I first met Christopher Linforth in 2014 at Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Our paths crossed again in 2019 at Writers in Paradise – Eckerd College Writers Conference. Christopher is a graduate of Virginia Tech’s MFA program, and recently, he was appointed Editor-in-Chief of Atticus Review. Christopher’s first two books are When You Find Us We Will Be Gone (Lamar University Press, 2014) and Directory (Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2020).
His third collection of short fiction, The Distortions, was named winner of the 2020 Orison Books Fiction Prize and has just been released by Orison Press. The Distortions is a beautiful collection of stories, thematically linked by the Croatian-Serbian War, particularly its aftermath. In each story, the weight of the past continues to press against the present. For many of these characters, historical events have had generational effects. These are not war stories although the war is a villainous character, always looming in the background. More than war stories, these stories are often about love–all kinds of love including the kinds that are sadly insufficient as well as the kinds that keep trying.
Christopher is a gifted writer. His own experience living in Zagreb was surely useful in writing these stories, but each story is subtly elevated by detailed knowledge that must have required significant research. In the same way that these are not war stories, this is also not a book about Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, etc. as much as it’s a book about displacement and identity and the universal ways we humans struggle to put the past behind us. Christopher agreed to answer some questions about The Distortions as well as about his writing and publishing.
DL: Your new collection of short stories, The Distortions, centers on the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars, mostly focusing though on the Croatian-Serbian conflict. Although you lived in Zagreb for some time, you come from a very different background. Did you find your outside perspective to be helpful or more challenging as you wrote these stories? Can you talk about how the kinds of research that were required for these stories?
CL: In some ways, my position as an outsider helped me to broach the aftermath of the war in new and different ways. Josip Novakovich talks in the afterword to Infidelities about the reluctance of people in the former Yugoslavia to talk or write about the war. Though this has changed in recent years and has led many writers from those countries to write compelling novels about the war, I still felt I had something to say. Over the years, to aid my poor memory, I read dozens of history books on the subject and watched documentaries, and delved into tranches of original documents and news reports, and I talked with people from that area. Much of that information, though, never appears in the book. Instead, I focused more on the characters and the stories while hewing—as much as one can—to the historical, political, and cultural realities of the time.
DL: So much of the tension in your stories comes from the weight of the past pressing into a character’s present. Moving back and forth through time can be tricky, but it can also enrich a narrative as it clearly does in your stories.
CL: Whenever possible, I try to eschew as much backstory as possible and instead focus the story on the present action. With the stories being set in former Yugoslavia and revolving around a major but little-known war, I tried to strike a balance of including information (in non-expository ways) that would help an American audience understand the ramifications of the war for the characters while also keeping the pacing tight and the stories interesting.
DL: Two of my favorite stories in The Distortions are epistolary. I’m thinking about “brb” (seemingly told through a long Instant Message) and “Sojourn” (told through a more traditional letter). What I appreciate about both stories are their gestures toward the confessional. Do you have advice for writers who want to explore the epistolary form? Does a story told through a letter have special considerations?
CL: It’s funny. For me, “Sojourn,” is an imagined letter, not an actual one. The story reads and feels like a letter and perhaps contains a vestigial element of that form. The story, to me at least, has an uncertain form: part letter, part monological confession, part a story being told. The hybrid nature perhaps also reflects the vacillating nature and identity of the narrator. Similarly, “brb” uses misdirection about the narrator’s identity to say something about the stylized IM form. The intersection of the confession and the letter form, or variants thereof, often work well together. They allow a “natural” unfolding of thought on the page addressed to someone off it. For me, that is where the intimacy and magic of the epistolary form lie.
DL: I’ve been working on a collection of short stories for several years, and through that time, the manuscript keeps shifting. How long did it take you to write and shape these stories? What was the submission and publication process like for The Distortions?
CL: The earliest stories were drafted around 2014 and the latest around 2019. It was a long process of revision and then discarding the lesser stories (perhaps another six or seven). Some stories, like “brb,” emerged fully formed, with only minor edits later. Others, like “The Little Girls,” I rewrote several times over the years. I entered the manuscript into a handful of contests in late 2019 and early 2020, perhaps only five or six altogether, while constantly fine-tuning it the whole time. The collection won the Orison Fiction Book Prize in July 2020 and then underwent another year of refinement.
DL: What are you working on now?
CL: I’m working on two books. One is a sister project to The Distortions. Tentatively titled The Homeland War, it’s centered on two young men in Zagreb just before the outbreak of war. The novel explores toxic masculinity and social class and the football hooliganism endemic in the 1990s. The other book, currently untitled, examines the intersections of internet culture and the New York art scene. Stories from this collection are forthcoming in Cutleaf and in the Irish magazine, Banshee.
DL: Are there any opportunities coming up for readers to meet you or study with you via Zoom or in person?
CL: Yes, I teach online creative writing classes for The Writer’s Center in DC, and I take on private editing clients now and again. I’m also available for workshops and readings and so forth. I also have some more on the origins of the book over at Necessary Fiction.
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