Mini-Interview with Leslie Pietrzyk

This caught my eye on Facebook because I’m intrigued by flash fiction and tempted to try it. A new member of my writers’ group writes it, and I’m finding it challenging as a reader — in very good ways.

tommydeanwriter

headshot, serious.jpgWhy do you write flash? What makes it different for you?

I don’t think of myself as a natural flash writer; I generally write novels and long short stories. I couldn’t write a poem if my life depended on it. But six-ish years ago, I started thinking about flash when I was working on THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST, a book of stories that plays around with form. I challenged myself to write something short, to tell a complete and harrowing story in as few words as possible. (Here’s the result.) Now, I love the compression and the gut-punch of a successful piece of flash, that sense of illumination like a firework ripping through a dark sky. I like the power of what’s missing, of the ripples of what is suggested and implied and hidden. I explore the role of silence a lot in my fiction, whether real or…

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Decluttering

Any writer worth her salt has dozens of creative procrastination techniques in her repertoire. My favorites include dusting, vacuuming, and washing whatever dishes there are in the sink. Playing Spider solitaire is also right up there.

Procrastinator’s toolkit

Most writers worth their salt have at least some idea what they’re up to when, say, the blue-gray carpet suddenly seems so white with dog fur that it has to be vacuumed right now. The dog fur didn’t get there overnight, after all.

So when the towering pile of paper next to my work chair suddenly seemed too out of control to be borne, I was suspicious. I was closing in on the end of Wolfie, draft 3. I’d just completed a scene that had been giving me trouble, and I had no idea what happens next: exactly the sort of scenario that makes procrastination such a compelling option.

However . . .

I’d several times brushed past The Pile and knocked a cascade of papers to the floor. Papers that then had to be picked up and re-piled. Picking up papers delayed my getting back to work — perhaps this was a form of procrastination?

Aside: Writers know how sneaky Procrastination can be. Some of us have been known to use writing to avoid writing.

Aha! Down at the bottom of the pile I spied three yellow pads with plenty of blank sheets on them. When I don’t know what happens next in a work in progress, the surefire way to find out is to write in longhand, and to write in longhand blank paper is needed. Excavating The Pile wasn’t procrastination — surely it was a necessary step in the process?

Carefully I removed The Pile from table to floor, sat down next to it, and started sorting it into three piles: Keep, Put Somewhere Else, and Toss.

I didn’t keep an inventory of what I found there — that would be serious procrastination — but I did uncover folders, notebooks, and random papers related to three major projects, two ongoing and one completed last March, including the marked-up printout of Wolfie, draft 2, which I hadn’t referred to in months. Luckily there were no unpaid bills, jury summonses, or anything that had to be dealt with ASAP last June.

The Pile is now one third its former height. It does not cascade to the floor when I brush carelessly past it. Virtually everything in it is related to Wolfie. (The marked-up copy of draft 2 is now in the recycle pile.) Now I can get back to work . . .

. . . as soon as I blog about taming The Pile.

The Pile, reduced to a third of its former self. It used to tower over the books at left. See? There really are usable yellow pads at the bottom.

 

Subversive Cookbookery

A cookbook I’ve got a recipe in was reprinted last year.

To realize how improbable this statement is, you have to know that I am so not a cook. My mother wasn’t a cook. Neither of my grandmothers were cooks. Somehow I managed to get by on fast food; easy stuff like hamburgers, scrambled eggs, and canned soup; and the kindness of roommates until I moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1985.

On Martha’s Vineyard there were (and are) no fast-food joints, I lived alone, and the disconnect between restaurant prices and my income made even takeout a non-option except on special occasions (or when someone else was paying). So I taught myself to cook stuff that I like to eat, in quantities such that I can reheat meal-size portions and call it fast food.

I am, however, and have been since the winter of 1975–76, a baker, primarily of bread. So my inclusion in The Bakery Men Don’t See maybe isn’t so surprising? Thing is, my inclusion has less to do with the excellence of my breads (which are pretty good) than with my luck at being, for once in my life, in the right place at the right time.

The time was March 1991; the place was on the fringes of Madison, Wisconsin, specifically WisCon 15, the feminist science fiction convention. I discovered WisCon, and f/sf cons in general while promoting my three women’s f/sf anthologies, which came out from Crossing Press in 1989 (Memories & Visions), 1990 (The Women Who Walk Through Fire), and 1991 (Tales of Magic Realism by Women: Dreams in a Minor Key). Pat Murphy and Pamela Sargent were the guests of honor at WisCon 15.

At the end of her GoH speech, Pat announced the creation of the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award.

And so I would like to announce the creation of the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award, to be presented annually to a fictional work that explores and expands the roles of women and men. We’re still in the planning stages, but we plan to appoint a panel of five judges and we plan to finance the award — and this is another stroke of genius on Karen’s [co-conspirator Karen Joy Fowler] part — through bake sakes. (If you want to volunteer to run a bake sale, talk to me after the speech.)

Now I know that people are going to say that science fiction has enough awards. I know people are going to say, “Pat, why do we need another award?” And all I can say is — if you ask me why we need this award, then you haven’t been listening.

My copy of the first edition, liberally grease-stained from 25+ years of use.

No sooner had Pat finished speaking than the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award began to take shape, thanks to the astonishing creative energy of the WisCon crew. It was indeed financed by bake sales — and eventually also by uproariously funny auctions, T-shirt sales, two cookbooks, and other means. Within a few months The Bakery Men Don’t See had been compiled and published. (Its title riffs on Tiptree’s probably best-known story, “The Women Men Don’t See.”) It was even nominated for a Hugo!

The Tiptree Award survived and thrived. So did WisCon, which before long had moved into the Concourse in downtown Madison on Memorial Day weekend, which is where and when you will find it today. And so did feminist f/sf — the work being published these days is daunting in its quality and quantity, but if you’re looking for a place to start, you can’t do better than the winners and honor lists for previous Tiptree Awards.

The spiffy design and production values of the new edition of The Bakery Men Don’t See reflect this growth and vitality. It includes the original introductions by co-editors Diane Martin and Jeanne Gomoll (if you know WisCon, you’ll recognize both names) and the GoH speeches by Pamela Sargent and Pat Murphy. It all holds up well, and none of it feels as dated as one might wish.

I’m not about to retire my first edition, however. Its grease stains testify to how well-used it is, plus it contains the contributors’ signatures I collected, high-school-yearbook style, at WisCon 16 in 1992.

On the other hand — flipping through the pristine new edition, I keep noticing recipes I’ve never tried and had almost forgotten, and rereading the stories that go with them. My family has no culinary tradition worth writing about, but other contributors have wonderful stories to tell about where their recipes came from.

The Bakery Men Don’t See is available for $12 from Lulu.com, as is other cool Tiptree-related stuff. Bakery‘s equally wonderful sequel, Her Smoke Rose Up from Supper, covers — you guessed it — entrées and other kinds of food you’re likely to eat before dessert. Unless, of course, you observe one of the Tiptree Award’s mottos: “Life is uncertain — eat dessert first.” I’m in that one too. It’s available in its original edition for $10 from the Tiptree Award store.

Adventures in Copyright

As a longtime editor and writer I knew the basics about copyright:

  • I own the copyright in any original work that’s fixed in some tangible medium. IOW, if I print out copies of a novel chapter for my writers’ group, it’s copyrighted. I don’t have to put “© 2018 by Susanna J. Sturgis” on it. However . . .
  • If I want to defend my copyright against possible infringement, it needs to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • You can’t copyright an idea.

Then things got complicated. I was offered an honorarium to develop a script from 1854 . . . a folk opera, a concept left behind by one Jack Schimmelman when he died in 2015. This concept included some inspired ideas but few distinctive characters, no story, and no usable dialogue. It was a stretch for me: I’m basically a nonfiction writer with a minor in fiction, but I’ve also got some theater background, my three one-act plays have all been staged, and I’m good at dialogue. As a longtime editor, I’m also pretty good at recognizing the potential threads in a big pile of carded wool.

Aside: For some background on the work, see “Fundraiser for 1854,” written by me for another blog I manage.

I took the gig. I read and reread works about and written in the 1850s.  The project absorbed most of my writing energies through last fall and into the winter.

After a few writer friends read it and an informal read-through was held in April, I knew I had something. I cut some characters (it’s still got a big cast) and did some trimming. It was still a work in progress, but it was ready for further testing.

By then, however, my alarm bells were starting to ring. An advisory committee had been formed to produce something stageworthy from this concept. It was led by the principal in the one-man nonprofit that owned the copyright on the original concept — the person who hired me to develop the script. Its members had even less theater experience than I did.  It was seriously suggested that, since resources were lacking to produce the whole work in 2018, half of it be produced this year and half of it next. I suggested instead that a staged reading be held this year, to refine the script and create some buzz, and a full production in 2019. This suggestion was adopted.

The alarm bells, however, were ringing louder and louder. At fundraisers and in PR, the work was identified as 1854 . . . a folk opera, by Jack Schimmelman. My play wasn’t an opera — the original concept wasn’t either; at most it was a blueprint from which an opera could be developed — and Jack Schimmelman didn’t write it.

I could see the day coming when I might have to defend my rights in this script. In other words, I had to register the copyright. First, though, I had to find out what my rights were. I wanted to give Jack Schimmelman credit for his work, but I didn’t want him getting credit for mine.

I engaged an attorney who specializes in copyright, including theater and performing arts law. In a series of emails I explained the situation and he walked me through it. At the outset, he confirmed my belief that my script wasn’t a “work made for hire.” It wasn’t “a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment.” The fact that I’d been hired and paid to do it made it a commissioned work, but it fulfilled none of the conditions that might have made it work for hire. Even if it had, we had never “expressly agree[d] in a written instrument signed by [the parties] that the
work shall be considered a work made for hire.”

The next question was whether it was a “derivative work” —  one “based on or derived from one or more already existing works.” In many instances, this is obvious: a movie is based on a novel, a work is translated from one language into another, a drawing is made from a photograph, and so on. Since ideas can’t be copyrighted, my case was trickier. The lawyer suggested at first that my script might not be derivative at all. I went through Schimmelman’s concept again, page by page. I’d used none of his original text, but I had borrowed his basic structure and some of his characters, one in particular. I pointed this out to the lawyer. He agreed — and reminded me that  the copyright owner of a derivative work holds all the rights to her original contribution.

Apart from two passages from Frederick Douglass, which are in the public domain, that meant the entire script. I had emails and a payment record to show that I’d had permission to develop a script from the copyrighted concept. Earlier this month, I registered my script electronically with the U.S. Copyright Office, forked over $55, and uploaded the most current copy of the work.

So last night 1854 had an unstaged reading. It was planned before I knew what my rights were, so (other than singing in the chorus) I had no hand in it. The good news is that we had a good audience, the audience was enthusiastic, and at the end the co-director announced that I had written the script. The not-so-good news is that the cover of the program identified the work as “1854 . . . a folk opera,” by Jack Schimmelman, my credit as playwright was buried on the back cover, and my annotated notes about the characters were included in the program with no attribution whatsoever.

I am, in other words, very glad that I engaged a lawyer, ascertained my rights, and registered my copyright. Now 1854 cannot be produced or recorded without my permission, which I’ll be happy to give as long as the title of the work is 1854 (no more “folk opera”) and I’m identified as the playwright.