For this installment of A Flash of Inspiration, we’re featuring “Winter in the City” by Andrew Bertaina, which originally appeared in Litro on August 15, 2021. It is part of his short story collection One Person Away from You (2021), which won the Moon City Press Fiction Award.


How long have you been writing fiction? Do you write in other genres? Do you find that you return to certain themes in your writing?

I started writing fiction in my mid-twenties. I came to the genre after reading any number of amazing novelists and a few short story writers. My understanding of the genre has continued to expand and evolve alongside my reading, which makes it a never-ending well spring of interest.

I also write creative non-fiction. I had a somewhat unique MFA program that allowed me to work in both genres, and I have continued to write and publish essays since I graduated more than a decade ago. I’ve also written a few poems. In short, I think most authors will work in multiple genres if they write for a long time.

I do find myself returning to certain themes in my fiction. I tend to find that the bigger questions of life, whom should we marry, why are we here, does religion or spirituality play a role in a character’s life tend to be evergreen for me. The answer to those questions varies in my fiction, and in my conversations with friends. The fact that not everyone is drawing the same conclusion makes those subjects endlessly fascinating to me.

I should also note that the passage of time and distortions of time also play a role in my work. Its linearity, at least at our experiential level, is simple but confusing because we spend so much of our brain space thinking of the future or about the past. Thus, I often write about stories or characters where our typical understanding of time is shifted because it allows these distortions to be experienced more directly.

What inspired “Winter in the City”?

First off, I’m so glad to have my story appear in Litro. Second, the story really germinated from that old simple story of a writer having a voice come to them. When I started writing this story, a particular voice just carried me through the story, and I followed it along. The voice was keeping things at a distance, and it was my job to sort of figure out the why or at least represent it. I wrote the story before the pandemic hit, but it’s easy for me to see the way the story thinks through the way we often seek connection in virtual spaces that we’re lacking in the real world, and we all feel the strangeness of that reality.

Tell us a little about the collection One Person Away from You, of which “Winter in the City” is part. How does the story relate to the collection?

“Winter in the City” is an interesting story in the collection because I think it’s a call back story to some of my breakthrough writing during the tail end of my MFA. I read Sam the Cat by Matthew Klamm and got inspired to work in a slightly more voice-driven shorter form. Anyhow, the stories that followed were a first foray into what would eventually evolve into a lot of my flash fiction. I hadn’t really written in that style in quite some time.

However, I suppose that essential loneliness that is a part of most human existence will always be a part of my writing. I went back to that voice and channeled it through the perspective of someone living in 2019, which is when I wrote the story. Since I left my MFA, the contours of the world have shifted radically into the digital world, which has made that loneliness more acute. In a way, I think of “Winter in the City” as a companion or updated version of the title story from the collection, so I love that it’s the last one coming out before the publication!

Did you experience any challenges writing from a woman’s point of view?

As I said above, I really was just channeling a particular voice. On the one hand, that sounds like writer mumbo jumbo, but it occasionally happens to me. A voice arrives and I follow its whims. On the other hand, I was also raised by a single mother, and I was close to my mother and sister growing up. Thus, a lot of my positive and deeper relationships were with women. Thus, it doesn’t seem strange to me to try and investigate reality from that perspective. That said, I also think the primary emotion I’m trying to convey is universal, loneliness, and I think those universal feelings are safe ground.

So many of us lead unremarkable lives or, as you write, day to day lives with such little variation. What’s your secret for making fresh, engaging fiction out of a life like that of the protagonist, who hungers for change but seems to be foundering in the banality of her job, social media, television, etc.?

That’s an excellent question. I would say that I try and keep writing interesting at a line level. What is it about a particular character that makes the world they are rendering unique or fresh? I also love writing about landscapes or including some humor, a way to keep the reader engaged. In short though, it’s really trying to keep the writing interesting at that line level.

There is a reasonable argument for a banal life to not be rendered as banal, but I’ve also read and liked something that did the opposite. However, my story is also relying on these universals to keep the interest of the reader. Aren’t we all familiar with loneliness, with the odd disconnect of online dating or trying to have meaningful conversations at work? I think a story can also render reality and be engaging. I’d have to think more. But you could put that for all my answers here 😊.

I respect that you play with the protagonist’s stasis in this story. We’re so often told in writing workshops and in writing books that characters need to undergo a change in order for a story to be effective. Your protagonist instead just seems to continue shuffling along, and there’s no grand epiphany on her part. Was it a conscious artistic choice to write an inconclusive, “anti-epiphany” ending? What are the larger implications for endings of this nature?

I was in those workshops as well! The character must go through a hinge moment where they either change or have a chance to change but don’t! Iron clad. Except, it’s not really. There are other ways to tell a story. The form is capacious, but we often convince ourselves that the literary movement of our particular moment is all encompassing, and we’re always short-sighted in that way. That conversation continues to this day. Every story, flash, poem looks like this, and it’s just not true.

Our lives rarely have epiphanies of any sort. Rather, we do shuffle along, and then we often create a narrative or epiphany in hindsight. I knew that day my life would change. The first time I saw her etc. Of course, a lot of my stories include fantastical moments or the typical hinge variety. However, I think it’s okay to write fiction that is representative as opposed to one that follows a particular version of arc, resolution, etc.

Where do you turn for creative inspiration? Which writers (and/or stories) are particularly important to you? What of note are you currently reading?

Gosh, this question is really almost impossible. I’ll try though. Years ago, I read George Saunders, Jorge Luis Borges, and Kelly Link, which really inspired me to write in a more fantastical vein. Granted, the story for Litro isn’t fantastical, but I think those writers opened those doors for me. I favor those writers who are playful with form and content, but who also maintain an attention to detail at a line level.

That said, I love the work of some contemporary writers, Alice Munro, Steven Millhauser, Daniel Mason, Rion Almicar Scott, Andrew Porter. The list could go on in perpetuity. My favorite short story is “The Point” by Charles D’Ambrosio.

I’m currently enjoying the short stories of Michael Wang, Seth Borgen, Alina Stefanescu, and the last thing I read that really floored me was The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on some longer stories to try and wrap up my second unpublished collection of stories. I have written a lot of flash fiction in the last few years, so I feel I’ve flexed that muscle for a while. As such, I’m working on some historical fiction and a longer piece with elements of fabulist storytelling, which tend to interest me these days. Beyond that, I’m always working on at least one personal essay because I often use those essays as a means of coming to ground, in really deepening my understanding of what is happening in my life. Again, thank you so much for giving this opportunity!

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