MARIA S. PICONE, Managing Editor
A Conversation with Sue Mell and Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar, Prose Chapbook Winner and Finalist
This conversation has been truncated and is available in full to watch at the link above; tune in for chapbook writing advice, more discussion of the writing life, and extra details.
MP: Hello everyone! Today I’m here with our prose chapbook 2021 winner Sue Mell and our finalist Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar. Thank you for taking the time to meet and I’m so thrilled that the two of you get to engage with each other as well. When I read both of your chapbooks for the first time in the queue I was just blown away, I knew I had something special on my hands, and it’s really been wonderful to work with both of you during the editing process. I’m so happy that these works are in the world now.
So first, I would like to pose a getting-to-know you question, which are three tropes, themes or obsessions that keep coming up in your writing.
SM: The three things that tend to drive my work are loss, grief, and mortality. But a lighter note I would definitely say that music and art are themes that run through it as well as the life of inanimate objects.
MP: Exactly. I think all those things are found to some extent in Giving Care. What about you, Sara?
SSC: Mine would be gender parity, feminism, and relationships in general, familial or otherwise. And being an immigrant and a writer of color, the feminism I bring forward is not a loud but a silent and resilient kind of feminism that is in women who try to improve lives around them while still doing their duty, which is definitely in my chapbook.
MP: Absolutely! As soon as you said those three things, I thought, “that’s the chap.” I also think it’s interesting that those themes are present in Giving Care, feminism as a quiet duty, pushing against expectations quietly. I love the way these chapbooks resonate around this idea of what family relationships should be like.
I’m wondering whether these chapbooks were built intentionally as cohesive projects or if the actual flash lead you to the idea that this could be a chapbook?
SSC: I did not plan on this being a chapbook. I just wrote the story “Skin Over Milk” and I had wanted to write something about rain because monsoon is such a phenomenon in India that I just go back to my childhood whenever I hear the rain. I was just writing about life in a house like that and I just don’t know where that milk and tea came from. That story was just three hundred words and it got shortlisted for a prize and I thought, okay, maybe there’s something there, so I took stories about the ripe mango and earpiercing that I’d published before and conceived the story of these sisters who live in this house, and that grew and grew. I just kept adding stories to it while preserving the collective voice of “we.” Once I realized I had ten chapters, I submitted it to Chestnut Review and of course in editing it became twelve chapters.
SM: Wow, that’s amazing!
MP: What about you, Sue?
SM: It started with “Interval” which I had sent to Cleaver Magazine and prior to this, I had been working on the revision a novel for a year and taking care of my mom so I needed something small and manageable. All that time I was thinking of things and scrawling a note here and there. My original idea was to do a collection of pieces about my mom and then try to leverage that into a bigger book. But I realized I didn’t necessarily want to spend all the time a book would take since I was living in it. That’s when I decided to order it sequentially and submit it as a chapbook.
MP: With you having come from a novel and knowing how long it is, I respect that you could acknowledge that. These chaps have a searing intensity to them that conveys the complexity of a novel. I’m so honored that we get to publish the final product.
SM: The changes that we made working together really elevated the work. I could not be happier.
SSC: I totally agree, Maria. All your edits and the loose ends I had flying around, that we finally tied them up, I’m just so thankful for that.
MP: Thank you both, and I’m so glad that we could publish both of your chaps. The editing process was amazing and these were works we really wanted to publish. So Sue, you have a novel coming out soon. Could you tell us what Provenance is about in a nutshell?
SM: Provenance is being published by Madville Publishing, and you can find it on Bookshop or Amazon. Here’s the description: “Still grieving his wife’s early death, DJ has spent the last three years—and the money from her insurance policy—collecting guitars, composing music, and continuing to shop the Brooklyn stoop sales and flea markets they’d always enjoyed. When his building is sold, he takes refuge in his younger sister’s half-finished basement, imagining a comfortable and solitary retreat in Hurley, the small Hudson Valley town where they grew up. Instead, he finds himself caught up in her troubling divorce, drafted as caregiver for his 11-year-old niece, and unable to face or afford a storage unit crammed with hundreds of vinyl records and every other scrap of his former life. DJ gifts his niece a marbled glass egg, a porkpie hat, and one of his prized guitars. But what’s asked of him on his return to Hurley is not to give the perfect object—it’s to give of himself.”
SSC: It sounds amazing!
MP: Sara, specifically for you. You have a collection, Morsels of Purple, which is a collection of flash stories. I know you are prolific and active in the literary community; you publish a lot and you have a full-time job and other commitments too. Here at Chestnut we support stubborn writers and encourage people to have the grit to keep writing and get published. I’m wondering what your process is like.
SSC: For me, I write flash because I don’t have time for a bigger work. I have a full-time job and I haven’t been trained in writing; I have always been a reader so all I know about writing comes from that. In Sue’s chapbook, microwaving the applesauce for nine seconds stood out for me so much because my writing is like that. When I have nine seconds to myself in the shower or some quiet time that’s when things I’ve seen, read, interactions with people, those come back and the kernel of the story is born. And that’s why it stood out because before everything else starts, that miniscule time to think, that’s where my stories come from.
For submissions, I don’t have a regular process but I see sometimes that I need to write more stories to have something to submit. You see the external success but really those stories have been waiting in the submission queue for months, sometimes, and there are days when I want to pull my hair and say, “What am I doing?”
MP: I think a lot of people see the success on the outside and don’t realize the hard work that’s underneath. Sara, I also love that you reminded us of the nine second thing because it’s so powerful. I think it’s a great analogy for the process. You fit the writing into the time you have.
SM: And sometimes having more time is your enemy.
MP: For sure! Our last question is about the future. What’s next for you? That could be as simple as getting rest—
MP: Or anything that you want to do next.
SM: When I finished my fellowship, I had a bunch of stories that I had published early on in my writing career and I wanted to make a collection. I wrote into the secondary characters and fleshed out the second half of the book. I’m now sending that work out and also submitting some of the individual stories from within there. Then I’m trying to start a new project in collage format—like Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel. Unlike my other work it has more focus on friendship than romantic relationships or family. Some days I’d love to do something completely new and I’m not sure what that is yet.
SSC: I have been writing a novel that I just drop for months, but I’m hoping to get through one draft to figure out what I need to do next. Also, a couple people who have read Skin Over Milk have said they want to know more about what happens to these characters, a second chapbook or even a novel. So that’s in my mind now, too!
MP: Thank you both so much. It’s been such a pleasure. I would be thrilled to see any of these works in the world.
Sue Mell is a writer from Queens, NY. She earned her MFA from Warren Wilson, and was a 2020 BookEnds fellow at SUNY Stony Brook. Her debut novel, Provenance, won Madville Publishing’s 2021 Blue Moon Novel Contest and comes out in July 2022. Her collection of micro essays, Giving Care, won the 2022 Chestnut Review Prose Chapbook Prize, and her collection of short stories, A New Day, was a finalist for the 2021 St. Lawrence Book Award. Other work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, Jellyfish Review, Narrative Magazine and elsewhere. Find her at www.suemellwrites.com.
Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an Indian American writer. Born to a middle-class family in India, she later migrated to the USA with her husband and son. She currently lives in the suburbs of Ohio. She is a technologist by profession and a writer by passion. Her stories and poems have appeared in numerous publications, print and online. Her work has been selected for Best Small Fictions 2022. She won first place in ELJ Micro Creative Non-Fiction Prize, placed in the Strands International Flash Fiction Festival, and is the runner-up for the Chestnut Review Chapbook Contest. Her stories have been shortlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Awards and SmokeLong Micro Competition. She is currently a Prose Editor at Janus Literary and a Submissions Editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. Her debut flash fiction collection Morsels of Purple was released in 2021. More at saraspunyfingers.com. Reach her @PunyFingers.
MORE FROM SUMMER 2022 (4:1)
2021 Prose Chapbook Winner
Resistance, Sue Mell (an excerpt)
A Conversation with Sue Mell and Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar, Prose Chapbook Winner and Finalist, Maria S. Picone, Managing Editor
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Holiday Party 2017, Kim Ellingson
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