I don’t handle grieving well. I don’t know what to say, or what to do, or if I’m doing any of it right. All of these sticky feelings get bottled up inside me and I don’t know how to process any of them, but I know I need to process them, somehow, before they get permanently stuck. A grief counselor once suggested to me that I write a letter to the person that I was grieving for, and tell them all the wonderful things about our relationship. That ended up not working out very well because all my letter said was how much I missed them and that they hadn’t been in my life long enough and that I felt a portion of my life had simply come crashing to a halt and I didn’t know how to start it up again or if I even wanted it to start up again.
We’ve all heard the phrase “this novel is a love letter to such-and-such,” where the author is using fiction to show how much they love a particular subgenre or style. But what about the phrase “this piece of fiction is a letter”? I’m not talking epistolary fiction, I’m talking character or plot driven stories that function as a letter. Alexandria Baisden’s “The Old Man and the Phoenix” is the perfect example of what I’m talking about. I kept trying to write a letter to my friend who I missed, when I should have been reading a story to him instead. I should have been reading this story. “The Old Man and the Phoenix” helped me process my grief, it made me feel like I wasn’t going through this alone.
Even if this story doesn’t help you process anything, even if you read it for pure entertainment, or from an analytical point of view, there is no escaping how much of an emotional punch Baisden has crammed into such a small word count. If the short story brought tears to your eyes, I’ll warn you now, this interview may as well.
A recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago, Alexandria Baisden’s work has been published in the Kamelian, HelloGiggles, Hair Trigger 38, The Lab Review Blog, and 101 Words. Two of her children’s plays have also been produced at Heartland Community Church. She enjoys puns, anime, coffee, and getting distracted by fluffy animals on the internet. She’s currently working on her fantasy novel, and you can learn more about her work at her website alexandriabaisden.wixsite.com, or by following her on twitter @FireShye.
She was kind enough to answer a number of my questions about how this story came about (this is the part where you’ll cry), her experiences helping other young writers, inspirational words, Owl City songs, the influence of J.K. Rowling on her generation, and more.
Apex Magazine: Who better than a phoenix to counsel someone on the ways of death? But even a phoenix cries at the thought of losing a friend forever. What was going through your mind when you wrote this story?
Alexandria Baisden: I didn’t realize it at the time, but many of the ideas were actually drawn from my grandmother’s death. She passed away from pancreas cancer four years ago, but she said she was ready to die because she missed my grandfather. Whenever any of us would cry, she would cup our faces and tell us no tears. I would lie in bed with her, and she’d hold my hand and trust me with the details of her death – how she wanted her ashes mixed with my grandfather’s, and for their urn to be placed in their garden. Near the end, she told my mom she wished she could go with her because she would miss her.
This actually happens to me a lot – I don’t realize how much real life impacts my fiction until after I’ve written it! It wasn’t until I was talking about it with my mom did I realize how similar the old man’s wishes were to my grandmother’s.
A few things were intentional – my grandmother’s name was Jean, so that’s where I drew the name of the old man’s wife. I wanted to make the old man as human as possible, so while I was writing it, I thought back on the emotions my grandmother went through while wrestling with death: bravery, acceptance, fear and then finally, peace. I tried to think of the simple and beautiful things someone might really miss and expand on that.
AM: I know I should feel bad for the old man, but it’s the phoenix I feel worst for. The phoenix loses everyone it gets close to. Us humans all get through our grief in our own way. How does a phoenix get through the grieving process?
AB: Oh, wow, what a great question! I feel worse for the phoenix too. They’re both heartbroken to lose each other, but the phoenix is the one who has to go on.
My grandmother’s death isn’t as raw anymore, but whenever I’m reminded of her, there is a profound ache in my bones. I think it’s the same for the phoenix. The old man is always going to be tucked into its heart, but it’s so hard. It’s so hard because for the old man, he clings to the hope that when he dies, he’s going to see his wife again. The phoenix doesn’t have that. It can’t die; it can’t be with him again. There’s no quick fix for grief, and I imagine the phoenix to be very human in its loss. I think sometimes, memories of the old man scissor through it, and the loss is crippling, and I think other days, it rests knowing its friend is at peace. The old man has left its mark on the phoenix, but phoenixes have always been symbols of perseverance. At least, they have been to me – that’s why they’re my favorite fantasy creature. I don’t imagine the phoenix to run from its pain. I think it faces it, and perhaps surrounds itself with people the old man loved most. It will always have that friendship in its veins, but it keeps going because it must.
AM: “The Old Man and The Phoenix” is a very short and very effective story. Some of your other published stories and articles are also of the flash length. What advice do you have for writers who are looking to get as much emotional effect as possible in such few words?
AB: Thank you! I think if you’re going into it knowing you want to write a flash fiction, then don’t try to force too much into such a small space. When I worked as an Associate Editor at the Publishing Lab at Columbia, part of the job was researching markets and offering ideas for where students could submit their work. We also offered edits and feedback. The advice I would find myself giving to students over and over was to dive straight into the moment. Many people would dump several pages of backstory into such a tiny piece, and it wasn’t needed. When you only have a few pages, you can only focus on so much!
When I’m writing, I ask myself what’s the most important thing I want to get across and expand on that. It’s usually a simple idea with only a few characters, but their emotions are huge and take up the most space.
AM: I was hoping you could tell us more about how this story came to be. How did your earlier drafts and ideas different from the final result? How long did it take you to get from the idea to the finished story?
AB: The funny thing is, I actually wrote this for Tina Jens’s Advanced Fantasy Writing Workshop class! Her poem was just published in Apex last June. Pretty cool, huh?
My original idea was to write in the POV of a phoenix dying and resurrecting. I was thinking about exploring the emotions and struggles of something with that kind of power. I only wrote a few lines, but I already wasn’t enjoying where it was going. It was flat, and I was bored writing it. I took a break from it for a few days.
There’s this song by Owl City called “I Found Love.” When I listened to an interview with Adam Young, he talked about how the song was about him imagining being at the end of it all, surrounded by his friends and family. How he would be so sad to leave everyone behind, but so excited to see what would come next, and that idea really stuck with me. I think that’s when I started wondering about the old man. I realized it would be more heartbreaking if the phoenix had a close friend who it would never see again. (Sorry, I guess I go straight for the feels!)
Anyway, I was planning to use the evening to write my first draft, but I ended up having a competing deadline at the last minute. It really challenged me to work tight under pressure! I wrote “The Old Man in the Phoenix” in the five hours before dawn. When I was done, I took a shower, ordered a peppermint mocha with two extra shots and dragged myself to class.
I was lucky to have an awesome group of talented people look over this story. I had a critique group in class who helped me come up with the title. We also did an exercise, where we taped our stories to the wall and read our first lines out loud. It was intimidating, but it helps you understand how to catch an editor’s attention right away! My first sentence used to be “the heart monitor clicked and sighed” and the class agreed it wasn’t a strong enough opening. So, I went in and switched some sentences around. I actually read two ‘maybe’ first lines to my roommates later, and they were able to answer which one was stronger right away. It’s truly a great exercise, and first sentences are something I’m more aware of now!
My co-workers and I at the Publishing Lab often read each other’s work and offered feedback on our own stories. In the second draft, the phoenix’s name was revealed, but while I was talking it out at the Lab, we decided the story would be stronger without it – and with the addition of the title, it just seemed more fitting to take it out.
The story used to end right after the old man died, and it was too abrupt. Ms. Tina suggested adding in the funeral and how the phoenix might sing there, and I really loved that idea. So, I went in and added the ending and that was it!
AM: You’re a fiction writing tutor at Columbia College in Chicago. How has tutoring others in their writing helped strengthen your own writing? What writing tips do you give to your students?
AB: I actually just graduated, but tutoring was awesome! The thing about Columbia is that the tutors are trained to use Story Workshop Method. It isn’t a traditional setup where a student might come to you for extra help, but Fiction Writing Tutoring is a class they can take.
Story Workshop Method is a lot of oral storytelling. So, instead of bringing in work, they would brainstorm a story while I was there. My tutees would tell their scenes to me as fully as they could. It wasn’t just summarizing an idea – it was talking about the story in full detail, from the quality of light, spatial relationships and emotions, to sounds, smells and gestures. While they’d describe it to me, I’d just follow my natural curiosity about what was being told. How does Miranda feel when she finds her dad reading her diary? What’s her dad’s reaction to getting caught? What happens next? Most of the time, they’d discover new ideas just from me asking questions. There’s a lot more to Story Workshop Method, from word games, to recall, and even teaching a student to slow down and listen to their voice as they read out loud.
After a while, they’d write their scene in a notebook. When their time was up, they’d read it to me and type the rest for our next class.
Being a tutor has helped me spot what’s working in a story and what isn’t. You automatically shy away from weaknesses you see in other people’s stories. You start to ask yourself if you’re expanding enough on a certain part, if the dialog flows … I even use our old exercises on myself. For example, the old man thinks that the dawn would taste like sherbet. That’s from a game I played with my students. You’re supposed to think of words that don’t normally have any taste, smell, or sound and makeup a sensory detail to go along with it. I literally asked myself what a sunrise might taste like, and my first thought was sherbet.
I touched on this in my other answer, but again, I think the biggest tip I gave students was to go straight to the conflict. I’ve seen gems get buried under heaps of unnecessary backstory and realize the true beginning was on page four. Another thing I always stressed was to not worry about getting it perfect the first time. Especially the first time! Freshmen are usually so afraid to write with someone else in the room, and I totally understand because I’ve been there. It can be intimidating to read your work out loud when you haven’t had the time to go back and edit. They could get frustrated because the first draft wasn’t perfect, but a first draft never is. The important thing was they’d have something to expand on later.
I’m not sure why, but a lot of students seemed to think that once you wrote something, it was set in stone, but it doesn’t have to be! I tried to remind them of that when they felt stuck. You can always go back and rewrite – it’s perfectly fine if things change!
Lastly, I always told my students to be willing to try. I heard this quote from Andy Stanley, and I’ve held onto it ever since: “Direction, not intention, determines your destination.” What that means is, you can wish and hope for something all you want, but if you’re not heading in the direction of your hopes and dreams, you’re never going to get there. Harry Potter didn’t destroy Lord Voldemort by twiddling his thumbs in the Gryffindor Tower. He went out, he failed a few times, but he kept getting back up, and he persevered. It’s the same with writing. If you have dreams to become a published writer, but you’re too afraid to submit your work or even write, then it’s not going to happen. You have to start out by stepping in that direction. I know so many people who won’t submit their work because they’re afraid. You’ll get rejected, everyone does, but don’t lean into the storm clouds because of it. Keep pushing forward and doing your best. Life is too short to just wish for things.
AM: What writers (or specific works) have been most influential on you?
AB: I don’t think anyone is going to be able to escape this answer from Millennials, but J.K. Rowling! The Mirror of Erised chapter left a huge impact on me as a little girl. If you don’t know, the mirror reveals your heart’s deepest desire, and for Harry, it shows him surrounded by his family. After I read it, I darted downstairs and asked my mom, “Why does my heart feel funny?” It was the first time I realized words on a page could make a person feel something, and I decided I wanted to do that too.
I also really love Jodi Picoult. She doesn’t write a lot of fantasy, but I admire her skill of getting emotions onto the page. I enjoy writing about family and relationships with fantasy characters, and I’ve always gobbled up the way she plays with time and POV.
Aimee Bender is another one of my favorites. She has such a lyrical style, and her stories are so dark, odd, and gorgeous. Reading her work has made me unafraid to try new things in my writing. Christopher Moore’s books make me laugh out loud, and I’ve been stalking a lot of Caroline M. Yoachim’s stories lately.
I also just finished The Singular & Extraordinary Tale of Mirror & Goliath by Ishbelle Bee. I loved her characters and the artful way she worded everything – my imagination exploded with all of this color when I read it, so I’ll definitely be reading more of her books in the future.
AM: You recently worked on the pg70pit writing contest. What can you tell us about this project and your involvement? Is it something you’d get involved with again?
AB: I would love to get involved with it again if I have the chance!
What drew me to the contest was how unique it was. Lara Willard explained in her blog post that there was no first page, query or pitch – writers only submitted page 70 of their manuscripts. The idea is that page 70 should be far enough into the story for things to be moving along, and it could “be a better snapshot of the entire book’s style than the first page.” The whole thing was based off of the McLuhan Test, but instead of page 70, they used page 69.
The submissions were divided up by age category. There were many different genres – historical, contemporary, sci-fi, mystery, etc. I only slushed for fantasy in YA and Adult. The writers names were stripped from their entries, using song lyrics as a code name. You can find the rest of the submission details here.
The first readers scored submissions on a scale of 1 to 3. 1 meaning it needed work, 3 meaning, you wanted to read more – and then Lara posted the highest scoring entries onto a playlist on Spotify. She really went out of her way to make it fun for everyone involved, and it was! We had Twitter parties throughout the whole week, posted gifs and encouraged each other. I had a blast doing it!
Afterwards, Lara and the judges narrowed down the winners, and agents were able to request more material. I found out later that some agents requested more from a few of my favorite entries, so that was really exciting!
AM: What can you tell us about your current writing projects?
AB: My passion project is a high-fantasy novel about a cursed kingdom and their fight to reclaim their souls. I’m also working on a short story about the Summer Sky in a relationship with a Star Swallower who’s eating all of her stars. That’s been pretty fun to work on, but also a bit challenging. I have two children’s plays that were produced at Heartland Community Church last Christmas, so I would like to look for markets for those soon. I have quite a few other ideas as well, but I’m trying to take them one at a time!
AM: Thanks Alexandria!