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Chatting with Jennifer Lesh Fleck

Jennifer describes the perfect creative state, Wordstock performances, social media's toll on authors, living with Marfan syndrome, the meaning of her Radon story, and AI reviving past loved ones.

Chatting with Jennifer Lesh Fleck

Jennifer Lesh Fleck, a past Pushcart Prize nominee, has been published by or is forthcoming in The Sun Magazine, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Arcanist, MetaStellar, If There’s Anyone Left, Cosmic Horror Monthly's newest anthology, and others. She lives in the Pacific Northwest in a home that's the spitting image of the Amityville Horror House, though repainted a cheery jade green. Much of her work is informed by experiencing lifelong hidden disability from Marfan syndrome. Find her @metal.and.mettle (Instagram), @jen_lesh_fleck (X).

Jennifer is the author of “Sheila Now and Then” from Radon issue 6.

Q: What led you to the idea for the Kube in your Radon story?

I have a long-running daily conversation going with a close friend and fellow writer, bouncing speculative ideas back and forth. We’ve joked that Charlie Brooker needs to hire us to help write the next season of Black Mirror, given its central intent and messaging seems to have strayed from the earlier episodes we loved (e.g. “San Junipero,” “White Christmas,” “The Entire History of You,” etc.).

Anyhow, the Kube is one of well over a hundred ideas we’ve generated. A themed call came up that suited that particular story seed. I missed the deadline, but something solid still materialized from the prompt.

The design of the Kube is a stylistic mash-up of Alexa home devices and the Lament Configuration, the puzzle box from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser stories. I wanted the protagonist to begin struggling from the very outset of the story, to grapple with the Kube like a puzzle box, trying to find its buttons to push.

Q: What are your thoughts about the possibility of AI technology doing the same in reviving dead loved ones in the near future?

Such tech is not only possible and plausible, but already happening. My Radon story wasn’t directly inspired by this as I was unaware of it. But in 2023 funeral undertakers in China began using ChatGPT and Midjourney to help create realistic avatars of the deceased. Loved ones are able to “communicate” with these digital renditions as part of their grieving process. Most report a positive experience.

I can see the potential for such tech used carefully within therapeutic settings. But “Sheila Now and Then” is a cautionary tale. What happens when a similar technology is slickly repackaged to go home with an untrained end user? What impact might it have on a family struggling to survive after a parent’s death?

Having lost my own mom last February and my dad in 2007, I personally wouldn’t want to revive some uncanny AI version of them. They live in my head, and I feel close to them that way.

Q: “Sheila Now and Then” makes reference to several ancient Greek myths. What inspired you to use mythology as a device in this particular story? How do ancient mythology and futuristic technology connect and oppose each other in the story?

The original inspiration was that themed call, something like “gods and AI,” if I recall correctly. Well, I didn’t want to go the Judeo-Christian route, especially as a Catholic school survivor. My educational background featured a strong emphasis on the Classics, so it’s all percolating in my blood. I thought it might be fun to throw a feminist curveball at it. As Sheila the Kube takes on more of her own voice and agency, she begins directing some rather pointed criticism at Michael, her owner. It flies over his head, but hopefully lands with the reader. The Pygmalion myth in particular suits the story because it’s exactly Michael’s folly—the irresistible urge to tweak, alter, and “improve” a loved one, creating a “perfected" version of her. One bearing little resemblance to the original person.

Q: Does your writing buddy, your chihuahua mix, assist you in your daily writing?

Both Olive and Frankie provide affection and comic relief. There’s a pandemonium to living with two little dogs that I find entertaining and inspiring . . . they’ve got minds that are familiar yet alien. They are loyal and yet instinct-driven, and you never quite know what they’ll do next. I’ve always been drawn to animals, and they appear often in my writing.

Q: Do you ever analyze your own writing to study your technique? For instance, possibly running data-reports on what words you tend to use the most in your prose?

I try to follow Stephen King’s advice in On Writing: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” Allowing myself free rein to jump into the writing process and see where a particular idea takes me. If I’m doing it right, I find my way to a transcendent state where the four walls around me fall away and I’m watching characters act and react in a setting that feels real. It’s thrilling and magical and becomes a mad rush to get everything jotted down before I have to return to real life. Anyhow, during a writing session when I’m essentially possessed in this way, I’m not allowed to dip into cold logic, analysis, and self-criticism. The moment I find myself drifting, switching into editorial mode, the veil lifts, the four walls return, and the magical state dissipates.

While in that dreamlike creative state I do make plenty of U-turns and go down blind alleys. But I also retrieve treasures, worthwhile insights, even memories I’d lost and forgotten.

When I edit, I’m brutal, methodical, and straightforward. Slash and burn. I strike out whole paragraphs, remove fluff from dialogue and description. I characteristically overwrite, so most pieces demand this firm hand.

Caveat: there’s some danger in over-editing. Sometimes this can rob a piece of a certain chaotic grace and natural rhythm. Chuck Palahniuk refers to ‘burnt tongue’ moments, a “way of saying something, but saying it wrong, twisting it to slow down the reader. Forcing the reader to read close, maybe read twice, not just skim along a surface of abstract images, short-cut adverbs, and clichés.” Over-editing, I find, removes some of the happy accidents that create that burnt tongue frisson.

Anyhow, I’m not organized enough to run data reports, but I do conduct careful inspections of a work in its final draft, searching for writerly tics. One bad habit is using the empty word “just” or employing “softening” terms like “I think that” and “kind of.” A strong female voice is often viewed as a threat. It’s second nature to second-guess, to weaken my opinion in order to protect egos. That’s the bullshit I ruthlessly excise whenever I see it.

Q: What was it like reading poems during Wordstock 2011?

Imposter syndrome to the hilt. VoiceCatcher selected a few of us who’d been published in their anthology to read and do a book-signing. Meanwhile, I’m looking over the roster of featured readers, and seeing Ursula K. Le Guin . . . Jennifer Egan who’d just won a Pulitzer Prize . . . Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis of the Decemberists . . .

Like who the heck am I to rub shoulders with such luminaries?

I nervously arrived an hour early and was shown to the green room. “Country noir” writer Daniel Woodrell was sitting there alone, waiting to take the stage. His highly lauded novel Winter’s Bone had recently been made into the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career. Of course I had stars in my eyes. But he was so kind and down-to-earth with his gentle Ozarks twang that he put me at ease. I remember thinking his was such an interesting life, writing novels and traveling around as a paid attraction at literary events.

Then, the reading itself. Luckily the beta blocker I was on back then for my heart also had the helpful side effect of quelling the physical signs of anxiety—the shakes, the trembling voice. Once onstage, I pushed past my comfort zone enough to enjoy it, at least somewhat. I survived. And my friends from the Guttery showed up and helped cheer me on.

Wordstock has since been renamed the Portland Book Festival. There’s a lovely symmetry to it all in that my teenage daughter volunteered at this past November’s event. She attends a local arts-based public magnet school, and her focus there as a senior is filmmaking and fiction writing. She’s also one of my most valuable beta readers!

Q: Do you regard your first short story publication, "The Things We Burned" differently now than when it was first released?

I’m surprised you found that story! That was actually my first EVER fiction submission. The Main Street Rag promptly accepted it for their book Keeping Track. You’d think this would provide me the impetus to keep going. Instead, when my copies arrived in the mail, I felt strange. Vulnerable and empty. I stashed the book unread on my shelf.

I’d gotten this nod from the literary world. Instead of feeling pride and accomplishment I felt the gnawing fear they’d made some kind of mistake. Shortly thereafter my health worsened, and I set writing aside. I thought I was taking a little break . . . well, the break went on for eight years.

So, I pulled the book out again for this interview and gave my story a look. I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s weird, feminist, wry, and dark. Very much still “on brand” for me (a term I hate!). Think I’ll start circulating it as a reprint, see if I can get anyone to publish it anew and give it a second life.

Q: Is your Portland writing group, The Guttery, still up and running?

I initially left the group thinking I’d return after my health was patched up. Then I underwent a series of three brutal orthopedic surgeries to help correct the deformed rib cage and the scoliosis that are typical features in the whole Marfanoid shit sandwich. Mayo Clinic installed two 12” curved steel bars inside my rib cage to reshape my pectus excavatum (concave sternum) that I’d wear for four long years. It got my sternum off my heart and left lung so I could have close to normal cardiovascular function. Meantime, OHSU’s team corrected my crooked spine with a long spinal fusion, shoulders to waist.

Twenty-three bolts and screws and two body-length metal rods run down my spine. The hardware is there for life and can’t be removed. My son nicknamed me “Robot Zombie” because I’m a living combination of metal and “human donor materials.”

I’m pro-transhumanism. In fact, it’s one of the things that appealed to me about your publication. I’d 1000% trade this body in for a fresh, shining, and beautifully functional cyborg body, if that were a possibility. I dream of doing things I’ve never been able to do . . . running distances, dancing for hours. I dream of being graceful and free of the pain my internal hardware causes me.

Clothes hide extensive surgical scars, and I present to the casual eye with perfect posture and a normal chest. But I’ll never bend or twist again, or even walk without pain. Medical science has limits. They can sometimes stabilize you. They can’t always fix you.

Anyhow, after I left, the Guttery split into three groups. One group is still around, and they retain the original name.

I’m forever grateful for my time in the Guttery and glad I had a hand in creating it. Many friendships I made continue to this day.

Q: You've described your day job as having intensive social media demands. Do you feel this impacts your ability to self-market your own writing online?

It’s dipping from the same well, and I’m already burnt out. The whole thing is a constantly moving target. Chasing after algorithms—all the while, new platforms appear to supplant or subsume earlier ones.

They’re training us to behave like circus monkeys, extracting considerable time and free labor by offering the promise of relevance (and the distant potential of virality and quick fame). If we don’t use trending music and do silly dances—or stir up drama in our comments section—these companies aren’t interested in us. Our content sinks to the bottom unseen. Creatives, artists, and small businesses are all sinking in 2024.

As for writing . . . I’m uncomfortable with turning my personal life into a “curated brand.” We already give away too much information to companies who sell it to other companies who use it to market things back to us that we don’t need. Consumerism is rampant, and the small company I founded in 1997, Jumblelaya, is dedicated to promoting and selling second hand vintage clothing. We don’t need more junk in the world; we can reuse the plentiful junk we already have.

I’ll help out magazines by using my social media accounts to boost their signal, though—most do not have a big budget to advertise, relying on their authors to help. So I don’t mind posting announcements about my upcoming publications. But otherwise I’m private and dislike attention, and feel uneasy marketing myself as a product.

TL;DR: I’d rather be writing than posting about writing.

Q: Your story "The Mostly Forgotten Unicorn of the Gold Coast" landed recently in If There's Anyone Left #4 and deals with your experience with Marfan syndrome. Has writing for you always been an avenue to wrestle with this disease, or it is a recent development?

I was born with this peculiar set of anomalies. Nobody had a diagnosis, an explanation, or even any guidance. I grew up ashamed, my self-esteem in the toilet. The feminine beauty ideal in California was a kind of tanned, athletic perfection. And I was this guarded, indoorsy, bookish type with hidden birth defects. I kept quiet about my troubles so I wouldn’t be bullied (and I developed a snarky tongue as a defensive weapon).

As an adult, giving birth twice and then undergoing difficult surgeries are the experiences that paradoxically helped me release some of this lifelong shame. I mean, you are helpless and in incredible pain. I had to be helped by strangers to the bathroom, moved around by them, bathed. After my spinal fusion, I had to use a walker to walk.

Writing is an escape valve for emotions that otherwise would tear me apart. I think about my misbehaving bones a lot. The unicorn in my story is a righteously furious spirit trapped inside a damaged skeleton who is missing crucial parts. She’s forced to take part in a capitalism-driven performance, to act as centerpiece for a reality program, a grotesque entertainment that’s streamed to a vast audience. When I consider the interplay of my paid work and the shitshow that is social media and my own unique body, I see the underpinnings of the story. Though when I wrote that piece, the mechanisms driving the story thematically were subconscious.

I don’t want my writing to be an inwardly-turning, completely self-serving process, either. I feel obligated to use my voice and share my experiences with disability. Across a whole society, mine isn’t such a rare disease . . . there are about 200,000 of us in the US alone. Others out there haven’t yet been diagnosed. The associated heart conditions can be fatal. There’s shame and stigma attached to having bodies that are different.

Without diagnosis and community, it’s a lonely, baffling road. I know this because I spent most of my life on this road.

Q: As 2024 presses on, do you still consider yourself a newer writer, or one with plenty of experience?

Well, my first stabs at genre fiction happened in 2020. So although I have a distant background in poetry and was even nominated for a Pushcart shortly after college, I am a newer fiction/genre writer. (Pre-pandemic, I’d written maybe four short stories in total.)

It took the threat of species extinguishment and my own mom’s terminal illness for me to get serious about writing. We had all that time stuck at home. I decided to learn to write fiction rather than bake sourdough bread. I wasn’t interested in returning to poetry or to the strictly literary world. I really didn’t fit in there, anyhow.

Having experience with poetry lends my speculative fiction a literary strength and edge it might not otherwise have. Maybe some artfulness. But several classes taken during the pandemic helped me learn the craft of fiction, the nuts-and-bolts mechanics. I was in David Farland’s last 318R class before his untimely passing. Rafael Hohmann then took over Farland’s class, gracefully picking up the curriculum where his mentor left off. Shortly thereafter I took several masterclasses from Wulf Moon, who wrote the best-selling How to Write a Howling Good Story. From these teachers I learned story structure, the necessary elements. Some of these elements intuitively arise as I write fiction, but now I have a sense of control over them.

My first full year sending out submissions was 2023. I’ve done well in that short time. The editors I’ve worked with thus far have all been so kind and helpful, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the collaborative process of bringing a piece fully to life.

Maybe when I’m SFWA and HWA pro-qualified, the last vestiges of imposter syndrome will disappear. Until then, I’m content to be a robot-zombie keeping her nose to the metaphorical grindstone!

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