An Interview with Nino Cipri

Nino Cipri was kind enough to drop by today to talk about their debut short fiction collection, Homesick. To start things off, as I usually do, I will make introductions by shamelessly stealing from Nino’s author bio…

Nino Cipri is a queer and trans/nonbinary writer, editor, and educator. They are a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop, and earned their MFA in fiction from the University of Kansas in 2019. A multidisciplinary artist, Nino has written plays, screenplays, and radio features; performed as a dancer, actor, and puppeteer; and worked as a stagehand, bookseller, bike mechanic, and labor organizer. Nino’s 2019 story collection Homesick won the Dzanc Short Fiction Collection Prize, and their novella, Finna – about queer heartbreak, working retail, and wormholes – will be published by Tor.com in 2020.

Homesick CoverWelcome, Nino, and congratulations on your debut collection, and your upcoming novella! Without giving too much away, could you give folks a taste of what kind of stories they’ll find in your collection, and talk a bit about what your novella is about?

Thanks for having me! Homesick contains eight reprints that span the entirety of my writing career, along with a new novella about a group of dysfunctional scientists and activists that discovered an extinct species of weasels with its own writing system. Finna is forthcoming from Tor.com in 2020, and is about two coworkers and recent exes that have to team up to rescue a grandmother who wandered into a wormhole in their homegoods store.

Those both sound amazing! I’m always interested in how authors go about assembling short story collections. How did you approach Homesick in terms of what stories to include, and how you ordered them? Is there a certain overarching theme to the collection, or a way you see certain stories of yours being in dialogue with each other throughout the book?

A lot of my work looks at characters who are searching for connection. That searching and yearning is probably the strongest thread throughout these stories, as well as its opposite idea: that what is most familiar to you is driving you away, towards the unknown. “Home” manifests in different ways throughout the collection, and a lot of these characters are estranged from theirs, or become so over the course of the story.

That said, there’s a lot of variety in the stories in terms of aesthetic, tone, and genre. I used different approaches in the stories, or blended them together in a single story. I guess the dialogue you’re asking about is contained in that variety; “home” can mean a thousand things, and its pull can take all kinds of shapes.

I wanted to ask about one of your stories in particular. Dead Air, published at Nightmare Magazine, is one of my favorites of yours, and one of my favorite stories from last year in general. I love found footage narratives, and I’m impressed with the way you created such an effective atmosphere in your piece using found audio footage. Much of the story is implied through silence and the things the characters don’t say. Did you encounter any challenges with this format, working almost entirely with dialog and being unable to use the usual author tricks of visual and other sensory description to immerse the reader? Did your background in radio and theater play at all into the writing of this story?

That story gave me so much trouble. I originally wrote it to be a radio script, but couldn’t figure out an ending and then sat on it for a couple years. I rewrote it as prose for a workshop, but liked the audio transcript format too much to give it up. There’s something about strict and experimental formats, about the careful construction and trickery of it, that excites my writing brain. I like building my own architecture and then bending it.

But none of that is easy, and it necessitates a really long revision process. I wanted some of the horror to come from what went unsaid and unheard between Maddie and Nita — most of my favorite horror refuses to deliver answers or that a neat resolution in which balance/the status quo is reformed. On the other hand, you can’t scare people if they don’t know what the hell is going on. I ended up re-drafting “Dead Air” three or four times before it was hit the right balance.

On a related note, you had another story in Nightmare in 2017, Which Super Little Dead GirlTM are You? Take Our Quiz and Find Out! that uses a quiz format to tell the story. Do you like to periodically set yourself the challenge of telling stories in non-traditional format, or is it a simply a matter of certain formats being the best way to tell certain stories? Are there other formats you’d like to try out for upcoming projects?

Finna CoverI absolutely love stories told in non-traditional formats. Sometimes it’s because those formats do fit better with the pieces of the story I have; with Super Little Dead Girls, I had characters but no plot, which made a personality quiz format perfect. The genre mashup felt like a good way to comment on some of my least favorite tropes in horror, around the way it treats dead women and children. With “Dead Air,” the format adds layers of meaning and complexity onto the story. Sometimes, though, I just like the challenge. I’ve always written in different kinds of genres and media. I’ve been working for a couple of years on a longer experimental, interactive narrative that’s told through a wiki, and includes maps, multimedia, and talk pages. I’ve had to put it on the backburner while I finish other projects, though.

Your partner, Nibedita Sen, is also an amazing author. Would you, or have you, ever collaborate(d) on a writing project together?

We’ve talked about it, for sure, but have both been too busy to try as of yet. (Unless you count writing fanfic that caters to each other?) One of our pipe dreams is to co-edit an anthology (or multiple anthologies!), particularly of queer and trans horror.

Ooh. I bet you’d put together a fantastic anthology! Switching gears a bit, has your role as an educator teaching fiction and seeing the way students engage with stories changed your own approach to writing at all? Has it changed the way you read stories?

Teaching built on the skills that I learned from workshopping and reviewing fiction; learning to analyze the thematic elements of a story, as well as the skill and craft it took to write it. The main questions I was trying to teach my lit and creative writing students was “what was the author attempting here? did they succeed? how and why?” Teaching did show me that people connect to stories (or don’t) for all kinds of reasons. I knew that intellectually before, but it was reinforced over and over again while teaching. (Hearing a bunch of twenty-year-olds ragging on my favorite stories is very humbling!)

It also gave me an excuse to read outside my usual haunts. One of the stories I assigned to my creative writing class was Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair, which is an amazing historical romance, but not like any of the fiction I usually read. Milan is a master at structuring a relationship-driven story through intertwined character arcs.

Your bio might partially answer this question, but one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about non-writing related jobs. What is the most unusual job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it, and has any aspect of that job worked its way into any of your stories?

I’ve been working on and off since I was eleven, so I’ve had a lot of jobs. I’ve worked at pet boarders, a state fair, cafes and restaurants, gas stations, plant nurseries, theaters, mail rooms, bookstores. One of my favorite gigs was as a food columnist for a Chicago culture website; it didn’t pay much, but it comped my meals, and it taught me to write on deadline. Plus, I had leeway to write about pretty much anything related to food.

Probably my weirdest job was as a housecleaner? There was something strangely intimate about being up close and personal with someone’s dirty house, though it wasn’t an intimacy I wanted or enjoyed. I learned that most upper-middle class people have terrible taste in decor, and also how to properly dust a room, which are both very important lessons. (A story in Homesick, “Not an Ocean, but the Sea” is partly based on those experiences, and includes a cameo by my least favorite clients’ vacuum.)

With your collection out, and your novella on the horizon, what else are you working on, or have coming up that you want folks to know about?

Those two things are taking up most of my brainspace, along with job-searching. I’m revising a novel that’s based loosely on “Which Super Little Dead Girl Are You?” and trying to figure out what I want my next big writing project to be. In the meantime, I’m writing flash fiction on my patreon and starting up a newsletter, so if you like my writing, those are the best places to consistently find it.

Thanks for stopping by!

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