The Life You Need Might Not Be the One You Expected: An Interview with Chelsea Stickle

Chelsea Stickle’s latest chapbook, Everything’s Changing, is a bold and wildly magical collection of weird flash fiction that captivates from the very first story. In these pages, there are drunk raccoons, Medusa, moon lassoing and various hauntings. The stories here, no matter the level of otherworldliness, are rooted in real humanity, and it’s this connection — to us and to our world — that makes these stories so memorable.

Chelsea Stickle is the author of the flash fiction chapbook Breaking Points. Her stories appear in CHEAP POP, CRAFT, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and others. Her micros have been selected for Best Microfiction 2021 and the Wigleaf Top 50 in 2022. She lives in Annapolis, MD with her black rabbit George and a forest of houseplants.

It was a pleasure to be able to talk with Chelsea about, among other things, story cycles, ghosts and chaos.

Let’s jump right in and talk about the dedication and how perfect it is. It reads, “For everyone who got called ‘weird’ like it was a bad thing.” Before the stories even begin, readers get a glimpse of what’s coming. There is weirdness, and the book is going to be bold in just how weird it is. I don’t really have a question about it, but I just really appreciated that dedication.  

Thanks so much! I always love dedications that aren’t for named people. My first collection also has one.

Everything’s Changing is your second chapbook of flash fiction. Your first one, Breaking Points, came out in 2021. What do you see as being some of the similarities and differences in the two books?

Both collections focus on women and girls as protagonists of their own stories. They’re in tough spots. But I suspect the stories in Everything’s Changing go a little further. They want to solve a problem, and the only solution is for things to get a little weird. The life you need might not be the one you expected. Everything’s Changing wants you to lean into the weirdness.

Did you instinctively know when it was time to end the first collection and break into a second story cycle? Or did it take some time for you to see that you had two separate books going?

When I was putting together Breaking Points, I knew I couldn’t put my stranger stories in the same collection with my realistic ones. It would’ve been a disservice to mix them up. Once that distinction was established, it became easy to separate them. In a way, it feels like Everything’s Changing picks up where Breaking Points ends. Once the family starts eating the mushrooms that grow in their bathroom (PSA: don’t do this!), we’ve entered an Alice in Wonderland world where everything is off and anything is possible.

A lot of story collections keep a title from one of the stories for the title of the larger book. Maybe that story is the “best.” Maybe it captures the connected theme. You, though, don’t do that here. Can you talk about what led you to the title?

I enjoy collections that borrow the title of the “best” story for the title, but I haven’t done that yet. I don’t think I will. I wouldn’t know how to identify my “best” story. Is it my favorite? Or the one other people tell me is the most successful? But there’s a large part of me that doesn’t want to put that pressure on one story. I want a title that tells the reader what to expect. A title that would make me pick up a collection. Everything’s Changing, as a title, came to me when I was trying to explain to myself what it was about. It’s about transformation. It’s about everything changing and how that can be a good thing. How it might be what saves us.

I think the story that most resonated with me from Everything’s Changing is “Modern Ghosts.” After I put the collection away, I just kept going back to it. I naturally love ghost stories as it is, but I really appreciate the depth of the work here. The voice is sharp. The tone weaves between a brand of playfulness to downright, near the end, being brutally sad. It’s just a really perfectly-executed story. When looking at the two rules for modern ghosts in this story, rule two is to “avoid the living you know.” As this detail becomes more specific, the story offers these lines: “The second rule is the hardest to follow. Sure you care about them, but when you die, something is severed. The people you love become stories that you left unfinished. The desire to know their middles and endings can be all-consuming.” It’s a hard-hitting thought, but it seems to be full of truth. Do you mind talking about how this story came to be and what you hoped readers might take away from it? 

I’m so glad you enjoyed “Modern Ghosts!” It’s one of my older stories, and I love the balance of humor and pathos. Like most of my stories, it came from several places that all convened at the same time. This was so many years, so many stories ago that I’m a little fuzzy on the exact how. The title came from the Bowie song, “Modern Love.” I wanted to tell a series of jokes about death like, “No one knows there’s no shit-posting in the afterlife.” I did so many drafts of this story! It definitely captures some of my fears around the idea of eternal life. Any kind of forever life, in your body or ghost form, sounds awful! You’re going to have the same problems you had before, plus some new ones. And that’s where the ending came in. There’s no easy fix. There are only distractions from the pain. Maybe seek help?

I kept thinking how timely the collection felt as I was reading it. Our world is certainly chaotic, and it just keeps being that way – maybe even more so by the day. In several of these stories, chaos sweeps into these worlds, and the characters are kind of just lost in – or taken by it in some kind of way. I’m thinking specifically about “Postcard Town,” where a town’s residents wind up literally stuck, and “Party Animals,” which revolves around some wild, drunk raccoons. That focus on chaos throughout several of these stories is intentional, right?

Yes! I wrote most of these stories in the Trump era, and it’s definitely evident upon re-reading. The absolute insanity of everyday life from 2016 to the beginning of the pandemic rattled my brain. It turned me into a fabulist. Chaos is rife with possibilities. It can teach you who you are, what you want, what is essential to you, etc. In chaos, there’s room for growth. And grow these characters do! Some even grow weapons.

I want to close with a question I like to ask pretty much anyone who writes flash: What, in your opinion, should good flash do?

A good flash should contain what feels like the whole world, a whole life condensed down. But you shouldn’t feel the excisions. You should feel the expansiveness of that world. You should leave feeling changed. The story should echo throughout your day. You should carry it with you. That’s a tall order. If that’s impossible, then the reader should at least be entertained.

Thank you for talking to me, Chelsea! As someone who appreciates all kinds of weird weirdness in the stories I read, I thoroughly enjoyed Everything’s Changing.

Everything’s Changing
By Chelsea Stickle
Thirty West Publishing House
Published January 13, 2023