"How Bad Habits Work": An Interview with Rochelle Hurt

Rochelle Hurt is the author of two poetry collections: In Which I Play the Runaway (2016), winner of the Barrow Street Book Prize, and The Rusted City, published in the Marie Alexander Series from White Pine Press (2014). She is the recipient of awards from Crab Orchard Review, Arts & Letters, Hunger Mountain, Phoebe, Poetry International, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fund, as well as fellowships from Vermont Studio Center and the Jentel Artist Residency Program. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crazyhorse, Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati.

Her story, "Blood Loop," appeared in Issue Eighty of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer William Hoffacker about about flash fiction, metaphor, and feedback loops.

What can you tell us about the origins of your story “Blood Loop”? What inspired the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

I became fascinated with the idea of a positive feedback loop, in which cause and effect (in very unscientific terms) essentially feed each other. I first read about this phenomenon in a scientific context, but I immediately started thinking about it as a metaphor: how shame works, how bad habits work, how family relationships often mimic feedback loops.

The maternal and pregnant body is endlessly fascinating to me as well. In popular culture it’s often depicted as soft and vulnerable, and mothers are depicted as sweet and selfless creatures (unless they’re being demonized). That always strikes me as false and fairly boring. The pregnant body doesn’t simply house another body; it’s part of a complex system in which two bodies respond to one another.

The entire story contains fewer than 500 words. How do you achieve such an economy of language? Does it require a lot of restraint and/or chaff-cutting to write so concisely? (Did you have to make any tough decisions during the revision process?)

I didn’t cut much—maybe a few sentences, but they were mostly extra modifiers or layered metaphors. Mostly I rearranged. Mechanically, I write flash prose in much the same way I write poems, focusing on description and metaphor. I think some of the economy is a habit developed out of writing poetry—you start to think in dramatic, condensed phrases. So it’s really just a series of figurative descriptions that move the story forward. In this mode, restraint is actually counterproductive, since it might limit those figurative descriptions.

For me, “condensed” prose is not necessarily the same as “economic” prose—it just means that phrases are highly concentrated. Sometimes they’re of little consequence for the plot, but they accomplish other things that are just as pleasurable and important. I remember encountering the term “muscular prose” in college and being initially offended at the thinly veiled gendering of a valued writing style. Then I realized “muscular prose” was likely something I didn’t want to write anyway.

Your story ends in a pivotal moment with both mother and daughter caught red-handed, each in the act of stealing from the other. The two characters are described as “stuck” and “blushing,” but the narrative cuts off before either of them can react in any active way. How did you decide that the story should end in this scene and go no further despite the reader’s natural curiosity about what would happen next?

The mother and daughter are stuck in a permanent feedback loop, so I felt I couldn’t allow them out of that moment. This is another reason I like to write flash: in order to focus on a metaphor or a single moment, to get inside it and make a reader understand it—but then to leave it, rather than pursue it beyond that understanding. That last scene was in my mind from the start, and the rest was really a way of climbing inside that scene and teasing out its symbolic significance through context.

In addition to writing fiction and creative nonfiction, you have published two books of poetry. How does working in multiple genres inform your writing? What lessons have you learned from poetry that you’ve applied to how you write prose, or vice versa?

In addition to the things I’ve mentioned, I think having multiple genres on the table when I get an idea helps me to hone that idea down to something artful. When I have to ask myself whether a metaphor about maternal feedback loops should be a poem, a story, or an essay, I begin to understand more precisely what it is about that idea that appeals to me, what aspect of it I really want to convey. While these categories sometimes help me at the start of a project, they always become blurry in the end, which is freeing.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a couple of nonfiction essays, along with a third book of poems that address sexuality and gender politics. I’m trying to envision this third book as a larger narrative built through individual poems and characters, so there are some fictional elements there, but for the most part, (flash) fiction is sort of my little escape on the side. If I were secretly trying to write a novel, I don’t think I’d talk about it until it was finished.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

I recently re-read Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin, which is fantastic. To me, the writing seems somehow no-nonsense and hallucinatory at once. I was also amazed by Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which is genre-bending, hypnotic, eye-opening, heart-wrenching, and infuriating. Right now I’m reading poetry: Cate Marvin’s Oracle, Diane Seuss’s Four-Legged Girl, and francine j. harris’s play dead, all great.