She Knows What She Is: Mary Hamilton’s Short Short Fiction

"The shorter the story is, the more is at stake with every single word, every single image that you choose, and there’s really no room to take a breather."

Mary Hamilton

Photo: Mary Hamilton

Mary Hamilton's first chapbook, We Know What We Are. Her next book, Kill Me Forever, is forthcoming this year from the LitPub.

The Blue Light Reading Series features past contributors to the 35-year-old literary journal at Indiana University Bloomington, Indiana Review, or IR. This April, IR invited three writers to visit the IU Bloomington campus; Mary Hamilton was one of them. A Los Angeles optician by day whose fiction has been published widely in literary journals, Hamilton is the author of the chapbook We Know What We Are, which won the Rose Metal Press Fourth Annual Short Short Fiction Chapbook Contest, and Kill Me Forever, forthcoming this year. She sat down with Artworks’ Rachel Lyon to talk about her work, and to read from a project she developed with friends of hers from graduate school at the MFA program in writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Mary Hamilton: Hi I’m Mary Hamilton [laughs]. I grew up in Minnesota, youngest of five kids. I like to write pieces that sort of take reality and twist it a little bit.

A Literary Exquisite Corpse

MH: The project was that my friend Kate would write a very short piece and she’d send it to Patrick, Patrick would write a short piece to follow that, and send his piece to me, and I would write a short piece to follow Patrick’s, and I’d send my piece to Kate. So there was that gap in between where something unexpected would happen. So we had this main character whose name is Thomas and he’s an elf, and you would write what you think happened to Thomas, and by the time it got back to you it had totally evolved and you’d have to rethink the character a little bit. So this is one of the pieces I wrote. It’s called “Never Ever.”

It’s one of those things like how a riddle works its way into the notches in your sinus cavity and lingers and infects and wakes you at night and you try every possible path to resolution, and still you can’t figure the answer. And still you are awake at four a.m. And still you are debating the right moment to ask if you can move your hand from the place where she has situated it so your finger could hold tight the wrapped ribbon while she fixed a bow of multiplying loops over your purple now blue finger and she doesn’t notice the colors changing because she is worrying over the color of the ribbon. The pink sage color of the ribbon and it seems to be clashing with the paper and while she is fretting over ribbon versus paper you are sniffling back any mucus that is attempting to escape your nose and you are considering the impact of asking her if it is time to let go because that is a question that you never ever want to ask. Never ever never ever never.

Rachel Lyon: How personal is your work?

MH: Very. That’s what helps with fiction: You can hide behind a character.

RL: The idea of the mask that both limits you and frees you to talk about certain things.

MH: I think it allows you to go where you wouldn’t go yourself in a way, like you can make the character do something that you weren’t brave enough to do, or say what you weren’t brave enough to say. In the last year I’ve written a couple sort of nonfiction pieces that I got really honest with, and that’s really scary, to be like, “This is me!” Super scary. Much easier to do if it’s an elf named Thomas who’s going through it. He can do whatever. It’s much easier to be honest within a character than to be honest within yourself.

Resisting Interpretation And Classification

RL: Your stories kind of resist interpretation. Can you talk a little bit about that?

MH: my perspective on it I guess  is similar to a poet’s perspective, where it is like a conversation, so you say something to someone and they hear it and they say something back to you. With poetry you’re more open, it’s more obvious that the reader’s going to interpret it in the way they want to read it, and with fiction you’re expected to tell them. I kind of like playing that line with fiction and saying, “Well, I’m going to write a story that you’re going to interpret the story the way you want to.”

RL: So why fiction, then? Why do you write fiction?

MH: Because it’s what I am, you know? I’m a terrible poet [laughs]. And I really love playing that line in fiction.

RL: How are your stories not poems?

MH: Because I say they’re not. [Laughs.] That’s it. If someone wants to call it a poem, they can call it a poem, but for me they’re stories.

RL: What do you think are some misconceptions about short fiction?

MH: Oh, there are so many. There are so many. It’s getting more respect lately, but I think a lot of people look at it as practice for a novel, like you’re not really a writer until you’ve written a novel, because the novel is the big thing you have to do as a writer. And I think a lot of people look at short stories as practice, or, “Isn’t that cute? Look, they’re having fun with that.” For me, [with] short story writing, like, you can’t slack off at all. The shorter the story is, the more is at stake with every single word, every single image that you choose, and there’s really no room to take a breather. You have to be on your game with every single word when you’re writing short-short stories, so for me it’s much more difficult. [Laughs.] I’ve never tried to write a novel. I don’t want to try to write a novel. But I think it’s just as hard.

To find out more about the Blue Light Reading Series, you can visit indianareview.org. You can find Mary Hamilton’s blog at inspirationalsportsmovies.blogspot.com.

Rachel Lyon

A native of Brooklyn, NY, Rachel Lyon came to Bloomington in 2009 to pursue her MFA in Creative Writing at IU. At WFIU, she is an announcer for All Things Considered and classical music, and she produces features for Artworks. Rachel's glad to be working in radio again after a long drought since her undergraduate years, when she was a DJ for WPRB, the independent station in Princeton, NJ.

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