“A Very Small Flame” by James Winter
Issue #193 • June 30, 2014
James Winter is an English professor at Kent State University Salem and an instructor with the Upward Bound Program. A graduate of the Northeast Ohio Master’s of Fine Arts (NEOMFA) consortium, his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in PANK Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and The Rubbertop Review. James lives in Ohio with his wife and newborn daughter, and is currently finishing two story collections, one of which features “A Very Small Flame.”
There are many ways one can die in Sarajevo.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
What was the seed of this story? What was the first thing you wrote?
I’ve always been drawn to the stories of people caught up in history, especially those events that often go under our radar. For example, I published a story in PANK Magazine about 1970s Argentina called “El Pueblo Vencera.” Their government took men and children in the night, leaving only the girlfriends, mothers, and grandmothers behind as examples of the power of the dictatorship. This story began with U2’s “Mothers of the Disappeared.” I wanted to know more about its meaning and was soon obsessed with the history. Outraged at the cruelty of these events and that the subject was never covered in my history classes (perhaps because our government helped much of it along); I decided to fictionalize the life of the woman who started The Mothers movement in Argentina.
A similar thing happened with “A Very Small Flame.” I was listening to a lot of political songs as I finished “El Pueblo,” one of which was “Miss Sarajevo.” Again, I wanted to know the meaning. I remembered a little of the news coverage of the Bosnian War from my childhood, but my knowledge was limited. As I researched further about the experiences of those living in Sarajevo, I was moved by their perseverance and grace. I didn’t begin writing what appears in One Story, but rather about the Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo, Admira and Bosko, who get mention in “Flame.” Yet, I felt uncomfortable fictionalizing their lives and decided I needed to create a totally fictional character.
How long did it take you to complete this story?
After setting aside Admira and Bosko, I believed if I spent considerable time thinking about the ins and outs of the story, it would come to me easily when I finally sat at my computer. Well, I certainly dwelt upon the emotional resonance, but not the narrative nuts and bolts.
My first attempt consisted of a series of letters between a Sarajevo shopkeeper involved in the black market and his young daughter who lives in Paris with his ex-wife. I realized I had a novel on my hands and not enough research. So, I set this draft aside. Then, desperate to complete the story, I thought I had a clever idea—a Sarajevo black comedy about a woman whose attempts at suicide are thwarted at every turn. I wrote about a page and found it was not funny. Not at all. Yet again, I threw the story aside.
Finally, four years after becoming interested in Sarajevo, this Christmas I decided to put all of my research into a tale about the experience of living through the Siege. No matter what came out, I had to finish the draft. When my wife and I returned from my sister-in-law’s at the New Year, I was incredibly sick. What better time to write than when semi-lucid? I’d write a paragraph or two, feel woozy and worn out, and return a few hours later. In a week, I finished the version I submitted to One Story. It’s the quickest draft I ever wrote. I think my illness turned off my internal doubter and editor and enabled me to write less of the narratives I’m used to and more of an essay, which condensed my research and ideas into a cohesive chronicle of one man’s experience of the Siege.
There are so many particular details in “A Very Small Flame”, and yet you’ve never been to Sarajevo. How much research did you do to portray the Siege?
The Internet is a wonderful, wonderful thing. My process for “Flame” was similar to the process I used for my other historical stories. I started by using Wikipedia to get a general idea of the time frame and major players in the conflict. Then, I read many of the articles linked to the Wiki page. From there I developed search engine terms to investigate articles from news outlets while also watching hours of YouTube videos, from old news footage to commemorative tapes and documentary specials to interviews with some of the Bosnian War’s participants. An especially interesting documentary was one that chronicled the onset of PTSD in many of the war’s soldiers and civilians.
I gathered all of this information in notebooks and Word documents and continued by reading several texts, balancing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. I am especially indebted to Sarajevo Blues by Semezdin Mehmedinovic, Fools Rush In by Bill Carter, and Blood and Vengeance: One Family’s Story of the War in Bosnia by Chuck Sudetic, Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo and Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land, as well as the heart-wrenching poetry I read online. From there, I researched names, cultural norms, and used Google Maps and Images to study the city before, during, and after the Siege.
By studying this mound of research so closely, what I needed during my writing of the piece tended to fall into place. I could choose what would best serve the story. Editing the piece with Hannah required me to research many aspects of the piece further—Muslim prayer, the layouts of certain streets, and more specific details about many of the places in the story. It was thrilling to work with her since she pushed my writing, research, and ideas of what my story should and could do toward what I had originally envisioned.
Of course, in my mind, no amount of research is enough and I realize a fictional piece cannot take the place of nor do justice to those who lived through the Siege. I only hope that I could capture a small slice of the personal trauma of the war.
The structure of “A Very Small Flame” is unique. What made you decide to use the list format—both for the list of ways to be shot, and the lists of words later on in the story?
The lists come from my prewriting for the story. I knew my opening line, “There are many ways to die in Sarajevo.” So, below that, I just listed all the ways you could die in this city at that time. With this list, I then began to fill in the actual deaths. I knew Pasha had to observe these firsthand to make them impactful, and I credit Hannah for taking that notion to the next level by making them more connected to him personally. I had thought of simply writing the deaths in standard paragraphs, but I’d never done a list before. What the hell, right? Rereading it, I think it worked wonderfully.
The first list gave me the confidence to make a second. I did it once, so why not two or three times? Listing them in a single sentence diluted the power of the specific words. Having them line-by-line allowed them their own space to resonate with the preceding deaths and those that follow.
There were actually one or two more lists in the original draft. One I cut during revising and the other I cut with Hannah. Only after editing the story with her did I see the joke, as cheesy as it might be—Pasha, the grocer, is making his own sorts of lists.
Why did you decide to tell this story in first person, through Pasha’s point of view?
I often begin in the first person to get a handle on the protagonist’s voice. The more time I spend inside his or her head, the better I understand what kind of story needs to be told.
I knew a third person narrator would distance itself from the reader. I wanted the reader to feel very close to Pasha, to live in his skin during the horrors of the Siege. The first person would also be more conducive to having him address the reader directly, as if he has taken your hand at the door of his shop and said, “Here, let me show you my city.”
Avdo is such an original character. When did you realize the plot would turn around his actions?
I stumbled upon Avdo. As I listed the deaths and was writing “walking/running,” the image of the lunatics turned loose from Jagomir jumped into my mind. How surreal, these patients in hospital gowns strolling down the street. Pasha had to be there, and he had to have a reason for being there, and as the lunatics passed his hiding spot, I knew his brother was one of them. So, I rewrote the section with that in mind. Of course, this complicated the story a great deal. Pasha lived with his family, but living with an insane murderer is something else entirely. Though is it? I began to think that with everything Pasha has experienced in the Siege, could living with Avdo be that out of the ordinary?
I could see Avdo, all of him, from his size and shape to the crazed look in his eyes. But I didn’t want his insanity to guide the story. I wanted his humanity to shine through, the kind of humanity Pasha might observe every now and then. Thus, the tender scene with the children at Markale, and the suspenseful scene that closes the story. For me, Avdo holding that pigeon is a St. Francis image. I don’t know what he’s saying, really. Coming from Avdo, it’s probably nonsense, yet his words stop the war for just a moment. For Pasha, that’s enough to rekindle that very small flame.
What are you working on now?
I’m putting the finishing touches on two story collections, one a cycle about a fictional Ohio town called Everton. I guess it’s my attempt at a Yoknapatawpha County, or more aptly, a Winesburg, Ohio. Some are funny, some violent, some meditative.
The second collection contains stories that take place around the world, like “El Pueblo Vencera” and “A Very Small Flame.” Others are set in Barcelona, Bahrain, and there are a few stories I gleaned from working with veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. There’s even a father and son UFO abduction story, a sort of coming of age meets The X-Files.
I hope to finish these this summer and begin working on a novel.
What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
Whenever he talks about the craft, Stephen King says that writing “is work.” I couldn’t agree more. Write, rewrite, rewrite, revise, etc.—and my experience editing this story with Hannah only proves King’s point. Through her guidance, “A Very Small Flame” grew in its character development, sensory and setting descriptions, facilitation of narrative, and emotional wallop. Writing is work, but what great work, right? At the end of it, what you discover will surprise you.
Subscribe Risk Free!
Try One Story in print risk-free. Get our two free-trial issues today!
News & Events
Visit One Teen Story
our sister publication