Luis Jaramillo: One Story, Many ‘Flash’ Chapters

Luis Jaramillo wrote The Doctor’s Wife, his collection of short-short pieces, in response to a friend’s request for a poem. As a fiction writer, Jaramillo declined, but compromised by agreeing to write a prose poem. “Bee Sting,” a chapter in his book, was the result—and the genesis for Jaramillo’s story about three generations of a family in the Pacific Northwest.

The first chapter or story is one sentence: “The Doctor’s Wife is pregnant with her fourth child.”  Others range from a paragraph to several pages. Whether the book is a collection of short stories or a novel is actually debatable. Whatever the case, it successfully sustains numerous characters, a narrative, a full sense of a specific time and place, and beautiful and at times nostalgic images within its pages.

Jaramillo is based in New York City and is the associate chair of the New School Writing Program, where he teaches fiction and nonfiction. His short stories have been published in  Tin House and Open City. The Doctor’s Wife is the winner of the Dzanc Short Story Collection Contest.

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in Salinas, California, and spent summers at Lake Stevens, Washington. I started writing late in college, and by my junior year switched to English classes because I love to read and had begun to write. I went to graduate school at the New School and have been there ever since, first as a student and then on the faculty.

Your book began as one prose poem. How did it grow from there?

The poem was rejected, but published elsewhere! [Laughs.] I drew from a family story to write it, and so I just kept writing more pieces from more family stories. There are a lot. At the time, I was also writing a completely different novel based on a pretty intellectual idea. It ultimately fizzled while the other writing took off. I wrote many pieces for The Doctor’s Wife and then also did research by reading old newspapers, for example. I didn’t worry about the chronology of the pieces; that came later. Toward the end of the writing of the book, I made changes to make the narrative work better. I threw out some things, added others.

Who is the doctor’s wife, then?

My grandmother. Originally, it was more about the doctor, my grandfather, but that changed over time as I talked with my grandmother and learned more of her stories. She was a very private person and didn’t like to talk about feelings. Our family stories are largely funny, but my uncle’s death was always there, and I realize behind the humor there was darkness and sadness. In my research I learned more about the sewage in the lake, which is a thread in the book, and my grandmother’s fight to get it cleaned up. She was very proud of that. It became a way to talk to her about other, more difficult things.

Did your grandmother read the book? If so, did she like it?

She did read it before she died. She was always very supportive of my writing, but told my mother she was afraid she came off as mean in the book.

I didn’t think so. I thought she seemed smart, complex, sympathetic, and pretty ahead of her time. What did you like about writing in this short format?

I’ve always admired concision in writing. I felt the format worked for the telling of these memories. Memories happen in flashes, images, and sensations—not necessarily in long chapters. It’s challenging to write such short pieces, though, because you need to have them be just as complete and finished as a long chapter would be.

Will you write more “short-shorts”? And what do you think is the future of flash fiction?

I’ll write more short pieces, but perhaps not another entire book. Short pieces make sense, especially for online where you don’t want to go to a new page. I like how they might serve as poetry does in compressing stories, too, and how if people won’t read poems they’ll read these.

For more, see The Doctor’s Wife: Four Stories by Luis Jaramillo.

Luis Jaramillo is the author of the award-winning The Doctor’s Wife and is the associate chair of the New School Writing Program, where he teaches fiction and nonfiction. His short stories have been published in  Tin House and Open City.

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