“Breaking through traditional, prescriptive boundaries”: An Interview with Guest Reader Lex Williford

by Tara Laskowski See all Guest Readers

Can you talk a little bit about your novella-in-flash Superman on the Roof, which won the 201[5] Rose Metal Press Chapbook contest? How did you get the idea to write it in this form? How long did it take you to write all the stories?

As I’ve written elsewhere—in Tara Masih’s Rose Metal Field Guide for Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers and Writers in the Field—when I received an artist’s residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation in the high desert of Taos, New Mexico, the summer before the terrible events of 9/11, I decided to write forty stories in forty days. I ended up writing thirty-six stories, getting up early every morning, writing what burned in my belly on the porch of my casita as fast as I could for about fifteen minutes, then spending the rest of each day working on what I’d written. I’ve rethought and revised and thrown away several of those rough flash pieces, then written and rewritten a few others—every story in the chapbook published elsewhere, even one in SmokeLong Quarterly—and I’ve seen them not so much as a book of their own than as layers of icing in a layer cake of longer stories that I’ve been working on for too many years. Only later did I begin to see these flash pieces as part of a stand-alone project, a novella in flash.

At the beginning, most of the pieces seemed too fragmentary to hold together as part of a novella, but when Rose Metal Press began its chapbook competition ten years ago, I decided to use the contest as an excuse to revise the stories together every year, cutting and adding stories along the way, then completely rethinking and revising others, mostly using the contest as an opportunity to make these stories make sense. (I skipped a few years when writers I know—Michael Martone, my coeditor of the Touchstone and Scribner anthologies, for example—were judges.) In the tenth year of the contest, the chapbook won. Frankly, it never occurred to me that it might win.  I’d been sending it to the contest for so long, seeing it as a kind of exercise in revision, that I was stunned, completely caught off guard, when it did.

I’ve been fortunate to work with Abby Beckel and Kathleen Rooney, editors of the series, over the last two years. Among other things they helped me to realize just how screwed up the stories’ timeline was, the dates all out of whack so that I had to spend several months just sorting them all out and making the chronology work. Abby and Katheen are the best kinds of editors, their insights into the chapbook as a unified novella in flash opening each story up to me in ways I’d never conceived of, inspiring me to create the kind of “rhyming action” between the stories Charles Baxter refers to in his book of essays, Burning Down the House—the kind of “connectedness of all things” contest judge Ira Sukrungruang writes about in his wonderful introduction to the chapbook.

All the stories—like the first, “The Coat,” which I’d written at MacDowell Colony, way back in the nineties—took on new meaning for me. The story that started it all, about the absurdly brutal punishment of a boy based on something that happened to me when I was a kid, finally made sense to me, simply because I’d been forced to invent a dramatic reason for that punishment—the narrator’s belief that punching his sick brother in the nose had also killed him. Survival guilt, the kind I’ve felt most of my life and have never understood until only recently.

This is the most autobiographical material I’ve ever written, based upon the death of my kid brother, Carl, three when he died, the year I turned ten, and short as the book is, forty pages, it’s taken me much longer than I ever thought to write perhaps because it’s all been so close to the bone, such a potential minefield of melodrama and cheap sentimentality. I’m still working on other stories in the longer collection—a novel in stories—though working on this chapbook has helped me get closer to finishing that book, too.

As for the question, “How does this chapbook qualify as a novella in flash?” I’ve only begun to answer that question to my satisfaction, especially since I’ve been asked to serve on a panel entitled, “The Long from the Short: Turning Flash Pieces into a Novel, Novella, or Memoir,” with panelists Abigail Beckel (Rose Metal Press editor and publisher), Kelcey Parker Ervick, Tyrese Coleman and you (Tara Laskowski, distinguished editor of SmokeLong Quarterly) at the AWP Conference in Washington, DC, February 9, 2017. I don’t want to give my presentation away, but I will say this now: it will have something to do with a box of safety pins. There’s nothing safe about safety pins.

One of the things I most love about Superman on the Roof is the way you highlight the complexities of all your characters—no one is perfect, everyone has flaws, but no one is purely ‘evil’ either. Even the ‘bad people’ in your stories have moments you can empathize with. Is this something you strive for consciously on the page?

I think that Hannah Erendt’s phrase about Hitler and Nazi Germany, “the banality of evil,” is almost always truer than the stereotypes of villains we’ve come to see so often in Hollywood films. We secretly love the best villains: Walter White, who’s cooking meth to save as much money as he can to support his family before he dies of lung cancer; Dexter Morgan, a serial who kills other serial killers as a means of protecting and avenging their victims; Dr. Hannibal Lector, who has such excellent taste in all things, including human flesh, eating other villains like himself along with a little Chianti and fava beans. Why?  Because we’re all villains on some level, capable of unspeakable horrors, driven by the same too-often unconscious obsessions, compulsions and poisonous pedagogies and ideologies most of us are driven by but rarely admit to.

The first story in my chapbook is based upon an incident of punishment like one my father, now in his eighties, inflicted on me as a teenager. Like me, Travis, the autobiographical narrator, receives that same kind of senseless violence, then turns it on innocent others, his brothers, Jesse and Nate, and others not so innocent, Duncan Anders and Sister Mary Joseph. The most horrific thing about my father’s punishments wasn’t the punishments themselves but his baffling need to carry out and justify them.

Not long ago, when my only surviving brother John and I were cleaning out our parents’ garage in Dallas, I found the horsewhip my father’s mother had used on our father and his brother as kids. When I asked my father, “Did she really hit you with this damn thing?” he said, “You’re goddamn right she did, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me!”  This crippling kink in my father’s psychology doesn’t represent who my father is at all, at least not most of the time. My father, capable of great generosity and kindness, especially now since he has Alzheimer’s, taught me how to paint in watercolors, perhaps the most challenging art form I can think of, next to writing very short stories. He was a remarkably talented architect, too, and a watercolor artist in his own right—someone who taught me, mostly by example, the value of crafting beautiful things—and I love him now more than I’ve never loved him, simply because I understand exactly how he became who he is, just how much of a victim he was and how much he had to justify the cycle of violence he carried on by steadfastly remaining in denial, always unconscious of his own wounds and motives. Almost all of us, I believe, are villains and victims both, and the danger lies in our denying that terrible fact.

Alice Miller, the German psychiatrist, writes that Hitler, who everyone thought was just a buffoon, was dangerous not only because of his own wounds—the awful combination of his father’s hidden Jewish paternity along with his father’s many brutal beatings—but because he shared those same wounds, that same antisemitism, with so many other Germans, after the humiliation of a terrible depression and the defeat of WW I, and the brutal pedagogies taught by the so-called experts such as Moritz Schreber, whose own son, Daniel, brutally beaten almost daily, lost his mind trying to understand the same kinds of things I’ve tried to understand for most of my life.

Without questioning, caught in the kind of terrible denial we seem to be caught in now, after the election of another so-called buffoon like Donald Trump, we all seem doomed to perpetrate the same evil that others have perpetrated on us. Only through self-awareness, through our refusal to project our shadows onto vulnerable others and then to punish them instead of taking responsibility for the terrible things we’re all capable, can we end this terrible cycle of hate and violence.

What kinds of flash stories appeal to you most? What themes/subjects/styles are you most drawn to?

For me, the boundaries separating prose poetry and flash fiction are almost always artificial, as artificial as the boundaries between countries like the U. S. and Mexico, on the border where I live. For me, the best flash is almost always as dramatic as it is lyrical, without being melodramatic or maudlin, understated in both language and dramatic delivery. But that doesn’t mean that powerful flash must be this way. My friend and coeditor, Michael Martone, has been thumbing his nose at prescriptive fictional forms ever since he studied with John Barth, and though he and I write strikingly different stories, I admire just how powerful his stories are. That’s one reason I asked him years ago to be my coeditor of the Scribner and Touchstone anthologies. Because his aesthetics are completely different than mine, he’s taught me a great deal about writing and teaching writing, about writing that’s always pushing and breaking through traditional, prescriptive boundaries, about how to encourage that kind of risk-taking in my students, many of whom live in those narrow, artificial boundaries that too many people, like our current president-elect, are always trying to wall off.

I’ve written several essays recently about flash fiction, one in the most recent edition of Glimmer Train’s Writers Ask series, another online here, and Michael Martone recently interviewed me for Brevity magazine asking me the kinds of genre- and boundary-breaking questions he’s always asking, forcing me to question any kind of orthodoxy having to do with making art.

My answers have gone on far too long here—especially for an alleged writer of flash—so I’ll refer to these rather than repeat myself.

The holidays are coming up very soon! So here’s your chance to write your wish list. If you could get any gift this season, what would you hope for?

It’s a cliché to wish for world peace during the holiday season, right? But that’s exactly what I wish for, more so now than at any other holiday season I can think of in my long life.

I’m terrified for my children—both quite young, seven and eight—mostly because I believe, at our most vulnerable time, we may be entering one of the darkest, most dangerous periods of American and human history. I hope I’m wrong—pray I’m wrong, a man who never prays—but I’m the odd-man out in a large family who voted in overwhelmingly large numbers—with a little help of another dangerous man, Vladimir Putin?—to elect the most dangerous man we’ve ever elected as president of the United States. This man, who has as little shame as he has self-awareness, driven only by his own colossal insecurity, his bottomless id and ego, has plugged deeply into the deep dark heartland of American darkness.

Some might flinch at my sudden shift directly to the politics of the day, but this is a moment in history when I believe no one can stand silent.

For me, this moment in history resembles Weimar Germany in far too many ways, terrifies me not simply because of the man himself but because of the levels of blind desperation, denial and despair that his election has shown. I’d like to believe that this is the last gasp of white Anglo Saxon American sexist, racist and homophobic madness, but I’m afraid that that’s just naïve, that it’s only the beginning of something much worse: the unspeakable desire of far too many Americans, wounded by decades of war and the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression, to strike out and punish the Other.

It’s what I’ve been writing about most of my life. If, as I believe strongly, the smallest unit of government is the family—and in many ways I grew up in an authoritarian family—I’m afraid of what’s to come.

For good reason, most people, even I, blanch at even the slightest comparison of any one leader to Adolf Hitler, but in this case I think the comparison is apt on far too many levels, and not just because our president-elect, a brutal and charismatic conservative pseudo-father like the man I grew up with, has surrounded himself with white supremacists, the so-called alt-right.  No, the reason I’m most afraid is the level of unconsciousness that made so many people I grew up with and still care about vote for this man.

I’m fairly certain that this president-elect will self-destruct—it’s his MO, his life leading almost inevitably to this moment, all his chest-beating megalomania notwithstanding—but what worries me most is that, as he imposes his terrible psychodrama onto the rest of us, our country and the entire planet, he might just take the rest of us down with him. I’m not a practitioner of the kind of Shadenfreude this president-elect embodies in the worst possible ways, but I admit to feeling a little of that terrible emotion now. I hope he fails, yes, and soon; otherwise, it may take many lifetimes to undo the damage he’ll do, or, worse, it’ll simply be too late.

World peace, that’s my only wish—or maybe it’s only wishful thinking. My only consolation lately is that since the election I’m not the only person I know who’s been deeply depressed, that as Martin Luther King, Jr., once wrote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

About the Reader:

Lex Williford, a University of Arkansas MFA, has taught in the writing programs at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and the University of Alabama. His book, Macauley’s Thumb, won the 1993 Iowa Short Fiction Award; his chapbook, Superman on the Roof, won the 2015 10th Annual Rose Metal Press Flash Fiction Award. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in numerous national journals. Coeditor of the Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction and founding director of the online MFA at the University of Texas at El Paso, he currently chairs the on-campus bilingual creative writing program at the University of Texas at El Paso.

About the Interviewer:

Tara Laskowski has been editor at SmokeLong Quarterly since 2010. Her short story collection Bystanders was hailed by Jennifer Egan as "a bold, riveting mash-up of Hitchcockian suspense and campfire-tale chills." She is also the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, tales of dark etiquette. Her fiction has been published in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, and numerous other journals, magazines, and anthologies. Tara lives and works in a suburb of Washington, D.C.