Interview with Tiffany Promise on her Prize-Winning Story, Selected by Roxane Gay
by Writing Workshops Staff
3 weeks ago
Certain stories possess the power to leave an indelible mark long after we've read them. One such story that has captured our attention is "Birds of Prey" by Tiffany Promise, a poignant short story that clinched the prestigious 2023 HoneyBee Prize in Fiction, with acclaimed author Roxane Gay serving as the judge. You can read Tiffany's prize-winning story in The Good Life Review.
Here is how Roxane Gay described "Birds of Prey":
Birds of Prey is a confluence of contradictions. There are events in a person’s life that are often joyful but as this economic story unravels, it is clear that there is no happy ending to be found here. Written with a bold and unique voice, this language-driven story about predator and prey is a masterful example of what flash fiction can be.
Tiffany shares her insights into the creation of "Birds of Prey," her experiences as a writer and poet, and the intricate interplay of life's contradictions that often serve as the backdrop for her evocative storytelling.
WW: Congratulations on winning the 2023 HoneyBee Prize in Fiction for your story 'Birds of Prey.' How did you react when you first learned that Roxane Gay had selected your piece for this prestigious award, and what does this recognition mean to you as a writer?
TP: Upon receiving the news about my story’s big win, I screamed. My two wildlings, Poesie and Sparrow, ran into the room to check on me. As I tried to explain the gravity of the situation, they got distracted and started pleading for goldfish and apple juice, but I persisted. They cared very little about the distinction (!) or prize money (!), but when they found out we’d be getting a jar of midwestern honey, they were stoked.
I’ve been short- and long-listed for a few things over the years; I have a couple Best of the Net and Pushcart nominations, but the Honeybee Prize was my first first place. “Birds of Prey” was rejected by at least five literary magazines before it won, so this has been a good reminder of how important it is to keep putting work into the world despite repeat rejection. I’ve been considering getting a tattoo of a QR code that opens to Roxane Gay’s blurb about my piece. Just joking…or maybe I’m not?
WW: In 'Birds of Prey,' you create a vivid and emotionally charged story that combines themes of love, disappointment, and the complexities of human relationships. What inspired you to explore these particular themes, and how did you go about crafting such a powerful narrative in a flash fiction format?
TP: I use writing as a way of exploring the darkest parts of the heart and making sense of the world. For this story, I wanted to write something that focused on that singular moment when everything in one’s life is suddenly upended. As humans we’ve all experienced these life-changing, traumatic moments that live outside of language. In Nightingale’s frozen state, her imagination runs wild and she projects all of her inexpressible feelings onto her unborn baby—the perfect blank slate for her worst nightmares and sweetest wishes to come to fruition.
Because I wanted to focus on this singular moment—the aftermath—I knew that flash was the right container. I often think of my stories as blocks of ice that I have to chisel and chisel until the essence of the piece—the swan sculpture—emerges. I make sure to save all the chiseled, on-the-floor bits though, because often those bits get woven into something else altogether.
WW: The language and imagery in your story are striking, contributing to the unique and intense atmosphere. Could you share some insights into your writing process? How do you approach choosing words and constructing sentences to create such an impactful sensory experience for your readers?
TP: I go over every single sentence about a thousand times. I move the words around, I play with punctuation; I aim to make every line wiggle off the page. Even though this story is only 650 words, it took eleven years to write. Lauren Brazeal Garza—who teaches awesomely inspiring online poetry classes through Writing Workshops—uses the term “weight-bearing verbs” to describe verbs that push the emotionality of a poem forward. I try to choose the best words for each piece—whether verbs, nouns or adjectives—words that help to braid the theme of the story into each sentence. When I come upon a word that doesn’t seem to hold its weight, I always check my thesaurus, and every once in a while, I’ll find such an interesting synonym that the entire landscape of the sentence will change!
WW: Your protagonist, who longs for a love that isn't reciprocated, is portrayed in a very raw and authentic way. How did you go about developing the character of the narrator, and were there any personal connections or experiences that influenced their emotions and reactions?
TP: I can’t pretend to understand Nightingale’s exact situation. But I do know how when confronted with trauma, we can get trapped in a black-and-white rut where everything is good or bad, life or death. Predator or prey.
Half of my childhood was spent in a small Texas town. I remember there being one store that sold everything from beer to candy necklaces to fishing bait. I might be wrong about this because the way that our brains record memory is more about feeling than fact, but the setting for this story—and many other stories, including my novel—is this tiny part of the world. Filled with religion and superstition, towns like this often expect homogeneity. Most of my characters are black sheep struggling to find their place in an unaccepting setting. In writing their stories, I am attempting to make sense of my own.
WW: You have an MFA from CalArts and have participated in the Tin House, American Short Fiction, and our workshop in Paris. And your work has appeared in great journals such as Narrative Magazine, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and more, showcasing your talent. Can you share some insights into your approach to writing short fiction and creative nonfiction? How do you condense powerful themes and emotions into a compact format, and what advice do you have for other writers who might need a word of encouragement?
TP: I started writing poetry when I was a young kid and ended up majoring in poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. I didn’t try my hand at fiction until I was forced to choose a secondary genre for my degree. I thought I could get away with disguising prose poems as stories—but I fell fast in love with the accoutrements of story-making—plot! dialogue! scene!—and I haven’t stopped writing them since. Writing poetry taught me how to maximize compact spaces—how to juice the innate ferocity out of language and employ form as an emotional pressure cooker.
I think it’s really important for all of us to keep writing the hard stuff: the messy, human, shameful stuff; the stuff that you might not even say out loud, that makes your backbone stiffen, your fingers twitch. Just this week, my poem “Gutted” was published in the newest issue of the Ocotillo Review (8.1). As I was posting it to social media, I momentarily hesitated because it’s an exceptionally edgy piece. I found the first line of the poem—“I was raped, but I’m okay”—graffitied on a wall in downtown Austin a few months back. Whoever wrote that was obviously crying out for help, and because there was nothing else I could do, I wrote a poem for them. I wanted to give them a louder voice and to continue to break the silence around abuse. Don’t be scared to put your words out there. Or, be scared, but do it anyway!
Tiffany Promise (she/her) is a writer, poet, chronic migraineur, and the mother of two wildlings. She holds an MFA from CalArts and has recently participated in Writing Workshops Paris Retreat and the American Short Fiction Summer Workshop. Winner of the 2023 Honeybee Prize for Literature (judged by Roxane Gay) her work has appeared/forthcoming in Epiphany, The Ocotillo Review, The Good Life Review, Narrative Magazine, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Okay Donkey and elsewhere. Tiffany lives in Austin, Texas.