Sean Ennis on Playing with the Epistolary Form
In Conversation with Kirsten Reneau for the Micro Podcast
Micro is a podcast for short but powerful writing. Each week features a few short pieces of fiction, creative nonfiction, and/or poetry read by the author. In the accompanying interview series, 5 Qs with Kirsten, Kirsten Reneau chats with a featured reader.
“Grace, let me know when you’re ready to talk.” So begins Sean Ennis’s piece “Gnashing,” an intimate epistolary style piece that feels less like a traditional story and more like a peek into a private life, where there is an entire world beyond your purview.
This, of course, is the natural issue in epistolary style work—how do you balance what the audience needs to know and what the characters would already know? In this often funny and always intimate piece, Ennis balances on the tightrope with incredible skill and precision.
Listen to Sean Ennis read “Gnashing” on Micro.
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Kirsten Reneau: First, I love titles, especially ones this visceral. How did you decide on the title “Gnashing”?
Sean Ennis: It’s important and useful to me to be expanding my vocabulary and trying to use words in surprising ways. The word itself has a kind of Old Testament feel—not a word we use often in everyday speech. I like pairing high diction with ordinary events. It’s a way of adding drama to a short piece. It’s also supposed to be a little funny, a bit of an overreaction. When seeing strangers outside of his house, the narrator identifies with the Book of Lamentations from the Bible.
KR: What drew you to using an epistolary format to tell this story?
SE: I’ve been writing about this couple a lot, and my sense is that the narrator is in a constant dialogue with his wife, whether she knows it or not. He loves her very much, seeks her approval, is insecure. In other pieces, his actual dialogue to her is stylized, but this sort of private format in direct address maybe allows for more honesty. It’s a love letter, in his strange way, which is a pretty traditional genre.
KR: There is so much not revealed in this piece, just hinted at, which seems to collide with the narrator’s repetitive want to tell Grace something in person, not through a letter. This, to me, seems like quite a deliberate choice. How did you decide what to include and what to leave out of this piece?
SE: Since the narrator is talking to Grace, and they presumably have a lengthy history together, there’s no need for backstory—it would be odd for him to be reminding her too much of their shared context. In general with flash fiction, I’m trying to pack as much information on the level of the sentence as possible, be provocative enough to encourage readers to fill in blanks and interpret for themselves. Maybe I’m getting better at this since my pieces are getting shorter and shorter—soon they’ll disappear altogether. In the end, my hunt is always for the best details that can be packed with meaning.
KR: What do you think makes a particularly good (or bad) poetry reading?
SE: Years ago, I saw a band play in a basement and the singer performed the entire set laying on the ground, with his head inside the bass drum. It was funny and uncomfortable and presumably, the singer paid some price for this decision. I also saw the poet, Li-Young Lee, completely hush a large university reading once. These are good examples.
KR: Can you talk a little bit about your writing process in general, where you find inspiration, and walk us through the submission process for this piece?
SE: My literal writing process is pretty predictable. My figurative writing process is that Claire charges her magic rocks in the light of the full moon and then places one under my pillow. A black box then appears in my mind and I start pulling sentences out of it, unsure at first about what the box contains. After a few sentences, there’s a critical mass, and I start to understand what’s in the box and can be more deliberate about what I pull out next. These days, most of these boxes are small and contain about five hundred words.
Mary Ruefle said something in an essay I can’t find anymore that resonated, though I think she was quoting an architect: “We begin in admiration and finish by organizing our disappointments.” This is me and the black box.
Hobart has been supportive of my work, so when one of their editors, Evan Fleischer, asked me for a piece for their newsletter, I jumped at the opportunity, and was happy they included it.
Micro is edited and curated by Dylan Evers and produced and hosted by Drew Hawkins. Theme song is by Matt Ordes. Follow the show on Twitter at @podcastmicro.
Sean Ennis is the author of CHASE US: Stories (Little A) and his fiction has recently appeared in Wigleaf, JMWW, Pithead Chapel, and Maudlin House. He lives in Mississippi and more of his work can be found at seanennis.net
Kirsten Reneau is a writer, teacher, and interviewer. She received her MFA from the University of New Orleans in 2021 and lives there now with her dog. Her personal work can be found online at http://www.kirstenreneau.