Kim Chinquee: Flash as Little Gems

10888897_10152964152251506_7033346609388810877_n-1Kim Chinquee has lived all over and done many things, from farming as a child to a career as a military medical technologist. Then she took one creative writing class and a new course was set. It’s one she’s followed for years now, as a working writer, editor, and teacher. Her stories reflect her rich and interesting background. They’re polite and restrained, but underneath is just the hint of the off-kilter, or maybe even a bit of danger.

First off, for those who want to order your books in stores: How do we pronounce your name!

CHIN and then QUEEN without the N.

Please share some things about your childhood and your life today in Buffalo.

I grew up in Wisconsin on a dairy farm. I remember being outside a lot, roaming the farm, exploring the fields, the creeks. I befriended animals (mostly cows, and my sister’s goats, and we had a lot of wild cats and a series of dogs).  Lots of work, too—baling hay and picking stones, feeding calves, cleaning barn stalls. Milking. I was also in 4-H, working on projects in things like macrame, drawing, cake decorating, dairy, leathercraft, sewing, public speaking.

I went to a Lutheran school, where I was a very shy and diligent student, and involved in sports: basketball, softball, volleyball, and track. My father was schizophrenic (undiagnosed until many years later), and though I spent most of my childhood afraid of him, I’m grateful to have had all these other things on which to focus. When I was 15 my parents divorced, my family sold the farm, and I moved to Green Bay with my mother and my sister.

Here in Buffalo, I co-direct the writing major and manage the literary journal ELJ at SUNY-Buffalo State. I’ve been here just over six years (longest I’ve lived anywhere since I was 18). I spend a lot of time writing, editing, doing service and administrative-type work for the college. Sometimes I visit my 24-year-old son, who now lives in Baltimore. I’m active in the running and triathlon communities, and focus hard on training. Last year I had a house built, and I love to be at home.

When did you begin writing, and in what form?

After high school I joined the Air Force, and worked as a medical technologist. Got married young, had my son, then divorced. I’ve lived in places like Texas, Mississippi, England, Germany, North Dakota, Minnesota. It wasn’t until after I separated from the Air Force and went back to school and took a creative writing class with Thomas Williams that I started writing seriously. After I wrote my first short story, I didn’t stop.

Tell us about the early years of your writing career. Did you ever struggle to find your footing, your voice, or to publish?

Once I started writing in college, I was eager to keep at it. While I enjoyed my job as a medical technologist, I just knew there was something else for me, and after I started writing, I wanted to keep doing it so badly. I felt like I finally had a voice. I wanted to be heard. I wrote every second I had. I was a single mom, in school and working, and I didn’t sleep a whole lot. In two years, I got my bachelor’s in creative writing. Then I went straight to graduate school, where I studied with Frederick Barthelme, Steve Barthelme, and Mary Robison.

I started sending out my work then. I had a lot of pieces and sent things out religiously. Once I’d get a rejection from a magazine, I’d document it in my log, then send something else. I just kept on sending and sending. I think at that point I was still finding my voice. I worked closely with Frederick Barthelme, and he helped me find my voice. After I got my MA there I went to the University of Illinois (for an MFA), where I studied with Jean Thompson and Richard Powers. And I just kept working with the same amount of passion.

What draws you to writing flash fiction?

I wrote my first piece of flash fiction in Mary Robison’s workshop. She’d asked us all in class to come to the next session with a very short piece. I wrote a story called “Pure Gold,” which she really liked. I sent it to NOON and it was accepted. (The title was changed to “The Top Shelf.”) It was published in the 2002 issue—and that’s how I met Diane Williams, who has been a great mentor to me, as well. (I’ve been in every issue of NOON since.)

After that publication, I kept working with the form because I seemed to have more success with it. I like the form because there’s so much you can do in that small space to alter the meaning of a piece. Each is like a tiny powerful gem.

I notice some reoccurring themes in your work: ambiguous romances, loneliness, travel. Is that correct? Share a bit about the themes in your writing and why they surface.

I guess I’ve had a lot of ambiguous relationships! Honestly, I think most relationships are. In fiction, I like getting to the heart of them, exploring their guts. How we deal with our relationships is a big part of who we are; they can either make us stagnate or they can change us. As far as loneliness, leaving a relationship—whether with a romantic partner, or a business partner, or a friend, or a family member—can feel lonely at first. I believe, as humans, we are constantly changing, and regrowing. And sometimes that lends to loneliness and isolation. I try to convey that in my writing. I actually like being alone a lot of the time—it allows me to see things in a way I may not otherwise, and I like to capture those things in writing.

As far as travel, well, I love to travel! As a kid I hardly ever traveled, and once I did, like writing, I didn’t want to stop. I’ve lived all over the place and like to draw upon those places. I like the landscape that it provides for my writing. As far as themes, I also draw upon many others such as military life, single-parenthood, mental illness, running. I guess a lot of that seeps through.

Do you give many readings? If so, do you enjoy them?

Yes. I love readings!

What are you working on now?

I continue to write flashes. I’ve spent a long time revising an essay about my experiences during the Boston bombings. My biggest focus now is my novel about that same experience. I’ll be on sabbatical in the fall of this year, and my plan is to have the novel finished by the end of it.

For more, see Chinquee’s short story Touch Me.

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