and zines create more space around this issue.
Often times we do see indie press writers who publish with presses like Coffee House, Graywolf, Archipelago, or The 3rd Thing, getting snatched up by larger publishers, for good or for ill. It’s great to get a wider reach, but also those writers leave the indie world to go to one of the big five. Small presses take risks they can’t always afford, risks that the bigger presses can afford. There are so many reasons right now to publish with and support indie presses.
RK: Your work crosses genres, which flash fiction tends to do. There is a marriage between fiction and poetry, and then your project, Post, is also visual art. For me, shorter work often breaks rules and collides itself with other genres. Is this true for you?
AH: Yeah I think that’s true. The longer form I’ve worked in was a novella, so it’s not all that long, and it borrows heavily from conventions we think of as being in poetry in that it’s very lyrical and image driven with short chapters. I think one of the reasons I gravitate toward flash fiction is that I enjoy working in the length constraint of smaller pieces. Like with the flash piece I wrote for MAYDAY, An Institution More Suitable and Equipped, I worked in the hermit crab form, which is a form titled by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola. The idea is that you’re borrowing a form or structure already in place, like a letter template. I used the format of an expulsion letter to be able to talk about disciplinary structures in schools. I find this in flash fiction all the time, like want ads or obituaries or grocery lists, forms to play around with in a different way to create a story. I think that’s another way flash fiction can get more playful with form.
RK: How do you know when a story is finished?
AH: It’s tricky. Every piece is different. I usually know it’s finished when the feeling or effect has been translated. I like working more collaboratively in groups, entering into someone else’s vision and giving and getting suggestions and perspectives. After a few rounds of that and then revising, if I feel like what I wanted to express has been conveyed to those readers, then it’s the right time. I say that, but then there are also situations where a story has been published and I read it again and realize there’s more story and more work that can be done. So I don’t know if it’s ever really finished.
RK: Do you have a daily writing practice and what is your process like?
AH: This also shifts depending on what is needed. I tend to write in the morning and when I’m teaching it’s early morning, an hour here or there. I do a lot of research and work with characters before I get to the story, understanding their environment, where they grew up, their fears and hopes and dreams and traumas, and spending time with the character outside of the story. I get a lot of pleasure going deep into that and I can’t write the story without it.
RK: Where do you get your story ideas? What inspires you?
AH: Conversations with friends, reading or listening to the news, and with fiction I often have some questions, like something troubling or confusing to me in society. Reading other fiction books, journals, and zines always inspires me. If I feel blocked I spend time reading in a critical, mindful way.
I’ve been thinking a lot about pressure in stories recently—social and environmental pressure—and how those external pressures affect relationships. These pressurized moments reveal so much about human interaction, moments where, say, the past collides with the present or there’s a rupture in personal patterns or social norms. These moments are charged with as much potential to harm as to heal. Storytelling, like most art, evokes a feeling that is not easily defined. The story becomes such a part of us that, when confronted with our own questions of what to do with these pressurized moments of grief or violence or trauma, we may recognize the moment and know we are not alone. These moments teach me what it means to be aware, to empathize, to be in relationship with others. This is all to say that, ultimately, what inspires me to write is a commitment to compassion, justice, and community.
RK: What artists or writers inspire you (aside from those you already mentioned) big or small, and are there books you always come back to?
AH: I always return to, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, which I read when I was sixteen and then again in college. What she does with form is so inventive and mind blowing. It was the first book that taught me how to read it. I didn’t understand it at the beginning but I was intrigued by the language. By the end, I understood the story, but it was more interesting to understand how a book can teach you how to read it in this inventive way.
Another book I return to is Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville. A lot of political theorists have written about it. I think it resists interpretation. Those stories that are hard to interpret are the ones I return to. And I just finished reading, The Weak Spot by Lucie Elvin, which is a debut novel. I’ve been a fan of her work for a while. Her novel is also formally inventive with short chapters. I think her writing has this still-waters-run-deep quality, quiet and structured on the surface with this sort of tension beneath the line of each sentence that builds the story. I’m writing a review of the book in the Rumpus that will be out in October. I also loved the new short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Phiyaw. I’ll just give you those even though I could keep going!
RK: When in your life did you know you wanted to be a writer?
AH: Very early. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Brandt, asked us to write poems and she read mine aloud. The experience of what it was like for others to hear my work aloud was validated early and I liked it right away. There was another, more private experience through my childhood where I wrote to process feelings and better understand the world. It was my primary form of communicating. You know, in the day where you passed notes in junior high and high school, I’d write these long notes and letters. I loved being able to communicate that way. I don’t do that with texting–it’s not the same thing. But I had this public space for communicating and this private place of things I wrote that I’d never share with anyone. In college, I started writing more poetry and personal work that, at the time, felt dangerous and hard for me. But it was also a time where I started to think I wanted to be a writer.
RK: Was it dangerous because it was vulnerable?
AH: Yes. I was writing poetry that had a lot to do with my abusive family background with my father. It’s necessary in writing to have space that’s private merge with the public, to be vulnerable with an audience. I don’t write much about that anymore, though there are some more personal pieces in Post. That process taught me about what it means to be vulnerable on the page with fiction too.
RK: What advice would you give to a young or new writer?
AH: Develop a writing practice that works for you and stick with it. Share your work and allow yourself to be vulnerable, risking something on every page. Read deeply and widely and look at different forms and structures, how story is conveyed in different cultures, especially if you’re a story writer.
I wish I would’ve told myself to define success earlier. Early on the idea was to publish, and behind that idea was to have something that would live on beyond me. Now, when I unpack that, while I do want to publish and make work public in the world, to have that exchange with others and be able to have conversations like the one we’re having, I also think about what that means on other platforms. Now I’m thinking less about things being preserved and living on and more about a current conversation, writing as a way to be present and get the most out of life.
RK: Right. The more I have these conversations, the more I think about being in the flow of writing and making connections and talking about the process. Like how everyone talks now about getting your dopamine. I think it’s interesting that the conversation is shifting toward how to feel good and be in joy, which has nothing to do with a legacy or what will be in the future. And when you do have those moments of publication and recognition—which are great of course—they come and go so fast.
AH: I think being able to find joy, even in the struggle of writing, is part of it. Especially since the pandemic, I’ve had so many conversations with creatives who’ve lost some of that joy. I’ve heard people talk about returning to a place of play and trying new things, not being so precious about our work, which I think is really exciting. Trying to remember what it was that drove you in those early days.
RK: I was having this moment during the pandemic where all I wanted to do was watch TV. It was depressing because I remember this era in my twenties when I didn’t have a TV, before internet at home or cell phones, and we just sat around and made art and music all the time. We didn’t even have the option of that distraction. I don’t think it’s the fault of the internet or technology, but now we have to work harder to fight against this new addiction.
AH: Absolutely. It’s interesting how if you do an internet fast, like no screens for a week, cognitively your brain changes. I’ve done this a couple of times and everything does really slow down. Since the pandemic, people have talked about not being able to track time. It’s traumatic so we’re going through all of this, but I think it’s also because we’ve become more dependent on technology, which is making us move faster and making it harder to track time. It concerns me. The couple of times I took screen breaks I noticed how much my brain and sense of time changed. I want to build these breaks into a regular routine so I don’t get completely lost in technology.
RK: Are you working on anything new and do you have anything else published?
AH: I have short stories in journals, a short story collection in progress, and a novella that I’m currently revising called, Sift. It’s a queer dystopian love story set in the near future during a time when the world is ravaged by climate change. Two women set off to look for fertile soil to garden and survive. It’s about their relationship and survival but also about loss and grief and family wounds. It’s written in a lyrical style with short chapters, and is definitely my pandemic project, what I mostly worked on during that time.
RK: I can’t wait to read it! What do you do when you need to get out of your head, like when you need a break from writing?
AH: It feels like everything feeds into writing so this is a hard question. I love long conversations and maybe this is why I’ve stayed in academia, for the conversations that happen in the classroom. Sometimes literature is the catalyst to talk about real social issues, so writing is involved, but other good discussions come from that, things that are harder to jump into without some catalyst to get us going. But I do take long walks through my neighborhood—I love being among the trees and plants, and I love watching films and meditating and exercising.
RK: What artist, writer, musician, or actor would you invite over for dinner and what would you serve?
AH: I love this question! Well, I’d have a dinner party with Grace Paley, Leonora Carrington, and Agnes Varda. I’m including a writer, a painter, and a director who are all women, multi-disciplinary. What I like about them together is that they’re all overtly political. I’d love the conversations around how to be a creative person while also doing the necessary work in society along side it. I’d serve an array of food, like cheese, dried fruit, plums and apricots, crackers and baguettes with eggplant spread. A sampler. Maybe some red wine too.
RK: Sounds delicious.
ALISSA HATTMAN is a writer and teacher living in the Pacific Northwest. Her prose has appeared in Carve, Gravel, Hobart, MAYDAY, Propeller, Shirley Magazine, and elsewhere. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best Microfiction 2020, and she was a longlist honoree for Dzanc’s 2019 Short Story Collection Prize. She has taught writing classes and workshops for over twelve years, and has worked as a fiction editor, book reviewer, zine librarian, and writing group facilitator. She has also been artist-in-residence at several arts centers, most recently Gullkistan Center for Creativity in Iceland. Originally from Fargo, North Dakota, Alissa now lives in Oregon and teaches writing full-time at Chemeketa Community College in Salem. Find her here: https://www.alissahattman.com/
RAKI KOPERNIK is a queer, Jewish writer. She is the author of The Things You Left (Unsolicited Press 2020) a 2021 Minnesota Book Award finalist, The Memory House (The Muriel Press 2019) a 2020 Minnesota Book Award finalist, and The Other Body (Dancing Girl Press 2017). Her work has appeared in numerous publications and has been nominated for several other awards, including the Pushcart Prize for fiction and the Pen Faulkner Award in Fiction. She is a fiction editor at MAYDAY and lives in Minneapolis.