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Interview with R.L. Summerling about Fleshpots
R.L. Summerling (find her on Twitter and her website!) recently released her own collection called Fleshpots. It’s a remarkable collection, with beautiful language that laments a world in tatters. These stories and poems follow characters who want to love and experience joy, but whose hopes are dashed again and again by pollution, injustice, and pain. Great contributions to Weird fiction here, with hauntings by mysterious, gauzy traumas. Lovely and interesting artwork as well, and there’s even a playlist! This collection is available for free online.
She agreed to answer some of my questions!
These are dark tales for dark times! What fears do you have about the world that are reflected in this collection?
I’ve come to understand that I am always writing about my fear of inaction. The pandemic made me realise the lengths most people will go to maintain the status quo at all costs and would rather see people die than suffer inconvenience. That is a moral injury I am still trying to come to terms with.
That was a point in time where there could have been a real impetus for change, but three years down the line and we all feel like we’re living the same day over and over again. Social disparity is even greater and the effects of climate change grow increasingly visible. Yes, I’m scared of those things, but even more so I fear the way those with the power to help won’t do anything about it.
Every story in this collection is about an ending, or rather, they are set in the last minutes before midnight. Sometimes the end is a personal transformation, and other times it’s about societal collapse. And while those things can have terrible consequences in my work, I find a catharsis in facing those horrors instead of pretending they aren’t happening.
I am very interested in the idea of fin-de-siecle, the way the oncoming end of an era of civilisation bears out in pessimism, degeneration and perversion.
Your language is lush, and you seem to naturally write with a sense of sweep and poetry. Has that always been the case, or did you have to work towards this style? Who are your inspirations when it comes to writing style?
That’s very kind of you to say! I’ve only been writing for a couple of years, so I think my current style is the result of being a lifelong maladaptive daydreamer who finally has a creative outlet. I truly admire writers who are able to write sparse and effective prose, and very much enjoy reading their work, but I always find myself leaning toward maximalism in my own writing. I often wonder if that will change over time, and that is one of the reasons I wanted to put a collection together, almost as a record of who I am at this present moment. In terms of style inspirations, I would have to say Joe Koch. It feels like they wield their words like weapons, and I aspire to that audaciousness and skill.
What does the title of the collection mean to you?
The term ‘Fleshpots’ is an old fashioned term for an establishment that offered hedonistic pleasures: food, dancing, sex, alcohol. It felt fitting as, even in the darkest of my stories, I’m hoping to elicit something sensual. I like the way it works on a more literal level as well—these are small stories that contain something nasty and gooey.
Weaving poems and flash fiction throughout your short stories was a great idea, both to sustain attention (making this collection easy to read in one sitting) and to add texture. How did you decide how to order these pieces?
Some of the decisions about the order were practical. I wanted to make sure the longer pieces were interspersed with flash and poetry. The other consideration was if the piece had accompanying artwork and how that would affect the layout. Aside from that, I found there was a natural flow and that, when I started to think about it, every story seemed to have a companion piece, and that made everything quite straightforward.
What advice would you give to writers who want to put out their own collections?
To enjoy the creative freedom self-publishing brings! The great thing is that you have control over artwork, length, format etc, but I suppose that can also lead to choice paralysis. I think it’s good to decide where your priorities lie from the outset and, if you are planning on having production costs, to budget accordingly. On that topic, if you want to license or commission artwork (or employ the help of any other type of freelancer), then it’s good to have a fee decided upon before you approach that person, so you can be upfront about how much you’re willing to pay.
It’s so important to support artists if you can, but if you don’t have a budget, it’s very easy to make a cover that looks great for free without resorting to AI image generation. There is loads of great artwork in the public domain that you could use if you don't have anything to spend.
If you had to pick one piece in the collection that acts as a kind of argument for the collection as a whole (the piece that expresses the driving force of the collection), which would it be?
This is a great question and I’m going to cheat and pick 2. The first would be the opening story, ‘If You See Me, Weep’ in which I feel I most effectively put across my horror about ecocide and my own self doubts about doing the right thing. It’s very easy to be brave in your own head, but stepping up and helping your community takes a resilience I worry I don’t have. However, that is something many people don’t get a choice in. I wanted to recognise that it is a privilege to be able to look away when things get too much.
The other story is ‘The Twisting Ascendance of Silk’. I subtitled the book ‘A small collection of feel bad fiction’, but I confess this is the one story that, for me at least, doesn’t fit that description. I love writing about performance, but am rarely able to pull it off in a way I feel happy with, and this is the one exception. It is a very personal story for me and one I revisit a lot in my own mind. The setting is based on the Minack theatre in Cornwall and has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Anything else to share with us?
I’d like to say how incredibly grateful I am to anyone who has read or supported me in publishing this collection. It can make you feel very vulnerable to put yourself out there like this, but I’m so happy to have had such a great response. Making connections with people doesn’t come easily to me, and it means a great deal when they happen.