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Flash Fiction Flashback: “The Girl-Shaped Jar” by Camille Alexa Wendy Nikel

May 2011. Back when a U.S. postage stamp still cost only 44 cents, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” was at the top of the Billboard charts, Thor was released in theaters, Endeavor was launched on its final commission in space, the Mississippi River experienced disastrous flooding, and a tornado ripped through Joplin, Missouri, killing 158 people.

It was also the month that Flash Fiction Online published “The Girl-Shaped Jar,” along with “Change” by Nikki Loftin and “What Heroes Do” by Heather Kuehl.

FFO’s editor at the time, Jake Freivald, said about this piece:

In Camille Alexa’s slipstream piece “Girl-Shaped Jar,” a woman who needs to change makes a decision to do so and follows through on it. Her choice of changes is not what I would have expected. This is one of those stories that has an unreal premise but feels real in its execution.

In looking for a piece that would fit well with our current month’s theme of the technology that connects us, I was drawn to “The Girl-Shaped Jar” as well. The premise is unusual, but it still feels real and relatable, even nearly a decade later. Even though now, our emails do a better job filtering chain letters into the spam folder, anyone who spends time on social media is still likely to see the same calls to “repost this!” or “retweet this!” along with the promise that good things will happen if we do. If we engage. Make that connection. Keep the message moving. We’re still drawn in by technology’s promise that if you just do this one simple thing, you will know happiness the rest of your life.

The Girl-Shaped Jar

Sammi’s sister sent her a funny email. A funny, funny email, showing crazy Japanese inventions to make things into other crazy things, other crazy shapes they weren’t. All crazy and stuff stuff, like watermelons grown in tempered glass jars, square right off the vine.

She clicked a picture of square watermelons, followed link to link to link from the chainletter her sister forwarded from a forwarded forward to her until it was junked up with blue boxes and sideways carets around names and addresses of everyone who’d sent this thing ever. Forward this email to three friends, the email told her at its nether-end, and you will know happiness the rest of your life.

Read the rest from our archive HERE.

And what about the story’s author, Camille Alexa (AKA Zandra Renwick)? Has she found happiness in the years since this story’s publication? We contacted her to find out!

FFO: In the years since “The Girl-Shaped Jar” was published in Flash Fiction Online, what other writing goals have you accomplished? Which publications, awards, or successes are you most proud of?

ZR: I don’t envision life and art in terms of goals, though finishing new works always feels like a win and, in the moment, I’m always excited by whatever story is spilling out of my brain. After publication some stories get nice recognition out there in the world – often in forms I never predicted – while others disappear into the endless ocean of new content, lost in the explosions and bangs and whistles that now seem to make up (take up?) so much of our lives. While writing I never know or frankly care which will be which. That might taint the joy.

To continue a lifelong discussion best suited to coffeehouses and dive bars, I will say that for me an audience (or readership) is requisite for art, something that separates writing a piece (poem, essay, story) from writing a diary entry. In that sense, helping stories find their optimal audiences (whether this means largest or most appreciative or best suited etc.) is a worthy “goal” to have on behalf of your writing. It’s why we love having our works podcast, performed, translated, and so forth.  I’m thrilled to have more than one story working its way through the Hollywood pipeline toward the screen. I’m not so much proud of me (there are many people involved in these deals, many visionaries and so much talent) . . . but I am very proud of the stories.

FFO: Looking back on “The Girl-Shaped Jar,” is there anything about it that surprises you? Anything that you would have changed or done differently if you’d written the same story now?

ZR: Yikes! I almost never revisit stories once they’re published! But it’s not like you “become a writer” and then you’re done; we’re forever changing and evolving ideas about what we’re doing and how to do it. I loved writing “The Girl-Shaped Jar” and can’t imagine having written it any differently, though the toughest audience I ever faced was a few years ago in Vancouver, B.C., when I was invited to speak to a bunch of eighth-graders studying the story in English class and a smirking eighth-grade boy asked me to tell them more about man-meat. Roughest author gig of my life.

FFO: What do you think are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned about writing in the years since this story was published?

ZR: Closing out this bizarre year, my feeling is that it’s okay to pause, to breathe, to stop listening to other people telling you how and what to write, where to sell it, who to ask whether it’s good or not. Just dump all that shit and look into yourself, decide how you like or need to write, or even if you really want to. I personally desire more from this endeavour than I think I’d find setting myself up as some sort of word factory.

FFO: How have you changed in the years since this story was published—as a writer and as an individual?

ZR: My name! When I first started writing, it never even occurred to me I’d meet people in real life who’d read my work, or knew me from an online writer persona. Since then there seems to have evolved an omnipresent cult of writerdom, rife with shalls and shall-nots, rules and conventions and advice from all quarters . . . I guess I’ve always felt like an outsider, and that certainly hasn’t changed in the writing scene. Of course I’ve got dozens and dozens of amazing writer friends now in Portland, Austin, Toronto, Ottawa – every city where I’ve lived and spent time these past ten years. To provide myself a barrier between public and private life I’d originally written under my middle name, as Camille Alexa. Since then I published over a hundred stories under various scrambles or mashes of my full name – Alexandra Camille Renwick – and finally settled on Zandra Renwick in honor of my dad’s flapper godmother, for whom I’m named. Now, the art deco silver hand mirror I inherited with the sweeping capital Z etched on the back feels earned.

FFO: Are there any writers, poets, artists, or other creators whom you’d like to recommend to those who enjoy your work?

ZR: In recent years I’ve gravitated toward the mystery & crime arena, many of my most recent stories appearing in places like Ellery Queen‘s and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazines and Flame Tree’s Gothic series. I guess it makes sense then that I’ve been reading a lot of crime novels, especially by women. Elizabeth Hand‘s Cass Neary books, Andrea Bartz, Tana French, Gillian Flynn, Patricia Highsmith, Donna Tartt. My recent pandemic reading included My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, Rachel Howzell Hall‘s Lou Norton series, and The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre.

FFO: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers that we haven’t asked?

ZR: I love both my countries, Canada and the U.S. of A., for all our shared foibles and strengths, our blind spots and our bright spots. Hoping we can all make 2021 a better world than 2020 ever was, and 2022 even better than that.

FFO: How can readers support you as you continue to make fiction?

ZR: Find recent release news at zandrarenwick.com, and come say hi virtually @ZandraRenwick, or IRL at any party or bar in the world. Writing is magical but being read is sublime. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

© 2021 Wendy Nikel

Meet the Author

Wendy Nikel

Wendy Nikel

Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she’s left her cup of tea. She’s had many of her own stories published in places such as LAnalog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Cricket, and Nature. Her time travel novella series, beginning with The Continuum, is available from World Weaver Press.

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