“The Potential For Breathlessness And Recklessness”: An Interview with Justin Brouckaert
One thing I like a lot about “Little Little Things” is the essay shows the narrator’s thought process. I like seeing the level of trying to understand why these objects and their loss matter. And then on top of that, the doubling of this feeling like it’s being written as the reader progresses (“I am trying to craft a moral…”). Was this piece always in this form? Or was it initially something more traditional?
Thanks! This piece came pretty organically and didn’t change a lot, structurally speaking, from first draft to last. In fact, I think I started with the intention of making it even more “experimental”–I like working in short segments, and I wanted to write about five, six, seven small objects I’d once had and lost. Instead, I got to the third one, realized I had nothing left to add, and started looking seriously at the three sections I’d written to see how they were functioning together.
You’re right to say this essay is more about the narrator’s process of understanding these objects than it is about the objects themselves. It feels irrationally important for me to recognize patterns of ownership and loss in my life, and then to parse those patterns for knowledge. But then I become conscious and critical of my need to find those patterns, how I make such an effort to craft them, and I start questioning everything all over again. Why do I need these things, the symbols and the objects themselves? What do they mean to me? What am I trying to make them mean, and what does that say about me?
A professor once told me the narrator in my essays is “self-aware, anxious, and jittery about his place in the world.” I never thought of myself that way before, but the description is pretty spot-on.
Another interesting thing about that essay is your use of the &. I feel like it’s a love it or hate it form of punctuation. How do you think the way punctuation is used can influence or shape a story?
I just think the ampersand can direct the rhythm of a piece. Rhythm is important to me. I work in all three genres, and the ampersand is my way of telling myself (and my readers) that the piece I’m writing is supposed to be read as a poem, no matter what it’s labelled. Usually form and genre shake themselves out in the first few minutes of me starting a new piece, and in the case of “Little Little Things,” the “comma, and” construction just looked clunky and boring, and it was making for the wrong kinds of pauses. I wanted the potential for breathlessness and recklessness, to let the piece be loose and raw. The ampersand in particular does a ton for rhythm and tone, which are probably the elements of writing that interest me the most.
For starters, it’s reaffirmed the importance of a strong first page. I think I developed a reputation as one of the more brutal readers at Yemassee, in that I often wouldn’t read past the first page–sometimes the first paragraph–if I didn’t see enough in that short space to hook me. In that sense, reading hundreds of submissions has also helped me cultivate my aesthetic preferences: I like punchy, voice-driven stories where readers get a sense of shape and conflict early on.
There’s little stuff, too, that I’ve probably done many times before but wasn’t really aware of until I saw it in bulk. Like describing a character by saying, “There was just something about the way he talked that made me feel ____.” Well, what the hell was it? That’s lazy characterization. We’ve got to be sharper.
Finally: as writers, we hear a lot of different responses from editors, and it’s helpful to know what’s bullshit and what’s not. For instance, I know what’s it’s like to be sitting on four or five realist flash pieces, open up another flash submission and have to tell a writer, “Sorry, we like your work, but it’s just not right for this issue.” (Read: we really need something longer, something weirder, something that is less like what we already have. This might have been strong enough for us to accept last issue, but right now, it’s not.)
Another line that can feel like BS: “Just because your work isn’t right for us doesn’t mean it’s not right for other publications.” At Yemassee, we had a handful of writers whose work was getting picked up all over the place, in publications far more prestigious than ours, and yet we still couldn’t bring ourselves to accept their stuff–we just didn’t love it enough. Maybe next year, when the editorial staff has changed.
If you had to choose five stories published in the last year to introduce someone to flash fiction, which five stories would you use? Why?
Zachary Doss: “Trash Pope”
Punchy, voice-driven, and the story lays its cards on the table in the first paragraph, so readers can spend the rest of the time enjoying the pleasure bursts of trash pope and all his antics. This flash is fun and funny and fast, perfectly absurd.
Ben Loory: “The Ambulance Driver”
Ben is one of my flash fiction heroes. This is a fable that shows everything flash is capable of: compression, movement through time, oddness, sharpness, ambiguity.
Sean Lovelace: “Memory”
Another of my flash fiction heroes. Super strange and fun in voice and tone, purposely and effectively frustrating. Heavy on the Franco. Flash can (and probably should) confuse. I would give this hypothetical person all the Sean Lovelace stories to introduce him/her to flash because Sean Lovelace was my introduction to flash.
Kathy Fish: “Dusseldorf”
Where flash is concerned, I tend to gravitate more and more toward the strange, choppy and segmented, but here’s an expertly rendered story that shows how perfect the form is for quiet, stillness, subtlety. The beautiful freezing of a moment.
Matthew Fogarty: “Maybe Mermaids and Robots are Lonely”
I feel emotion for robots and mermaids, I feel shame for feeling that emotion, I feel shame for feeling that shame. This flash is the perfect balance of style, confidence, weirdness and humor.
About the Reader:
Justin Brouckaert's work has appeared in The Rumpus, Passages North, Catapult, DIAGRAM, NANO Fiction and Smokelong Quarterly, among other publications, and he serves as fiction editor at Banango Street. A Metro Detroit native, he now lives in Columbia, SC, where he's at work on a novel.
About the Interviewer:
Megan Giddings was a former executive editor at SmokeLong Quarterly and a winner of the Kathy Fish Fellowship. Her chapbooks, Arcade Seventeen (TAR) and The Most Dangerous Game (The Lettered Streets Press) will be released Fall 2016. She has been anthologized in Best of the Net 2014 and in Best Small Fictions 2016. Her stories are forthcoming or have been recently published in Arts & Letters, Passages North, The Offing, Pleiades, and Black Warrior Review. You can learn more about her at www.megangiddings.com.