Inside The Authors Studio: Christopher DiCicco

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Welcome back to Inside The Authors Studio. Today I’m talking to another writer and sharing our conversation with you! To find out who I’ve interviewed so far and what this series is all about, check out the original post by clicking here.

Today it makes me so happy to introduce you to another individual in my featured writers series, Christopher DiCicco.

Christopher completed his undergraduate degree in English and Education at Temple University. He then went on to graduate from Arcadia University with a master’s degree in Creative Writing in 2013. Today he lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania with his wife and children, pursuing his writing career from atop their house in a converted attic office.

Christopher’s short stories have been well-received by an audience of eager readers. He has published short works in literary journals such as The Cossack Review, Wyvern Lit, Cheap Pop, and still others. In 2015, Christopher published his first book, a collection of his favorite short stories, entitled So My Mother, She Lives In The Clouds with Hypertrophic Press. To celebrate the launch of his first collection, Christopher and his publishers returned to Arcadia where they hosted a reading and a workshop targeted at helping university student writers achieve their dreams of publication.

In my talk with Christopher, I investigate the importance behind his short stories and why he writes them. We look at his journey from magazine to book publication as well as the struggles and victories he has experienced along the way. I hope you enjoy meeting Christopher and learning about how this fantastic writer has grown into the individual he is today.

Jamie: Hi Christopher. I’m excited to welcome you to my blog today. By way of an introduction, how would you describe yourself to people who don’t know you?

Christopher: Well, in terms of writing, I’m somewhere between a flash fiction and a short story writer. I write relatively short pieces, so I guess I lean toward the flash side, but what does it matter? I mean, I suppose what’s important to know is I write tiny pieces and weave odd elements into them. Also, I’m very careful with my phrasing. That’s the whole minimalist aspect of me that wants the little things to really count. In that sense, I can be a little poetic I suppose, playing with language and form to achieve some effect that no one cares about or notices except me.

As a person, I’m very much a writer, and a selfish one at that, in that, it’s who I am, my guiding light, and I write because I personally enjoy it, specifically, what I’m currently doing. It’s the same with my humor. It’s terrible really. I laugh at my own jokes. And I smile at my sentences. I’m critical of my writing and go through phases of hating it, loving it, being depressed by it, making eyes at it, cheering it on, falling in love with it, divorcing it, leaving it to die on an island. It’s very much how I define myself. I love my family and writing, and talking about writing, and teaching it. That’s why I when I describe myself I mention I’m a writer, not because I think anyone cares or that it’s cool–it’s just who I am. I didn’t ask to be this way.

How has your experience getting your master’s degree in creative writing influenced your craft? How do you see writing now that you have studied it at a higher academic level?

The dreaded MFA question! There are a lot of people who hate MFA’s for various reasons, so I’m not going to try and defend the institution, only speak to my experience, which was a really positive one that allowed me to focus on technique and voice, complete with a sounding board and smart instructors to guide me. Really, it was an opportunity for me to study what I’ve always been interested in at the next level, learning how to better edit and instruct. I took a lot of what I learned in terms of instruction style and writing technique back to my own classroom, and that was really important to me. It helped me see writing truly as a fine art, one that can be taught so much more than others believe. There are a lot of techniques, but then you get into the whole conversation of whether art can really be taught, and the MFA helped me see that the foundation and the critical understandings of an art can be laid out there for students. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the only good writing follows these principles or rules or techniques, but studying writing at a higher level helps a student at least recognize that there are distinct constructs out there, and that it’s not all just the luck of the pen.

Where do you think you would be today if you hadn’t gone through the program? How do you think you would view writing? How might you see it differently than you do now?

Tough questions again. I guess the big question here is would I still be writing, and the answer is yes. I would’ve continued writing down stories and poems, and doing nothing with them–but, the big difference, is I would never call myself a writer. That’s a big distinction. Calling myself a writer versus not calling myself a writer entails sacrifice, practice, frustration and failure, analyzing technique, and reading more and more. It means a lot, and I’m sure there are numerous ways to get there. People don’t need an MFA to get there, I’m sure of that–but I did. For me, there is something like three elements. There was the joining the MFA, which somehow equalled a subconscious marriage to writing. There was developing my voice while building a foundation of technique,* and then there was the finishing what I started. Before those things, I saw writing as an art that I could do, but couldn’t really–because I wasn’t ready. And if I never went through the MFA, I would still see it as a beautiful art that you had to be willing to dedicate your life to or make your life. The MFA was just the way I chose to let myself do it.

*I want to address this point because this is an aspect a lot of writers get hung up on, and that’s the whole MFA makes all writers sound like trite copies of each other. At a certain level, that should be true. If your MFA is worth a spit in hell, then it ought to teach the basics. It should also teach you that all rules are crap if they don’t work for what you’re doing. If it does that, then at a basic level all the writers should be producing things that a safe, effective, technique-driven boring, tired, formulaic stories. And that’s fine. It’s what the writer does with that, that matters. What does she do next? What rule does she ignore? When does she apply another? To what effect? Where does her mind go? Maybe it’s like learning to cook chinese. It’s something where you can learn to do it, and you can be proficient, and you can learn to cook a standard dish–but it’s the risks, it’s letting your history spice the dish, your willingness to experiment, that will eventually separate you.

When you’re creating a story, what matters most to you as a writer? What things are you trying to convey most on the page?

Oh man, I usually tank on these questions, but I’ll give it a try. What matters most to me (as a writer) when I’m creating a story is whether I like it or whether or not it has anything of value that separates it from the boring, safe formulaic crap that I don’t want to read. I want it to sound like me, my voice, and that means attention to prose rhythm. I’m really invested in how my pieces read. The style of the language on the page is very important to me, and I’m listening for that–that’s what I’m writing; that’s why.

Along the same vein, what do you want your readers to walk away with when they finish a short story of yours? How do you want to affect them?

No, wait, this is the question I sound like a jerk when I answer, but hopefully, it’s an honest one. Reason being is that I don’t particularly care what my readers walk away with when they finish one of my stories. I know what I want. And that’s what I’m aiming for–an ending that is more of a beginning–prose with a rhythm to it, a voice–something off, something odd, but understandable. That’s what I want. And if the reader gets that too, then I guess they get me.

You’ve said your family is very important to you. In what ways have they and the connections you share with them influenced your writing? Have you ever drawn any stories or elements of stories from your personal relationships?

I never said that. Okay, kidding. My family is very important to me. They are supportive and loving and all the best things, and, of course, they have been a huge influence on my writing; in that, there are all the family dynamics present, which I not only get to observe, but be a part of on a day to day basis. Having a family makes me consider my own upbringing and relationships, lost and gained, and the part I played. So yeah, I’ve drawn on personal relationships to fuel some of my stories, but it’s not specifics as much as it is the core feelings that move me to write about difficult relationships, trauma, and love.

What else inspires you to write?

Everything and nothing. I’m not sure. It’s not so much inspiration that drives me to write, but more like a need to write. I get immense pleasure from writing, even when it kind of makes me miserable. I can’t stop laboring over lines in a story, and, the truth is I like the work. It’s satisfying to figure out a story or to write a line so it stays in rhythm. Again, inspiration seems like the wrong word. I write for me, and typically from a place flooded to the roof with sadness and frustration. Can’t keep all that inside. I’ll drown.

What draws you to the medium of short stories and flash fiction? Why write in this format? What is more appealing to you about short stories than, say, epic poems or novel trilogies?

Because I labor over the language and rhythm to the extent that I read my pieces beginning to end, listening and revising until I feel each line builds the whole. They are little pieces, little broken shots, that I enjoy. Flash and short story form captures the core of it with little backstory. The form gets to the heart of it without all the other stuff (although some would say that other stuff is amazing and important). Best of all with flash, you experience an emotion of your choosing, and then it’s over. You get to leave.

How did you get hooked up with your current publisher, Hypertrophic Press?

Funny story. I was in Canada on a lark, kind of down and out and following a lead for a story when I ended up in Hell’s Flames, a little crud pub stuck on a wrong street down a tight alley. Turns out, on one of stall doors, in scribbled black sharpie, it reads – “Are you a good read? Call Jeremy and ask for Lynsey.” And the rest is history, a torrid past with southern horse thieves, Canadian green card marriages, and open book proposals. All very hush hush, but worth it in the end.

Also, they read my story “My Son” on Flash Fiction Online and contacted me about more work. I pitched them a few stories, and then I pitched them a whole lot of stories, and they took on the project. It was a wonderful experience, working with Jeremy and Lynsey from Hypertrophic.

How has this experience publishing a book of short stories changed your perception of writing? How do you see your craft now that you have shelf space in bookstores?

I don’t know if it has. It’s made me more of aware that a story can eventually be gone.

What do you struggle with most as a writer?

The usual. Time. Anxiety over my work never being where I want it to be, but not having the will or the ability to get it where I want it. That plagues me, that my best isn’t good enough, and the idea that I’m never giving my best.  It kind of haunts me to think that I’m not giving it my all, but at the same time I’m not sure I want writing to have all of me. See what you’ve done. Now, I’m stressed out about writing.

What advice would you give to writers facing similar hurdles?

Bahahahaha. Learn to understand that being a writer never stops. It’s in your sleep. It’s in your water. It’s there with you, for better or worse. Don’t forget that the other parts of your life help you be a better writer. Keep telling yourself that, so it doesn’t consume you. Unless it already has.

Where would you like to see yourself as a writer five years from today?

Probably still trying to answer this interview. Seriously, Jamie, why are you doing this to me? Okay, five years from now, huh? In five years, I’d like to have my novella in stories published, another collection of weird flash fiction (but with more of a weird space theme), a poetry chapbook published, and I’d like to be working on finishing my YAish book. That’s what I want. I’m probably most excited for the sci-fi flash, though. At least right now.

At the end of 2015 Hypertrophic Press offered yours and other ebook versions for free for a short time. What are your thoughts on eboooks and print books? Which do you prefer to read as a reader? Which do you prefer to publish as a writer? Is there a difference in your mind between the two forms?

Print. I love print so hard, but then again I read A LOT of short fiction and poetry on my computer. There are so many cool online journals that I can’t help myself. I don’t use a kindle, so when I purchase books, it’s always in print. I’m not really against e-books, though. I think if I had a kindle, I would use the crap out of it, but I don’t. I’m not even sure all the books I want are digital. I read a lot of good stuff, and a good deal of it comes from small presses. Not always, but there’s a decent amount. I’m sure they probably offer digital copies. ANYWAY, as a writer, I prefer both. Ideally, I want readers to have access to my writing by any means. I enjoy when print magazines post some of their fiction online. That’s always nice. And yeah, I’m not really sure if there is a difference with the forms unless it matters to the reader. It depends.

You’ve described your writing place as a hideout and a secret place lofted above your bedroom. Are you drawn to particular places when you write? How does your physical location affect the work?

I do have a really, really great attic office that is lofted into my bedroom. It’s kind of fantastic, but the funny thing is that the more I write the more it doesn’t really matter where I do it, as long as it’s not a high traffic zone.  Earplugs. I can zone out pretty much anywhere with a pair of earplugs. But coffee shops, empty kitchen table early in the morning, a secluded library corner–all of that works great for me. But my office is probably my favorite place to write…and Lancaster, Pa. I’ve done some of my best writing there.

What about your mental location? Do you have to be in a certain frame of mind in order to write? How have the events in your personal life inhibited or enhanced your creative process?

I wish I could say that I have to be in a certain place, but really it seems like the more stressed I am, the more I can write. Honestly, I’m a father of three and a department chairperson–my life is inhibited and enhanced every day. Sometimes the stress pushes me to write, and the issues their way into the writing. And sometimes, the day is beautiful and the moments I’m privy to are inspirational, and push me to be creative. And again, it slips into my writing.

How do you balance a writing project with your weekday job as a teacher? What is the most challenging thing about juggling the two?

Well, I wake up very early. That’s it. I go to bed by nine and wake quarter after four. That’s my writing time during the weekdays. On the weekend, I get up early and write some more, and, if things go swimmingly, then I get to take an hour or two later in the day and write even more. But mostly, I write in the mornings. At work, I teach and I read and I grade, and that continues on and on and on, but it’s rewarding. At home, I write. If I have to grade there, then it’s usually during the evenings after I have already written for the day.

What is the most rewarding part?

The writing itself–actually sitting down and creating–that is the most rewarding. I love it.

Introduce us to the piece you’ve brought with you today. What background or context would you like to give us? Is there anything we need to know before reading?

It’s for the fall, especially for this interview. I mean, it’s special just for here.

Here is Christopher’s story, Pumpkin Princess:

My daughter inspects the pumpkin. “It’s perfect,” she tells me. Her fingers glide over the surface, touching here and there. Her thumb traces a would-be nose. Her finger lines an eye. For a moment, we pause. She tears slightly, opens her mouth, then shuts it. She holds her pumpkin, and in my head, the face she wants on the pumpkin, it smiles back at her.

“It’s the right size,” she tells me.

“For what?” I ask, but my answer is only the crunching of leaves.

Emma runs ahead, the pumpkin tight under her arm.

And I let her.

Because I’m not so sure I’m ready either.

Her perfect pumpkin, it’s the same size as my head, skinnier though, and prettier where it matters most—so, in the end, I know, like I always have, what Emma wants it for.

When I pretend to study an acorn squash on the ground, I manage not to cry and instead let my mind wander to the thirteen small carved pumpkins already sitting in my backyard. Those, my daughter tells me when I ask, have problems, issues, broken eyes, cracks in the smiles, cheeks the wrong size.

Except this one.

This pumpkin, she promises, is going to be exactly what I need.

With an arm wrapped around her shoulder, I pull her close and attempt the conversation.

“This is the one, huh? The one you need?”

I want to delve into this pumpkin thing, to scoop the insides out. I want to know what’s really going on, for her to say it, but when I ask again, what’s the deal with the pumpkins, she hands me her perfect one.

“Hold this,” she says.

Emma reaches down and lifts another smaller pumpkin out of the mud.

“How much do you think this little one costs?” she asks.

“If it’s too much, would you put it back?”

My daughter smiles and wraps the new pumpkin underneath the crook of her arm.

She doesn’t have to answer.

It’s never too much.

 

In the next two weeks, Emma and I make the trip to Snare’s Farm three more times, transforming my single family luxury sedan into a daddy and daughter dirt pile. Emma’s collection grows with each trip, but in the barn the perfect pumpkin sits. She hasn’t touched it. Instead, she carves.

“I’m still getting the technique down,” she tells me as I hand my money to a young farmer’s wife.

And I guess that’s true. Emma’s practicing has become a thing. Pumpkin guts strewn across the yard, big faces, small faces, our neighbor Susan’s, a Honda Fit, the stray tabby with the funny ear we feed. When we light the pumpkins, I’m always a little surprised. The little flames spark them to life, and Emma tells me “It’s like they’re really here, all these people, sitting in the backyard with us.”

“Yes,” I agree, “a town in miniature, all brought to pumpkin life.”

On Tuesday, Emma sits down and carves for the better part of two hours. From the kitchen window, I can see guts flung into the air, until finally the pumpkin nestled in her arms doesn’t look anything like a pumpkin. In her hands, Emma holds a worried and orange me, nervous at his daughter’s newfound energy for carving her favorite things into fall decor.

On Wednesday, the thud against the barn door is not the sound of Emma’s foot. It is not the sound of her small fist wailing against the cedar in some young frustration. Instead, it is me, orange, nervous me, thrown against the wall.

She wants to smash me—because I’m not helping her.

She hasn’t asked for it.

But she needs it.

She can’t remember her face. She tries, carefully stenciling, carefully pulling the edge of her pumpkin knife down where her mother’s cheek should go, but she can’t remember, and she doesn’t want to risk the perfect one until she does.

Until she can carve her mother right.

 

On the night before Halloween, my yard is filled with pumpkins, most carved into familiar faces. Loved ones. Neighbors. Bus drivers. Diner waitresses.

And my daughter is exhausted. Her little hands tremble. The knife falls from her fingers. And it’s done. She looks to me and I, on some internal cue, produce the lighter and spark the flame.

It’s the two of us, but not what she wants. And when she cries, I walk away. I head upstairs and open the drawer. Inside, beneath the socks is the picture. It’s the best one I’ve got. In the photo, Emma’s mother sits close to me, her arms wrapped around my shoulders pulling me in for a kiss. A tiny Emma lays across our laps.

In the photo, Emma touches my new beard.

And she is perfect. They are both beautiful and perfect—and I take the photo in my hands.

Outside, Emma curls herself into a ball. She watches her miniature town glow, and I step. I move. I walk forward—past her and into the barn where I find it, her perfect pumpkin now held tight in the crook of my arm, pulled close to my chest—and it’s time.

When I sit myself behind Emma, I wrap her in my arms, like her mother would, and she rests in my lap, the perfect pumpkin nestled between our legs, ready for us to remember.

And when I drop the photo down and take up her hand in mine, we begin. It takes us all night and there is no candy, but we carve and move and push our imaginations until it’s no pumpkin at all.

Until we’ve made what Emma and I need.

What inspired this piece? What influenced you to write it? What does it mean to you today?

 It’s a shoutout to my old flash pieces dipped in pumpkin spice.

What final thoughts do you have for my readers? Any general comments you’d like to leave them with?

I’ll have to work on this, like most of my writing.

A huge thank you goes out to Christopher for taking the time to answer some questions and share a sample of his writing with us here today. If you enjoyed this post and want to find out more about Christopher and his work, make sure to check out the links below.

Where you can find Christopher:

Website: cddicicco.com

Twitter: @ChrisDiCicco

Don’t forget to check out my other interviews. You can view my previous conversation with Hypertrophic Press by clicking here.

Have an awesome day everyone!

 

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