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Artist Spotlight — Peggy Reavey

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Interviewed by Paul Bilger

Who are some of your influences? 

Degas. I’m not talking about the ballerinas. I’m thinking of a startlingly intimate painting (for that time) of a man trimming his wife’s toenails. “La Pedicure.” Also, “Portrait of the Bellelli family,” where a mother and two daughters stand facing the seated father. The mood is formal and tense. A story below the surface (I think).

Henry Darger is an influence—the drive to create these beautiful, playful, frightening paper doll narratives—all in secret. Again, an embrace of the personal, though shame kept it hidden until his death. Anselm Kiefer (the early, figurative work) and Neo Rauch. I generally love German painting. Frieda Kahlo, of course. Wholehearted embrace of the personal. David Lynch; he is never burdened by what others might think. I learned a lot by watching him work. Also, the importance of contrast and tension in composition. Giotto and Hieronymus Bosch. Again, the personal perception. And many more.

I noticed that you reject the word, “surrealism,” in your artist statement. Why do you reject that label? Can you tell us more about what you mean by “extreme realism”?

Surrealism has come to mean reality made weird. People think of surrealism as imagery from dreams or drugs or some deep unconscious or altered consciousness. My paintings are my lived, conscious, experience—even though they may not present actual or factual situations. The image feels true in the sense that I “recognize” it.  Yes, that’s what I mean.

Buildings and desks and spoons and shoes and people buying cars and jewelry and eating French fries and soup are “reality”. I love and require this kind of ordinariness in my paintings, but it does not feel like life until there is a rhinoceros or an angel or a whaledog. I’m not saying the rhinoceros and the angel and the whaledog are visible to me and not you; I’m saying that they show aspects of reality that are there, visible or not. They are not added to reality to make it weird. Without them, it is not reality.

I think a more accurate way of describing my work (as opposed to surrealistic) is “personal.” The wholehearted embrace of personal perception.

When the Whaledogs Come Back — Peggy Reavey

How do you experience the reality of a whaledog?

Whaledogs (or whatever a particular painting calls for) make visible something present but otherwise not visible. It’s a feeling.

It reminds me of being on a hike in the local woods. I felt like I was being watched, and then I came across the form of a little man in the moss. It was just random moss, but it gelled the experience for me. In other words, there are feelings of presence that don’t reduce to the everyday things we can point to as part of our so-called ‘reality,” is that it?

It’s not so much about experiencing a thing that is invisible. It’s that the painting isn’t right or true or complete until the Whaledogs are there. 

So it’s a matter of following the singular logic of the painting?

I guess you could say that. 

But I think of it as an understanding or perspective that is present but invisible —— until its incarnation to Whaledogs. 

Is there a painting that posed a particular challenge for you? What did you learn about yourself in the process of overcoming that challenge?

“When the whaledogs come back” was originally a completely different painting; it was going to be about Genesis 15 where Abraham asks God: “How do I know I can trust you?” God responds like a pragmatic businessman and says: “Go get a heifer, a ram, a goat, a dove, and a pigeon. Cut them in half lengthwise and when you and I walk together between the lined-up halves, that will be our blood covenant.” Abraham slaughters and lays out the animal parts according to God’s instructions. But when God is ready to walk, Abraham is deep asleep. So God—in the form of a “blazing torch and a smoking firepot” — establishes the covenant by walking alone between the “pieces”.

My plan was to place this in a 1950s kitchen, with Abraham’s wife, Sarai, mopping up the blood and Abraham asleep in front of a TV.  

I had a wood panel made especially for this painting, 28” x 70”. I started work on it, but had not gone far when I realized I was way past being excited about this idea.

I knew too much about what the painting would end up being. I need to have enough curiosity from not knowing where I’m going to stay excited and energized throughout the process—especially on such a big painting. 

When I wiped off imagery I had roughed in, I noticed, in the smeared paint, a shape on the right that resembled bluffs above the ocean near our house. So from then on, those were bluffs. 

To the left, I painted houses like the ones on the street in Philadelphia where I grew up. Childhood memories always carry a charge. I wanted the houses to be populated, so I painted out the stone walls, doors, and windows, and created rooms for people to live in. What would the people be doing in their houses? Things they didn’t want their neighbors to see. So: the seven deadly sins. 

I wanted the earliest forms of life to be emerging from the sea. I did some research and found some micro-organisms that qualified— unfamiliar and delicate and beautiful. I was going to draw them in with oil crayon; micro-organisms—but bigger— rising out of the sea and floating over the houses.

But micro-organisms did not create the right feeling. They looked both creepy and frivolous. Worse yet, they flattened out the painting, and even worse yet, with all the complexity of the sinners in their houses, the micro-organisms duplicated that complexity. I needed simplicity and space off to the right.

It might have been that same day that I heard Terry Gross interview a marine biologist who declared that at one time whales had walked on land. That was all I needed to hear.

I roughed in the Whaledogs and I had that feeling of recognition, this is right.

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions!

You are welcome, Paul. Answering questions about one’s painting is part of being an artist. Declining to answer is one (perfectly legitimate) response. But in this case I found the thought and writing process enlightening. Thanks for asking.

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Peggy Reavey‘s paintings tell old stories from crooked angles–often from inside a story looking out at a world that did not exist when it was first told. She paints new stories that evolve as she paints them, and intends for them to continue to develop after she finishes with them. Her work strives for a realism beyond simple visibility. Thematically influenced by sources as diverse as Darwin, Anne Frank, and scripture, her work engages hidden aspects of the past and future on both personal and universal levels. Her work has been featured in individual and group exhibitions across California and internationally.

 

Paul Bilger’s photography has appeared at Qarrtsiluni, Brevity, and Kompresja. His work has also been featured on music releases by Dead Voices on Air and Autistici. When not taking pictures, he is a lecturer in philosophy and film theory at Chatham University. He is the art director at SmokeLong Quarterly.

“Shards and Gems”: An Interview With Guest Reader Grant Faulkner

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You are the Executive Director of the hugely popular National Novel Writing Month. In what ways does it inspire or feed your own writing?

When I first did NaNoWriMo in 2009, I’d been writing for years, and I asked myself whether I chose my creative process or if it chose me? I felt like it was time to shake it all up and experiment.

Also, I had two young children at the time. I was frustrated that I didn’t have more time to write, and my list of novel ideas was growing faster than the pace of my words on the page. I thought it would be a great idea to just plunge in and write under different circumstances—to write with abandon, within the pressure of a constraint of time, and with speed.

I found that I took creative risks that I wouldn’t have ordinarily taken and learned new approaches to writing. Writing NaNoWriMo-style has also been an amazingly effective way to keep moving forward on a number of writing projects—kids’ soccer games and all!

Your collection of 100-word stories, Fissures, was published by Press 53. Can you tell us more about working within the confines of 100 words? Why did you select 100 words?

I’ve always been a closet poet, and these miniatures function almost as prose poems for me. I find all of the odd gaps and silences in life so entrancing. We live in the fissures, the interstices of life. Life isn’t a round, complete circle—it’s shaped with fragments, shards, snapshots, tiny gems, tickles, pinpricks, etc. The brevity of flash is perfect for capturing the small but telling moments when life pivots almost unnoticeably, yet profoundly.

As writers, we’re generally trained to write more—since the beginning, if you think about it, when a first-grade teacher tells students to add more detail to build a sentence into a paragraph, and then all the way through college when we’re taught to flesh out research papers, often proving our smarts through big words and big long sentences. I think writers tend to show their writerly muscles by focusing on the “more”—to fill a page with layers of details and florid descriptions. I don’t remember ever being taught to write less.

When I first started writing 100-word stories, I could never get them below 150 words. I’d trained myself to be a novelist, after all. It took a lot of practice, but what I learned was how the constraint of the tight little box of the form sparked a different kind of creativity. Writing miniatures allows me to focus on the white spaces, the gaps, in a story—to move a story through wisps of hints as opposed to the connective tissue a novel can demand. One hundred is an arbitrary number, but I always find that the story is better once I get it to 100 words. Unlike longer forms, I have to scrutinize every word, every sentence, and distill the story to its essentials. It still amazes me how often I find a flabby phrase or an unnecessary word when I’m carving these pieces down.

I think our memories work largely in disconnected snapshots that spin through our minds like a slide show. I think of life as more of a collage than a rising arc. The flash aesthetic is the best way for me to make collages of stories. I can create a mosaic with all of life’s shards and gems.

You wrote a book called Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo. What is the most important piece of advice or insight (from the book or not from the book) you would give to writers of flash fiction specifically?

I actually wrote a chapter on the benefits of constraints for writers—time constraints and formal constraints. Here’s an excerpt:

“Is not the most erotic portion of the body where the garment gapes?” Roland Barthes asked in Pleasure of the Text. The erotic nature of the gape in a garment is an apt metaphor for a hundred-word story because these tiny stories flow from tantalizing glimpses that lure the reader forward. As much as a writer might want to tell the whole story, to achieve a comprehensive narrative, a good 100-word story draws readers forward best via hints and fleeting appearances. You might say the writer takes on the role of a flirt. The words and images of a short-short are akin to the lingering glance or the brush of a hand from a desired lover. Writing within a fixed space taught me how a poetic coyness on the page can titillate the reader to fill in the gaps, to essentially become a co-creator of the story.

The most haunting stories are those that don’t provide answers but open up questions. I pondered the writer Ku Ling’s words, which functioned as a Zen koan for me: “A good short-short is short but not small, light but not slight.” By writing in such a compressed space, I learned how to create spirals of suspense to make the story bigger. My stories began to move like a flashlight’s beam, as if the reader were following a series of luminous dots on a path through the night.

Deb Olin Unferth says, ‘The short makes us consider such questions as: What is the essential element of ‘story’? How much can the author leave out and still create a moving, complete narrative? If I remove all backstory, all exposition, all proper nouns, all dialogue—or if I write a story that consists only of dialogue— in what way is it still a story?’”

That’s the challenge of flash fiction: to find the essence of the story, its purity.

You’re co-founder of the literary journal 100 Word Stories, and you also edited Nothing Short of 100, a collection of stories from the journal. As an editor of micros, what do you think can make or break a story of this length?

In such a short form, you’ve got to nail the ending like a gymnast. If you waver, tip, or fall, you’ll ruin everything you’ve previously achieved. I read so many stories that are good … up until the last sentence. That last sentence matters far more than in a novel or a conventional short story. It can’t drop off in any way.

The writer Jayne Anne Phillips said that the last lines of a short short “should create a silence, a white space in which the reader breathes. The story enters that breath, and continues.” That’ a good metaphor to think of.

What kind of story would you love to find in the submission queue this week? Are there certain themes or styles you’re drawn to?

The thing I love about flash fiction is how it’s inherently experimental because brevity changes the contours of a conventional story. A flash piece can be a prose poem, a list, a letter, an overheard conversation—as well as a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

I think the best stories possess what Roland Barthes, in describing what makes a photograph arresting, called the punctum—“the sting, speck, cut, prick.” It’s difficult to describe, but a good story startles the reader in a similar manner.

I like stories that work with language and mood and move with a sense of what is left out of the story. Flash fiction is so much about absences and gaps, after all. There has to be a sense of escalation, though. Each sentence has to carry a symbolic weight forward and tell a story.

“A strange and wondrous transformation”: An Interview With Guest Reader Ingrid Jendrzejewski

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You have a BFA in Creative Writing and a BA in English Literature from the University of Evansville and a BA and MSci in Natural Sciences (Physics) from the University of Cambridge. I’m always fascinated when I discover someone has degrees in two seemingly disparate subjects. Can you tell us more about your interests, how you came to study these two subjects and whether the science-minded part of your brain informs your writing?

Although creative writing and physics might seem like very different subjects on the surface, I feel they’re much more similar than people often tend to think. The skills sets for a good writer and a good physicist, mathematician, or programmer are quite similar; one needs creativity, problem-solving, precision, attention to detail, and a desire to seek out beauty and truth. And, to get better at any of these pursuits, one follows the same essential path:

* Read a lot.

* Play with the language (be it English or mathematics); one learns by doing.

* Learn the common patterns, conventions, techniques, etc., and see what happens when you challenge them.

* When something doesn’t work, ask yourself why, and figure out how to make it work the next time.

* Wash, rinse, repeat.

At the end of the day, a lab report is storytelling. A mathematical proof is storytelling. A literature review is storytelling. A computer program is a kind of storytelling. They have their own language, style, conventions and aesthetics, sure, but they are all forms of storytelling, and thus provided an excellent framework that has helped me become both more rigorous and more playful in my flash.

The way I write flash and the way I write code are very similar; once I have a story’s endpoint in my sights, I have to figure out the logical steps I need to take to get there. In a program, I wouldn’t include random lines of code that don’t help me get to my end goal; when I write flash, it’s the same. If it’s not part of the solution, it doesn’t belong in the story. The game is to achieve the desired effect in a clear, concise, elegant manner.

You’re very involved in the flash fiction community. You’re Editor in Chief of FlashBack Fiction, an editor at Flash Flood, a flash editor at JMWW, and a co-director of National Flash Fiction Day. What is it that you love about flash fiction? What makes it so special?

When it comes to creative writing, flash fiction feels like one of, if not the most exciting places to be right now. Although very short stories have been written for thousands of years in many different languages, forms and contexts, I feel flash is going through a strange and wondrous transformation right now, in our time. It feels like a huge explosion of creativity; something akin to a supernova.

When I was studying creative writing, none of us were talking about flash fiction. Short short stories were considered curiosities, but they certainly weren’t what you spent your time on if you wanted to be taken seriously. Now, so many people are reading, writing and publishing flash, and writers are doing incredibly creative, ground-breaking things with the form, really exploring the fuzzy boundaries and latent potentials of shortform work. I feel we’re all here together helping give birth to a new sort of lifeform, this thing we’re calling flash. I want to see what this baby looks like, and I want to see how it grows.

I feel so lucky to be in a position where I get to read so much new work, and help some of it into the world. The flash fiction community has been a source of kindness, generosity and support in my writing life, so helping out with literary journals and National Flash Fiction Day feels like an obvious way to give back, pay it forward, and contribute where I can.

If you had to give someone one piece of advice about writing flash fiction, what would it be?

My advice would be twofold: let a piece marinate, and then when you return to it, don’t be afraid to make brave edits, if need be.

Here is my recipe for editing. After I finish a piece, I set it aside until I forget most of the details. Only when I then go back to it, do I feel like I can really see the shape of that piece. At that point, I interrogate every word, phrase, line, sentence, paragraph, section, space, punctuation mark and ask myself whether they are on that piece’s critical path. If not, I cut without regret.

I do think dashing pieces off and sending them out quickly can be dangerous. There is only one thing I find more heartbreaking than reading a story that is almost but not quite there, and that is when I read a story that’s merely great when it had the potential to be absolutely phenomenal. The former will hopefully be developed and published in a stronger form; the latter is likely to be published and celebrated, then frozen as-is, never reaching its full potential. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been secretly grateful that something I hurried through the process didn’t get published so I had a chance to work on it a bit more!

This works for me, but every writer has their own right way of writing, so I might downgrade this from ‘advice about’ to ‘personal thoughts on’ writing flash fiction!

What kind of story would you love to see in the queue this week?

Oh, what an impossible question! One of the things I love about flash is the sheer variety of things people are trying these days, so I hate to lead the witness, so to speak.

In general, I enjoy quirky things, be that quirky characters, plots, themes, styles, techniques, etc. I welcome all manner of experimentation and play, but also love good old-fashioned storytelling as well. I enjoy hermit crab stories, hybrid pieces, and flash that masquerades as prose poems, but I also love traditionally formatted, plot-driven pieces as well. I love sciences, puzzles, games, mathematics, and historical flash fiction, but I also love it when I’m invited to engage with topics that I know little about.

I suppose what I love most is that magic that happens when a writer confidently brings me into their world – whatever, whenever or wherever that world is – and tells me the kind of story that only they can tell.

A Review of David Carlin & Nicole Walker’s The After-Normal

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by AnnaLee Barclay

One of my favorite things to do is have long, winding conversations with a good friend, conversations that explore themselves as time passes by and ideas are spoken aloud. It could start with discussing a particular book and end with marveling at crow intelligence. There are no objectives, no arguments to be made, no point to reach. Conversations that feels like a slow Sunday morning, even if some of the material is heavy or alarming. Reading The After-Normal by David Carlin & Nicole Walker (Rose Metal Press, 2019) feels like sitting in on one of these conversations as a silent observer, and what a joy it is. 

Written in the form of brief essays that alternate between Carlin and Walker, the authors follow the alphabet for each essay’s prompt. Starting with Albatross, they work their way to the end, to just ‘Z,’ forming a collection that presents a startling but engaging, humorous, and sentimental look at anthropogenic climate change and its effects on all life. By using the precedent of an established and known alphabet, there is a certain norm, an expectation of what is to come, as it’s a system we’re familiar with. A, then B, then C, so on. This precedent is then subverted throughout the collection, as sometimes the authors misspell words (Walker’s essay “Xtinction,” instead of “Extinction,” fittingly places the end of a “normal” environment and its creatures at the end of the book) or do more than one essay each for a letter.

It could be said that the use of the alphabet of a framing device represents our naïve conception of a “normal” world—one in which the climate is as it’s always been in our memory and that the animals we have loved since childhood aren’t starving on the brink of extinction. This is, of course, a narrow and inaccurate placement of nature, climate systems, health, economics, biology, and everything in their own unchanging vacuums. One of the tragedies of this sort of thinking is that in not recognizing the connectivity between all facets of life and existence, we collectively sever our connection to the others at the ultimate detriment of ourselves and our home, this planet. There are those who have always known this but we are only just now seeing large populations of ordinary people waking up to this nightmare, albeit too late for “normal” to continue. David Carlin nails this sad reality in his extremely short essay, “Death,” when he asks: “So soon? But we were only getting started.” 

But what do we do then—how do we reconcile knowing and accepting the gravity of this situation and still continue to live day-to-day? It isn’t enough to sit and speculate, or complain, or have a constant panic attack until your body shuts down. There are chores to be done, jobs to be worked, bodies to be fed and cleaned and taken care of, time to be enjoyed for sanity’s sake. Carlin & Walker, to the benefit of us all, recognize this and use these micro-essays to tackle this seemingly contradictory existence. In one of my favorite essays, “Individual,” Walker writes about eating sardines for health and brainpower, something that will benefit her life in a multitude of ways. But she’s aware of the multitude of ways eating sardines harms marine life, such as pollution from transporting seafood to Walker’s landlocked Arizona, bycatch in large fishing nets, and taking the actual sustenance that other animals rely on (which, let’s face it, we don’t rely on sardines, even if they’re good for us). The beauty of this essay is the raw honesty in recognizing the contradictions and hypocrisy within those who are very aware of the current and impending ecological crises. 

This book is a necessary addition to the dialogue surrounding environmentalism and the future of humanity as we move forward into the After-Normal, as Carlin and Walker have coined our dangerous and uncertain future. Throughout the collection, they return to the idea set forth by feminist scholar Donna Haraway, which is to “stay with the trouble.” That is, they want to explore the problems we’re facing with honesty, but also humor and compassion for the human condition. 

I’ve never read anything quite like this book, as anything collaborative can sometimes be messy or inconsistent. Rather, these essays feel like a collection of letters between close friends who understand each other’s brains and souls. While the alternating perspectives generally don’t follow each other linearly, at times the authors address each other with the second person “you.” But what happens is that the reader feels addressed and is suddenly confronted with their role in this situation: How am I culpable? How aware am I as to what is happening, and how am I going to embrace the changes I need to make to contribute to a more tolerable future for me and others, including non-human life? How can I still laugh and fall in love and carve out a piece of land for myself? There are no simple answers, but as David points out in his essay “World.” “One thing leads to another once you start asking questions.” Sometimes, asking the question is more eye-opening than finding any right answer.

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AnnaLee Barclay is a photographer and writer from Long Island. She was recently a member of The Lie Factory, a 12-week long fiction workshop taught by Lidia Yuknavitch and Chuck Palahniuk in Portland, OR. She has read for The Southampton Review and her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Atticus Review, and Pretty Owl Poetry. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @annaleebarclay.

“Willing to Fail”: An Interview With Guest Reader Elisabeth Ingram Wallace

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What kind of story would you just love to find in SmokeLong’s queue this week?

In Flash Fiction, I love honesty, humour, and risk. Black Comedy. Heart. People who are willing to fail interestingly. Play.

I love strange, but I don’t like weird for weird’s sake – some surreal riff about mutating into a pilchard, without any heart. If you want to mutate into a pilchard give it some welly, some purpose – for the love of all that is aquatic!

I don’t enjoy self-indulgent dream sequences, shuffling around in the glittery unitard of prose poetry. When people prose-poem me, I get confused, and bored, and then I’ll start talking about pilchards until I cry, and you cry, and then we’ll all explode into pilchards, and you don’t want that.

I want words I feel in my gut. Glandular stories.

The story is the thing, not the structure or the concept – everything serves the Dark Lord: Story.

I am writing this at the Flash Fiction Festival 2019, in Bristol, and I’ve just got out of a workshop with the brilliant, inspiring Christopher Allen. I loved what he had to say about the importance of specificity and emotional resonance in a story, and how the best flash finds that, in the least amount of honest, authentic details. Whether you are writing a moment of being, or you are showing the past, present and future of a moment – at its core, the story is the thing.

Are there certain themes you find yourself returning to in your own work? 

I often write about Nature as a character and what utter bastards humans are.

Location, identity, alienation, and destruction of nature, of others and ourselves. Which sounds miserable, but I do believe in trees. I do believe there is hope in nature.

I grew up without trees. Most city kids do. I grew up with towers of concrete. I found childhood exhausting, and I try to reassure all the kids I meet that it gets better, when you are grown up you can be batshit, happy, and in control. You can go live in a forest. I grew up under a spaghetti junction, and I moved dozens and dozens of times to new houses, cities, odd concrete places.

But it is not a bad thing to grow up without nature. Sure, country dwellers had their  blue tits and barn owls, but did they have a sky full of faces, towerblocks of them, and underpasses to sprint through?

I probably never look at a tree the way you look at a tree, if you grew up looking at trees.

I’ll never be a tree know-it-all or a birdwatcher. I’ll always be looking at all these big woody green things and feeling confused by all the tiny brains and eye-balls hurtling out of it, eating worms, putting eggs in trees. 

Where do you write? Are you the type of writer who needs the absolute silence of her home office or do you prefer to venture out to coffee shops where the sound of the espresso machine inspires you? 

As mentioned, I am writing this during the Flash Fiction Festival 2019. This morning I woke at 5.30am to the explosive flushing sounds of a British 1950’s plumbing system, next to my bedroom in the Student Halls of Residence, as 60 other writers flumped out of bed and bumbled around flushing toilets manically, as is the way of writers (it seems). So, I wrote for two hours, and that’s my writing for the day. Normally, I write wherever and wherever; in bed very early in the morning is my favourite but I’m ok anywhere. I love silence, and carry earplugs so I can block out music and chatter. I don’t have a desk, I don’t even have a specific house or city at the moment, I just need my laptop or my phone. I write a lot on my phone at 4am, when my brain is throwing out bat orchids and squirrels.

I had a dream a few weeks ago in which I wrote a novel first line so perfect – intelligent, witty, deep – I woke up laughing. I forced my self to write it down, and went back to sleep. It said “Barry drinks latte the proper way, with his toes.”

Even something as catastrophically disappointing as that can trigger a story – and it did, and I am writing it.

I think this is a very protracted way of saying I like napping, and dreaming, and that is my version of writing. I think any way to detatch yourself from the writery nature of writing is helpful, a special pen or desk or office would be a bad idea for me. I’d probably start writing like a grown up. I’d have to speak in iambic pentameter, and smoke a pipe, and flush toilets for hours at 5am like a proper Writer.

Issue Sixty-Four Playlist

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Looking for a soundtrack while you read the new stories in Issue 64? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.

Here is the playlist for Issue 64.

Read more about why our authors chose their songs:

 

Mary Kane, “Practice” – “No. 1 Green Street” by Grant Green

My song for the playlist is Grant Green “No. 1 Green Street.” It’s a song the characters in my story listen to often in the evenings. And the dog, who doesn’t exist, likes it too.

Brooke Randel, “Concepts Like Brian” – “Our Bodies” by Emil Landman

I love the upbeat rhythms of this song and almost-ethereal chorus. The dreaminess reminds me of how the narrator tries to keep things light between her and Dane. She doesn’t want to engage in anything heavy. The chorus repeats “our bodies will collide” in the future tense, showing nothing is happening yet. It’s all out of reach.

Krys Malcolm Belc, “My Body Double Begins the Whole 30 Diet” – “Pretty Pimpin” by Kurt Vile

This little weirdo of a song begins with the lyrics “I woke up this morning/Didn’t recognize the man in the mirror/Then I laughed and I said, “Oh silly me, that’s just me”” which pretty perfectly captures the bewildered feeling my protagonist often experiences acting, and existing, alongside his body double.

Jennifer Wortman, “In Darkest Sky” –  “Sway” by the Rolling Stones

At first glance, this story seems to warrant a trippier, more frantic song,
but “Sway” captures both the debauchery and the underlying tenderness of
the piece. Plus, it’s one of my favorite songs and pretty much all I
listened to for a while, including when “In Darkest Sky” was written.

Jen Julian, “Flyover” – “Black Heart” by Calexico

Like a classic prison ballad, this song tells the story of someone suffering at the hands of a higher authority: “One man’s righteousness is another man’s long haul.” It’s so heartland noir — creeping darkness mixed with a sense of surreal, lawless wonder, exactly the tone I was going for.

Jennifer Howard – “Flat Stanley trusts” – “Let Your Love Flow” by The Bellamy Brothers

I chose Let Your Love Flow because, unlike my story, it insists on
shameless joy without ever taking it back or getting clever, or nervous, or
over-explaining. I aspire to someday be comfortable with the dumb sincerity
of this perfect song.

Caits Meissner, “Shallow Water” – “Road” by Nick Drake

This album reminds me of cozying up in an arm chair, watching the mountains on rainy days in the town I spent my summers in. The music is raw and warm and intimate—I imagined my story into this location, this song in my character’s headphones.

Jake TS Wryte “The Space of a Decade” – “Wayfaring Stranger” by Johnny Cash

This song, especially the original, is one of my favorites because of its melody and also because it captures the very core of my beliefs. It is both a sad and hopeful song, and it works great to establish the tone and atmosphere I prefer when writing.

Lucas McMillan, “ESL” – “One More Cup of Coffee” by Bob Dylan

This song perfectly captures that bone-deep tiredness of wanting to stay somewhere, but knowing you can’t — just as the class in this story is scattered to the wind.

Max Hipp, “The Least Fucked Up People” – “Black Hearted Love” by PJ Harve &, John Parish

Though the song doesn’t have any influence on “The Least Fucked Up People,” it definitely taps the same jittery longing these characters are living in, that high lonesome vibe. Between the wailing guitars and PJ Harvey’s plaintive vocal lines, you’re swimming in the same pool of emotions. A side note: I play guitar but these guitars sound so incredible it makes me want to throw mine in the dumpster.

Claudia Monpere, “What I Wore” – “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel

“Hello darkness, my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again.” The opening lines of Simon and Garfunkel’s song, “The Sound of Silence,” speaks to the profound loneliness and loss experienced by Barbie, the character in “What I Wore.” As a child of the 60’s, she likely would have listened to this song. I like to think that it would have touched something in her.

Christopher Santantasio, “Viewfinder” – “TRIPWIRE” by Elvis Costello & The Roots

Musically, this song is an exquisite Frankenstein; fresh blood excites borrowed limbs. The lyrical content—as is the case with many of Costello’s songs—leaves me scratching my head a bit, but the struggle to make meaning is timeless and in this case, rewarding. I also love and admire Questlove’s delicately layered groove, which is drawn from one of Costello’s older songs, “Satellite,” a thematic companion to my story “Viewfinder.”

Liz Declan, “The House That Is Currently My Mother’s House (but Was Previously My Parents’ House and Will Soon Be a Stranger’s House) Is the Perfect Setting for Nightmares” – “Waving at You” by The Mountain Goats

I pick this one not just because I love The Mountain Goats (which I absolutely do) or because John Darnielle’s confessional style has been hugely influential on my writing (though it absolutely has), but also because the way this song plays with memory and the pain of memory and the need to overcome memory feels absolutely tied to “The House That Is Currently My Mother’s House” for me.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Matthew Vollmer

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The part of this gorgeous story that really sticks out is the narrator noting how Leon used to linger inside hugs and kisses, basically getting a little from his mom. As a storyteller, I do that all the time, adding the conflict (or counterargument) to any tale, even during a loving tribute. I can’t help it, can’t not add those moments. Why are we so fucked up like that?

Because if we’re writers who are interested in telling stories that ring true, then we’ll understand that a tribute isn’t worth much unless it contains at least a few flaws or transgressions. The most interesting things about people are often the ways in which they don’t conform to whatever molds have been prepared for them. I’m always interested in the ways characters hack their own codes. That’s part of the reason I’m so into the TV show Westworld. It’s all about sentient beings waking up to the stories they’ve been told about how the world works. The same thing often happens when you read a good story.

Another favorite moment here is you comparing Alzheimer’s to the icecaps melting and drowning our coasts. Can you do one for hypertension? Heart disease? Restless leg syndrome?

Hypertension: trending rage-Tweets

Heart disease: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Restless leg syndrome: a squirrel trapped in a paper bag

You invoke Denis Johnson in the first line, so I found myself comparing this to a Denis Johnson story the whole time. Pretty ballsy, setting yourself up like that.

Well, Denis Johnson wrote Jesus’ Son, which may be my favorite book of all time. That would make Denis Johnson my literary god. A kind of Christ figure. Which would make me Jesus’ Son—me and all the countless writers who also worship him.

In all seriousness, I think about that line—”the fear of the apocalypse is simply the fear of personal annihilation”—all the time, in part because I grew up in a denomination whose pastors preached every week about the impending Time of Trouble, where the members of my church would have to flee to the mountains in order to escape persecution, hiding out in caves until Jesus Christ returned in a cloud of angels. But it’s a line whose simplicity resonates, as nearly all of Johnson’s work does, with profundity. That’s what I love about it.

The corner store across from my house always had cap guns and those rolls of red caps. Your favorite cheap convenience store toy?

I grew up in a small town in southwestern North Carolina. Small convenience stores were basically all we had. My friend John and I would ride our bikes to a place called Cojo’s and buy Dr. Pepper gum, Little Debbies, Cokes, and G.I. Joe comic books. Does a comic book count as a toy? If not, I’d probably chose one of those cheap plastic knives with the retractable blade. I could stab myself in the legs and arms all day with one of those things.

Yet another theme in this story is that of ghosts, how our living can haunt us, perhaps even more than our dead. When you’re a ghost, how do you hope to haunt those you leave behind?

By rearranging my face, like the dead couple does in Beetlejuice. I think it would be cool to stretch my face out like Silly Putty and wear my plucked out eyes on my fingers. Or, if I’m invisible, by turning stereos way, way up and playing Sunn O)))’s new album Life Metal.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Krys Malcom Belc

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After the initial premise is introduced, “My Body Double Begins the Whole 30 Diet” begins to tackle themes such as family, work-life balance, and fear of the body itself with admirable dexterity and subtlety. Do you plan to approach certain themes before writing a story? Or do they naturally arise from the language and plot? How do you choose when to emphasize themes and when to subdue them? 

I don’t approach an individual story thematically, but as an entire body of essays and stories, my work is very concerned with how people reckon with others’ perceptions of their embodiment, and their body modification. As a trans person I’ve performed public acts of bodily defiance—pregnancy, hormone therapy, etc.—and have to reckon with a body that has an extra level of publicness and performance attached to it.

I’ve been writing about body doubles for a while. The center of the project is this narrator/protagonist. As an actor, he stands for something, and his double stands for him. The televised body is saying something in a heightened way the non-televised body isn’t, and spreading that tension among multiple bodies is like an exciting thought experiment that’s generated some fiction I’ve loved writing.

I’m really fascinated by television, almost awed by it as an art form. The way a good television show is its own engine and creates its own drama and comedy again and again, that inspires me. It challenges me. I want to be an engine. I love especially shows that center around one person, treating them both harshly and gently, often in the same episode. Shows like Fleabag and Insecure and One Mississippi and 30 Rock. Mining the personal for vaguely fictionalized comedy and drama, that’s my bag. Writing this sort of farcical fiction, I think it’s my way of coping with the taxing nature of memoir, which is what I usually write. The protagonist performs himself, or some fictionalized self, professionally, and I inserted the aspect of body doubles to up the zaniness and also this aspect of reflection—literal reflection, looking at another version of the self and having to reckon with that.

As the story builds, food serves as a metaphor or proxy for human connection. Salty popcorn and sweet snacks convey one kind of care while spinach and avocado convey another. In both instances, food might be a superficial shortcut to building sincere relationships—until we get to the hope and genuine effort behind making homemade avocado oil. What is your personal relationship to food and cooking? Do you use it to build community, to show love? Does food often appear as a dynamic in your writing? 

I’m obsessed with food, with eating, with cooking, and with consuming culture about eating and cooking. A lot of my writing concerns people cooking for each other, or for themselves. I grew up hovering over my mother in the kitchen and I cook essentially all the food everyone in my family consumes, but I also feel like that never would have happened had I not been assigned female at birth. Cooking is strange because as a profession, it is often dominated by hyper-masculine energy, but on the other hand, the dailyness of home cooking is so often part of the labor women perform in an unbalanced way. It’s an interesting site of gender collision.

I really enjoy the paragraph that describes Carson as “not a beautiful man to most.” Here the stakes are raised, the story is anchored, and the reader understands the narrator is in a Laconian conflict concerning his own place within mainstream beauty standards. What’s important about parsing mainstream beauty standards and understanding efforts at body transformation?

A lot of my work is aggressively for and about trans people. I’m speaking as a trans person to us, and if cis people vibe with it, that’s cool too. But there are some things that pervade all of our culture. The body fueled by kale is something most people have to reckon with, and it’s about able bodies and traditional white beauty standards and gender norms and class. Ultimately, many of the ways I move and project my body are influenced by the ways cis people move and project their own bodies. I’m fascinated with the ways people who modify their bodies are connected. I’ve been doing Crossfit for seven years, and I have a lot of conflicted thoughts about it, about this community that preaches discipline and rigidity to someone who … well let’s just say the candy and video games are an autobiographical element of the piece.

The sentences and storytelling here are succinct and deftly build texture in both thought and concrete details by expanding from and contracting back into the dominant concept. What drafting and polishing methods, do you use to create the effect of staying focused while blending in peripheral details that carefully change the nature of the story?

I write lots of flash prose and I think small-big-small is how most of my work turns out thematically. I always start with the small—okay, I’m going to write about two coworkers having lunch—and then build out into larger themes. Writing is theatrical for me. My early drafts are focused on the blocking and stage directions—the guys are on a break, one is eating a salad, they’re talking about avocado—and then I build in the deeper layers later. While I always know the basic actions people will do early on, I’m often surprised by where my characters take me with what they think about what is happening to them.

Without considering this one, what’s a story or essay are you most proud of?

Most of my published work is essays, so I always get extra amped about fiction publications. I’m really grateful to New Delta Review for publishing my first body-double story, “Notes for My Body Double.”

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Mary Kane

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What sparks a flash for you? Is it an image, an observation, a memory, something else?

I don’t think there’s any particular thing that sparks a flash for me. Writing is a practice for me, which means I often sit down without anything I intend to work on, and then things come up. Sometimes I open a book at random and read a few lines to see if that sparks something, and often, I pull in elements from my daily life, somewhat reimagined and somewhat straight, and build them into whatever I begin to write. Sometimes something happens—my husband is given a coat or my cat attacks my feet or I read a story in which a woman is thirsty, or I’m walking and I have a vision, and that becomes a starting point, but I never know where it’s going to go.

In your story “Practice,” the characters imagine lives other than the ones they’re living, yet the story is grounded in a scene. How do characters’ inner and outer lives shape your stories?

When I first read your question, I thought, well, in this story, I really just took a moment from my life and made it into a story, because I spend a lot of my life walking. Also, because my husband works outdoors, he usually has time off in the winter and then we walk together. But that’s not really all there is to it. In fact, I have an ongoing interest or preoccupation with this very thing you mention—the relationship between inner and outer lives. When I’m not walking or doing other required activities of living like working, I am often reading, and about five years ago I read Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans aloud with my friend Jill, with whom I have been reading aloud for twenty years. I love The Making of Americans; I mean I think I actually fell in love with that book. I may actually have swooned when reading it, and Gertrude Stein spends quite a bit of the book talking about the being inside of each of us, the qualities of that being inside one being living. Combined with my interest in Gaston Bachelard’s ideas about the poetics of space, Chekhov’s statement in “The Lady with the Pet Dog” that the personal lives of every individual are based on secrecy, and spiritual practice, reading Stein led me to what has become an ongoing exploration of imagining the dimensions and physical characteristics of our interior worlds.

But when I wrote “Practice,” I don’t think I was thinking about any of those things particularly.  Mainly, I was telling a story that came out of my interaction with my husband and had been reading The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, a book that I love and often go to for inspiration.

What other writers or writing do you turn to for inspiration?

Mary Ruefle, Anne Carson, Lydia Davis, Leo Tolstoy, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust, John Ashbery, Czeslaw Milosz, Haruki Murakami, Siri Hustvedt, Russell Edson, Clarice Lispector, W.S Merwin. I don’t know. So many more. I like to read.

You are also a poet who has two chapbooks and a full-length collection of poems. What relationship do you see between poetry and flash? How did you begin writing flash? In what genres do you feel most at home?

For years and years, I wrote only poetry, but the writers I really loved were those for whom categories didn’t seem that important or easily applied. And I also read a lot of fiction, non-fiction, prose poetry and am pretty deeply interested in visual arts. I remember when I first read Anne Carson’s Short Talks. I fell immediately in love with that book, sort of in the same way I did with Gertrude Stein. Because of these loves, in my writing practice, I think I just went ahead and wrote what I wanted to write and didn’t think too much about what it was or where it fit, whether it was a poem or a story or an essay.

But also, a few years ago, I joined a writing group and I was the only poet, and so I think I may have started leaning more towards flash, which is sort of the poem of story writing, because the writers in that group were more comfortable with fiction than poetry. Also, I remember the day I was Christmas shopping many years ago and was in Barnes & Noble when I came across Lydia Davis’s stories on a sale table. I didn’t know her work at the time, but I was attracted by the physical object of that book, so I picked it up. And I read the first page and ended up buying it for myself for Christmas. Another moment of falling in love. Because those stories are a lot like poems in their size, their compression, the delight they spark. I think, I guess that flash is for me the poetry of story writing, compact, a little bit strange, delightful, bite-sized. And as for me, I just like to write. I don’t really think about genre until it’s time to submit and I have to decide which category to submit under.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Lucas McMillan

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I’m interested in the origins of this story, as it seems a pertinent, yet underexposed, slice of the immigrant experience. How did you decide on the characters’ POVs?

I was an assistant instructor in an ESL class during the 2016 election. It didn’t come up in discussion at the time, but something seemed to shift in the atmosphere that fall. It felt almost funereal. The classroom (which was also in a church basement) took on the feel of a bunker, like a place under siege. I was enraged by the results of the election, like many people, but I was also heartbroken viewing it through the lens of the students. It felt to me like they had been betrayed, suckered into giving up everything to pursue a life in a country that didn’t even want them. That feeling of fear and uncertainty has never left me and it’s what inspired me to write this story.

As for the POV, a first-person collective was the only one that felt right. If I focused on one narrator, from a specific country, the story instantly becomes something else. For one, I did not want to depict the unique experience of an immigrant from Ukraine or Somalia or Mexico because I cannot (and would never attempt to) capture those experiences. It needed to be universal. Because the America of today is hostile to immigrants universally. 

There is little humor in the story unless we count the grim specifics of Twitter followers or the sarcasm waged by a departing Mr. Northrop. The story carries a very damning statement against opportunity in America. Why do you think it is important to tell these stories?

It’s definitely got a glass-half-empty message about where we are. It brings me no pleasure to feel that way, but I do, and I wanted to communicate that as directly and honestly as I could.

I don’t think we’re living in a time for irony. That’s a luxury for when things are going so well as a culture or a society that you almost feel an obligation to take the piss out of it. That’s not right now. Things are very bad, and it isn’t at all clear if we’re going to pull out of the skid. All we can do (if we’re writing about contemporary issues) is be sincere, empathetic, and say what we mean. The climate is too urgent to get obtuse about it.

The sense of rugged individualism that many Americans purport to be an ideal quality seems to divide this community of learners, impressing isolation and driving a wedge between instructor and class. Do you think this lapse in community was a failure on the teacher to reach the class?

I don’t believe it was Mr. Northrop’s failure, or any one individual’s. Failing at community is who we are. It’s sad, but it’s a very American thing to give up on the collective. So the dissolution of their group is what makes them part of this country, in the end. Because you’re right about our sense of individualism. As far as I know, we’re the only culture in the world that considers that a virtue, instead of the defect that it almost certainly is. 

The specter of Ayaan certainly haunts the decisions of the class long after he has disappeared to fight. The place seems to change for the experience of the learners. Still, I’m curious, what is on the handout for the learners on their last day?

No doubt something asking them to write about their pasts, where they came from, in English. Something well intentioned, but oblivious.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with C. Line Beston

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I was struck right away by the sense that there are a lot of “things within things” in this story: from the start, a phone call places us inside two kitchens at once, the narrator is both alone and in the company of another person, there’s a woman inside a painting inside a roadshow inside a television inside a living room inside a house full of things. Is this layering something you discovered and fostered as you crafted the piece? Is it a condition you like to explore in your work in general?

I like this question because it describes a pattern I didn’t consciously create! Patterns in writing interest me—they reveal so much about the writer’s psychology.

This story was originally part of a collection I wrote for my undergraduate thesis; one of the comments made about my work during the defense was, “so much of your work takes place inside people’s heads.” I’m a pretty internal person and I have a habit of making my characters think like me. Layering is a way of emphasizing all the things that are going on below the surface; what we see isn’t always the whole picture.

Speaking of “the whole picture,” the story’s unusual title seems to point the reader to the likelihood that the vivid artwork at the heart of this piece is a real painting—and that we’re watching what might be a real episode of Antiques Roadshow. Is it important to you that your readers know whether that’s the case? Do you feel the story will have a different impact on readers who look the painting up and those who do not?

This piece is based on a real clip from Antiques Roadshow I stumbled upon accidentally. The painting was so striking I knew I had to write about it. I think of this story in part as an Antiques Roadshow ekphrasis, and using the painting’s title is a way to give credit to the original work. I used some of the dialogue from the episode, but embellished other details from my own memories of watching the show as a kid. 

Image is integral to my writing. I struggle sometimes with the limitations of written work versus visual work; I want readers to see exactly what I describe in hopes it evokes the same emotional response in them as it does in me. Over the past year I’ve begun my first foray into filmmaking, which I think is motivated by this desire. I provide the title of the painting to encourage readers to look it up themselves, hoping those who see the painting understand its powerful unease. I tried to describe it as best I could, but I’ll never know how each reader will picture the painting themselves.

I’ll confess that I did look it up, and the fact that it’s a real painting made the fantastical moment when the lady turns even more haunting for me. The painter’s son waited sixty years and was never rewarded with even a passing glance. In your mind, is there a specific reason why the woman turns now? Or is that meant to remain a mystery?

While writing this story, I was thinking about families and the relationships between generations. I had elderly relatives who were very ill before their deaths, and this experience showed me that it’s not always the person who has done the most caretaking, or been there the most, who receives attention from their loved one. Dementia, illness, and fragility all throw social scripts and expectations out the window. Like the narrator, you can be thrust into a position where you are part of an exchange you didn’t expect that carries a deep emotional responsibility.

I don’t exactly know why the woman turns in this moment; for me, the important part of her turning isn’t that she faced the narrator—it’s that she never turned to the son, the person who wanted her the most. 

Yes—there’s something incredibly lonely in the son’s story, but also in the narrator’s, the grandmother’s, and, of course, in that red-headed woman’s gray-brushstroke eyes. It all feels very cinematic, so I’m not surprised to hear you’re venturing into filmmaking! Are you at a place where you could tell us something about your first project? How are you reconciling—or, I could say, joining—your attraction to the visual with your tendency to craft stories that happen “inside people’s heads”?

Currently I’m in post-production on my first film, a horror short inspired by internet urban legend. The main character completes a ritual and breaks one of the rules, and subsequently is haunted by a mysterious woman. Which I just realized sounds very similar to this story! More subconscious patterns. On a thematic level, the film is trying to address issues of trauma and repression. 

I’m attracted to genre—horror recently, but also fantasy and sci-fi—because of how genre elements can be used to externalize our mental states. The Shining is about a cursed hotel, but through the haunted setting it makes us feel the insidious and claustrophobic nature of an abusive marriage. Visually presenting someone’s emotional reality is a challenging task, but when done well can let an audience see through the layers and better understand a character’s experience.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Jen Julian

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How did you make me (a writer/reader who complains often about Magical Realism) love this story? 

Magic. :)

Even though it’s magical realism, this story keeps it real. How did you decide to write an ending so morally complicated and grim and, honestly, uncomfortable. 

Part of the joy and challenge of this piece was allowing its strange conceit to direct me into unexpected places. I kept asking myself how I could turn the story a new way by evoking an interesting image or surprising bit of language or a character contradiction. In that way, I tried to stay clear of anything that served to simplify things or flatten the magical nature of the conceit into some kind of abstract metaphor (even if a reader can see something metaphorical or familiar about the story). I tried to stay open to all possible directions the story could go. Then, at a certain point, I realized that what I found most interesting about the conceit was this kind of bland, matter-of-fact cruelty these people seemed to have toward the suffering of others, and their lack of interest in really understanding that suffering. Once I had that pinned, the narrator’s voice made sense to me, and the razor wire net compromise and all it implies seemed to fall into place.

This story treats everything, even the goriest details (blackberry cobbler) with an even, detached tone. Was this a purposeful move, to not have the narrator get too emotional?

I was definitely trying to convey a certain kind of person with the narrator, and that tone seemed to fit their perspective and values—they’re very practical, very uncurious. And I think that generates an extra dimension to a story, establishing tension between the horror of what’s happening and the coolness with which its being represented. In a weird way, that accentuates the horror, because it gives the sense of something fundamentally wrong, not just with the specific situation, but with the people in the story, their understanding of the world. It’s uncanny to have a sense of normalcy established around abnormal or disturbing events. A lot of my favorite authors do this so effectively. They make the contradiction work for them, and that’s a skill I’ve been trying to develop.

If this story were a pie chart, about 23 percent of the chart would be “The Versailles Joke,” and I love that. Was there ever a point in editing this story where you considered cutting the joke or replacing it with something less light/silly in order to, as a workshop might say, “create a consistency tone throughout the piece”? 

Haha. I admit I did enjoy including that joke. I don’t know if I put that much thought toward consistency, but this might again be me trying to hit that tonal tension. I also saw the joke as establishing a kind of context. I grew up in a small town in North Carolina, which had a very slow, casual, but very proud way of going about its business. And then I also lived in Missouri for five years, where I was in a moderate-sized city surrounded by these rural farming communities with names that evoked exotic locations very unlike Missouri—Mexico, Cairo (pronounce KAY-ro), and yes, there is a Ver-SAILS, MO. And then all that fit with the title, and the conceit of these people falling out of the sky, and the small-town sensibilities of the community. So there’s a lot of time dedicated to that silly exchange, sure, but I also see it pulling a lot of narrative and thematic weight. I didn’t consider cutting it.

Who’s your current Flash Fiction Hero(ine)? You get one.

Lydia Davis. I just really love her precision and her sense of humor.

Does your full length collection use magical realism in the way “Flyover” does? 

It does, but with different levels of strangeness throughout. There are a couple stories that could pass for something close to realism, and some that are quite bizarre, and some that veer into sf, near future stuff. I’ve found that the physical possibilities of non-realism let me access some interesting things I wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. It lets these core concerns and anxieties and longings come to the surface of a story indirectly. In this collection, there’s a lot about the breakdown of communication, losing people or losing a connection with them or failing to really understand what a connection means. And as a result, there are ghosts, characters literally disintegrating, robots and AI, apocalyptic threats. But even so, those are the elements that feel most normal. The surreality of something like grief or isolation or cruelty, or, on the flip side, the sublimity of a person’s love or resilience—that’s constant no matter what kind of world a story takes place in. That’s what I think non-realism illustrates so well.

What’s your favorite line in the story? Mine is: “We are proud of being kind.” 

I’m a little absurdly proud of “her body blood-purple like a smashed blackberry cobbler.” I fiddle with my prose a lot, especially certain images or similes, and this one just dropped into my brain out of nowhere and seemed ready to do the work. It was a lucky moment.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Chloe Vaughan

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Going into “Milk Money,” I was struck by its opening line. So, I’m interested to know: What is it that strikes—that moves—you to write certain stories? Are you moved mostly be certain images? By memory?

This isn’t always the case, but once in a while I’ll have a sudden inkling to jot down something, a line or a scene, and from there, I’ll try to formulate a story around it. For “Milk Money,” it just so happened to be the opening line. Other times it’s an image, or a scene from a TV show, or something that I read in the news—anything that spurs a bit of inspiration.

On that note, do you find that your stories appear fully-formed, or do they develop over time—and even surprise you—in the course of the writing?

In that way, I don’t usually have a fully formed story in my mind when I start the process. Sometimes just a beginning, or an end, or even just a line of dialogue and go from there. Sometimes it goes nowhere. Sometimes it goes in a completely different direction and changes so drastically that I end up cutting the very part I started with. The process is always full of surprises—I think it’s important not to fight them.

What about “Milk Money” in particular? What was the genesis of that?

For “Milk Money,” I was thinking about the way children can get certain ideas “stuck” in their heads, which, on the surface, can be attributed to the ignorance of childhood, but may actually contain something much deeper.

You slipped into the skin of childhood so precisely in your story—into that almost animal violence. Are there other stories, other books, that have struck you with their portrayal of this primal side of childhood?

I love children’s books where the narrator has a bit of omniscience and brings a nuanced perspective, while still maintaining the innocent, poignant naivety and quirkiness of childhood—without “talking down” to the child characters. Tuck Everlasting and Harriet the Spy come to mind, anything by E.B. White or Roald Dahl.

And—I’m always interested in this—do you have any particular writing rituals?

No particular writing rituals to speak of, although I’ve always found it easier to write creatively at night—much less forced than the morning. Easier to get my thoughts together at nighttime, it seems.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Claudia Monpere

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I’ll be honest, as a person who finds comfort in objects, “What I Wore” hit close to home. I especially loved your decision to utilize cataloging as the driving narrative structure. It is an exceptionally perfect choice for this narrative. Is structure (or playing with structure) a strong interest of yours, and if so how did you come to it?

I’m fascinated by all the different ways there are to tell the same story. And the structure helps shape so many elements: character, voice, plot. I began seriously playing with structure when I noticed it was generative for me; certain kinds of structures gave me new ideas or made my writing more compelling. The Barbie piece, for example, started out as a conventional narrative in a humorous—sometimes mocking—voice. But when I decided to use cataloguing it conjured a lot of images and backstory, and the voice was altered dramatically.

I love your decision to set a story in the Barbie Dream World, and I recognized some of those outfits. Did you play with or collect Barbies? What’s your relationship with the toys?

My sisters and I had lots of Barbies and delighted in their clothes and tiny accessories: sparkly sunglasses, pearls, wedge heels. I saw my mother as a kind of Barbie: tiny waist even after six children, long, slim legs, perfect make-up, a closet filled with fashionable clothes which she generously let us play with. We’d dress up in Mom’s silky nightgowns, her paisley dresses and vinyl boots, trying to match Barbie’s outfits. My mother had major mental health issues. I suspect my obsession with dolls was a way of creating an alternate world where Barbie did everything calmly and cheerfully. I remember how happy I was when I had Barbie prepare a huge Thanksgiving dinner on a day that I imagined filled with thunder and lightning and power outages—and Barbie pulled it off seamlessly. But as a teen, I saw Barbie as a trap, defining female lives in narrow, superficial ways. I did not save my Barbies. And through the process of writing this piece, I developed great compassion for this character as I probed the ways that the life I gave her mirrored so many ways girls’ and women’s lives have been restricted by convention.

So many of the images here resonate vividly. I am especially haunted by the image in the boy’s paintings, the “birds who flew kites shaped like people.” Can you talk a little bit about this image and its place in this story?

I wanted Barbie to be attracted to this boy because his paintings touched some quirky, creative parts of her which she hid.  I also wanted to convey a fresh image about flight. And finally, it was a nod to my mother, a wonderful artist whose surrealism I’m especially fond of. After she had a serious injury with pruning shears, she painted a piece with those tools turning into birds.

This piece says so much about womanhood to me. It feels like a time capsule of many of our lives, our whole lives, and so quickly. What is it about flash that makes it a good fit for this sort of span and reach?

A preoccupation with every single word ironically frees me to think expansively about characters and their lives. Much of what we write in early drafts is filler, necessary to discover the heart of a piece. But flash won’t tolerate filler—and it gets some of its power from the absence of information.

Do you collect anything?

No, although I’m fascinated by people who do, especially by the line between collecting and hoarding behavior. But my daughter will tell you I have way too many earrings!

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Brooke Randel

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The hidden depths that you create from the simple situation of overhearing neighbors fight is intriguing to me. How did you figure out where to put your characters to extract the full emotional depth of the story? 

I knew I wanted to leave a lot unsaid between the narrator and Dane. They’re weighed down by all the things they’re not talking about and yet, they’re still not really talking. The neighbors, on the other hand, are letting it rip. They’re angry, they’re loud, they’re going for the jugular. I loved the idea of using this contrast to deepen the characters’ silence and put their awkwardness on display. There’s a wall between the two couples, but it’s paper-thin compared to the wall between the narrator and Dane.

Does being a copywriter by day influence your creative writing? 

Definitely. With copywriting, there are limitations on visual space and time, meaning you have to be pithy. You have to pack a punch in every line. Naturally, this bleeds into my creative writing, too. I tend to write tight and leave as much as I can between the lines. I like giving the reader just enough. I also think a lot about voice. Tonality and voice are critical to me; even the best premises fall apart if the writing is flat. I think that way of thinking comes directly from my experiences in advertising. When you have limited space, you’re forced to get creative. You have to keep it interesting and keep it moving.

Your story uses repetition on a few occasions. These build in us the feeling of monotony and pointlessness of the characters’ exchange. It brings us closer to the story allowing us to experience how truly stuck they are. However, I find repetition to be a tricky beast. How do you know when to stop repeating? 

For me, it’s a musical thing. I listen to tell when the repetition resonates and when it’s just prattling on. Often, it comes down to whether the repetition serves a purpose. If it adds texture or tone, or colors a previous meaning, it can enrich the story and help the reader draw connections. If it’s only being used to hammer home a point, the repetition becomes tiring rather than rhythmic. Tricky beast definitely seems like the right term for it.

During the discussion* many of us, who are international students, found your story to be painfully relatable. What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with a concept like Brian? 

The challenge of long-distance is often the challenge of not splitting yourself in two. Your day-to-day life can feel so separate from your relationship that one can start to feel less real than the other. I have no idea how to avert this, but pretending everything is fine is probably not the way to go. Maybe have an open and honest conversation with your partner? Share how you feel? Something crazy like that?

The characters in your story struggle with their conversation losing meaning the moment they have to play game show host and ask “Where is it going?” If you were a game show host in your own life what kind of game show would it be, and why? 

I regularly host a game show called When Is the Bus Going to Get Here? where I stand at a bus stop and wonder how long the wait will be. The grand prize is a seat on the bus, if I’m lucky.

*”Concepts Like Brian” was chosen by the students of the Amsterdam University College creative writing program.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Jennifer Wortman

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The story is one very complex sentence! Few writers would dare such a thing. What inspired you to do it and what were some of the challenges involved?

My mind tends to spin long strings of thought, and sometimes it’s harder for me to write succinct sentences than a run-on like in this piece! So really, all I had to do was let my freak flag fly, in keeping with this freaky narrator, whose mind and body travel all over the place without anchor or pause. The long sentence attempts to capture the energy of the narrator’s experience rather than just describe it. The main challenge, of course, was maintaining clarity: I tried to make the sentence more digestible through judicious use of commas and the occasional em-dash.

You write both fiction and nonfiction. How do you decide what becomes which?

Fiction is my default mode. I mainly write full-on nonfiction when I feel I have no choice, when the only way to do the topic justice is through a “this really happened” framework. Usually I’m working out something that I can’t by other means: I try to bring that sense of discovery to the page. Nonfiction lends itself well to foregrounded ideas and themes, though fiction can foreground them too: some of my writing walks the line between fiction and nonfiction and what I end up calling it depends on whether it’s published as fiction or nonfiction. I never try to pass off blatant fiction as nonfiction, but I’ve definitely submitted nonfictionish pieces as fiction.

It strikes me that this brief story with its repeated images and condensed language has the feel of a poem. Is that by design?

The repeated images and condensed language are by design, but if my prose achieves the feel of a poem, that’s just a happy accident! Though I love poetry and occasionally write it, it’s not my forte. Still, I do invite a quasi-poetic sensibility into my prose. Especially with flash, I try to compress the language as much as I can. And in this piece, the repeated images serve as touchstones amid the mental chaos, and also, I think, impart an anxious obsessiveness.

This story is quite short, of course, around seven hundred words. Yet it does this wonderful, magical thing–it expands. There’s a sense of a history, of universes far beyond, of a world of experience. How did you create this effect?

This goes back to your first question: in allowing my mind to do its thing, to wander freely through my imagination and psyche, I was able to access more material than if I’d taken a linear, clipped approach. Too much interiority can enervate fiction, but I’m a big fan of interiority done well. When the mind goes deep enough, it also goes wide.

Memory—often sharp and specific, often vague and dreamlike—looms large here. In some ways, I’m reminded of Ishiguro, particularly The Unconsoled. What inspired “In Darkest Sky”? What’s the role of memory in this story?

“In Darkest Sky,” like many of my flashes, was inspired by a dream: I was in a hotel room, packing clothes in a paper bag, and the clothes kept disappearing inside it. The feeling of that dream stuck with me, so I took that central image and built a story around it.

The role of memory in “In Darkest Sky” is complex; I’m not sure I can unpack it (no pun intended). But there’s a connection between memory and identity, memory loss and rootlessness. For the narrator, memory is a trickster and a burden and a guide, embodied by the confounding yet comforting presence of the dead grandmother. And this narrator likes to flaunt her difficult relationship to memory: she performs it and, perhaps, hides behind it.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Jake TS Wryte

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You’re based in Africa. Tell us about life in the part of Africa—the “Darklands of Africa,” as you’ve called it—where you live. 

I’m back and forth between two areas and both fit my description of the Darklands. The first is city life, where, unfortunately, my writing is frequently interrupted by scheduled power cuts that can last anything from three to eight hours a day, sometimes daily, sometimes weekly. I’ve had entire weekends without power and with winter coming it’s bound to get worse. This is also one of the reasons I chose “Writing in Darkness” as my blog title (although I’ve made a habit of forgetting about my blog). The other area is a farming community. One of the farms, until recently, didn’t have any electricity. The owner had to pay to have special provisions made, and even now the house is still without power. Aside from that, I used to start working at five a.m. up until at least seven or eight p.m., although it often stretched on to eleven p.m., which meant I only got home after midnight and literally had to write in the dark.  

Are you part of a writing community? If you are, tell us why being part of a writing community is important to you. 

Yes, I am. By nature, I’m a very mysterious person (I’ve heard it so many times from people, I now believe it) and this transfers to my stories. The result is that my stories often end up being confusing because I’ve left out so many details that the reader has no way of figuring out what the story is about. My writing community is quick to point this out and I’m getting better at putting the crucial plot points and character development onto the page and writing stories that make more sense from the get-go. When I started out as a writer, I always got advice like “writing is a solitary act” and “you’ve got to do it all on your own”. Now I know better. Not only has my writing improved drastically, but I’ve also made new friends who share my interests, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Writers are always interested in how other writers hone their craft and what their processes are. Tell us where your stories come from and what types of stories inspire you.

I’m an empath, or as friends have jokingly suggested, I’ve got a wicked sixth sense. Being an empath (deeply experiencing the emotions of others, especially those who are nearby) coupled with my own past and experiences in general are what generate my stories. But the interesting thing is that those aren’t the catalysts. Those emotions and memories get filed in the sub-conscious or dream-space, which is why I rely, perhaps too much, on triggers. It could be anything: a picture, a character that comes to mind, a snippet of dialogue, but more often than not,it is a single line at random in a story I’m reading that sets off the spark. I usually have to drop whatever I’m doing and write instantly, otherwise I might lose the idea completely, although I have gotten better at retaining these ideas and mulling them over as I’ve grown as a writer. Another strange tendency I have is that I’ll often read outside of my genre. If I’m writing horror, I’ll read romance; if I’m writing fantasy I’ll read a thriller—that type of thing. Rarely do I read the genre I’m writing in at that moment.

I tend to be drawn to stories that have emotional resonance (no surprises there). I find speculative fiction is my favorite. I’ve recently made the switch from being a horror writer to speculative fiction and I love every moment of it.

When I read “The Space of a Decade,” I’d thought the writer was a woman. Tell us what inspired this piece and why write it in a female voice? Could this story be as impactful if it were narrated in a male voice?

Thank you. I’m very happy that the female voice was accurate and believable. I’m not sure what inspired “The Space of a Decade,” all I know is it was triggered by something I read in another story—which I also can’t remember since I had to drop everything immediately and start writing. For some reason, a strange relationship between two characters comes to mind.

I’m guessing that must’ve set me off. As for the voice, I didn’t purposely choose to write it from the female perspective. The story itself just demanded it and she was the character that “spoke” to me. If I’d written this from the male perspective, I think I would’ve lost all the emotion and impact in this piece since I would’ve focused too much on world building—I mean, where does he come from? But I couldn’t have written it from his perspective because up until the second final draft he didn’t so much as make a peep. It was only while editing that he revealed some lines of dialogue that shaped the entire backstory, which further strengthened the female voice and meant another rewrite.

What are you reading now and what are you working on next?

I’m currently reading two old thrillers (The Quiet Game and 24 Hours) and a dark urban fantasy (Finding Perdita).

Writingwise, I’m busy with three flash stories. One is a fantasy set in modern times, one a speculative piece I’m really enjoying since my MC is a strange one, and the latest one is definitely speculative, but I’m not sure if it’s leaning toward horror or mystery or something else entirely. I’m bound to find out.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Emily Dezurick-Badran

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“The Day of Small Things” is written from the perspective of a human who has a tremendous ability: To accept others as they are. The narrator says, “I think it’s necessary to love things the way you find them instead of how you wish they were.” Can you tell me more about this aspect of the narrator? How did it feel to write this character, and when did you start to understand this character’s extraordinary ability to see others? 

I should mention that in my mind the narrator is a woman, so I’ll use female pronouns (although the story leaves this open to interpretation!).

There are two answers to this question: one mechanical and one philosophical. The character originated from one of those happenstances during the writing process. I felt that I needed a line of dialogue, for the narrator to actually say something out loud in the opening paragraph, and what I typed was, “You’re doing fine.” And my immediate reaction was Oh, god, that’s an awful line of dialogue! Then I wondered whether there was any circumstance where that line would be more than a pablum phrase a doctor uses to get people to shut up. And I realized that someone who took what they were saying really seriously, and meant it very honestly, would be interesting, and give the line meaning. The story (in its present form) grew from that idea, as well as from my staunch rejection of binary ideas about morality and value, especially around the content of character and the human body in general.

The narrator has grown up in conditions that were both incredibly beneficial and also at times harmful (something that most people could say about their childhoods). That experience doesn’t fit popular narratives of self-improvement or addiction. Yet for the narrator, her mother’s influence was complex and she treasures many aspects of it, and it shapes her view of the world. She very much treasures the unacknowledged, the unseen, and the so-called unloveable aspects of life. And she finds her own way of living out this philosophy, even centering her profession around it.

I’m terribly fond of this character, but I also ache for her. She’s somewhat isolated by her habits of being. Like many fiction writers, even if the details of the story aren’t true to my life, the sentiments of the story often are. In this case I think the story is both tender and somewhat sad.

The narrator is an oncological radiologist who connects deeply with a patient named Sue. They share fruit and a secret: There are many layers of emotion and experience that come with illness, and not all are “bad.” What is your personal connection to this secret, if you have one?  

My mom did go through a course of radiology last year, so that was on my mind, but most of my personal experience is with mental illness. I’ve been afflicted (so to speak) with post-traumatic stress disorder, and at other times experienced depression, and grief. And what I’ve discovered is that for me, there are beneficial aspects to suffering. I sometimes have the feeling periods of suffering has allowed me to access special knowledge or secrets that otherwise would’ve remained hidden.

On the other hand, I don’t actively seek misery and wouldn’t encourage anyone else to. But when I find yourself in a situation of suffering, I’ve found that there’s often something to be learned, and surprisingly, there can be a pleasure to that education.

This story does a remarkable job of exploring the world without labeling experiences as “all good” or “all bad.” We see the narrator accept themselves as they chose a profession that they wanted, not one that their grandparents wanted. We see the narrator love their sister, their mother, and their grandparents, as they are—their anger, expectations, and addictions included. We see the narrator love Sue as she is—sick, recovering, honest, generous. We see the narrator understand death and life, expressing that even after death, love will exist. This love, to me, feels truly unconditional. It transcends something I cannot quite express in words, but maybe you can. Can you expand upon this type of love, the energy of it? 

“Unconditional love” is exactly right. Mostly I think this type of love has to do with with clearly perceiving life as it is, and accepting that it has taken that form. (This is different, in my view, from passively allowing anything to happen!) It’s a kind of love that looks directly and kindly at what is. It allows one to have a sense of humor about oneself and others as well, which is terribly useful. Of course I totally fail to see the world through this lens all the time. Luckily, I’m not alone in that failing! And sometimes I feel like, how could you not love other people, when we’re all navigating this weird shit show of a world?

The narrator says, “I tell Sue what my mom told me: that there are a million ways to worship this world.” How do you worship this world? 

I’m not an oncologist (or any kind of medical professional), but otherwise the philosophy the narrator lays out is one I cleave to pretty closely. I’m not particularly involved in any faith (both of my parents spurned the versions of Christianity they were raised with), so spirituality in my family has tended to arise from innate curiosity about the unknown elements of the universe around us rather than from any particular doctrine. I get a spiritual jones from thinking about particle physics, and also the span and scale of geological time, but also just from looking closely at all the things in the world that are nearby. I think I express a lot of my wonder through writing or drawing stories, too.

If you could tell the protagonist one thing, what would it be? 

I would tell her to relinquish a little control, to open herself to being loved the way she’s determined to love others. In certain ways, her life is very closed off to other people—she has designed it just so, perhaps as a prophylactic against more chaos. But she could probably share a lot of it with other people if she allowed herself to be more vulnerable.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Christopher Santantasio

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How did this flash story come about? And what was your process for guiding it to completion?

“Viewfinder” possesses a terribly mundane origin story: It began as a writing exercise for an MFA fiction workshop. My colleagues and I were asked to write a scene that depicted one of our own characters interacting with a character created by someone else in the class. This became the first draft of “Viewfinder,” which I initially titled “Photograph of an Assassination.” It turned out that my effort didn’t capture the spirit of the assignment—the characters don’t actually interact—but I was pleased enough with the result to keep working at it.

The more interesting aspect of my work on “Viewfinder” is how the “borrowed” character—the photojournalist—developed. My colleague’s photojournalist was the focus of a larger project grounded in the research she’d done on a real-life individual. What drew me to her excellent depiction of the character was not his biography, but the potential impact of his work at the individual level.  My colleague and I had a series of discussions, and we realized that my photojournalist had become someone altogether different. This small epiphany freed me to rethink some assumptions I’d made and the final draft came together. I learned that sometimes, what sparks a piece is far less important than what gets lit. 

I don’t often hear writers speak warmly about writing prompts or exercises, but I’m definitely a believer in trying a novel approach to generating material every so often. 

Your narrator and the eminent photojournalist are observers, perhaps to a fault. We writers are observers, too. What do you see as the benefits and risks to your characters and/or you in being an observer?

The observer is a bystander, one who, for any number of reasons, cannot intervene or refuses to do so. It is a safe role, in a sense—one that everyone has played at some point—but this safety comes with a heavy cost. Lately, the consequences of staying silent or turning a blind eye to injustice have personally become more concrete and urgent. What is my degree of culpability regarding, for example climate change?  How am I to confront the routine injustices occurring in civil society every day that don’t affect me directly? I know I’m not the only one asking these questions of themselves in 2019, but what matters is where these questions lead us.

When I think about the writer as bystander, I accept that a certain degree of distance may be required to depict reality with meaningful texture. Part of the work of being a writer in such a position, however, is understanding the ramifications of being on the outside looking in. It may mean recognizing that sometimes, it is privilege that allows us to possess such a vantage point in the first place.

Are there common themes running through most of your writing? And if so, what are they?

I’ve spent a great deal of time writing about trauma, specifically how the relationship to traumatic events changes over time. Nothing, really, can be forgotten or undone, but we do tend to change our perspective on things, for better or worse. I have a suspicion that a great portion of life is spent negotiating this tendency towards reframing, both internally and externally. 

My work is also shaped by my identities. I’m a gay, white, cis male, and this is a complicated intersection for me to navigate sometimes. I love writing stories that celebrate the majesty and mystery of queerness, and I’m also interested in portraying characters who are more than the sum of their parts. “Viewfinder,” for example, is light on concrete details about the narrator, but I think the reader knows everything they need to know.

When and how did you learn that language has power?

The act of setting thoughts down on paper has always grounded me in moments of freefall, but I started writing in earnest after I was assaulted in a random act of violence, about five years ago. My relationship to that event continues to change, and I’ll likely never know the full measure of how I was changed by it. I also don’t think I would be writing with this degree of urgency otherwise. 

I’m a writer who learned to love literature through the work of writers like Willa Cather, Hermann Hesse, Saul Bellow, and Kurt Vonnegut, but when I think of the power of language, I immediately consider the present. There is a staggering amount of great literature being produced right now! Writers like Christine Schutt, Hanif Abdurraqib, Elif Batuman, Garth Greenwell, Joy Williams, Marlon James—they not only remind me of the power of language, they demonstrate that this power may actually be infinite. 

What one thing that is important to you would you give up to become a better writer?

I’ve never thought about this before, but I wonder if I would be willing to give up music to become a better writer. I’m a classical musician, and I still teach lessons or play piano almost every day. But when I think about it, my voice is what I believe I have to offer the world, however small that contribution may be. If I knew that giving up the piano would make me a better writer—a writer who could truly change the world for the better—I would probably do it. 

What’s the last book you gave to someone? Why?

A few weeks ago, I gave a student my copy of Diane Williams’ Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty. In truth, I only parted with it because I had just bought a copy of her Collected Stories, which contains Vicky Swanky in its entirety. I passed it along because Diane Williams is one of the handful of writers whose work always brings me joy, and so I feel a duty to share her work whenever I can. Diane Williams’ stories requires effort, and the result of that effort is a boundless sense of wonder. Her writing causes me to reevaluate my own work, challenging my assumptions about literature at the molecular level. What a precious gift.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Jennifer A. Howard

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I’ve realized recently that I can’t remove my faults from my fantasies—my fantasies have to work with or around them. I think your Flat Stanley bears this, too.  How about you—are you you in your fantasies or are you the ideal you?

Imagining an ideal me is beyond my ability anymore, but ideal anythings are no fun anyway—in the world, on the page. Every writing project falls apart, like every fantasy, so why not lean into that from the get-go. My main tactic (as a writer and as a teacher) is to invent some tidy premise and then wait happily for everything to unravel.

I have to admit, I didn’t know enough about Flat Stanley when I first read your story to be qualified to ask you questions (despite making my son a Flat Stanley costume for school a few years ago). So, I read a lot of Flat Stanley this week. My question is: What is it about making obscure and profound literary references that makes academics feel so superior to regular people?

Hashtag not all academics. I feel superior to regular people by being a completist about my favorite Bachelorette podcasts and never saying girl when I mean woman. Oh wait—that’s how I feel superior to other academics.

If Flat Stanley were to connect with another beloved children’s book character, who would it be? What about non-children’s lit?

Right now I’m reading The Milkman by Anna Burns, set in 1970s Northern Ireland, and I’d love to give a Flat Stanley to every man in that book, and most of the women, too. Everybody needs a little paper kid who asks, “Wait, why is this the way we do things here?” Not to take to task that novel’s particular place or moment or those particular gender norms. I’m just saying that once we’re entrenched in any world, or story, it might be useful to be watched and questioned by a fragile outsider, a tourist who will report back to an eight-year-old person somewhere else.

In regards to the first half of the question: I feel bad that Flat Stanley is so often an unsavvy dolt in my stories. He needs a badass troublemaker friend who doesn’t fall for anything. Pippi Longstocking, maybe, or Lucy van Pelt.

In the end, this story is all about comfort, about reaching that point with a partner when the sheen has worn and the real relationship can start. I’ve known people who date around specifically to avoid this, keeping the sheen, never knowing anyone. Should I envy them or should they envy my monogamy?

To each their own, I guess, but I went to the dentist this morning and realized that after a few years my very shy hygienist is finally starting to get comfortable with me, chatty even, and this makes me consider moving to a whole new town. That is to say, the sheen people should definitely envy you.

Is Dumbledore gay?

Yes. All air signs are gay.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Liz Declan

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Your story has this incredible title that leads directly into the body of the text with a profound “but.” What made you decide to start the story this way?

I’ve always loved seeing this done with titles in poetry, and I’ve gotten increasingly interested in what makes something “just for poetry” … and if I can break those rules in prose (especially CNF). This isn’t to say it hasn’t been done–it absolutely has! But my question has always been: can *I* break those rules? I think a lot of my creative writing experience until recently was people telling me I couldn’t do something, was bad at doing something, wasn’t a writer, etc., so I’m only just now letting myself be playful. I’m also really in love with long (almost comically so) titles lately; I like that instead of being a summary or even a ‘teaser,’ my title is doing some really heavy lifting from the start!

You write so masterfully through multiple forms, from flash to poetry to creative non-fiction. What draws you to flash fiction, and why did flash feel like the right form for “The House That Is Currently My Mother’s House”?

(First: thank you!) If I’m entirely honest, most things start as nonfiction for me. I feel like I’m constantly walking around with all these memories—mostly bad but sometimes good—in my head, and if I can write them down, it will ease some of that pressure. Recently, I’ve been trying to channel that into fiction or flash fiction instead. While I need CNF in a lot of ways, I think I like fiction. It can be really excruciating to write through trauma that happened to me. It’s a little easier for me to write from a distance about something imagined, even if it shares elements with my own story, and that ease makes me more willing to be playful or exploratory in a way I often wouldn’t in CNF. That’s kind of what happened with “The House That Is Currently My Mother’s House”—there are a number of things in this story that someone could point to and say “aha! That’s about Liz!” but I wanted to take those bits and build a fictional story around them to play with what is true, what could be, and what different versions of this story might look like.

The story is written as a response to a character referred to as “you.” Can you tell me about the decision to use this “you” instead of a third-person he/him?

A lot of my writing has to do with trauma, and more often than not I leave the transgressor of that trauma unnamed. I’ve seen this in a lot of trauma writing, not just my own, but for me it has to do with: 1. Allowing me to avoid the name of a person who has done something horrible to me/others (which is always a difficult thing for me, even just in my day-to-day) and 2. Take away some of their power. Even in fiction, I like to do this; I don’t care so much about the abuser, anyway. It’s the victim/survivor I’m invested in, and it’s their story.

What is your dream writing project?

If my four-year-old would ever allow it, I’d really love to have memoir out someday. I think I’ve had a lot of weird things happen to me in only twenty-five years (married at 19, dentist pulled the wrong tooth, started a master’s degree with a two-month-old), and I also think a lot of my experiences could help others, too (bipolar, queer, single mom, domestic violence survivor, child sexual assault survivor). Selfishly, maybe, I also just want that for myself—writing has been really healing for me, and I’ve always fantasized about writing my whole life into a book and then feeling like I can move on into writing about something else now. It probably wouldn’t happen that way, but it’s my fantasy.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Max Hipp

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Your story “The Least Fucked Up People” seems to be about self-awareness (or lack thereof) and how human beings measure themselves against others, how they fool themselves into believing they are “just fine” because they aren’t as fucked up as other people. Can you talk a little about your inspiration for this piece? 

I know a lot of people who are in various stages of recovery, myself included, whether it’s from addiction, depression, or codependency, and many folks can’t quite kick their habits. Friends get lost in these illnesses because when you can’t get your mind right, it’s hard to see yourself clearly. Lots of denial. Sometimes the hardest thing, maybe the bravest thing you can do, is look within. Frank and the narrator are trying to work through their problems by deadening the symptoms. They can’t see the illness because it’s too deep.

A working title for this piece was “Grown-ass Men.” I’ve known a lot of grown-ass men who were their own worst enemies. Young people might not know any better, but older people sure as hell do. I don’t have an answer for how to help grown-ass men. They have to want to help themselves. I’ve got it in my head, though, that fiction can do wondrous things. In a story, you can remake the world. You can bring the dead back and talk to them.

I love what you’re saying here, “that fiction can do wondrous things.” By sharing what we’ve learned about life, we might shine a little light through our stories. How long have you been writing and publishing? What has been the most difficult thing to learn about the craft?

I’ve been writing for about a decade and a half, collecting so many rejections that I’ve grown tenacious and too dumb to quit. In the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to place pieces I’m proud of, in the journals I like to read, which feels pretty good.

The most difficult thing for me about the craft has been how to get to the heart, the emotional center of the story. Part of that means responding to the piece and figuring out what it needs to be. I still feel like a beginner every time I sit down to work on a new story. Each one has its own inner logic.

I love the way you talk about heart. Sometimes the emotional touchstone of a story gets lost in the mix, and while the writer senses something is wrong, he or she can’t figure out what it is. Who are the writers who have touched your heart? 

Gay, this question is giving me a panic attack. I admire so many writers, I’m picking the first three that come to mind. I admire many writers even in other genres, like music. There’s this Leonard Cohen song where the voice of the song, instead of saying his children were born, says, “My son and my daughter climbed out of the water.” Holy shit that’s good! With one line, Cohen can make the known world strange and the strange world known.

A more recent find for me is Lucia Berlin. There’s a story in Manual for Cleaning Women set in a fishing village in Mexico. This scuba diver/fisherman is sitting at a table next to a couple changing a baby and it pees on the table. The diver wipes the pee off the table with his hand and runs it through his hair. That kind of characterizing action is exactly right for the story, because why would a man who makes his living diving into the ocean care about baby piss in his hair? Those moments fasten the reader into your story.

And Barry Hannah for his ability to hit all registers from the vulgar to the sublime. For that wild yearning voice. For teaching us how to howl.

Pretend you are holding a magic fountain pen and you could choose exactly what your future writing life would look like. What would you ask for? What kinds of books would you have in the window of the bookstore? What would your words say to the human condition? What would you hope to write about next?

If someone gave me a magic fountain pen I’d immediately lose it, but I’m hoping my future writing life includes lots of good people talking about why some stories aren’t working and why other ones are. It’s similar to my present writing life, but I’ve stepped up production and have more stories finished and out in the world.

My favorite books all say something about the human condition and do so by presenting characters as living, complicated humans on the page. I don’t know what exactly those books say about the human condition, but they’ve helped me feel less alone and more connected when so much in our existence works to make us feel separate from each other, disconnected from the earth, and even our own bodies. If I’m able to write books that help readers feel more human and rooted in their lives, anything close to what good stories, novels, songs, poems, and films have done for me, I’ll consider it a win.

SmokeLong Flash Fiction Workshop — London, July 6th

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Continuing our tour of the UK, SmokeLong is thrilled to announce our workshops in London. That’s right: not one, but two! On July 6th, we’ll be offering a three-hour morning session on writing compelling flash fiction and a three-hour afternoon session on editing flash fiction.

Join Co-Editor-in-Chief of SmokeLong Quarterly, Christopher Allen, and Submissions Editor Helen Rye for the morning or afternoon session–or both!

Prices:

£50 — One session (please specify morning or afternoon)

£80 — Full day (morning AND afternoon)

Secure Place via PayPal to editors@smokelong.com

Or, if you do not use PayPal, pay on July 6th but please reserve your place via email to callen@smokelong.com by June 27th. For any other questions concerning the workshop, please use the same email address.

Writers on a Low Income:

We are offering 3 half-price places for writers on a low income. Please contact me at callen@smokelong.com.

The venue is accessible, and the organisation providing the venue is an inclusive community that supports all genders. They also give a portion of their room hire proceeds to help homeless people in their area.

Venue Address: 

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

235 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, WC2H 8EP

Nearest Tube: Tottenham Court Road.

Parking: There is limited on-street parking (metered), or the nearest NCP is in Drury Lane.

https://www.bloomsbury.org.uk/

See you in London!

Christopher

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Caits Meissner

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I’ve been a little obsessed with your work since discovering you with this piece. It looks to me like “Shallow Water” features some motifs that recur in your poems. Am I right in noticing that birds are a thing for you? What is it about birds that speak to you?

First of all: Wow! Thank you. You know, I didn’t realize the bird motif until my friend and fellow poet Kathy Engel pointed it out recently. I always thought birds were a cliché metaphor, too easy for a writer, so I was disappointed I hadn’t noticed it myself and worked out of the habit. But also, of course birds! They represent freedom, they live both in our grounded world and in the sky, they have feet that look like dinosaurs—they are descendants of dinosaurs! They seem somehow to live in both the past and the future simultaneously and defy time.

It’s clear to me that you’re trying to have a whole different kind of conversation through your writing, and hybrid forms are part of that. What is your approach to form? How do you know what should be what?

Intuition, of course, but also, likely by project. As a teenager I made zines and drew no boundary between multi-genre writing, layout and drawing. As an adult, I still struggle with having work that spans modes of expression—is it allowed? I’m looking back to fifteen-year-old me for inspiration and courage to just make what I want to make. Right now, I’ve been illustrating “Pep Talks For Broke(n) People,” which are tender and sincere pieces of writing that aren’t exactly poems, but not exactly stories or prose. They are often sweet, and I think the drawings aid their delivery. I’ve always felt my drawings were cute to the point of detriment, so that also must influence how I decide to pair with words. I might one day get the guts to experiment with drawing more intense, darker subjects, too. Otherwise: Poems are still my go-to, essays stress me out (but I’m interested in the challenge), and I am very excited to be experimenting with fiction—my first love as a reader—dipping my toe into a genre that frightens and excites me with its possibility and depth.

I see that you have taught writing in prisons. What draws you to those students?

I don’t teach anymore, though through my current full-time job, I work with writers in prison, and writers confronting mass incarceration. All day every day, that’s my focus. Though I would have told you for social justice reasons at the time, I think I was also initially drawn to the experience because it felt extreme and hidden. I knew, logically, that people behind the walls were just people, but I’d been taught my whole life by media and our culture of morality that if you’re in jail, you’re just a bad person. There was intrigue and a challenge and frankly, I was invited to do it and said yes.

Of course, my motivations quickly evolved. Though I went in already very politicized, I saw the broken system up close. I saw human rights violations. I already knew the system grotesquely disproportionally targets boys and men of color, particularly Black and brown men. I felt a heightened state of humanity—negative, of course, but more shockingly, such lucid moments of positive connection, talent, and intelligence that insisted in the face of a brutal environment. I met people who’ve touched my heart very deeply, and heard stories that have rocked me to my core. I understood, on a more embodied level, that this system does not help deter crime, nor support victims, nor help heal the root causes of crime, nor support the individual who has caused harm in making amends or living a different life. It has drawn me into a complex conversation with myself on what it means to be human, and how we reconcile with violence on personal, interpersonal, communal and systemic levels.

Now I’m thinking about how we create literary community through the walls, how we can create space for writers in prison to expansive in identity (and not stigmatized into “prison writer”), and how to use writing as advocacy. I call our work “connective versus charitable.” It’s impossible to keep this answer short, so we must get a coffee sometime and talk more.

This journal has gotten away from its origins a little bit, but its founding purpose was to feature work that was about a smoke, one cigarette’s worth of contemplative silence, long. If you had about that long to think about any subject, what would your mind move to? 

I have to say for my mom’s sake that I’m gonna swap this question’s language to coffee break! Truth is, I usually think about myself or something connected to my upset, worries, wants, to-do’s. This answer is so boring that I hope it helps me pause in the future and reroute my thinking towards how incredible it is that there are such a thing as blue whales. Which I do think of quite often. Lately I’ve been amazed by how electrons change their behavior when being observed, wondering how animal communities enact concepts of justice (or if they do at all) and how plants communicate. This is also the content of some of my recent poems—spoiler alert!

Writing really sucks sometimes—like, it literally sucks at one’s energy, spirit, happiness. Is it that way for you, too? I’m wondering if we’re kindred spirits in this way.

Sometimes I find writing a drag, but I have so little time to write that sneaking it in feels extremely pleasurable, especially prose. I never imagined myself to be someone who writes on their phone, but I do, in the notes, whole stories. I edit in there. I write on the train, walking down the street, right before I fall asleep. The Google Drive app makes my whole works-in-progress catalog instantly accessible from anywhere I am, which I’ve never thought about until now, but how incredible! I’m obsessed, really, with writing (and I consider reading part of writing, too), and wish I could do it for much longer stretches at a time. It gives me energy, supports my happiness and makes my spirit feel plugged in and alive. If I had more time to write maybe it would go back to being a chore? But I hope not.

“Like Some Gigantic Shining Pearl”: An Interview With Guest Reader Lori Sambol Brody

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What themes do you find yourself frequently writing about? What themes are you drawn to when reading?

I find myself writing about motherhood, the relationship of mothers and daughters, and what I can usually categorize as coming-of-age stories.  Stories about the dangers of being a girl and a woman in this world.  These are also the themes I’m drawn to when choosing a book to read.

I’m currently working on a flash novella about the women who support superheroes, trying to upend the cliches and tropes.

Where do you write?

I write anywhere I can when I find time: early at work when no one else is in, in the car as I wait to pick my daughter up from ballet, at home hiding from the kids in my bedroom or in my home office.

What is one thing you love about writing flash fiction?

I love the flexibility and structure of flash fiction. I know this sounds contradictory. You think immediately of the restrictions when writing flash fiction – that you need to adhere to a certain word count, shrink the story to its core, have some sort of movement if not a complete arc, have an emotional impact, and make sure that each detail and each line of dialogue can justify its reason for being there. But there’s a wildness and freedom in writing flash also. You can jettison a traditional element of a short story (no dialogue, no setting), use elements of poetry like repetition and cadence that would not work in a longer story, write it in fragments or one dense paragraph. A tension always between structure and freedom. I guess that’s how I write flash fiction: I chew on an idea for a while, coming up with a first line, some sort of arc, a last line. This could be over a space of weeks, or just a day, thinking of the story as I drive or as I wash dishes or put the kids’ lunches together. And then I write wild: I scrawl a draft in longhand or type on the computer, a run-on sentence in one paragraph that can last for pages.

Editing is another subject entirely.

What kind of story would you love to see in the queue this week?

A story that gives me the feels, that makes me shiver at the end, that makes me want to cry, that makes me want to sit back and hold the last image in my mind like some gigantic shining pearl.

And something double-spaced.

 

An Interview with Tony Huang, Guest Editor and Translator for Chinese

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Tony, thank you so much for choosing a story in Chinese for SmokeLong Quarterly‘s Global Flash Series. What kind of story will you be looking for?

I’m honored to join this literary program and to help pick a story that is originally written in Chinese. As to the kind of story I’m looking for, there are actually very few requirements and I would like to give our contributors complete freedom to create their own stories. Our contributors do need to pay attention to the maximum length of their work, though. Since the Global Flash Series publishes flash fiction up to the equivalent of 600 English words, the maximum length of the stories we are looking for should be shorter than 900 words in Chinese, which is much shorter than the maximum length (1,500 Chinese words or so) conventionally set for flash fiction in China.

Give our readers, who may not be familiar with Chinese literature, an idea of current trends in Chinese writing, especially flash-length writing. 

Like the literature in any other country, current Chinese literature is so diverse in its forms and contents. There are still a lot of people who are writing the kind of poetry you may find prevalent in Tang and Song dynasty, a kind of poetry which is still regarded by many today as the highest form of art, especially when it is combined with Chinese calligraphy. However, there are also people who are experimenting with all possible forms of modern prosody and they gain equally wide readership. In terms of fiction, it is true that the kind of avant-garde, modernist, and experimental writing survives the 1980s and is still living today, but we see more and more writers tend to have an extremely realistic, and at times critical, look at the new problems and moral dilemmas that pop up every day as the society together with its economy pushes violently ahead.

In China, flash fiction started roughly in the 1980s and is still evolving and thriving today. For a long time, flash fiction has been taken by many writers as a convenient, and yet powerful, tool to satirize the ills of the society, especially the bureaucracy of  many government agencies. Its language is often humorous, poignant, or bitter. However, flash fiction tends to adopt a new dimension, and thus a new look, by looking inside, rather than merely outside, when it gets into the new millennium. It is still a flash, or a segment, of life, but it tends to offer its readers a prism to observe the many colors of life and living that are otherwise invisible to modern people’s baffled and imperceptive eyes. It is less angry, but it challenges its readers even more.

We may have mentioned this when we spoke in Portland, but did you know that SmokeLong Quarterly apparently took its name from the Chinese phrase that describes how long it takes to read a piece of flash fiction? When I was in Hong Kong last year I did some research with friend and editor Nicolette Wong. We found a song that refers to this idea but nothing else really. I wonder if anyone in China actually uses this term to refer to flash fiction.

This is very interesting! I remember you talked about this when we were at AWP Portland. I also found two Chinese songs that sing about what will happen within the time of a cigaret. However, I fail to find anyone in China who is referring to flash fiction as “a-cigaret-long-story.” Sometimes people here do call flash fiction by the time it takes for them to finish reading a story though. We may find flash fiction is also referred to as “one-minute-story,” “four-minute-story,” or “five-minute-story” in some Chinese publications both in and out of China.

You are the founding editor of The Hong Kong Review. I love everything about your mission statement. Could you tell us more about the journal?

Thank you for your good words and your interest in The Hong Kong Review. The idea to establish an international literary journal was rooted in my experience in running a student magazine when I was in my high school. It is also related to my experience teaching literature at university and my concern about how a lot of academic literary criticism is writing about literature. I realize how easy it is for modern readers to be distracted by different kinds of screens, big or small. I feel suspicious about some current literary criticism that is published in academic journals here and I doubt if this kind of critical practice is really benefiting literature in general. I also feel alarmed to see the rise of irrational nationalism and the many walls that may threaten human communication and understanding. The mission statement I put on our website is my response to these challenges and I hope The Hong Kong Review can be a very effective venue for international literary community to fight against these challenges as well.

The Hong Kong Review publishes short stories, novellas, excerpts of novels, poems, creative nonfiction, critical essays, translations of poetry or short prose, and pictures of artwork. In our first two issues we are so honored to be home to work of Carl Phillips, Jane McCafferty, Natalie Shapero, Hugh Sheehy, Sheng Keyi, Karin Lin-Greenberg, Rachel Heng, Anjanette Delgado, Maaz Bin Bilal, Andrew Grace, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Maggie Smith, K. Scrilata and many others. And we are very proud that our first two issues have been sold to more than 14 countries and regions in the world. Our third issue will be out in June, and we will have a novella issue in September.

Finally, what is the literary community like in China? One of the goals of SmokeLong’s Global Flash Series is to engage with writing communities the Anglo-centred lit world doesn’t often enough have access to. 

Again the literary community in China is a very diverse and vibrant one. However, if we look more closely at the community, it seems that there is a dim line that divides the community roughly into two groups. One group of the writers belong to a certain writers’ association that is sponsored by governmental funds. The other group of writers are more independent, in terms of their writing and their financial resources.

From the Chinese writers I know, they are pretty open to the world outside and they are eager to share their work with international readers. I’m very glad to see the initiative that has been taken by SmokeLong’s Global Flash Series and I think The Hong Kong Review can be a very good partner that SmokeLong can work with to bring international literary community closer together.

Submit HERE.

_____________________________________

Tony Huang is the founding editor of The Hong Kong Review, an international literary journal that is based in Hong Kong and Tianjin, China. He is also the founder of Metacircle Fellowship, Metacircle (Hong Kong) Culture and Education Co., Ltd. and Metaeducation. His poems and translation have appeared in The Hong Kong Review, Tianjin Daily, Binhai Times, Nankai Journal, Large Ocean Poetry Quarterly and other places. He teaches British and American literature and literary theories at Nankai University.

Christopher Allen is a translator, freelance editor and the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press). Allen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Best Small Fictions 2019[PANK], Indiana Review, Split Lip Magazine, Longleaf Review and others. He is the co-editor of SmokeLong Quarterly and the curator of SmokeLong’s Global Flash Series.

Editor’s Choice Week: An Interview With Helen Rye

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The story from this week’s submissions will be selected by a member of our editorial staff. All stories submitted June 3-9 will be read by Helen Rye.

Helen is a submissions editor at SmokeLong. While one of our newest additions to the staff, she’s already proven herself to be invaluable, and her keen editorial eye has helped us spot some of our very favorite stories over the past year. Did we mention she’s also an amazing, award-winning flash fiction writer herself? Find out more about Helen here.

Themes/topics/styles I am drawn to: Something quirky, playful, maybe a bit odd, with some kind of emotional resonance. Or something devastating and delicately done that will break my heart every time I read it (Margo). I like magic realism, I like raw, heart-shredding realism, I like stark, clean language, I like eccentric, creative language. I like dogs and strange animals and particle physics and trees. I have pretty eclectic tastes. I’d love to read something I haven’t seen before, something that makes me feel something about life. I love finding the unicorn stories among all the sleek, thoroughbred horses – stories fresh from the wild heart of the forest, with blood and glitter on their muzzle. Not an actual unicorn story. Maybe an actual unicorn story. Maybe something that stands out because it’s so achingly, gutwrenchingly real. Try me.

Deal-breakers in flash: Writing that is overly wordy. Stereotyping of people. Stories that don’t feel authentic or that lack heart. Weird things happening for no compelling reason within the context of the story (if a character turns into a sea turtle or grows unexpected new body parts, I want to feel something in connection with that transformation). Stories that make me feel lectured at.

A story I LOVE: “Bone” by Didi Wood in SmokeLong Quarterly

A story I have written: “What The Unicorns Saw” in Atticus Review

Flash Fiction Retreats with Kathy Fish and Nancy Stohlman

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For the last few months, I’ve been traveling around, bumping into SmokeLong contributors  and editors, doing workshops and readings. Recently, I had the opportunity to share a glass of vino with flash fiction gurus Kathy Fish and Nancy Stohlman, along with their flash fiction retreat participants in Casperia, Italy. At a palace of course. I’ve asked them to share a few words about their retreats and what makes them so amazing.

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Both Nancy and you are seasoned workshop leaders. Why did you decide to branch out into offering retreats? What can you do at a retreat that you can’t do in an online workshop?

(Kathy): We do both have a lot of online instruction under our belts, but saw offering retreats as a way of combining our love of travel and our desire to teach and inspire in a cool, innovative way. We also quite liked the idea of making the retreats specific to flash fiction!

I think there’s a real sense of communing that comes from sharing the same physical space with other writers. Eating and drinking and laughing together. Everyone experiencing something new and interesting and beautiful together. And this of course you can’t achieve online.

Also, we’ve found it really sparks creativity to literally get out of one’s comfort zone and into a new place. It’s why we’re always looking to find beautiful / unique / exotic / inspiring places to hold our retreats.

Your latest retreat was at Palazzo Forani in Casperia, Italy. I just happened to be in the area on your free day, so I popped by and had lunch with you and your keen participants. We did a lot of eating and drinking. But what does a typical retreat day entail?

(Nancy): Well, in Italy every day involved a lot of eating and drinking! But seriously, every location and every retreat has its own personality. The things that stay consistent is the general workshop schedule—most days we have a morning session with Kathy that is mostly generative and an afternoon session with me (Nancy) that focuses on revision and workshopping. We also have a final night “salon” where we all dress up and drink (more) wine and read our work. The salon ends up being one of our favorite parts and to prep for that I’ve been offering a performance class on the last day instead of a regular workshop session. So ideally by the end of the retreat participants write some new stuff, revise some old stuff, and read their work in public. You came on our free day (normally we will only have free half days) where participants can explore, take an extra long nap or dive more deeply into their writing. It IS a retreat after all—we want people resting and rejuvenating, not exhausted from classes all day.

But within that framework each retreat develops its own flavor. In Costa Rica we used the metaphor of the jungle as we designed our classes: “wild” writing, birdsong repetition, taking a machete to the overgrowth, etc. Last year in the high mountains of Colorado we were “mining” for silver and gold in our work; in Italy were drawing inspiration from the Italian Renaissance. We want our retreats to reflect and engage with the location. In Italy we were staying in a very old palace (palazzo) with all its creepy/romantic charm and Kathy did a special “ghost writing” session. In Costa Rica we were/will be staying in screened cabinas open to the tropical air and all the sounds of nature. In Grand Lake we will be in a big mountain lodge (think wood burning stove) overlooking a mountain lake.

One thing that remains consistent is that by the end of the week we have all bonded in a special way—writing partners and friendships that will last a lifetime.

Your next retreat in Colorado is almost sold out, but are there still places for that one? I see Randall Brown will be making an appearance. I could listen to him talk about flash fiction all day.

(Kathy): As of this writing, there’s actually one room still available for our Grand Lake retreat so if anyone out there has been considering this they ought to jump in now! Nancy and I are very excited that Randall will be lending his expertise to this retreat, yes.

In 2020 you’re going back to Costa Rica. How do you choose your retreat destinations?

(Nancy): Yes! We loved Peace Retreat and how comfortable the staff made us feel while also leaving us to our work (the whole staff attended our final night salon.). So we’re excited about returning and of course it will be easier for us because we’ll know what to expect this time. For instance, we will know that the howler monkeys sound like crazy screaming ladies in the jungle (but good luck actually seeing one!) and that you really can eat bananas in every form: fried, cold, mashed, grilled, and that the (optional) yoga at 7 am is actually a lovely way to wake up! And the Peace Retreat staff will be prepared for how much coffee writers drink—ha! Because so much of our planning is an (exciting) shot in the dark—language barriers, currency conversions, and scouring photos to make sure we know what we’re getting ourselves into. And even then there are unknown elements—that’s part of the fun.

How do we decide where we are going? Like this: “Hey Kathy, where have you always wanted to go next?” Ha. No really, it’s half dreaming and half pragmatism. We start with our wish list and then we study, search, scratch out, study, search and scratch out again until we find the right place. We are of course looking for special locations—we aren’t interested in the resort experience, we are writers after all, we love the unique/gritty/beautiful and are ultimately looking for places that will inspire writing. Because the bottom line is that we’re aren’t a travel service, we are just fellow writers and teachers who want to spend time with other writers in beautiful, remote, inspiring places. Places that are simple and affordable and will get people writing, writing, writing. It’s easy to get distracted from writing when there are too many frills…and most people have no problem being distracted. The point is to focus.

A peek at our wish list for future retreats? Iceland (northern lights), French countryside, Bali (to be close to the Australians!), Norway, Portugal, Scotland, Nepal, Spain, Puerto Rico…any you want to add or vote for?? We are trying to decide for summer 2020 now (wink).

What are your approaches to workshopping flash fiction? On the flash fiction retreats website, you mention one-on-one mentoring. How does that work?

(Nancy): The one-on-one sessions are one of my favorite parts of the retreat. Every participant gets 1 session with each of us (length depends on how many days we have) and so many things can happen in those sessions. I approach them as creative coaching sessions (which I rarely get the luxury to do in person). Often a writer will come with a story in progress and we will focus the session on that. But that time can also be used to talk through an idea—I’ve seen many a-ha! moments happen just from talking out an idea and bouncing it off another writer. As writers this is so important but it’s not always easy to find the right eyes/ears at the right time. Other sessions I’ve had include discussions of publishing, uncovering creative blocks, or just the writing life in general. The writers lead the sessions so they can use them in any way that suits them and their work best.

Workshopping—The editing process in general is one of my favorite parts. One very important component is to know what phase of the writing process a particular piece is in—a freshly written piece probably isn’t ready for critique and neither is the author. During the retreat I lead group workshop sessions but we look at stories written before the retreat, stories that have had time to grow and mature on their own, first.

My approach is mostly intuitive—I’ve been an editor since 2004, so I can quickly home in on what is working and where the story has hit a snag. But I find that the group has a lot of wisdom, so my workshops ultimately become a group brainstorm session that I facilitate.  That said, no one leaves any workshop I lead feeling torn down—it’s always about lifting one another up to create the strongest piece possible, and I believe that we learn as much by helping others as we do by workshopping our own pieces (and I always recommend revisiting one’s own piece after workshopping others as you will be wearing the correct “editor’s hat”).  Each day I will bring “tools” to the class, different aspects and approaches to the creative revision process, but ultimately the work on the table that day decides the focus of the session. Every piece needs something different; there is never just one formula that works for all.

(Kathy): Nancy covered what we do in our one-on-one sessions really well. And as to the teaching sessions, I run the generative ones and in these I like to focus on particular aspects of writing in general and flash specifically. My teaching philosophy is aimed at inspiring writers to find ways into their own material. I think a lot of writers come to retreats in order to break out of a rut or overcome a block, so a good deal of my sessions is focused on strategies for awakening creativity.

And I do like prompts for getting one going, but one can google “writing prompts” and have enough of those at their disposal to last the rest of their days. Also these tend to be one-offs, whereas my prompts and exercises are designed such that they can be used again and again. For instance, I have writers use mind-mapping exercises to create their own word banks and so forth.

I also like to delve into areas not usually covered in typical flash fiction workshops, such as using poetic devices to create more musical prose, use of time and narrative speed, and exercises aimed at going deeper into the revision process.

Each session, I give time for free writing and writing to an exercise aimed at building on the lesson. I have been absolutely amazed at the beauty and depth of the work produced in the generative sessions.

Anything else you want to add?

(Nancy): Working with Kathy is so easy and rewarding—I think a big part of what makes this endeavor work well is that the two of us bring different but complementary/overlapping skills and strengths to the table and we are both really loving this crazy creation! Finding a good working partnership is crucial. But finding the right project is key: For me, there is nothing more rewarding than when someone says: “Yes! I’m finally going to give myself and my writing a gift I’ve always dreamed about.”

Out in the world Kathy talks a lot about being a good literary citizen. The idea that it’s important to lift each other up—writing can be hard and writing for a living even harder. So in a way our retreats feel like a gift we can offer to writers grinding day in and day out. The fact is we all need a writing retreat, a quiet, simple, inspiring moment to reconnect to our creative selves. To be able to provide this service, to allow writers to dream big—this is a real gift. In a small way we are helping people make their dreams come true. So yeah, what can be better than that?

Read more at Flash Fiction Retreats.

Review of Damhnait Monaghan’s The Neverlands

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by Frannie McMillan

Damhnait Monaghan’s The Neverlands (V. Press, April 2019), described by Kathy Fish as a “mosaic of microfictions,” alternates between the perspective of a young Irish girl, Nuala O’Riordan, and her mother, known only as Mammy. Nuala’s life is marked by a series of traumas: bearing witness to the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, losing a parent and then a grandparent. Her mother’s life features an unfaithful, alcoholic husband, repeated miscarriages, feelings of maternal inadequacy, depression, losing her father, and having her child taken from her. Monaghan draws these characters and their hardscrabble existence with a skilled hand, taking care to grant readers intermittent moments of dark humor and optimism. This slim pamphlet contains unblinking truths about families, motherhood, childhood, poverty, and manages to make readers feel as though they’ve read an epic novel about Nuala and Mammy in just a handful of words.

In “It Is Written” Monaghan lays out the particulars of the story’s primary conflict in a tidy little paragraph: Nuala’s unfailing love for her irresponsible, fun-loving father, and her struggle to understand her mother. Written from Nuala’s point of view, this opening story reveals the tender nature of Nuala, who “wants to fix things even though Mammy says there’s no fixing Da.” Readers sense the tension between Mammy and Da when Nuala wonders if her mother is the one who painted offensive graffiti calling her Da a “gobshite.” We’re also introduced to Grandad, Nuala’s confidante and Mammy’s father. Grandad is sympathetic to Seamus O’Riordan and tells Nuala “poor aul’ Da’s a lost soul” as he hands her paint and a brush to cover the harsh words.

Nuala isn’t without her own childish secrets and tiny acts of rebellion. Within the first few sentences of “It Is Written,” Nuala defies her mother by walking along the sea wall. In “Slaying Her Demons,” Nuala merrily skips home from school, “practically floating” because she was praised by Sister Angelique for a story she wrote about dragons. Meanwhile, her childhood rival, Aoife O’Leary, stood in a corner as punishment for saying that Nuala’s story was stupid. Nuala was equally gleeful about both events. In “Thou Shalt Not Covet,” readers learn that Nuala apparently found Sister Angelique’s cross, but instead of turning it in, she keeps it.

The first seven stories are from Nuala’s point of view, but instead of making her an unreliable child-narrator, Monaghan imbues Nuala with a wisdom beyond her years. For example, near the end of the first story, Nuala intentionally slows her gait so that her elderly Grandad “thinks he’s leading the way.” Nuala is aware of her mother’s many miscarriages and in “Limbo” she acknowledges that “Mammy doesn’t like to talk about them but Nuala prays for them every night,” showing both Nuala’s compassion for her lost siblings and her wounded mother. In “Thou Shalt Not Covet,” Nuala observes that Sister Angelique rubs a gold cross between her fingers “when she thinks no one’s looking.”

In the last story before the narrative shifts for the first time to Mammy’s perspective, Nuala makes keen observations about both parents, noting that “Da gets his wages and goes to the pub” while her mother “polishes her arguments.” Nuala accurately predicts that the night will end in turmoil, so she goes to bed and “pretends to live somewhere else.” In the segment following Mammy’s first stories, in a piece called “Dutch Courage,” which takes places after Nuala’s first Holy Communion, Da appears drunk at the gates of her school. She notices he is missing more teeth, and wonders “why does he have to be drunk to say anything good” as she pinches her wrist to keep herself from crying. The title story emerges from Nuala misunderstanding Sister Angelique’s reference to the Netherlands in “Dutch Courage.” When Nuala goes to the library, she asks for a book about the Neverlands, and the librarian hands her Peter Pan. Monaghan deftly circles back to the very first piece in the collection when Nuala finishes Peter Pan and realizes “Grandad is wrong. Da is not a lost soul, he’s a Lost Boy.”

This realization marks a turning point in Nuala’s story as she begins feeling pity for her father while still struggling to connect with her mother. This is fully realized in “The Wages of Sin” when Nuala is sent by her mother to the pub to retrieve some of his pay before he spends it all on alcohol. Nuala discovers that her father has a mistress, who is now pregnant. Her father, drunk, of course, wraps her in a celebratory hug but “swears and tries to grab her arm” when Nuala sneaks the money from his pocket and runs home. In “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are,” Nuala is forced to accompany Mammy as she confronts Seamus about his affair. This is heavy work for a child, but Nuala, stoic as ever, kicks the door and thinks “I am not a bloody child.” Clearly, Nuala comprehends the heft of this moment as she watches her mother fall apart in this scene. She is leaving innocence behind, and she knows it. Readers move closer to Mammy as her voice takes over, switching from only one or two intertwined stories to a section of seven before the collection gives Nuala and Mammy’s voices equal play.

Mammy’s voice is delivered in second person, and is first heard in “Habits,” where already it is ragged “after all those years on your knees, pleading with Holy Mary to help you keep a baby.” The choice to deliver Mammy’s part in second person places the reader in her shoes, creates a hard contrast with Nuala’s voice, and mirrors the distance Mammy struggles to cover between herself and Nuala. This intentional difference in narration also ensures that readers don’t default to sympathy for Nuala and frustration with Mammy’s shortcomings as a mother. For example, in this first glimpse of Mammy’s inner self, readers learn that she spends each afternoon “thinking today’s the day you’ll greet her [Nuala] with the years of hugs you’ve denied her,” but when Nuala begins talking about wanting a prayer corner in her bedroom and Mammy tells her “its past time for prayers in this family,” Nuala’s joy recedes, and Mammy admits “your arms are that sore from wanting to hold her, but your feet are rooted to the ground.” Right away, Mammy’s heartache is clear. She pines for love, for the ability to show affection to Nuala. In “Star-crossed Lovers,” readers get just enough backstory about her “dead poetic” love affair with Seamus to develop a deep, abiding sympathy for this broken woman who married at sixteen. Slowly, Monaghan feeds readers bits of information about Mammy’s sad life. In “Grandad,” we learn that Mammy’s mother died during her birth. Later, in “By the Light of the Moon,” a constable comes to deliver the news of Seamus’s drowning, and she watches in pain as the man “hugs her like you’ve never been able.” In the next story, “Mea Maxima Culpa,” Seamus’s mother comes to take Nuala away, saying “you’re not fit to raise her.” The pace at which Mammy’s life falls apart quickens, and in “Vigil” she loses her father. The saving grace here is that Nuala is in Dublin with Seamus’s mother, so readers are spared seeing that heartbreak through her eyes. Mammy is emotionally numb enough that these stark facts are revealed without much fanfare.

Finally, though, her luck turns in “The Solicitor,” where she inherits some money from her father’s estate. And again, in “Two for Sorrow,” when her long lost sister, Sheila, sends her airfare and asks her to come to Canada to live with her. Although Mammy and Nuala’s relationship is strained, one of the high points in the collection is when Mammy arrives to reclaim Nuala from her mother-in-law in Dublin in “Doors Are Opening.” Already, Mammy is changing, and “there’s a lightness about you that you’d nearly forgotten.” She is coming back to herself; her spirit is growing stronger with the promise of a new beginning. This is as much a commentary on the psychological impact of poverty as it is a story about mothers and daughters. It isn’t until Mammy is in a stronger financial position that she is able to overcome her depression (at least partially) and get her daughter back.

In “Taking Flight,” Nuala, observant as ever, savors the moment Mammy makes a joke and winks at her. During their flight to Canada, Mammy falls asleep with her head on Nuala’s shoulder. Nuala “strokes Mammy’s cheek then kisses her own fingers”. In “Tea and Laughter,” Monaghan returns Mammy to Nuala in a slow, tender way. Nuala hears her mother laugh in a new way, “like fairy whispers.” The final story, “Snow, Falling,” places Mammy and Nuala in front of Sheila’s house, their long journey at an end. Nuala sees snow for the first time, and her delight, coupled with the relief of this fresh start, makes Mammy realize “it’s time to leave the heartache and pain behind and love this girl hard.” She throws herself down into the snow next to Nuala, finally letting go of that heartache and pain and allowing herself the full measure of love.

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Frannie McMillan’s poetry has appeared in The Coachella ReviewK’in Literary JournalThe Indianapolis Review, and others. She is currently at work on her first chapbook, You Ain’t By Yourself. By day, she connects young people with books as a secondary librarian in Richmond, Virginia. You can find her on Twitter @franniemaq.

“Like Focusing a Camera”: An Interview With Guest Reader Kim Magowan

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Kim Magowan’s novel, The Light Source, is forthcoming from 7.13 Books in July. Kim will be giving away a copy of her book to the writer whose story she selects for publication!

Are there certain themes you find yourself returning to in your stories? Do you explore similar themes in your novel?

A lot of my stories are about relationships gone awry: cheating partners, dysfunctional parents, friendships that have fallen apart. George Saunders once said in an interview that most of his fiction takes up the issue of class conflict, and that he doesn’t feel that he as a writer can choose his subject matter—that it’s hardwired. That rings true for me. I’ve been writing about infidelity and toxic friendships since I was a teenager. I’m very interested in that moment where things turn: that’s the location I’m always trying to hunt down and pinpoint in my stories, the fork in the road. My forthcoming novel The Light Source has a romantic triangle at its center.

What do you think flash fiction can do that longer stories can’t?

There is no waste in flash. It’s a very exacting, disciplined form, which is why it’s so addictive. It’s like focusing a camera. Because flash is so short, it demands perfection. You can get away with a clunky line in a longer story, or a whole chapter about how to remove whale blubber in a novel (ahem)—but you really can’t in flash. I truly believe flash has made me a better writer. You can also be much more experimental with flash. Weird things will work in miniature that won’t work long. A list story or second-person story could get really monotonous at 4,000 words, but I love both forms in flash. Flash stories can be really strange and out-there: I love K.B. Carle’s crossword puzzle story, Michael Czyzniejewski’s outline story “The Braxton-Carter-VanDamme-Myers-Braxton-Carter Divorce: An Outline,” Michelle’s Ross’s deadpan block paragraph “Pam’s Head,” and Kathy Fish’s triptych “Three Likely Stories” that works almost like an anagram, where three characters (waitress, cook, and a man who walks into a restaurant) get repurposed in each iteration. My own “Madlib” story only works because it’s so short. So I love that quality of flash—how going small increases the potential for innovation.

You teach at Mills College — and one of the courses you teach is Flash Fiction. Can you tell us a little bit about this class? How does teaching flash inform your own writing?

That class was a blast! Well, this is a very “no duh,” thing to say—along the lines that if you want to lose weight, you should eat less and exercise—but the only two ways to improve as a writer are to 1) write a lot 2) read excellent fiction. I’m an English professor; I’m a huge advocate of immersive reading. My students read a ton of flash—12 collections, plus Best Small Fictions 2018 and Wigleaf’s Top 50 2018—and even though it was a literature class, not a creative writing class, they all tried their hand at writing flash. They organized a reading earlier this week in Oakland, and I was frankly blown away by how great their stories were. That’s another virtue of flash: because it’s short, you have time to get it right. I don’t know if teaching ever informs my writing (though I do have a lot of teachers in my stories), but reading certainly does. One of my students’ very favorite stories was that excellent story Gwen Kirby published in SmokeLong: “Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at that Point Fuck Them Anyway.”

What kind of story would you love to find in your queue this week?

I want a “Damn, that’s great!” story. I want something that surprises and delights me. Blow my mind!

“Care for Language”: An Interview With Guest Reader Michael Don

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Congratulations on publishing your debut collection of stories, Partners and Strangers (Carnegie Mellon University Press)! What can you tell us about the collection? Are there recurring themes in the stories?

Thanks! The collection is made up of 13 stories that vary in style—from hard realism to the absurd and surreal and maybe even gothic—but are definitely thematically linked. Many of the characters are dealing with issues surrounding intimacy, alienation, grief and deviance. You know, the fun, light, page-turning stuff! I think the collection tends to be both dark and funny at the same time, which is how I often experience the world. Many of the partners in the stories become strangers in some sense and many of the strangers serve as partners. Lastly, I’ll go ahead and list a few nouns that you’ll find in the book: the Craigslist Killer, eggplant, wooden boy, soft-shell crabs, electric toothbrush, AT&T man, bird poop, Frida Kahlo portrait, the Effingham cross.

Where do you write?

I mostly write at cafes because I find that background noise and external stimuli keep me focused. I’m much more likely to fritter away time on the internet when I’m writing in solitude. I also like being around others who at least appear to be working even if they’re actually buying avocado oil or googling “Quarter Life Crisis.” Sometimes at a cafe I can’t help but eavesdrop on the conversations around me, but this feels productive as a writer and sometimes inspiring.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

My college mentor and now good friend of many years, Jonathan Strong, once assured me that every thing you do during the day is part of the writing process and so you don’t need to sit down and write for four to eight hours every day to be a writer. This advice helps me not feel guilty about being out in the world, interacting and observing, and doing my day job. I get a lot of energy and motivation and writing material from being away from my computer. I also like the meditative nature of running, showering, washing dishes, and driving. I do a lot of thinking and writing in my head while doing these activities.

What kind of story would you love to find in your queue this week?

I’m feeling pretty open these days and truly excited about what might appear in my queue. I want to read stories that feel so true that I don’t realize I’m reading. Does that make any sense? I’m looking for both heart and brain and care for language. Nothing too maudlin or too detached. The unexpected but not the unbelievable. Send me your best flash piece and I will be excited to read it with great attention and care!

SmokeLong on the Road — Norwich (UK) Reading and Workshop

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by Helen Rye

The medieval city of Norwich, England, latest stop on the SmokeLong on the Road journey, is famous for mustard, British pubs and the legendary University of East Anglia creative writing program, founded by Malcom Bradbury in 1970. For a few cold and rainy days in early May, the SmokeLong Quarterly travelling editorial team wandered its ancient cobbled streets, arguing about stories, how to pronounce tomato sauce, the correct way to eat an English scone (jam first, then cream, of course), and revelling in being able to drink cider that tasted like cider.

Norwich city centre is dominated on one side by the reconstructed façade of its 11th century castle, the first thing William the Conqueror turned his hand to after he’d finished with the people of Hastings, and on the other, by the glass and steel of The Forum, a light-filled indoor public space containing the city library, broadcasting centre, exhibition spaces, a restaurant and café bar.

Bar Marzano at The Forum occupies the ground floor corner with the prettiest view, and it was here that SmokeLong editors Christopher Allen and Helen Rye, with James Smart, UEA MFA student and 2018 Smokey longlister, co-hosted Flashing Norwich, a showcase of flash fiction by established and emerging writers. Rather than have a running order, we elected to have each reader pull the bio of the next at random from the SmokeLong Quarterly Golden Travelling Clutch Purse and introduce their successor. This added an edge of suspense to the proceedings as well as meaning that none of the participants knew how soon they would be able to go to the bar.

Multi-award-winning flash writer and founding editor of Flashback Fiction, Ingrid Jendrzejewski, travelled from Cambridge to join us, along with local Nine Arches poet and prose writer Julia Webb, UEA Masters students Vijay Khurana, Jas Kirkbride and Amelia Vale, Melissa Fu, the 2019 UEA David TK Wong Fellow, and Norfolk-based flash fiction author David Steward. We are so grateful to everyone who came out to read and to listen to us, and to the brave open mic-ers who rounded off the evening at a half-hour’s notice.

Saturday saw the first of this year’s SmokeLong editors’ workshops. Seventeen keen participants discussed and experimented with ways to hone flash fiction that has something to say in a beautiful (and, of course, medieval) building dedicated to writing, after a slightly rocky start in which it transpired the venue had forgotten we were coming and was directing attendees of ‘today’s event’ somewhere down the street. We’d spent some fun hours earlier during our preparation time on ruining some beautiful stories by writing in some of the common issues we see that often result in submissions being rejected. Our workshop participants seemed to find this every bit as entertaining – and hopefully, also, useful. If you’re an editor and you find a rash of stories containing the word ‘gadoid’ in your queue, in the near future – we’re sorry.

We were so encouraged by the enthusiastic feedback, with people thanking us for the comfortable atmosphere and an inspiring, informative and motivating session. Several participants told us they were going away with new story drafts and ideas for the first time in a while, which made us very happy. What a lovely bunch of humans.

Christopher Allen and Tara Laskowski will be leading workshops at the UK Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol at the end of June, and we are now taking bookings for our half/full-day workshops in London on 6th July. Hope to see you somewhere on the road, soon!

London-area writers! Reserve your place at the July 6th SmokeLong Flash Fiction Workshop in London! Details HERE.

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Helen Rye lives in Norwich, UK. She has won the Bath Flash Fiction Award, the Reflex Fiction contest and third place in the 2018 Bristol Short story prize. Her stories have been nominated for Best Small Fictions and the Pushcart Prize, and shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. She is a submissions editor for SmokeLong Quarterly and a prose editor for Lighthouse Literary Journal, and she helps out from time to time at Ellipsis Zine and TSS Publishing.

Book Review: The Middle Ground by Jeff Ewing

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by Julia Tagliere

Reading a story collection is a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle or solving a mystery. With each story’s end, you see more of the work as a whole and come to understand The One Thing that ties the stories together; in the case of Jeff Ewing’s debut collection, The Middle Ground, it’s ghosts.

Some are conventional ghosts—dead mothers or fathers, dying children, or even “the fairytale creatures behind every stroke of good and bad luck” so cunningly woven into Ewing’s story, “Hiddenfolk.” But in his evocative collection, published in February 2019 by the micro literary journal Into the Void, Ewing, who is a ten-time Pushcart Prize nominee and winner of the California Newspaper Publishers Association Best Writing Award, does not stop at conventional.

This collection of 18 stories, some of which were previously published in Crazyhorse, Atticus Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly (“Parliament of Owls”), among others, haunts its reader with other ghosts: the ghosts of paths not taken, of former—or better—selves, the ghosts of fateful decisions.

In the exquisite “Coast Starlight” (which first appeared in Into the Void), for example, Ewing shares the story of a breathtakingly beautiful waitress dreaming of a bigger life in her small town. When her “big break” walks into the café, she doesn’t follow it, but she never completely forgets its face; she even makes an unsuccessful attempt to catch it later:

In the privacy and security of her own head, she finished the trip. She sat out on his patio with him and let the sun—softened by the ocean—drape itself over her…She always stopped there, before the story became ridiculous, before the probable reality intruded—Clifford’s apartment a drab warren on some nondescript street, the sky sooty and gray, sirens and drunken quarrels drowning out the distant waves. The ending wasn’t important anyway, it wasn’t even an ending necessarily…That’s how she put it to herself, anyway, on the days she let her mind off its leash.

 In “The Shallow End,” Ewing captures with equal parts candor and tenderness the regrets and shortcomings of a father who knows just enough to know he will never understand his own failings, but can never escape their presence, especially when he befriends the neighbor girl, whose mother is dying:

“I’d always thought I’d be a good father, before Jeannie was born. Even for a while after. It was quite a shock to hear I wasn’t.”

Cindy was lying on the diving board, her head hanging over the end.

“What did you do, hit her or something?”

“No!”

“I don’t know. It must have been something bad.”

“She had a list of our failings. Reasons she wasn’t the person she thought she should be by then.”

…Cindy turned away from him, sniffling. Ludlow looked at her back, the little hunched shoulders that weren’t nearly up to what was being asked of them. Something was called for, he knew, another solution to another problem that was beyond him. He tapped the rake handle against his forehead. It never ended.

But conventional ghosts do carry their share of water in this collection, manifesting especially in the ways people, especially children, change after the loss of a parent, as in “Masterpiece,” which originally appeared in Juked. Ewing’s interiority of his character Nora—who grasps at last her heartbreaking culpability, having raised her younger brother after their mother’s death, for the callous, cruel, man he has become—is striking:

Nora had been trying for some time to put her finger on when he’d changed from a puppy into a nasty, snarling dog…Maybe it was her fault; she’d turned him into this. She should have let the mean world have him. Now she didn’t know how to defend herself, only him.

Ewing’s writing is thoughtful and nuanced; this passage from “Masterpiece” is an excellent example of that: “She washed the dirt from the carrots and started to peel them…She hated to throw the peelings away, even into the compost. Something beautiful should be done with them—the carrot underneath was utilitarian and nourishing; the beauty was in the peel.”

But don’t let “thoughtful and nuanced” give you the impression that reading Ewing’s stories is a passive endeavor: this collection provides a highly interactive, almost participatory experience: A phrase, line, or passage elicits an audible gasp, a pause to reflect, a heavy sigh, or even an uttered “Holy crap”:

The man at the aquarium…had also explained why the fish was no bigger after three years…

“They grow to the size of their containers.”

A practical adaptation that didn’t, unfortunately, apply to children. Jeannie had outgrown her container way ahead of time. (“The Shallow End”)

They’ve kept some things back, but the things they’ve kept are worthless…Old pictures, grainy, unrecognizable likenesses of what was supposed to be her—when she was a girl, a newlywed, a mother. Studio pictures with no life in them. The real pictures, the ones she and her daddy took and developed, are all in the albums in her room. But they’re not interested in those, all they see is empty fields and woods and sky in them—they can’t see the bird hidden in the clump of grass, or her daddy whistling beside her as she aims the camera. There’s so much they don’t understand that she doesn’t know where to start.  (“Barn Sale”)

These are not stories that should be read quickly, nor is The Middle Ground a collection suited for gobbling up in one sitting; Ewing’s stories are too rich for that. Rather, they should be read as though one has all the time in the world to read a line and read it again, to linger over it, to let it haunt you. This is a collection worth making that kind of time to read.

Read “Parliament of Owls” by Jeff Ewing (SmokeLong Quarterly, December 2017).

Purchase The Middle Ground by Jeff Ewing.

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Julia Tagliere’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The WriterThe Bookends Review, Potomac Review, Gargoyle MagazineWashington Independent Review of Books, SmokeLong QuarterlyWritersResist, and multiple anthologies. Winner of the 2015 William Faulkner Literary Competition for Best Short Story and the 2017 Writers Center Undiscovered Voices Fellowship, Julia completed her M.A. in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. She serves as an editor with The Baltimore Review and is currently working on her next novel, The Day the Music Didn’t Die. Contact her at julia@justscribbling.com.

“Understanding and release”: An Interview With Guest Reader Myfanwy Collins

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What themes do you find yourself frequently writing about? What themes are you drawn to when reading?

I frequently write about approaching the world from a place of trauma. When I’m reading I’m not drawn to themes so much as I am drawn to the writer’s vulnerability.

Where do you get your story ideas?

Usually I get my ideas from words or phrases that pop into my head. Sometimes ideas will come to me as I’m writing in my journal. Rarely (perhaps even never?) have I had a fully-fledged idea roll out of me. I start with whatever comes to me and see where it goes.

What do you think makes a good story? What could a writer do to make you keep reading? What is something that might make you stop reading?

What makes a good story is the writer’s ability to be vulnerable and not hold back out of fear. A story that begins without too much throat clearing or attempts at cleverness keep me reading. Cliched themes and phrases would stop me from reading.

What kind of story would you love to see in the queue this week?

The best piece of flash fiction I know is not actually flash fiction. Instead, it’s the final paragraphs of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” The entire story rests in those moments and those moments are the entire story. I would love to see something like that–a piece of writing that captures a pivotal moment which brings the reader to a moment of understanding and release.

 

SmokeLong on the Road: Fairfax, VA Reading

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We’ve been traveling around the world to meet our contributors and fall asleep in our cocktails with our editors. A few weeks ago, we were in Fairfax, Va where we met up with Kara Oakleaf, Randall Brown, Colleen Rich, Tara Campbell, Tyrese L. Coleman, and Michelle Orabona. Thank you to Epicure Cafe for providing the venue, and thank you to the musicians whose set was delayed by just a few minutes. And a special thank you to our editor, Tara Laskowski, for organizing the event!

While you have a look at this montage of the evening, we’ll already be off to a reading and workshop in Norwich, England. Also watch for SmokeLong at the UK Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol, England at the end of June. See you there?

“A Sense of Discovery”: An Interview With Guest Reader Zach Powers

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Your first book, Gravity Changes, a collection of stories, won the BOA Short Fiction Prize. Your second book is a novel, First Cosmic Velocity, forthcoming this summer (it was recently named a Summer 2019 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection — congratulations!). What can you tell us about your novel? How did you transition from writing short stories to writing a novel?

First Cosmic Velocity is set in the Soviet space program in the 1960s, but a version of the space program that I mostly made up. It draws on my several fascinations with space exploration, the Cold War, and the conspiracy theories that grew up around the program because of Russia’s intense secrecy. For example, the Chief Designer is a character in my novel, and he’s referred to only by his title because the real Chief Designer, Sergei Korolev, was never revealed to the public until after his death. Similarly, there were secrets the space program kept until the late 1980s or even after the fall of the Soviet Union. So while the big secret in my book is fictional, it’s not as far removed from reality as it might seem.

This is actually the second novel manuscript I’ve completed. The first is super weird, and I hope to one day see it in print, but it’s probably too weird for a lot of publishers. However, having one completed and revised manuscript under my belt made writing the next one much, much easier. And the product is stronger than it would have been if I hadn’t had a round of practice beforehand.

My approach to stories is usually quite different from my approach to long-form. With stories, I tend to dive into one small idea and see how much I can explore/explode it. With a novel, I find myself branching away from the initial idea, trying to discover what it means for more characters and in more settings. I do have a few stories that are traditional narratives, but my short work tends toward the experimental. I don’t think I could keep up those kinds of experiments for a whole book.

A few of my future novel ideas are actually stories that didn’t work because they refused to stay contained within a smaller experiment. They suggested expansion. So maybe what dictates the length of a piece is the idea itself. Can I resolve a story in 5, 10, or 15 pages, or does it need to keep going. First Cosmic Velocity, though, was always a novel. I saw from the start that a story about space needed just that: space.

What do you love about flash fiction?

I wonder at flash fiction like I do an intricate scale model, kind of dumbfounded at a writer’s ability to arrange each tiny piece just so. To be honest, I suspect many of the people submitting are better at flash than me. I’m not always deft enough to stick to the form. Many of the things I start as flash end up expanding. It’s the same sort of thing that happens when a story idea grows into a novel. Some of my longer stories began life as failed flash experiments. So I admire people who focus on flash and can manipulate narrative on such a small scale. It’s a rare talent. Additionally, I think it’s an ideal form for sharing in this socially networked moment. I’m rambling with this answer, and I know a good flash writer would have wrapped things up already.

Where do you write?

For most of my writerly career, I wrote in coffee shops. I still do that on weekends (I’m looking at you, Java Shack!), but now that I’m staff at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, I use our writing carrels on weekday mornings. The building isn’t currently open to the public before 10am—check back in September when we should be welcoming early bird writers—so I have the whole 12,000-square-foot place to myself. Creepily, sometimes the toilets flush on their own.

I do miss the action and interruptions of coffee shops. That setting always gave me a nice balance of discipline (I was there every day) and distraction. The routine made sure I had dedicated writing time without letting me become too precious about it. When I lived in Savannah and wrote at Gallery Espresso, there was always a breakfast club of creatives and friends hanging out at a table or two, a daily support system, of sorts. I like feeling as if I’m a part of something larger even when I’m working on a personal project.

What kind of story would you love to find in the queue this week?

Send me your weird and your fantastical and your stories that aren’t afraid to think about their own conceits. I have a soft spot for stories that place something weird in an everyday setting. I adore metaphors for feelings written literally, à la Amelia Gray. I love a sense of discovery. Make me think a new way about something familiar and you’re already halfway to my heart.

 

Fridge Flash: Cold Bottom Bart and the Ship of Fire

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Today’s Fridge Flash comes from 7-year-old Dash Taylor, who had to write an adventure story during his spring break camp. It includes chapters AND cliffhangers. We are providing a translation here, with the original handwritten story below.

Cold Bottom Bart and the Ship of Fire

Chapter 1: The Ghost Ship

Once there was a pirate named Cold Bottom Bart. He had a ghost ship and it was made out of fire. But he never went in it.

Chapter 2: Cold and Fire Are Not the Same Thing

He never got in it because his first name is Cold and the ship is made out of fire. SO … he takes a deep breath and goes in to the ship.

Chapter 3

He felt something. It felt different. He looked down and gasped. He was on fire.

Chapter 4: Hot Bottom Bart

From this day, he has been called Hot Bottom Bart.

The End

Dash Taylor is a 1st grader who enjoys playing with stuffed animals and LEGOs and eating ice cream. He loves his mom and dad. He wants to be an engineer and an artist when he gets older.

A Book Review of The In-Betweens by Davon Loeb

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­by Amy Lyons

Davon Loeb skillfully weaves together a series of non-fiction flash pieces to tell the story of his childhood and coming-of-age in The In-Betweens, published by Everytime Press in November, 2018. This lyrical narrative employs poetic language to describe everything from the deep and lasting ramifications of his parents’ separation and his struggles with his mixed-race identity, to ordinary days full of yard work and run-of-the-mill childhood roughhousing. It’s a book about growing up and out of boyhood amidst estrangement—from his birth father, from his brother, from his sense of identity—and becoming a man who sees shades of grey where others see only Black and White.

“Like Gladiators” is a piece that finds gorgeous music in bored children hanging around the neighborhood playing simple games: “And when tagging, we ran circles in the cul-de-sac, screaming and gasping, our feet hot and burning—the soles wearing, the bunny-ear laces flopping, and the Rorschach patterns of sweat on our shirts…And then the rusty coloring around knee-scrapes, and elbow-burns, and split lips, and what it was like, trying to wrestle down the sun.” It’s a delight to watch Loeb elevate child’s play to something grand.

It’s Loeb’s talent for lyricism and his gift for rendering a palpable sense of childhood wonder that powers the book. When the language flows full-throated and awe-struck toward a crescendo, the reading experience is one of total delight. In “Weekend Weather,” Loeb captures a child’s point of view on his parents fighting by comparing the scene to a storm: “Under the weight of the toppling sky and the volume of sharp rains, and the hard yells of my parents shaking the grout between the bricks of our home—on many of those nights I was dust clung to those shaking corners, while mom and dad push-pulled their iron bodies into each other.”

In “Quitting Meant Going Back to Babysitting,” Loeb describes getting a job with one of his friends as an exterminator. All of the teenagers in Loeb’s town are getting jobs, but Loeb’s mother wants him to stay home and babysit his brother. He chooses work over family, which seems like a memorable moment for the clear-eyed, retrospective narrator to look back on in light of some of the issues with which he struggles, namely guilt and choices around duty to family versus duty to one’s independence. But the experience leaves less of an emotional charge because it’s reported as a series of events rather than a pungent, searing memory with lingering and evolving meaning.

The book’s title serves as an effective evolving theme throughout. Loeb is “In Between” many forces throughout his childhood. Two of the most powerful are his fathers (one biological and largely distant, the other present as Loeb’s mother’s husband, but not a blood relative) and his two races: his mother is Black and his biological father is White. It’s quite moving to witness young Loeb struggle with his biracial identity and confusion in “Thoughts on Hair” and “But I am Not Toby,” the latter an extremely effective piece about the ridiculousness of cliched school lessons during Black History Month. When a teacher proclaims to the class that rap is not real music: “It was as if she was talking straight at me, channeling years of frustrations to the only Black student in class.” The sense of isolation that Loeb renders here is deeply moving.

When Loeb’s two fathers cut down a tree together in “Fighting for the Tree,” it seems the perfect, and perfectly rendered, illustration of a child’s sense of being trapped in the middle of two adults and not knowing which one to choose. One man cuts into the tree with a chainsaw, the other with an axe, and when the tree begins to sway, the boy and the fathers aren’t sure where it will fall: “Both men yelled different directions they thought he tree would go. It went one way and then the other, as if a table with one leg…Dad and my father, with one hand on the tree and other open, in my direction, both yelled—throw me the rope!”

The final “In-Between” of the book comes in the piece titled “In-Between Sirens,” a shorter, flash piece that takes its title from the pauses between a police car’s blue and red flashing sirens. It’s a compelling piece told with authority and authenticity, particularly when Loeb reveals that he knows he is being pulled over by the police because of the color of his skin: “He studied my license longer, and though I wanted to ask him what I did wrong—that I wasn’t swerving, that I didn’t run a stop sign, that I didn’t commit any traffic violations—I said nothing, and stood stone-till knowing it really didn’t matter—knowing exactly why he pulled me over—and that when he said there was a string of burglaries in the neighborhood and we looked suspicious, I wasn’t a bit surprised.”

______________________________

Amy Lyons is an MFA candidate at the Bennington Writing Seminars. She has also studied writing at Squaw Valley Community of Writers, the Tin House Summer workshop, the Iowa Summer writing festival, and UCLA Extension, where she was nominated for a 2015 Kirkwood Literary Prize in fiction. She has been awarded a 2019 residency at Millay Colony for the Arts and a 2019 Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellowship. Her journalistic writing has appeared in Lenny Letter, LA Weekly, Backstage, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and more. 

Editor’s Choice Week: An Interview With Jan Elman Stout

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The story from this week’s submissions will be selected by a member of our editorial staff. All stories submitted April 29 – May 5 will be read by Jan Elman Stout.

What themes, topics or styles I’m drawn to:

I’m partial to realism and magic realism. I’m a huge fan of stories that create an honest emotional experience and leave a lingering emotional footprint. I want language that fits the story and characters and doesn’t hem either in. A strong, authoritative voice is key. Deft use of compression excites me. I want to be surprised, by an unexpected word or phrase, an unusual character, or an unforeseen turn or change. I like stories about unusual characters and outsiders. And how these characters cope. This said, I am open-minded about what you send me; a great story is a great story.

Dealbreakers in flash:

  • Gratuitous violence
  • Stories that reveal the writer’s cultural prejudices
  • Poorly written prose
  • Meandering openings
  • Punch line or gimmicky endings

A flash story I LOVE:

I love flash that causes me to react viscerally. There’s nothing more delicious than a story that raises the hair on the back of my neck, punches me in the gut, leaves me breathless or makes my heart feel as if it could explode. A story that inspires all of these reactions is pure gold. “Let’s Say” by Julia Strayer, published in SmokeLong Quarterly, is a story I LOVE and a perfect example of the type of story I just described.

A flash I’ve written:  

“Yield” is a flash I wrote that was recently published in Pithead Chapel.

SmokeLong Quarterly at AWP Portland — A Recap

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If you found it difficult to find the SmokeLong table this year, it’s because we were a roving table. We came to you. It’s your fault if you weren’t there. Anyone who stopped Helen Rye and myself to ask us about our silly t-shirts got the full Roving SmokeLong Quarterly Table treatment. We had swag and sweets. We had books to win. We had choreography. Most people found it funny; some–mostly poetry MFA program directors–didn’t. Oh well.

We were surprised by how many “visitors” to our “table” lauded us for subverting the bookfair Order Of Things. We even got a few looks suggesting “Why didn’t we think of this? We could have saved 800 bucks.” I think we might have started something.

Our reading on Thursday evening was an intimate affair in the loft of a loud brew pub. Our apologies to those of you who did not get in and to those of you who were pushed around by the waiter. Seating was very limited but oddly roomy. In San Antonio next year I’m going to rent an arena, so look forward to that. For those of you who were not able to be there on Thursday evening or at AWP this year at all, we’ve put together a brief video of moderate sound quality. It’s on our YouTube channel, where you can view other videos in our series SmokeLong on the Road. And you can also subscribe if you want, joining our esteemed 10 subscribers.

 

Readers’ Books just in case you’d like to buy them and make their days:

Dennis Norris II — Awst Collection — Dennis Norris II

Tyrese L. Coleman — How to Sit

Kim Magowan — Undoing, The Light Source

Nancy Au — Spider Love Song and Other Stories

Michael Don — Partners and Strangers

Michelle Ross — There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You

Sherrie Flick — Thank Your Lucky Stars

Kathy Fish — Wild Life: Collected Works 2003-2018

 

See you next year in San Antonio!

Christopher

 

“That joy, that sorrow”: An Interview With Guest Editor Devin Kelly

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You write poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction. Can you tell us a little about how you move between these genres? Do you consider one to be your “primary” genre? Do you explore overlapping themes in each?

Writing is a wild process in this regard, because I believe there’s a great deal of fluidity between genres, but also a lot of specificity to each, especially in terms of craft. A lot of my writing begins first as a poem — which to me is a way of questioning, wondering, challenging, or offering something to the world. It’s a place of blooming, a poem is. And the act of writing of a poem is a very generative process for me — it often creates more avenues in my mind than closes them. Sometimes I explore those avenues as essays, sometimes as stories, and sometimes still as other poems. To me, moving between each genre is simply an act of granting myself the permission to do so.

You are co-founder of Dead Rabbits Reading Series, a monthly reading series in Upper Manhattan. Can you tell us more about this series? How did it get started? Has it changed since it began in 2014? Do you have any advice for writers who are thinking about starting their own reading series?

I can’t believe it’s been that long! The series started as a very simple idea between myself and two friends — Katie Rainey and Katie Longofono. We wanted to invite the kind of writers who we were in grad school with — working, new, unpublished, trying to publish — to read alongside more established writers. With that in mind, we just asked people whose work we admired to read, which was so scary at first. Over the past few years, the series has first and foremost offered a sense of community beyond literature to me and my friends, many of whom I met at one of our readings. Katie Rainey has even started a press that has spun off from the series, which is wonderful. I think anyone who is considering starting a series should, first and foremost, not doubt the fact that an audience exists, no matter where you are, for people sharing their art. It always will if you offer it. Secondly, you should be open and generous about understanding the responsibility you are taking on and listening to those who share ways to better your practice — because it is a practice. Invite diverse readers. Don’t tokenize. Always be representative of the literary landscape. Be fun. Don’t read at your own reading unless it’s a special occasion. Be serious and not serious. Play games. Treat people as well as you can. Respect their art. Value your space. You know, simple things.

We both have MFAs from Sarah Lawrence College (I was there a number of years before you – I won’t disclose exactly how many years but it’s enough to have a deep nostalgia for being a student there). What was your favorite part about the program? What do you miss the most about being an MFA student?

I loved the community at Sarah Lawrence, and it’s what I missed most. I loved that class spilled out and wound up in someone’s living room. I loved how much I read and also how much I talked about what I read. I felt part of something bigger. I felt like art was important. I know that art is important now, but the world so often undermines that feeling. Being in a community of working writers made me feel, every day I was up there, like the sentence or line I was chewing on over the course of that day was worth chewing on. I miss that. I hate the days now when I have to actively remind myself of that.

What kind of story would you love to see in your queue this week?

Something surprising, in whatever way that manifests itself — whether in form or content or theme. I love a story that takes the risk of taking a risk. And it doesn’t always have to be in terms of content (I think sometimes people think that’s what I mean when I say that). I really value risks of form and language. But look — I love reading and I love the way a story or a poem just opens the door to your feelings without knocking. That joy, that sorrow — it just shows up. I’d love to read a story that does that.

Fridge Flash: The Grocery Alien

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Today’s Fridge Flash comes to us from 12-year-old Quin, who very deftly illustrates the absurdity of our modern world with a wonderful sense of humor and wit.

The Grocery Alien

Until this happened, the cashier at SpaceMart was having a regular day. He was just about to take his lunch break when a short bearded man wearing a strange hat and sunglasses walked into the store. It was winter, so the cashier thought it was weird that anyone was wearing sunglasses.

The man walked toward the cashier. “Excuse me, which aisle is the oil in?” he asked.

The cashier pointed toward the cooking supplies. “Aisle twelve, left side.” he said.

The man made his way over to where the cashier directed him, but came back with nothing. “Where is the spaceship oil?” he asked. 

The cashier stared blankly at the man, then replied, “I’m sorry, we don’t sell… um… spaceship oil here.”

The man then said in a frustrated tone, “What kind of store is this!?”

“A grocery store, a supermarket, whatever you want to call it,” said the cashier. “But no matter what you call it, we don’t sell anything with the word ‘spaceship’ in it. The closest we have to what you’re looking for is olive oil. Works good on pasta.”

“Why is this place called SpaceMart,” said the man angrily, “IF YOU DON’T SELL SPACESHIP PARTS?” Then, he took off his hat and glasses and pulled off his beard, revealing a green head with huge, empty black eyes. The alien had a small mouth and no nose, as well as some short frizzy hair on the top of its head. Its ears were small and round, and a long, thin neck extended from its chest. 

The cashier gasped. “Wha…”

The alien took a deep breath. “Listen, sorry about my temper, but my spaceship crashed out back and I need some oil to get it started back up again,” it said.

“Am I hallucinating,” said the cashier, “or is there an alien in here asking for oil for his U.F.O.?” 

“You’re just hallucinating,” said a customer in another checkout aisle without even looking up from his phone. 

“Well… we sure don’t sell spaceship oil,” the cashier said to the alien, “but there’s a DriveFree car shop across the street, and I bet they’ll have something that’ll work.”

“Okay, I’ll try there,” said the alien, as he walked out of the store and across the street.

The cashier sighed. “Gonna be a long day…”

Quin Kondis is 12 years old. He enjoys rock climbing, ice skating, and exploring the woods. He also likes to play music on his keyboard and guitar. If he saw an alien in a grocery store, he would probably take off running.

“More than a phase”: An Interview With Guest Reader Alvin Park

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Are there certain themes you find yourself returning to in your writing?

A lot of my writing comes from a place of fear, which is why climate change is such a frequent background theme. A friend recently pointed out how I often write about the fleeting nature of relationships and human connection, and I think a lot of that draws on my personal fears about loneliness and longing, though I promise that I have a cheery disposition outside of writing.

Most of my stories also involve food or the act of eating. Food just entails a lot, from basic sustenance to hospitality to dependency on earth. Food is kind of a way for me to counteract or familiarize those fears into something grounded that I can touch and taste and smell.

More recently, I’ve been considering my Korean-ness a lot more and the way I take up space as a Korean-American. I don’t really know if I’m all the way to incorporating it into my writing, just because I want to treat my culture, heritage, and family history with the respect and nuance they deserve, but it’s good to think about all the same.

You write a TinyLetter called aspirin and honey. Can you tell us how you got started with these letters? How do your letters relate (or maybe even contrast) with your other writing?

I had to check my archives, and it is wild to me that I started writing my TinyLetter back in 2014. That started thanks to the amazing and inimitable Mary-Kim Arnold, who is one of my writing idols. After knowing her online for what seems like forever, I finally met her at this past AWP, and she is as warm, kind, and thoughtful as I could have ever imagined. Anyway, she started one all those years ago, and I just kind of followed suit. At the time, I just really liked the intimacy of TinyLetters, the way they had this capacity to feel like late-night conversations with a friend. It has since become an easy space for me to write regularly without any inward or outward pressures. I know others use their TinyLetters as promotional newsletters (which is totally cool and great!), but mine really is an extension of my Tumblr, my Livejournal, and my physical diaries before all that. While there is a relatively small audience still involved with my TinyLetter, it still has a tone of privacy that I really enjoy and crave.

In terms of relationship to my fiction, I think my letters do tend to have a layer of melancholy and loneliness that can carry over into my flash fiction. Admittedly, I might be too close to really see or judge their relationship to my writing as a whole. I have dipped into moments of fiction in some previous letters, but I try to avoid it if I can, just because I really do try to think of them as correspondence. Imagine getting a letter and it vacillates between fiction and reality. Granted, no promises I won’t do that in future letters.

I also write my letters with a single person (“You”) in mind, which helps me steer the writing and maintain a more conversational tone. That combined with the general lack of pressure also gives me the chance to just write without thinking, so there isn’t really much flow to it (or at least any intentional flow). With my flash, I write with a lot more intentionality. I plan out a plot, I think about my characters, and I’m pretty meticulous about how words, sentences, and punctuation move together through all of that.

What is one thing you love about flash fiction (either as a reader or a writer)?

I really love the versatility of flash. At AWP, I was at a reading for Forward, a flash fiction anthology featuring writers of color, and it was honestly so exciting and humbling to experience the ways that writers are using flash and shaping it into this beautiful, unique narrative form. No two stories in the anthology are the same, but there’s also this through line to the form that I have trouble really defining or pinning down.

If you can’t tell, I’ve been thinking a lot about flash as its own entity, how it’s more than this liminal form between poetry and fiction. Flash is more than a phase.

What kind of story would you love to see in the queue this week?

All of the usual things apply, of course—well-developed characters, engaging plot, a concrete sense of place, attention to word choice and rhythm. On top of all that, I could really go for some sincerity. The world is not in a great place right now, and I’m just really tired of the irony and cynicism. That doesn’t mean I want forced happiness, empty optimism, and sunshine and rainbows, but be sincere. Make me feel something true, whether it’s warm sun or sudden rain. Make every syllable matter.

“Fresh as hell”: An Interview with Guest Reader Tyler Barton

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This week’s reader, Tyler Barton, will give a copy of his new chapbook, The Quiet Part Loud, to the writer of the story he selects for publication!

Your chapbook, The Quiet Part Loud, won the 2017 Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest and was recently published by Split Lip Press. Congratulations! Can you tell us a little bit about it? Are there certain themes you explore in the book?

I wish I could say that this collection was the result of a series of deliberate and coordinated artistic decisions, with a solid theme that I explored from eleven different angles. But the truth is that I had been writing and publishing flash sporadically for 4 years, and when I saw that Kara Vernor (one of my favorite flash writers) was judging Split Lip’s Chapbook Contest, I started pulling together my favorite flash pieces. The decision to make a flash collection was so haphazard that I actually stole the title of my then in-progress full-length short fiction manuscript (Get Empty) and submitted the chapbook under that title, because I was certain I would not win.

It turns out the book does have a theme, and this was discovered during the last round of pre-publication edits. The stories are about (mostly male) teenagers who want in some way to be seen. This causes them to do ridiculous, dangerous, rude, funny, sometimes tragic, sometimes beautiful things. I ended up changing the chapbook title at the last minute, because I realized that Get Empty truly was THE title for my full-length collection, the only title that worked. The Quiet Part Loud came from a title-generating session that I held on one of the last days of a residency last October in the Adirondacks. (Thanks to my residency-mates for the help!)

You are co-founder of Fear No Lit, which sponsors the Submerging Writer Fellowship, back for a second year this year (submissions are open until June 1!). How did this fellowship emerge (pardon the pun)? What are your goals for the fellowship?

This project began as a joke. Erin Dorney (my partner and co-founder of FNL) and I were joking about all these emerging writer opportunities, and one of us quipped, “What about submerging writers?” I tweeted it, got some positive feedback. Then we thought: shit, someone is going to steal this idea. We had to make it happen.

The goal is to provide one writer with the kind of boost that can start a career (or at least start the start of a career) of a writer who deserves to have begun a career already. We invite free applications that include a writing sample and brief answers to essay questions (What makes you a submerging writer? Where do you find hope? What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made? What does community mean to you?). We choose ten finalists, send to our judge (Tyrese freaking Coleman!) and then she’ll choose three finalists and a winner. The winner gets cash, a free registration of their choice, and chapbook publication.

In short, we want to celebrate the struggle of writing, to inspire a more open conversation about how hard it can be to keep on writing when success is elusive.

You have quite a lot of experience with readings, from reading your own work to hosting literary events. What advice do you have for people new to reading their work (or even for more seasoned readers who are looking to improve)?

This is my favorite topic right now. And I just went to an amazing panel on this at AWP (hosted by Angel Nafis, Hieu Minh Nguyen, and other great readers). They said that you should only read things that you still have room to re-discover. I take this to mean: Read things that still feel new, or still have the potential to be new. If you read the poem or story you’ve read 100 times, maybe you won’t miss a single word, but you also might start thinking about what beer you’re going to order after the event.

A few nights ago, I gave the best reading I think I ever gave because I read a new flash story that I had worked on obsessively, practiced 5 times, and then read at the reading. The piece is still so filled with things that make me laugh, phrases that surprise me, and moments that make me feel connected to something larger than myself.  Also, my reading clocked in just under 5 minutes. Because here’s the other thing: never read longer than 15 mins if you are a feature. If you are on a reading with 5 other writers, don’t read longer than 5-7 mins. Just don’t. Regardless of how long the organizer, your friend, or your ego tells you to read.

Lastly, what our readers always want to know is what kind of story would you love to find in your queue this week?

I look for loud prose, loud prose with texture. I want to see that the writer had fun writing the piece. That said, I love to be surprised by what I didn’t know I wanted. All I can say definitively is that if your story is about a character with a dead parent, friend, spouse, or child, it better be FRESH AS HELL, and even so, it probably will still turn me away. Nothing against the dead. There’s just so many dead people in flash fiction, in all fiction. Keep in mind what Kathy Fish told me in our recent Split Lip Interview: Every story does not have to be life or death.

 

SmokeLong Flash Fiction Workshop in Norwich, England!

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SmokeLong On The Road is coming to Norwich, England, where we will be running a half-day flash fiction workshop on Saturday May 4th at the beautiful 15th-century home of the UK National Centre for Writing.

Co-EIC of SmokeLong Quarterly, Christopher Allen, will lead the workshop, which will explore how to write compelling flash fiction, and what to avoid. Christopher is the current judge of the £1,000-prize Bath Flash Fiction Award, and will be assisted on the day by submissions editor Helen Rye, who won the Bath Flash Fiction Award in 2017. This workshop will be suitable for anyone interested in learning to write flash fiction or in taking their work to the next level.

Cost: £40 for the half-day workshop, 1pm-4pm. Location: National Centre for Writing, Dragon Hall, 115-123 King Street, Norwich NR1 1QE. This venue is fully accessible.

To book, please send the ticket price via Paypal to editors@smokelong.com, stating your name and ‘Norwich Workshop’ in the payment details section. Please let us know if you have any special requirements. Any enquiries can also be sent to this address.

We can’t wait to work with you! It’s going to be so much fun.

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Christopher Allen is the author of Other Household Toxins (Matter Press) and Conversations with S. Teri O’Type (a Satire). Allen’s fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in [PANK], Indiana Review, Split Lip Magazine, Longleaf Review and Lunch Ticket, among many other great places. Allen is a multiple nominee for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, The Best Small Fictions, storySouth‘s Million Writers Award and others. He is presently the co-editor of SmokeLong Quarterly and was a consulting editor for The Best Small Fictions 2018.

Helen Rye lives in Norwich, UK. She has won the Bath Flash Fiction Award, the Reflex Fiction contest and third place in the 2018 Bristol Short story prize. Her stories have been nominated for The Best Small Fictions and the Pushcart Prize, and shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. She is a submissions editor for SmokeLong Quarterly and a prose editor for Lighthouse Literary Journal, and she helps out from time to time at Ellipsis Zine and TSS Publishing.

The Life of Foxy

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by Fiona B

 

Editor’s Note: Fiona is 8 years old. Foxy is her best friend. She likes dinosaurs and Five Nights At Freddy’s (FNAF). She likes to draw and watch squishy-makeover videos.

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Once-a-pon a time there was a lonely plush Foxy who only wanted to be loved by people. Every time he came near one they would run away after that he would go back to his home in a ally and sleep till the next day. Then he would get up and look for food he would go around town looking in windows but when the people saw him they scream and plush Foxy would run back to the ally all scared. Then he felt sleepy and he fell asleep. The next day it was raining but he pooked his head out and saw a plush getting wet Foxy said “want to come in here” the plush stood up and walked to the covered ally the plush sat down inside. Foxy said “my name is Foxy what is yours?” the plush said “Funtime Foxy” and they lived happily ever after.

__________________________________

 

Got a great story from someone 12 or younger? Submit it to us here.

 

Issue 63–The Playlist

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Looking for a soundtrack while you read the 19 new stories in Issue 63? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.

Here is the playlist for Issue 63.

Read more about why our authors chose their songs:

Tucker Leighty-Phillps, “What Wasn’t Swallowed Was Exhaled” – “Prehistoric” by Now, Now

This is maybe my favorite album of this past decade, and it resonates really strongly with me in the colder months, being a part of my household in the winter like holiday decorations. As soon as the heat goes on, so does this album. My story kind of spawned from the atmosphere within this record, so I like to think they’re ornaments dangling from the same, sad tree.

James Braun, “The Strings Between Us” – “Young Blood” by Noah Kahan

Kahan’s music accomplishes much of what I try to do in my own writing––the subject     matter may be sad, but the voice still makes you feel good.

L.W. Nicholson, “Viva Forever” – “Tadpole” by Tristen

This tune is a lot of fun, but the lyrics are very sad. The same can be said about the Spice Girls, but in a different kind of way.

MFC Feeley, “Helicopter Parent” – “Innocent Child” by Big Audio Dynamite

The main lyric sums up the narrator’s longing:

I wish I could have seen you

when you could run wild

I  would have liked to know you

as an innocent child

She will never get to her baby as any kind of child. Hannah didn’t make it that far, and no amount of wishing on the narrator’s part can change that.

Sutton Strother, “Not Louise” – “Acrobat” by Angel Olsen

The first time I heard this song, I was instantly gutted by how purely it captures what infatuation feels like — that heady brew of sexual and romantic longing, all those mixed-up feelings of wanting a person and wanting to be like them and wanting to be something (or everything) to them all at once. I can’t think of a song that better expresses the awe and desire the narrator in “Not Louise” feels toward the object of her affection. Also that line “You are the witch / I am your cat” is really on-the-nose here.

Raven Leilani, “Airplane Mode” – “Airplane Mode” by Flamingosis

A song I feel really connects with my piece is Airplane Mode, by Flamingosis. It is a sleepy instrumental with a pretty loop, so there is a cool circular structure to the track, a limbo state I really wanted to get down on the page.

Fatima Jamal, “Comatose” – “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

One of the unique characters of this song is that it’s non-cyclical. The story presents a debate between a non-cyclical and unchangeable reality (Aziz’s coma), and the unrealistic wish of the mother that things would go back to normal. Also, the “Bismillah” phrase of the song resonates with the story.  Arabs say Bismillah not only when they start off something, but also in the time of shock as well.

Kevin Sterne, “From Your Jerry” – “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens

The refrain throughout the song is “all things go” and the line in my story is “all must go” and that really centers at the heart of it all for me. In a verse of the song Sufjan sings, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes” and so has Jerry. Oh, he definitely has. Also, Jerry lives and Chicago and this story and all stories about him take place in Chicago.

Natalie Teal McAllister, “Emma Jane Watson in a Drawer” – “Myth” by Beach House

The cadence of it works with the story, but I also think the element of myth-building works as well. Julie has created a myth of this baby. She’s stuck between past and living.

Tom DeBeauchamp, “Space Junk” – “Come Back Baby” by Pinetop Perkins

Roscoe Gordon or Pinetop Perkins show up in the first paragraphs of “Space Junk.” They’re party tunes, blues and boogie woogie style music, songs often of men-done-wrong. Maybe on their own they don’t feel toxic, in context maybe  they’re uncomfortable, expressing a masculinity like the narrator’s.

Kate Finegan, “Lion’s Tooth” – “ICE El Hielo” by La Santa Cecilia

This song was created for the #Not1More series opposing unfair deportations and speaks to the “political” (but more importantly, human) dispute simmering underneath this couple’s marriage. I admire the structure of this song, how La Santa Cecilia takes a political stand through the power of storytelling, by illuminating people’s individual and collective experiences. The political is personal, and the political is personal, which is something I was trying to explore in this story.

S.L. Bailey, “In November 2017” – “Love & Kisses” by Altered Images

This song’s lyrics contrast with the pop-y tone, which kind of mimics the contrasts within “In November 2017.”

Didi Wood, “Bone” – “Someday My Prince Will Come” by Sinead O’Connor

I grew up with the classic Disney princesses, patiently waiting (with their avian buddies) for love to find them. As an adult, it’s more fun to explore the other side of “happily ever after.”

 

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Shoshana Surek

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Your story pulled a lot from many different tragic references and images. Do you consider a world-view an important function to your writing overall?

Absolutely! The relationship between worldview and my writing is so indelible that I can’t really identify where one ends and the other begins. As a reader, especially as a young reader, my world was almost completely defined by and constructed with the words I read and the stories which whisked me away or taught me about life. Truly, I can think of no greater function for writing than to express or include reality -every dark, dirty, and colorful aspect of reality- within the barriers of form and device.

You mention the stories which taught you about life. Name a few that still have an impact on you today as a writer, a mother, and a woman in the world. 

My mind reels when I am asked this question. The impact of great writing and astounding authors has been a continually moving target of mine. I started to read before I could communicate verbally, so books like Richard Scarry’s “Best Storybook Ever!” taught me to have a conversation with reading when I couldn’t have a conversation with people.

I continued to read beneath my age because my parents were told I should. When I was in first grade, my sister and I shared a bedroom, and she read Wilson Rawls’s “Where the Red Fern Grows” out loud. It was all the motivation I needed to seek out more and more words. By third grade I was reading all of my parent’s books, including everything by Stephen King, V.C. Andrews, and J.R.R. Tolkien. King stands out amongst them with a worldview, an idea of humanity’s responses to and responsibilities in the horror of real life, which I felt mirrored my own belief system.

As I grew as a writer and reader, I searched for more diversity in my reading: Layli Long Soldier, Grace Lin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Louise Erdrich, Gavriel Savit, Jandy Nelson, and Roxane Gay just to name a few stacked up on my desk right now. Still, there will always be stories which never fade far from my view, like Dalton Trumbo “Johnny Got his Gun,” Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” and Stephen King’s “The Long Walk.” In short fiction, I never lose sight of gut-punching stories evoking that classic flavor, like Dino Buzzati Traverso’s “Falling Girl” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One of these days.”

Despite all of the darkness in my list, I find there is an incredible light in having that real conversation between words and reader. I suppose I am always circling back to the hours, days, and years I spent reading Richard Scarry before I knew I had anything to say.

I feel the same when it comes to the honesty between words and the reader. It’s funny how as writers, we can find ourselves constantly circling back, as you said, to the writers and books and words we connected with before we knew how to articulate this type of bond. I think that’s why your imagery came through so strongly in this piece, and perhaps why the scenes you portrayed through your imagery felt so real, so palpable. I need to satisfy one more curiosity itch. What do you want to say to readers out there who are writing and submitting and perhaps feeling a little down about their writing and rejections? What piece of advice, if any, do you want to share?

Strange, the association game my mind plays when asked what advice I would offer to writers who, like me, can feel down about rejections and their own writing. The key, I believe, is to return to writing. In other words, return to the reason and the feelings and the personal story which you serve through your love of and dedication to words. It brings me immediately to Sylvia Plath. I was obsessed with her poetry as a teenager (I was probably about the same age as the character in my story). In “The Unabridged Journals of Slyvia Plath,” she wrote, “I wish I could have the ability to write down the feelings I have now when I am little, because when I grow up, I will know how to write, but I will have forgotten what being little feels like.” All of my work -fiction, poetry, and even essay- is leaning toward this effort to express now what I felt at a different time. I suffer from the same insecurities and doubts as all writers do, but the words are really just a page in another private notebook. In fact, Sylvia Plath’s tragic end is another odd coincidence that has me wondering if, in some small way, my character desired the things which would destroy her in the end.

I think that’s beautiful and sound advice, Shoshana. And after reading almost 100 stories out of the queue and having to choose just one, it was both a humbling yet extremely tough job. But your story echoed these questions, curiosities, images that wouldn’t leave my mind. There’s something to be said about a gorgeous piece of writing that not only displays layers of beauty, tragedy, angst, terror, and heartbreak, but also leaves a reader questioning. Thank you for your words and your work, Shoshana.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with L.W. Nicholson

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There’s much to love in this story. One of my favorite lines is that image of moving the frogs’ eggs as being like “capturing and releasing stars.” And then maybe my second favorite moment is how the story shifts from this lovely image to the startling-in-a-different-kind-of-way line, “Bee quit coming to my house soon after that day.” Why that shift right there at that particular moment? And did these lines come quickly and easily or only after revision?

I liked the way it felt to have that abrupt shift, and I like a little choppiness. That said, it could also be attributed to the fact that I’m bad at transitions— both in life and in writing.

In regards to your second question, I’m not sure at what point in the process certain lines emerge. I’ll tinker with a thing in spurts over a long expansion of time. I don’t like to visit a story for too long because I don’t enjoy listening to myself talk. I’ve thrown away every diary I’ve ever tried to keep. This is why flash fiction works best for me. When I’m choosing word after word, I often feel like I’m playing hopscotch with wobbly legs. So I give a story a bit of my attention in small doses, and I can’t pinpoint exactly when the sentences pop up.

Have you ever transported or handled frog eggs yourself? I would totally believe that you had.

I have a distinct memory of doing this exact thing—“rescuing” frog eggs—when I was a kid; my arms looked like they were covered in translucent raspberry jam. I’ve lived in the rural Ozarks my entire life. I’m usually either sweaty or sticky. I fell in love with my husband when he told me about a pet raccoon he had as a child. I am both Tucker and Dale.

I’m struck by the mother claiming not to remember Bee. Do you think she really doesn’t? If so, why do you think that is?

There’s that scene in Fahrenheit 451 when Montag asks his wife, Mildred, if she remembers when they first met ten years ago, and she laughs off the fact that she cannot recall it. The whole thing is about distraction as a means of control and what that does to memory. Real Chomsky stuff. Memory is an interesting beast. I also know that there are things about childhood which feel large and significant that are, to an outsider, even a parent, inconsequential. From the narrator’s perspective, this was a big deal—this moment of heroism and this friend whose life was so different from her own. From the mother’s perspective, her daughter’s friend came over and she may have served them both sandwiches. Probably on white bread. Probably with bologna.

I wonder, if Bee were to tell this story, what would her version look like? How would she describe that spring day?

I’m sure she would have been happy to have a moment in which she felt she had some control. This is especially true for Bee, but it’s also true for all people—young and old. A little autonomy is important and necessary.

Do please tell me, for I am so completely ignorant here other than I catch that it must involve the Spice Girls, about Spice World.

I can remember reading a Christian parenting magazine when I was in the fifth grade—because that is the kind of thing you do when you are a very weird kid—and there was an article about how the Spice Girls were terrible role models. Therefore, it was understandable that I was anxiously keyed up when my friend asked me to a sleepover to watch Spice World. It was directed by Bob Spiers, who also directed cinematic classic That Darn Cat. Meat Loaf makes an appearance, and I distinctly remember a lot of faux leather and an alien abduction. Jackie Zebrowski would call it “a romp.” My eleven-year-old self gives it one million out of five stars.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Didi Wood

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I was so captivated by ‘Bone’ and am so happy to be able to talk to you today!

Thank you! As a writer, you know what it’s like to toss a story into the world, and how exciting it is when someone catches it. And thanks for the fabulous questions – you really made me think!

What a story, first of all. It crawled into my bones instantly, and through many subsequent reads, it has just clung and clung. So let’s start there:

One of my favorite pieces of writing advice (about, in this case, poetry, although it certainly applies to flash fiction) is: “You must be careful not to deprive the poem of its wild origins.” Without demystifying the story for us or where it began for you, what can you tell us about the idea of wild origins in general in your work, and how you manage to maintain them while still honing a piece to completion?

“Wild origin” – what a great way to describe that mystical, magical, indefinable spark of a story! When writing, I do feel like I’m stalking something wild through the brambles, and I have to be careful not to scare it away. Usually it begins with voice – a first line or a scrap of dialogue, like a rustling in the leaves, and I creep after it to see where it leads. If I look at it directly or try to name it – if I dare to wonder what it is or try to direct its path – I could lose it entirely. It’s an act of submission, really, not so much a making as a finding and following, a listening, requiring an openness to whatever happens … and also trust that I won’t end up in a ditch or devoured by spiders. It’s harder to maintain and recapture that feeling in the honing process, yes, but I find that if I focus on the voice, on the rhythm and pacing, on the sound of the words, I’m pulled back into the exhilaration of that initial pursuit. When I revise, there’s a lot of urgent whispering at my desk – one reason I find it hard to write in public places. I was a musician before I was a writer, and maybe that’s why I’m so focused on sound.

What’s your biggest writing challenge? Time? Space? Ideas? Tension? Endings? Other? What’s hardest for you, and do you have any strategies for overcoming it?

I have a ridiculously hard time actually sitting down and putting words on the page. I think about writing all the time, playing with sentences in my head, but I put off the actual writing until the last possible moment … or forever, if there’s no external deadline (see: stalled novels). It has to do with fear: I get overwhelmed with all the choices available, on so many levels, and I’m terrified I’ll choose wrong and ruin it forever. Ruth Ozeki articulated it beautifully in A Tale for the Time Being: “That’s what it feels like when I write, like I have this beautiful world in my head, but when I try to remember it in order to write it down, I change it, and I can’t ever get it back.” I’m trying to hold onto this quote from Shannon Hale: “When writing a first draft, I have to remind myself constantly that I’m only shoveling sand into a box so later I can build castles.”

One way I combat this fear and ensuing procrastination/paralysis is by inviting deadlines, usually by signing up for a class. All the stories I wrote in the last couple years originated in online workshops, most in Kathy Fish’s Fast Flash. I used to beat myself up about needing a deadline to produce anything, but now I recognize it as part of my process, and reach for the shovel.

Would you say there are common themes in your writing? And is this particular piece “in dialogue,” thematically, with your other work, or does it stand more on its own?

Sometimes I worry that I’m writing the same story, over and over. I find myself writing about people who feel lost in their own lives, unseen and unappreciated; people losing faith in themselves because they’re told repeatedly that what they see and value and are isn’t real or worthy; people longing for connection but unable to find it. I’m intrigued by the small moments that comprise a life, the tiny, daily decisions that add up to so much more, and the way people find themselves giving in, incrementally, until they reach a crisis point. “Bone” definitely belongs to that thematic family, although in revisions I worked to push it past my comfort level.

And poor “Hunter” – I realized after I submitted “Bone” that I had a little girl bite a boy named Hunter in another story, published last year in Jellyfish Review. Nothing personal, Hunters of the world! (but, you know, maybe try to be nicer, okay?)

Is there a story—written by someone else—that you return to for inspiration, or as a reminder of an intention or style you don’t want to lose or forget? What’s the story and what does it spark for you?

There’s a fabulous flash community on Twitter, and I’m amazed and inspired every day by the quality of writing I find linked there, in SmokeLong and so many other great journals, and also by how supportive flash writers are of each other. Naming one story feels a bit like picking teams in grade school, which never ended well for me, but I will mention one writer whose work inspires me to push beyond my comfort level: Elisabeth Ingram Wallace (hi, Lis!).  She has this wildly imaginative style – feels like she’s pulling images out of herself and flinging them onto the page and letting them drip down, running into one another, not caring if it all makes sense – but it does! in a way you feel but can’t define, and don’t need to. It’s so carefully done, yet it seems effortless, organic. And funny – such humor and even sweetness amid utter blackness. Lis’s writing reminds me to let go and give way to those playful, wild impulses, and to trust the part of me that knows what it’s doing.

What are you working on right now? Got any big goals or news on the horizon for 2019?

I’m always working on a couple of novels. I dislike outlines – I feel they smother that “wild origin” you mentioned earlier – but it’s too hard to keep track of everything in a novel without some sort of guide, so I’m trying new ways of planning ahead without spoiling too much for myself.

I’m working on a (very basic) website, which should be live by the time this interview appears: didiwood.com.

Really, though, I’m just working on WORKING: getting words out of my head and onto the page. Being more open, playful, impulsive. Writing weirder and wilder. I’ve started a story about the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (did you know the character doesn’t appear in the novel by Ian Fleming but was added for the movie by co-screenwriter Roald Dahl?), and I’m excited to see where that goes (see: ditch, devoured by spiders).

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Nicole Rivas

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What makes this story work so well, so compelling, is how willing Lily is to go along with this situation, how she’s along for wherever the ride takes her. How Lily are you: Someone asks you on a date, to have dinner in their car-house, what do you do? 

I love hanging out in cars. I’d estimate that half of my dating life has unfolded in some sort of vehicle, so in that way I’m pretty aligned with Lily. But I haven’t ever dated anyone with a car-house. Actually, I might be a little sad about that. A car is a terrific place to pretend to be someone else.

There’s a definite birth/rebirth theme going on here, the title lending such weight to the hatched-shell detail out of all her personal items you list. It’s great use of powerful imagery. With that in mind, what’s the best way to make eggs?

I went to culinary school when I was nineteen. We did a lot of things with eggs. We even had an egg-cooking exam, where we were tasked to make a French omelet and plate it. It was a stressful event. The omelet had to be carefully folded in thirds and contain no signs of browning associated with overcooking. It probably took me five times to get it right. To me, a French omelet is a lot harder to make than scrambled or over-easy eggs and considerably less tasty.

But in terms of cooking them, one piece of advice I’ve retained is to remove the eggs from the burner’s heat before the eggs seem done. The logic is that the residual heat from the pan continues to cook the eggs, and by getting them away from fire early, it prevents your eggs from turning to rubber. So, that’s what I usually do. Scrambled and fluffy. With plenty of cheese thrown in at the end.

Oh, crap! I just got it, after forty-five-plus years on this earth: Hatchbacks are named hatchbacks because they hatch open, like an egg. That’s why you chose for her to have a hatchback. How embarrassed are you for me?

If by “embarrassed” you actually mean “incredibly excited,” then 10/10.

I can’t help but think, because Lily’s so amenable, because she herself has lost, that Lily might be a perfect match for this narrator. What’s next for Lily, post-credits?

Lily and the narrator could be a better match if both were willing to compromise. But it’s much too early in their knowing each other for compromise. Soon after the car-date episode, Lily returns to the coffee shop where she and the narrator first met. But she’s not looking for the narrator. Lily wouldn’t expect her to be there. Before her coffee is even ready, she’s already striking up a conversation with someone new. She’s already asking questions, seeking new answers and new connections.

There’s a line the narrator won’t have crossed: Lily can know she lives in her car but she can’t rifle through her things or read her suicide letter. In an odd way, I think that makes the ending positive, that despite her situation, she still has the self-worth to have parameters. Going back to the rebirth theme, how does she use this incident to shape a new self?

Absolutely. I think the first time a person’s line is crossed, it can feel scary or awkward to say anything about it, especially if you feel less-than or have a personal history or background where your opinions and your feelings weren’t valued. Sometimes it takes weeks, months, or even years to learn how to assert yourself in a way that’s necessary and protective. All those boxes of personal detritus beneath the narrator’s car? The old dog collar, the business cards, the suicide letter? Those serve as a kind of proof of those weeks, months, and years of personal perseverance. Even though the narrator is self-conscious about her living situation, her core personhood is strong enough after all she’s experienced that she doesn’t let the whims of a date dictate her sense of self or her dignity.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with MFC Feeley

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The narrator of “Helicopter Parent” runs straight from her own terrible loss to a moment of complete transgression at the center of the story (which itself shocks but feels inevitable in retrospect). How readily I followed her there stuck with me long after I finished reading. Was there a particular image or moment that served as a jumping-off point when you began writing?

One of my kids had a serious illness, so I spent time in the children’s hospital and saw a lot of trauma. The incident with the lost child in Barnes & Noble really happened. One morning, in my twenties, I came upon a baby in a stroller alone on an empty sidewalk. I guarded her for several minutes until her mother returned and then yelled at me like I was a kidnapper. I had these in the back of mind, but I started with the moment you cut: reaching for your baby and finding her cold.

As a backdrop to the narrator’s grief you describe specific landmarks in New York City as well as the bland corporate comforts of a children’s section in a Barnes & Noble, a sort of neutral territory in the middle of the metropolis. Can you talk about the role of place in this story?

It’s startling how when your personal world falls apart, the general world holds. The more unsettling a story, the more I want to ground it in a real place. The path she walks is one I trod for years. The Barnes & Noble is real but while its predictability comforts, it’s also disconcerting, like a perfect Barnes & Noble would be a portal transporting you to all Barnes & Nobles. Instead of the Astral Plane, you’re on the Barnes & Noble plane, where everything that ever happened in every Barnes & Noble happens concurrently and when you exit you might walk out anywhere Barnes & Noble has a storefront. When she gets out, reality floods back; she knows she doesn’t have much time and has to work to keep her thoughts out.

She sidelines her thoughts about Hannah so completely that her grief slips out sideways and manifests in all these mundane details. We aren’t aware there’s a baby in the stroller until the sudden pronoun shift. Addressing the strange baby as “you” locks the story into such an intimate space that I felt like a voyeur. Did you anticipate that shift in POV or did that emerge in the editing process?

That shift happened in the very first draft. I wanted to erase the distance of past tense and third person and plunge the reader into the moment.

Who are the writers (flash or otherwise) you’d most like to see your writing share a syllabus/reading/shelf with, and why?

Everyone! But topping my list:

James Madison, because I just finished a series inspired by the Bill of Rights.

Meg Pillow Davis. We were fellows together at The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and it’s been exciting to watch her take off. We share some themes and she always surprises me. Plus, she writes a great beach, puts you in the car—she’s great with setting.

Colson Whitehead, for exuberance. I read The Underground Railroad in one sitting. He’s in touch with ideas he had as kid (me, too!), inhabits every character, and, like Camus and Ibsen, writes about the explosions that happen under societal pressures. When I met him (for about three seconds) at a reading, he was remarkably kind.

Truman Capote, for writing stories that you have to share. I spent a week relating Music for Chameleons to the early birds at DBA while I stocked the bar. “Handcarved Coffins” may be my favorite work of nonfiction.

And for ballsy, brilliant brevity, slide me next to a collection of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s Tweets.

I’m intrigued by the idea of a Bill of Rights series of stories being written today. How did that project come about? In what ways did the concept change and develop as you completed the series?

Four years ago, I ran for school board. It was a divisive election in a small town and the social backlash was significant. Repeatedly, people whispered that I had their support. I thought, “It’s a good thing voting booths are private or few would challenge the status quo” and began wondering what else our founders got right. (I still lost.)

The 2016 election intensified my interest; I pitched the series to Brett Pribble at Ghost Parachute; the tenth story published on March 1.

The central questions were always, “Why is this right vital? What would happen if we lost it?” I read the Federalist Papers, the Magna Carta, court cases, veterans’ websites, etc. Overall, we’ve been asleep at the wheel; all ten rights are threatened and we’ve arguably lost those guaranteed in the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Amendments.

Monthly deadlines taught me about rhythm. I love research and need a stop date. My first drafts wander, many were thirty pages. One week before deadline, I’d hate it, then I’d reach either epiphany or acceptance and be happy again. I still don’t like the “hate it” part, but now I recognize it as part of the journey.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Natalie Teal McAllister

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I love how you’ve melded the tender subject of the loss of a child with short, direct sentences. The result is quite haunting. Was this intentional?

Wow, I love this reading of the story. It’s partially intentional: I find that when I write about raw loss, longer, more descriptive sentences have a tendency to hide the pain of the moment. Short sentences, in a situation like this, strip away everything but the pain. I do think that our poetic subconscious has a way of guiding structure in ways we don’t always appreciate at the surface, however.

Did an actual photograph spur the idea of “Emma Jane Watson in a Drawer?”

I’m so glad you asked this. I discovered Emma Jane Watson in a drawer at the Lawrence Antique Mall in Lawrence, Kansas. I knew of the practice of photographing deceased children, but this was the first image I had held. I couldn’t stop thinking about the mother who lost this child, the mother who must have treasured this photograph. How did it find its way to an antique mall? Where did this baby lose her history? Her family? I actually considered buying the photograph, taking it home, and giving the baby room among the photos of my children, like Julie does in the story. I regret not doing that, in fact, and I often think about going back to find her ….

Was this a fast write for you? Describe your process.

I’m a ruminator who’s lucky enough to have a fairly long commute. I drive about thirty minutes to downtown Kansas City every day for work and get some of my best ruminating done on that drive. I dedicate that thirty minutes to solving a problem in a story—whether that’s the first line or what happens next or where it needs to end. This story was probably a faster write than most because it was essentially the manifestation of what I wanted to do, but once I’ve ruminated on a story for a few days, I can write a draft in a couple of sessions. I’d also like to send a shout out to my writer friends, who give me the kindest, most thoughtful edits. Reading their work makes me a better writer, and I couldn’t ask for a better group of editors.

I read on your website that your fiction “….can’t seem to outrun General Sherman or the effect of the Civil War.”  What do you think draws you to write historical fiction and/or history’s imprint on modern times?

I have a friend who says my writing is historic recursion: personal history repeats itself, family history repeats itself, national history repeats itself. To understand why we keep returning to the same moments, we have to address those moments head on. We have to talk about them.

I’m fascinated by how we hang on to history in this country. My family has lived in the Piedmont of North Carolina for hundreds of years. There’s a story passed down about General Sherman trying to take my great-great-great grandmother’s last chicken. I’ve often wondered why that story has survived for generations—what did it mean then, and more importantly, what does it mean now? That story inspired the first novel-length manuscript I wrote. I’m on the eighth or ninth draft of that manuscript now, and I feel like I peel back a new layer of truth with each draft I write. I keep writing that story because I believe we need to talk about uncomfortable subjects, and somehow I’d like to use that story to open up a dialogue with people who have a shared history. How do we navigate that space to heal, not harm? It’s a scary subject, and although I’m not sure I’ll ever get it quite right, I’d like to be a part of that conversation.

The Sherman novel is set in the modern South, but I finished a second novel last year that is truly historical fiction. Living on the border of Kansas and Missouri, it’s interesting to me that people still casually bring up the Border War (a big spark in starting the Civil War) as if it happened just a few years ago. I felt like I needed to understand why that conflict is still alive and breathing, and to do that, I needed to go back to that moment. I wanted to understand the assumptions we make about “the other”—and the crimes we commit to preserve that otherness.

What are you working on now?

I just started a book where the Mothman moves into the suburbs. It’s totally different from my other two manuscripts, and yet there are so many parallels. It’s still a book about “the other” at its heart.

I’ve been reading “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” a lot lately. That reading inspired a short story about a man who literally comes unraveled and a story about a woman incubating a kraken in her womb. I’m very interested in how parenthood changes us, too. That comes up a lot in my flash fiction. I hope to share more of that soon!

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Fatima Alharthi

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In your story, “Comatose,” I sense so much discontentment, even disillusionment, from the characters—Aziz’s wife and their children who are now grown—and from the people he served (or failed to serve) as a government official before his coma. Aziz seems to be the catalyst in this story, has so much agency, still, despite being in a coma. Can you talk more about how his character came to be and how you intended him to function in this story?

Aziz’s coma is one of the many stories I heard in my childhood. My dad talked about Aziz one afternoon during lunch and his story lingered with me. The good thing about writing fiction is when you devote yourself entirely to it, it digs into your past subconsciously.

The agency of Aziz resides in the absence of patriarchal power. Aziz had the coma in the 1990s, long before feminist and liberal waves started seeping into the lives of Arabian households who no longer needed the authority of the father or the oldest brother to steer their lives. The sudden collapse of Aziz is, in fact, a build-up collapse of the family, especially the wife, who finds it hard to euthanize Aziz.

Aziz’s ruthlessness with the poor cost him not only his consciousness, but also the life of his youngest son. It is a story of illusion and worthless loyalty that wastes the present and the future while holding tenaciously to the past.

Who or what are some of the biggest influences on your writing that you can pinpoint in this particular story?

This is a good question. My husband, Ali, has the significant credit to encourage me to write. It is not common among Arabians to marry someone who is an avid reader and who prioritizes seeing your work published before thinking what dish he is going to have for dinner. Ali is this person. Having a supporting husband is one of the best blessings in life.

When it comes to other influential elements, being raised in a storytelling community provided me with a reservoir of characters. In every family gathering, there is an exciting or appalling story. It never really mattered to me who the person is, or whether I know his family or not. I write better about the characters I’ve never seen but heard of their agony. In Aziz’s case, I asked Dad a few years ago about him and he was still in a coma. This story is an answer to my own question about Aziz’s situation.

How did you get into writing fiction?

Reading Edward Said’s Orientalism stirred me to specialize in fiction. I was at the University of Sydney back then, in 2011, pursuing my master degree in creative writing. One of my Australian professors recommended the book, and I found Said’s observation of the Arabs’ minimal if rare account to represent themselves painfully true. While I was doing exceptionally well in screenwriting, I didn’t buy the concept of having my script controlled by a film director, let alone become one. I wanted total control of my artwork. Even the professor who recommended Said’s book saw me the best fit for screenwriting, but I wanted to try fiction. My first workshop was a disaster. The instructor was harsh and she kind of pushed me away from pursuing this field. I am stubborn.

After the program, we went back home to Saudi Arabia; I worked on polishing my fiction skills and published my first story in 2014. A year later, I attended Tom Jenks’ creative writing workshop in San Francisco, and I saw how positive the American fiction writing milieu is, especially in terms of the small number of students and the insightful comments. The story workshopped in San Francisco became my first print publication and it sort of opened the door of fiction before me.

What keeps you writing?

My 3 Ps: Pain, Patriotism, and Pleasure.

I am not a victim of child abuse or a repressed household. I am a person who loves her homeland and finds it compelling to write about the emotions, struggles, and minute details that can only be represented in fiction. Journalism has provided a particular paradigm of Arabia. I am writing stories to offer my account as native Arabian writing in her second language.

I also write for pleasure. Although most of my writing is melancholic, it pleases me to start the day sitting on my computer to write. At the end of the day, I shift my writerly tone to a motherly one. My three kids enjoy the stories of fiction I create solely for them. Theirs are more bright and positive to help them sleep better.

Who are you reading currently?

Currently, I am reading Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical book A Thousand Plateaus. One of the advantages of grad school is the opportunity to get exposed to brilliant books that you rarely pick in normal life.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Venita Blackburn

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The characters and dilemmas presented in “Easter Egg Surprise” are socially salient and unsettlingly familiar. What inspired you to write this particular story?

Weirdly enough, this is based on a true story. The very first section did happen. I witnessed it a little boy threaten to kill his entire family one at a time; it was hilarious, and of course that hilarity became both alarming and disarming. I’m often thinking about how children are interacting with technology and how their behaviors are not changed by it but amplified. The school of thought that claims violent media creates violent tendencies in kids, specifically boys, has never been that convincing to me. There are outlets for violence in our culture and we steer masculine ideals into the realm of violence as one’s entire personal narrative. That’s not excusing it, just naming it.  Side note: I have a story in I in a previous edition, “Chew,” that is also based on a true story with a similar theme, weirdly enough: Ha!

I’m struck by the narrator’s voice in this piece; phrases like “creating suspense and shit” and “genetic transfer of fucked-up tendencies” come across as pointed and powerful. How did you decide that this story would be told from the perspective of a struggling parent? Further, how did you go about crafting their personality?

I’m not a parent, but I’ve been around babies my entire life. My brothers are much older than I am, so I became an aunt/babysitter early on (quite an expensive babysitter, btw, $50/hr.). Come to me only when most desperate. I did discover that parenting is very very hard. There had to be a bit of an edge to the dad’s voice, if it served as an echo of an authentic parent to me. There is naturally something more tender and accepting that comes along with it as well. Voice is very special to me and really drives my interest in any prose. If the voice is not interesting or compelling, I won’t be that invested in the total story. So, the language needed to reflect a kind of weary, irreverent and earnest frustration.

 “Easter Egg Surprise” works incredibly well as a piece of flash, though the issues it’s in conversation with are quite massive. How did you know or decide that the story of Lil Benny, Ben Sr., and the narrator would be flash fiction versus a longer story?

This one seemed destined to be shorter in scope from the very beginning. The genesis was the Easter egg video phenomenon from a few years ago. Kids were watching these videos like Game of Thrones episodes. They are addictive, and I will admit that I could watch them in a sort of mesmerized state for more minutes than I care to admit. But that’s just the gateway. The videos lead to other videos of not just toys, but kids playing with toys then whole families playing together with millions of hits, all for this simulacrum of playtime. I found it totally bizarre and telling, telling of our consumerism based system of instant rewards for minimal effort, plus technology’s ability to provide the illusion of success and social interaction. Fascinating stuff.

How does your process for composing flash fiction differ from when you’re working in other forms or lengths of writing? What stays the same?

I usually know how long a story is going to be when I finally start writing it. Most of the time I walk around with ideas, listening for voices and waiting for a situation worthwhile for particular characters. When the characters take on a lot of descriptive components, I know it’ll take some time to use all of the parts. I’m big on unity and not having a lot of arbitrary details. If I use something once, an object, an internal insight, I like to revisit that again in the story, each time widening the lens on the thing until everything is clear and connected.

What other creative projects—writing or otherwise–are you working on right now?

More stories. More stories! And a novel (whisper voice). I’m thinking about generational trauma these days, all the things we do from one generation to another with the intention of providing something useful, something that builds character and strength, but in actuality the gesture is quite devastating.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Kevin Sterne

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If Jerry wanted to send himself up, would the clown help him? If so, how many balloons would it take? How would the patrons react if Jerry landed at the Italian restaurant?

Once Jerry reels you into one of his schemes, there’s no saying no. There’s no unbaiting that hook. Drug addicts have that effect on people. Even without ever having met this clown, I can tell you he was complicit from the start.

How many balloons? Hmm. I think you have to start by thinking how Jerry thinks. So, how many balloons does it take to lift a two-liter bottle of RC? Now, how many two-liter bottles of RC is a Jerry? I’ll say 250 balloons, if it’s those big party balloons. If those puny things kids take home from Applebee’s, I’ll go with 350. Granted, I’m not really a physics guy. I mostly use a shovel for my day job. They don’t trust me with much else.

As far as the Italian restaurant, I only know of the Olive Garden in Irving Park by the Kennedy. Or I guess there are some fancy shmancy Italian Italian ones in Lincoln Park and near the Loop. Maybe he was referring to those. If he landed in the rich parts of Chicago, they’d arrest him before he touched ground. Guess who would have to bail him out?

What are some of the mom’s CDs that Jerry and the clown send up? Does this story have a soundtrack?

We used to have band practice in Jerry’s basement and the walls were lined with CDs. Jerry on synth/keys, me on bass, and this guy Thomas on drums. We were a noise band called Hamm’s, because we really wanted to be sponsored by Hamm’s beer. That lasted a few years until Thomas burned down an Applebee’s and said he needed to quit the band because of this bogus excuse that he was on the run from the police. But, anyways, Jerry’s mom was really into hair metal. She dug Skid Row, Mötley Crüe, Def Leppard, all that. She was super into Axl Rose, so had all the Guns ‘N Roses stuff, but also the side stuff he did, like this terrible Don Henley album. Jerry hated all of it. I hated all of it. Thomas just wanted to burn it all.

The best thing she had by far was this disco Star Wars CD, which is exactly what you think it is: the New Hope soundtrack reimagined as disco. They couldn’t get the rights to the artwork, so it just has these two people with space suits dancing on the cover. Can you think of anything better than the Mos Eisley cantina theme as disco? I often wonder where that landed. Or maybe it’s still up there in the blue.

Section III punches the reader in the gut following a couple scenes which feel more light- hearted. What influences you to juxtapose the profound and the whimsical? What strategies do you consider when making this choice in your work?

You’d have to ask that Kevin guy that wrote it. I guess he’s writing a whole book about us, or has written a book already but is trying to publish it. I don’t know. I’m not much of a writer myself. I am an artist in my free time, though, so I’ll try to help out here.

I do wood block carvings and people often ask me where I get my inspiration. Sometimes there’s a symmetry in opposites. For example, I have this piece of this deformed and totally demented alley rat attacking this fluffy golden doodle—part of my “Animals of Chicago” series. Why this gnarly alley rat? Why this harbinger of famine and fear and disgust? And then pit this against a dumbass dog that rich people have. And to all that I ask: Why would you ever get a golden doodle as a pet?

I always try to make my work just true enough, just believable enough. When someone at the Sunday art fair picks up my woodblock of the man peeing into a Gatorade bottle, I want them to think, “Hey, this reminds me of something I saw on the CTA or would see on the CTA.” That true-to-life connection, you know? There’s a lot more to a carving than what’s on the wood. A whole story beyond the story. Maybe that’s what Kevin is getting at.

Who is Jerry when he’s not at the park? We know he huffs drugs and has gone on a date, but what else does he do all day? Did he get a second date?

Oh, man. You’d have to read Kevin’s book. I guess he wrote a lot about both of us.

I’ve never inhaled helium or witnessed the effects on anyone. Did any prior research or firsthand knowledge go into the portrayal of helium in the story?

You’re not going to the right parties. You haven’t lived until you’ve inhaled helium or nitrous oxide from one of those whip-its. Actually, don’t do that. But, hypothetically, if you were looking to do some research, or better yet, had a friend who was looking to do some research, that might not be a bad place to start. My parole officer and my mom won’t let me comment any further.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Raven Leilani

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Let’s begin with the title. Did you start with it or did it come later? How do you usually go about deciding titles?

I started with it, which is rare. Writing for me is mostly feeling around in the dark, and I can’t be confident I have found the thing I’m looking for until I’m at the end. So to title anything before it’s done usually feels too optimistic, but this one kept. I thought a story about traveling on the Sabbath would be a story about the friction between two states that are at odds, but when you travel, there are these pockets of inertia, moments where you feel time very concretely, which is always what Sabbath-keeping felt like to me. So the title is meant to speak to that, the elasticity of that remote, liminal space. And of course the literal function of your phone, which for better or worse (probably worse) becomes a kind deprivation, a way to make space to be offline and at rest.

Even though it’s flash, reading “Airplane Mode,” I felt like I was carried away into a full-formed world. Rereading, I think it’s because we have a realized setting, with precise details, like “In the bathroom, there was tinsel on the floor and the changing table was torn out of the wall.”  But, airports are such familiar, almost universal spaces. What made you spend time/space on the setting? And when/how did you decide that the story would be flash?

What’s weird is I am generally anti-setting. I don’t know if I should admit that. When I read, I’m happy to just listen to characters talk and make the drapes myself. But then I started writing this piece, and there was so much fluctuation that I needed to find a way to stabilize it. It was lucky I could do that with an airport, which is familiar and endures such high traffic that you can approach the setting through that traffic. So when I wrote about the tinsel, I was thinking of the shoe that tracked it in, and when I wrote about the changing table, I was thinking of a harried parent enduring some airport-specific hell. Thinking of those small interactions with the environment helped me build the world. On the length, I think flash works well for a story about travel. It gives you the feeling of passing through.

I saw that you are also a painter (your color portraits are wonderful!). What kinds of connections do you experience or make between your writing and your painting?

Thank you so much! I think I have to go back to what I said about setting. There’s no setting in my paintings. I paint portraits almost exclusively. It’s the only thing I’m interested in, though if I’m being honest, maybe I would paint landscapes if I had the skill to pull that off. There’s a lot of math you can get wrong, and it’s extremely conspicuous when you do. Faces obviously have metrics, too, but they feel more mutable to me. There’s also color. I had a professor who taught me how to mix paint and it changed my life. She showed me these photo-realistic paintings and had me look closely at where the coloring was surprising, like where greens and purples exist in skin. And when I paint, I like to exaggerate those kinds of inorganic colors, which is similar to the attitude I have about language. I love when language is surprising because it is amplifying something small.

What do you listen to when you travel? When you write? Paint?

When I travel, I like long songs, songs that hit the six or seven-minute mark and make the flight feel shorter. As in, in seven minutes I’ll be over Iceland. Trance is good for that. For writing, I like my ears to be bloody. Anything that is big and abrasive. It clears my head. For painting, I like something popular. The most honest answer is that I listen to everything and in no real specific circumstance, but one constant is that I am a chronic replayer. I get really obsessed with one song and that energy pushes me through whatever I’m making. The trouble is when you take the earbuds out and the thing you made is not as good as the song.

What’s your best or worst airport story?

This is one of the best, and it is very sentimental. I spent my freshman year abroad and it was the first time I’d ever been away from home for any sustained amount of time. I’m close with my parents, and I was nervous to leave them. They were nervous, too, and we were engaged in this perpetual wave goodbye while I was in the departure line. I remember turning away from them, making the decision that this wave needed to stop. I remember how relieved I was in that moment, because looking at them made me so sad. But as I was heading into the cabin, an attendant jogged after me and said, “Your parents are trying to say goodbye to you,” and I turned back around and they were still waving, and it is ludicrous that a stranger would be invested in this moment between me and my parents, but it was lucky because actually I did want to wave a little more.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Elaine Chiew

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In an imaginary topography, where would your woebegone place be called and where would it be?

When I was little I was told these two things quite often by people around me, including my well meaning parents.

—a girl should never put herself first

—a girl shouldn’t get too smart or no man would want her

A transfer of moral value that can have a legacy of consequences, they are also the two things I struggle the most with, the psychological underside of the first is guilt, the second is a vacillation between perpetual diffidence or deception (But I’m not alone in this. How many women we know hide their intelligence as social or survival strategies on the corporate hierarchies?)

So my woebegone places might be something I’d call …

—Island for Self-Centered Girls (a play on “No man is an island”).

—Folly for Smart Girls.  I first encountered a folly on the grounds of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire (believed to be what Jane Austen based Pemberley on): A folly seemed to me a perfect idea of a place to be holed up in, with a tower of books for company.

“A Map of Woebegone Places” describes how practicing an artistic discipline can open paths to healing. Is this a theme that generally appears in your work, or is it specific to Wei’s story?

I don’t really work the visual arts into my stories that often (Laugh: I probably should). So this story is not the first foray, but might as well be.  It’s actually inspired by Yayoi Kusama, whom I reference in the story, specifically her quotation about her compulsion to serenity as the reason she paints dots to infinity, as a way “to exorcise her demons and master her fears.” I was just so struck by that statement—it made me wonder whether that statement “physician, heal thyself” can equally apply to artists and writers; “artist, create art to infinity” might also be a way of saying, “create art to insanity.” As you know, Yayoi Kusama voluntarily lives in a mental health institution.

How does your background as a visual arts researcher influence your creative prose writing?

Shasta Huntington Grant asked me the same question the last time I was a guest editor for SmokeLong, and it’s eye-opening to me how my answer has changed. I’m like, oh, I have evolved! I suppose a couple of ways it definitely changed has been: (1) a conscious “play” process involving the idea of “entry points” in stories, the way “3ntry points” figure in the visual art; and (2) to think of the internal and metaphysical spaces within a story from a visual arts perspective, which is to say one is ever more attentive not just to the psychical potential and meanings of objects, events, dialogue, but also to linkages and the ways they set up an interplay of echoes within the story. For example, since you ask about my upcoming book, The Heartsick Diaspora, I’ve been very conscious of some of the objects (a Chinese chamberpot features in one of the stories) feted as a heritage marker in the collection and the way they reflect and “vibe” off other cultural markers, folding in a kind of ethnographic commentary in its “thingness.”

If given infinite copies, what would be the one book you’d give everyone you meet?

I’m going to blatantly cop out of this question, because it’s too much like trying to answer what my favorite book is, and I have none or I have too many.

What I’d like to give out instead is a fantasy device—a device that allows a person to write the story he or she might have, could have, or would have loved to have written but will probably never write (it picks their brains and hearts and writes it for them). These are the stories that for some reason are rejected out of hand before they begin, or given just a half measure of existence before being discarded. What are these stories that exist in the twilight of our consciousness?

Tell us more about your debut short story collection, The Heartsick Diaspora.

The Heartsick Diaspora is a short story collection about the Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese diaspora, and stories take place primarily in London and New York—where I’ve spent significant amounts of time—and Singapore, where I now live.

The collection embeds a literary conceit (a metalayer, if you will …) of a writing group where each member is writing a storyline that’s actually one of the stories in the collection (although of course they are all written by me), as a way to make manifest the fragmentation of one’s own psyche, and how voice and preoccupations are infiltrated by place. The stories deal with standard/surface markers of identity—race, gender and class—as perceptions around which someone with a diasporic consciousness and a hyphenated identity might have to navigate, and how they navigate them.

What I found though is that when one strips apart surface understandings of race or gender or class, one begins really to encounter culture, and to ask questions about what does being Chinese even mean; as well the term Malaysian Chinese is already a hybrid term. What I’m saying is that behind the curtain of the Malaysian/Singaporean Chinese diaspora is the Chinese diaspora itself, and so, a second group of stories focus on ideas of history, heritage, Chinese culture (food for example as transmission channel for the inculcation of Confucian values), Chinatowns, as ways to hold onto liquid identity; Singapore is a good locus for me in exploring some of the ways East traverses West, and vice versa, since the Chinese immigrant population here is due in large part to British colonial policy.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Tom DeBeauchamp

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Your story begins with the sudden and violent arrival of extraterrestrial space junk. Did the idea for this story hit you the same way it hit Mary-Beth Del Marco McFarthy’s lovely Levi-ed hip?

Sort of! It came out of a generative writing game led by Portland author, Alissa Hattman. Over the course of ten hours, we each wrote ten stories and then met up to read the best ones aloud. “Space Junk” was the fourth or fifth story I wrote that day, and by the time it came out, I was definitely in a zone. When I wrote the first line, I think I had some notion about the party atmosphere, the locale, but was surprised when the space junk showed up. Because the goal was to write the story as quickly as possible in that initial sitting, there was an element of improvisation to it, and I remember thinking when the junk hit Mary-Beth that I couldn’t let this become a then-the-woman-dies story and sort of wrestled against that ugly impulse. In thinking through the story, I hoped to give the obvious destinations of the initial idea a bit more complexity.

I love that this story is an anecdote that has been told over and over again by the narrator. How do you think this method of storytelling benefits from the form of flash fiction?

One of the things I really like about flash fiction is just how much can be, and must be, left out. I think that suits this narrator just fine, too. He’s been over the facts enough times that the extraterrestrial parts almost bore him now. He’s struggling with earthly things, things illuminated by the uncanny event, but completely unrelated to it. Flash encourages mental leaps and insinuation, intentional omissions you still feel, which I think is what you get with a re-re-re-re-etc.-telling.

How do you expect your audience to react to the narrator as a character? How does this compare with the way his audience reacts to his story?

I hope “my” audience sees the narrator as a complex character, if not an entirely sympathetic one. This might be showing my hand, but I hope he comes across as someone who recognizes something ugly about himself and wants to change it, even if he’s been unable to figure out what it is that needs to change, or how it ought to change, etc. I suppose I assume “my” audience understands this better than he does, while his audience is still mystified by the extreme odds of the outer space stuff.

An image that has stuck with me (struck me, you could say) is when you describe the space junk as “some kid’s idea of lightning.” When you were a child, what was a crazy misconception you held about nature?

When I was a kid I thought the white lines that trail behind airplanes were caused by the tips of tall buildings scraping the sky. I thought that’s why those buildings were called skyscrapers. That’s not exactly a natural phenomenon, but it sure felt like it back then!

Does this piece fit into a larger project or, like the space junk its named after, is it destined to travel alone?

“Space Junk” is definitely a stand-alone piece. I hope it feels like it accesses something bigger, but I don’t intend to expand it.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Kate Finegan

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Let’s begin with your story’s narrative voice, which has a “breathless” quality due to the combination of present tense and a streamlined prose that prioritizes imagery over conventional grammar. How do you see this reflecting the narrator’s experiences within the story?

That breathless voice was something that developed during editing. The first draft began with: “On the way up, we stay in one of those motels with a charcoal grill outside every door and single-speed bikes chained to posts.” Then, it became: “You take stock of the invasives on your family farm, this farm that is now half-mine.” Finally, I arrived at the current first line, which quickly throws us into a fast-moving, almost-relentless relationship. I think the narrator is looking back at her recent life and thinking, “How did I get myself into this?” By empathizing with the narrator, I found her voice.

On a related note, you also give the dialogue an unconventional structure—italicized and not put inside quotation marks—as though calling into doubt the absolute veracity of the words being spoken. What does this imply about the nature of communication within the characters’ relationship?

Oh, I didn’t think of the issue of veracity! That’s interesting. The narrator’s thoughts, like the yes in the first couple of lines, are also in italics, and I wanted to foreground her thoughts throughout. I wanted to show this marriage filtered through her experience—like a “memory play,” almost, to steal Tennessee Williams’ term—so I didn’t want to put others’ dialogue on a different level, through the use of quotation marks, from her thoughts. This is another change that came about in the final developmental edit. I had been committed to a single-paragraph story without any dialogue because I wanted to stay firmly within the narrator’s head, but, finally, I decided to try adding paragraph breaks and dialogue. I used italics as a way of staying in the narrator’s head. In this marriage, the narrator’s survival mechanism is to retreat into her own mind and not share her thoughts; I think the italics blend her thoughts with the ideas of others in a way that shows just how much she is living inside her head. It shows how isolated she has become.

Your story seems to pit old-fashioned sensibilities and practices—for example, throwing rice at a wedding, tying tin cans to the back of the newlyweds’ car—against modern advancements, including online dating. Is there a connection between this contrast and the divisive issue of immigration referenced midway through the story?

Even for couples who meet online, fathers often “give away” their daughters at the wedding, so I’m not sure how old fashioned these wedding practices really are; I think weddings continue to be fairly conservative and generally kind of cringe-worthy in their paternalism. And even the online dating, for this couple, is full of old-fashioned sensibilities, like discussing children on the first date. I guess what I’m saying is I’m not sure how much these old-fashioned sensibilities have really been left by the wayside, and xenophobia has, similarly, always been stitched into the fabric of the United States. I imagine couples have had the same fights—or silent, unspoken conflicts—for years and years and years in this country.

Nature also serves as a contentious issue within your story: The husband regards it as a nuisance, and various forms of undesirable fauna are referenced throughout, yet the narrator objects to pesticides and encourages the spread of weeds. Can you say a little about the symbolic intent of this imagery?

I’m just always interested in nature, especially human efforts to control it. My first published story was all about a mother and daughter trying to get rid of a buckthorn patch, and since then, I’ve noticed that many of my stories center around the characters dealing with something—natural or otherwise—that’s unwanted or out of place. I think that in relationships, we are often reluctant to look the major ideological conflicts in the face—they’re too big, too overwhelming. So we focus on little things, like different approaches to maintaining the yard, and those little things stand in for the big things. There is also the fact that dandelions were not considered a weed until the twentieth century and were actually desirable and widely cultivated before that. I think this reflects how arbitrary national attitudes and fears can be. If you look at what Benjamin Franklin was saying about the Germans, it looks eerily similar to what racist politicians are saying today about different immigrant communities.

Finally, regarding your writing in general, what is your personal approach to writing flash fiction versus longer works?

Drafting for both of them happens in roughly the same way—quickly, although with longer works, particularly novels, I write a fairly detailed outline at some point. I don’t do that with flash. Where the processes really differ is in the editing, which is honestly where I think the writing really happens. When I write flash, I almost always do subsequent drafts from scratch. In other words, I’ll write the first draft, think about it for a few minutes or a day, then turn the page and write the whole thing again, without looking at the first draft. I find this useful because the first draft has clarified my vision, but the language often doesn’t quite carry that vision. Leaving that draft behind helps me to move forward with completely fresh language and a clearer understanding of the story. I often do this two or three more times, and because the pieces are short, this isn’t a huge time investment. Of course, with a novel, that would take forever, though I have done this for individual chapters that are giving me trouble.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Kim Magowan

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I know writers hate this question, but where did the idea for this come from? Did it start with a sentence? A phrase? Or with something else? How do you tend to find your way into your pieces?

I was on a bus one morning about three weeks ago, heading to downtown San Francisco. I looked out the window and saw a house that was painted very bright orange—the “reflector vest” orange color of Two’s house in the story. That kicked up a memory of a woman in my moms’ group thirteen years ago, who had a bright orange house, and whose neighbors had taken her and her husband to task for painting their house a color that, the paranoid, snobby neighbors maintained, would compromise their own resale value (this is the kind of thing that might only happen in San Francisco—officious neighbors scolding you about the color of your house). So the germ of the story was that lurid color, and some effete, pragmatic person recoiling from it. I started writing the story immediately. I didn’t have my notebook on me, so I typed the story on my phone. It’s the first time I’ve ever written a story on my phone; that first draft had some hilarious autocorrects.

Tell me about your ultimate triangle. And who would be your nos. One and Two?

Wait, does this question mean what I think it means?! That is, am I allowed to cherry-pick from all the world who my One and Two would be? And are there any rules governing this choice? Does One need to be a sexy, entitled prick, and Two a nurturing slob? Or do they need to be rivals in some established real or fictional construct, like Heathcliff and Edgar Linton? I may be overthinking this question! I’m going to assume they have to be already established rivals or counterparts, and I’m going to go with Cecil Vyse and George Emerson from the film version of A Room with a View. Those two incarnate some One and Two traits recombined (Cecil is unpleasant and entitled, like One, but not really sexy—though Daniel Day-Lewis’s radiance beams through even Cecil’s nerd mask).

I Google-stalked you a little and saw that you teach flash. Who are some of the writers or pieces that you’re teaching? What advice would you give to someone just starting out; or to someone who’s been going at it for a while but needs or wants to try something new?

The semester just started, and the first thing we’re reading is The Best Small Fictions 2018, then Lydia Davis, Amy Hempel, Kathy Fish, Jayne Anne Phillips, Michael Czyzniejewski, Joy Williams, Amelia Gray, Michelle Ross, Sherrie Flick, Jason Sinclair Long, Rebecca Schiff … so many good stories and collections! As we all know, the best way to improve as a writer is to read great stories and to pick up some useful tricks. I don’t know what advice I have to dispense—I’m still figuring out flash myself— but in class today we were discussing a Kevin Moffett flash, “Sixth Wonder,” that has this glorious line about the narrator’s mother: “She and my sister fought over a dollhouse a few years ago, and now my sister calls her that woman and rarely visits her.” It’s such a wonderful bouillon cube of a sentence! My students spent a good ten minutes talking about what Moffett achieves by having this family rupture occur over, of all possible provocations, a dollhouse. With flash, you have to nail the details. They have to shout.

I love the way you write flawed characters; they feel so real to me. I’m not sure what the question here is; maybe it’s just a compliment. Wait. I know. How do you write flawed characters in a way where they’re real and interesting versus repugnant and reprehensible (and uninteresting)? Is there a secret. Please tell me. (I’m not very good at this.)

Thank you! I read an interview with Claire Messud several years ago, where Messud gets really irritated about a silly question the interviewer asks her—something about why the narrator in The Woman Upstairs isn’t likeable. Really, you must read the interview—Messud makes the point in a brilliant, pithy, acerbic way that I am mangling—but Messud’s retort is, essentially, “Who cares about likeable? I want my characters to be interesting!” Messud argues that demand for likability is made of women writers, not men, and of female characters. It’s like the narrative equivalent of telling women, “Smile!” I like thorny, complicated, warts-and-all characters who are unapologetic about their flaws. Those are the people I feel compelled to figure out.

The voice is so wonderful in your piece; it has the kind of magic where it convinces you that the characters are still out there, doing stuff. What do you feel they’re doing now, off-page? Is Jenny any wiser? Did she ditch that no? One? What about her Two? Did La-TISS-ia ever have that baby? What are your hopes for them all?

Jenny will ditch them both, but I suspect Jenny will run through many more trials-and-errors before she finds the right person. She’ll become increasingly clinical about relationships, almost utilitarian: What will this experience teach me? What skills or pleasures or relevant life knowledge will I garner here? She’ll get disillusioned and swear off sex. Then she’ll do something to exfoliate her calloused emotions: travel by herself, take a cooking class and learn how to make complicated soups. I have hopes for Jenny, but she needs to grow up. Two will be fine; Twos are rubber balls, too resilient to bruise. La-TISS-ia will have a little girl with some equally difficult name (maybe Agnes, but pronounced French style: On-yes) and fuss incessantly with her bangs. She’ll divorce One before On-yes is in pre-school, and she’ll keep all the good luggage.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Tucker Leighty-Phillips

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What inspired this gorgeous piece? Was this taken from a loss that happened in your life, or were you imagining into a world and space that was new to you?

I think it’s a little of both. I’ve been unintentionally writing a lot of stories recently that all grapple with loss, or maybe absence is a better word. How do we cope with someone leaving, or with someone having never been there in the first place? A lot of my stories revolve around the threat of absence and I think I’m just a very people-oriented person so that becomes a natural source of tension in a lot of my work. I also just recently moved across the country, so I’ve been thinking about how my relationships are put under scrutiny by such a big life change.

Your use of language is exquisite, so deft and lyrical. Do you also write poetry? What other forms of writing, in addition to flash fiction, do you enjoy and practice?

Thank you so much! The impostor syndrome hits me so hard when I read poetry and read tight, powerful flash fiction. I’ve written a little poetry, but I usually just end up letting those pieces flounder in the Notes app on my phone. Flash and short fiction has always been my preferred form to exist in, but I’ve been using the last twelve months to really challenge myself and try to write stories over two thousand words. I’m also really fascinated by story cycles and would love to replicate that form eventually as a sort of “compromise” between where I feel comfortable and uncomfortable.

When I run my finger along the edges of my writing desk, I would find tiny pillows of dog fur, sticky rings from countless mugs of ginger tea, and bright orange Cheez-It dust. If you were to walk through your own home, what does the dust of your life taste and smell like?

Dog fur, ginger tea, and Cheez-It dust sounds fantastic, and isn’t too far off from what mine would be if my landlord allowed me to have a dog! Since I’m still fairly new to Arizona, I think the dust of my life is still very caked in sweat, but is very much comprised of lime seltzer, coffee rings, and nutritional yeast. I just recently got into baking, so I’ve been making lots of cookies, which leaves a mess of flour everywhere, as I am very clumsy and there’s a reason that I don’t often do detail-oriented tasks.

Your bio mentions that you are an MFA candidate at Arizona State University. Go Sun Devils! What has been one of your favorite writing or learning experiences while studying at ASU?

I’m actually just finishing my first semester, so I’m still very fresh to the ASU experience. However, there have been so many great experiences. My cohort has been fantastic and I’m feeling so challenged by everyone’s diverse, fantastic work. The MFA has been a process significant in learning as well as unlearning. I’m trying to be very conscientious of what a privilege it is to be in my position. There was a significant period of my life where I never foresaw a bachelor’s degree in my future, nevertheless a master’s. I’m just trying to be inclusive, remain self-aware, and build community where I can. But I did learn what a haboob was (by way of trial-by-fire) on my second day in Arizona!

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Amie Souza Reilly

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“Ursa Minor” has a meandering, dreamlike quality to it, somewhat parallel to the opening moment where Nick wakes up with the dream of the bear. How did this story come about?

Well, that opening scene stemmed from a painting I saw at a college where I taught at last year. I made a note about it in my phone and then couldn’t stop thinking about it. Then a few months ago I was repainting the bathroom door in my house and the story just sort of fell out. By the time the door was done, I had a basic idea of how it would unfold. (Maybe I need to do more house projects ….)

I’m interested in how the women in this story appear in relation to Nick (or men): absent (mother), damaged (sister), weak (woman on street.) How do you see that relationship and interaction?

I hadn’t thought about that and my initial reaction to this question was “Wait, what I have I done?” I almost always write women protagonists—this is the first flash I’ve finished from a man’s point of view. I have a cousin who was seriously injured trying to stop domestic violence, and in many ways this story curls around him. (He used to play Ready, Aim, Fire! with me when we were kids.) I think this is a story about circumstances. About connection and disconnection and how much we need each other.

Nick seems saddled with malaise and the “heft” of his life and not too much of the kind of person who makes things happen. I almost expected him to watch the man beating the woman and walk back inside. What changes for him at the end of the story?

I imagine Nick as profoundly lonely; a “still waters run deep” person. Nick was protective of his sister, and also scared, always watching, pensive. Maybe his brave act comes from the bear in his dream, something deep and primal. Saving this woman is the only way he can save the sister he lost when he was so young.

I have to ask: What are stars for you? Stars or an absence of sky?

I’m going to say stars. They look so tiny and twinkly to us way down here, when really they are massive, angry, popping gasses. That gap between perception and reality feels like a space to think about things less sure, like time and light and distance and how small we are.

Are you into astronomy? What is your favorite constellation, besides the Ursa minor, and can you tell us of a memorable related moment from your own life?

I only really know the classics, but when I think of stars I think about the time we took our son out of the light-polluted suburb we live in to see the Perseid meteor shower from the beach on Block Island. The sky was so much bigger, so much brighter out there.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with S.L. Bailey

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“In November 2017” is such a beautiful micro. The depth in this story is remarkable, especially given that it clocks in at under 250 words. Where did the idea for this story come from? Was it always a micro or did this form evolve during the revision process? How did you select the most perfect details throughout (e.g., the color of the nail polish)?

I had the idea for this story while watching the news. I remember thinking how, growing up, I’d always hear a brief update on the war in Afghanistan, and today I hear nothing about it even though the U.S. is still involved. And now there are so many terrible things constantly happening and no one talks about them for more than a day or two. It’s as if we have society-wide compassion fatigue, like we have to forget in order to live. So, I guess this story really sprung out of my own concern and curiosity and dismay about how easily we forget huge, ongoing tragedies amidst the more pressing tangible moments of the everyday.

I feel a little guilty admitting this, but I did not intend for this to be a micro. It started, in my head at least, as an introduction for a longer piece of short fiction. I tried a few different times to lengthen the story and plot it out, but each attempt fell totally flat. All the tension of the story is in that room. After an embarrassingly long time, I finally realized I had been forcing a structure on this piece that just wasn’t right for it.

As far as the details go, one of my favorite ways to reveal large intent is through the smallest details possible. In this piece, I was trying to express the psychic space between the girls’ lives and the reality of war, and crafting those details was essential.

Is flash fiction your jam or do you also write other things? What are you working on now?

Flash fiction is definitely a favorite, though I read more of it than I write. I’m continually impressed by what other writers can evoke in so few words! I typically write stories around the 3,500-5,000-word mark. Right now I’m working on a collection of linked stories about the opioid epidemic in southwestern Ohio, where I’m originally from and where so many people I know and love have been touched by what’s happening there. I guess I have a thing for forgotten tragedies.

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing life? Do you like to write in crowded coffee shops at night or do you spend quiet mornings at home?

I am a morning person, so I generally work best in the early hours, with a cup of coffee and a bit of toast. I have to work in silence or just listening to classical music because anything with lyrics is either distracting or too influential on the mood of the story. I also handwrite everything the first time through, which is probably one of the reasons why I’m such a slow writer. I wish I could work solely on my computer, but something about staring at a screen when I’m trying to create just doesn’t work for me. It’s also too easy to fall into the black hole of the Internet!

Your bio mentions that you have a chocolate lab and your Twitter profile picture is of you and your dog, so I feel that I have to ask about your dog. I think you probably feel the same way about your dog as I do my cats. Please tell us more about your dog! Is he a help or a hindrance to your writing? 

My dog! I’m so happy you asked this question. She’s actually sleeping beside me as I answer! Roo is absolutely a help to my writing … in that she somehow knows when I need to step away from it. In grad school, I’d spend hours on a piece, becoming endlessly frustrated with some aspect of it that wasn’t working. Eventually, she’d start to paw at me or grumble to get my attention. So I’d get up to play with her or we’d go for a walk and I’d experience these moments of clarity that informed the rest of my work. I wouldn’t have had those revelations staring at my notebook or at my computer. I feel like I owe her a lot. She’s also really wonderful to snuggle with as I revise. I would highly recommend snuggling a pet while editing.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with James Braun

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I’m saddened and delighted by the sisters’ ambition to find activities for themselves during their mom’s workday. What are the best activities for kids you came across in your research?

Honestly, I didn’t do any research for this story other than looking up different kinds of countertop sprays (I personally use Bath and Kitchen spray—ten out of ten would recommend!). From the beginning, I had only one activity in mind, the cup-phone activity, and I used that as an anchor for the story. A little off topic, but I also realized I could use the cup phones as an “amplifier” to experiment with the acoustics of the story. If you’ve ever tried talking to someone through a cup phone, you know how the words get distorted, how language gets muffled and broken. The kids themselves are also important to the acoustics and voice of the story; how kids can talk in that sugar-high rambling sort of way. Hence, the story is only four sentences.

The sisters’ impression of their mother seems to result from something the dad said. Is this where they learned the word?

Maybe. For me, when writing a flash fiction, or any kind of fiction, I want the reader to be able to draw their own conclusions about what’s going on in the story. I don’t want my characters to outright state, “My sister and I learned X and Y from our father,” I don’t want to write, “I, Sanora, and my Sis, Latoya, don’t like this other woman. She seems mean. She stepped on our cup phones. What a B-I-T-C-H.” The reader can make their own assumptions based on the details of the story. So: yes, no, maybe.

The story might predate cell phones. Should kids be kept away from computers? Who broke the A and O keys? Who stuck the caps lock button?

Yes, the story might predate cell phones. Or this family can only afford one home phone. Again: It’s up to the reader to decide. I should probably mention here that, in flash fiction, space is very limited. I have a thousand words or less and I want to make them count. In order to answer those other questions in the story, I would have to write backstory, information, exposition, opinions, all of which aren’t essential to the story at hand. My friend and teacher, Peter Markus, once said, “Information is the death of the story.” I couldn’t agree more. In summary, I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, especially whether or not kids should be kept away from computers. I’m twenty-one and have no idea what I’m doing in regard to kids. Besides, having an opinion isn’t my job. I’m just the writer.

What mess is the mom cleaning up before work?

I’m not sure (I say that a lot). It could be that she’s OCD and always has to be cleaning every D-A-M-N thing in the house. It could also be that she’s cleaning up after Sanora and Latoya. Maybe she uses cleaning as a distraction from her husband who’s never around. From a writer’s standpoint, I use the mother’s cleaning as characterization through action. Just as real-life people have obsessions, characters should have them as well. For the mother, her obsession is cleaning.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Sutton Strother

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The first thing that struck me in reading “Not Louise” was its perfectly tuned voice and measured rhythms. I can only assume you care deeply about the acoustics of your sentences. What did you want this story to evoke and sound like?

I wanted the story to sound like a homespun myth or tall tale. My little sister is about the same age as the narrator in this story, and watching her navigate romance in a serious way for the first time reminded me what it’s like to fall in love at that age, how you mythologize the object of your affection, like they’ve got some secret magic or like you’re two parts of some shared sacred destiny. In hindsight, it’s easy to be embarrassed or cynical about those notions, but there’s something really lovely and pure there. I wanted to write a story that not only made that magic literal, but also took those feelings seriously. In my mind, the narrator wants the reader to experience this girl in the same way she does, to see her magic. I needed her voice to capture the purity of that reverence and awe as she’s doing her myth-making.

Central to this story is the idea of a “true” name as a kind of magic, one that’s discovered rather than given. What’s your relationship to your own name? Does it—or a nickname—make you more you or perform some magic?

“Rumpelstiltskin” was my favorite fairy tale as a kid, so the magic of naming has held some fascination for me for a long time. I don’t have much occasion to think about my own name, and I rarely hear someone say it out loud, but when I do, it shocks me for a moment and makes me feel weirdly exposed. It’s an instant visceral reaction, that stomach lurch you feel when you’ve just been caught doing something you shouldn’t do. I’m not sure what that’s about. Maybe “Rumpelstiltskin” warped my brain. He didn’t react well to hearing his own name, either.

For a story that indulges in the surreal, the details are so wonderfully earthy and visceral. What’s your process for conjuring details like “gagging on bitter ink” and “the name that spilled out with the afterbirth”?

If I have a good sense of what a story is about, or even just a strong focal point in mind, I can let that dictate where my thoughts land as I’m uncovering the details. In this story, for instance, I started with Louise (or Not Louise, rather), this girl who’d grown up poor in the woods in a rural town, and I understood that whatever magic she’d have would be rooted in that landscape and in the body because those are the tools she’d have to work with. So from there, that was the direction I steered my thoughts—dirt and moss and feral cats, afterbirth and the taste of ink.

I will say, writing flash has made me so much better at this whole process. Working with a more economical form forces you to pinpoint the precise details that will best serve your story. There’s no space for anything extraneous.

Short story endings are so cruelly difficult to land. Your ending—both its surreal reading and its sexual intimations—feel so exquisitely conceived that I can’t imagine any other ending. Did you start with the ending or discover it? What does a perfect ending mean to you?

This ending—where the narrator hears the name and says she’ll never speak it to another soul—actually started out as the ending to something else I was working on. That other story never came together, though, and after writing the first paragraph of “Not Louise,” I realized this new story needed the old one’s ending. So, I started out with a beginning and an ending, and the discovery came in figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B. It’s a gift to be able to write with an ending in mind, because few things about writing make me more anxious than not knowing where a story is going to end.

It’s hard to say what a perfect ending is. You just kind of know one when you find it, don’t you? Broadly speaking, I’d say a perfect ending has to correctly punctuate everything that’s come before it, and that it should leave the reader feeling like they’ve finished a self-contained, complete thought—even if it’s not necessarily a tidy one. But there are as many ways to skin that cat as there are stories.

These two characters are so sweet and sincere. What future do you wish for them?

Oh, I’d love for them to grow old together, maybe in a cabin off the grid where they grow their own vegetables and take in strays and concoct magic potions or something, just quiet and happy and in love like they are here. There’s so rarely a real future for teenage first loves, though. If nothing else, even if it didn’t last, I think their romance would remain a sacred, beautiful memory for the narrator for the rest of her life.

“Open the door”: An Interview With Guest Reader Eliezra Schaffzin

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You are working on a novel about magic, seduction, and the first American department stores (for which you received a research fellowship from the New-York Historical Society). I’m so intrigued by this! Can you tell us a bit more about the project? Perhaps something about the role research is playing? Does research ever play a role in your short stories?

This might be professionally clumsy, but I’ll go ahead and confess that I’ve been working on that novel for about twenty years, on and off. I tend to write a great deal but am very slow to finish any one project, so the department store tale has often had to wait while I worked on stories, libretti, and another novel-in-progress (this one began more recently and involves college applicants, Beethoven’s choral music, and aerial drones). The N-YHS fellowship was, in fact, awarded in 2001, when I spent a month living in an East Village studio apartment, frolicking in their fabulous archives and conceiving the ending to what turned out to be a 400-page first draft. I left just in time to begin my first full-time teaching job: new faculty orientation was September 11. The world is always changing, but it changed very quickly after that date, and my sense of what I wanted to do with the novel changed with it.

The city in the story is a fictionalized version of New York, and the massive department store in question is founded by a self-made American-born man who is in conflict with a wildly successful immigrant named Rosa who heads up an academy for ladies turned fancy brothel. The two consider themselves natural rivals—they’re competing for the city’s desires. The ensemble of other characters—primarily women—are caught up in their machinations, sometimes tragically. In many ways, recent developments in our country have brought the story full circle, and I’ve felt more driven to revise and finish the work.

In terms of research, as I mentioned, the novel was nearly drafted when I started poking around at the Historical Society. I’d already read quite a bit about the first department stores, but what the archives allowed me to do was firm up my sense of the fable I was trying to craft, with the symbol—or the character—of this magically seductive store at its center. And the details of early shopping history are delightful: it’s basically our lives now, without as much artifice and denial (though there were also plenty of both from the start).

Back when I’d written just the first few chapters of the book, I had the opportunity to show it to two New York editors, not to sell, just for feedback. One—a fellow who tended toward Hollywood-esque hyperbole—gushed, spouting terms like “the real deal.” The other pretty much hated it, specifically because it was not, to his eye, a “real deal.” Every single one of his comments attacked what he viewed as historical inaccuracies and general affronts to the New York City of record. Of course he did not complain once that the fantastical elements of the text (and there are many) were factually unsound. It was a good reminder that in order to capture the imagination of your readers, your story must establish the parameters and atmosphere of its world from the get-go, and then never cease to conform to its own logic. Which brings me to your question about research and writing. I hope very much to write worlds that feel both recognizable and somehow new. Research can only inspire that sort of recipe; it can’t provide the precise ingredients.

If you could build your own writing residency, what would it look like? Where would it be? How long would you go away for?

I could come up with some attractive parameters here: quiet would be nice, and somewhere to take walks (I’m a writer of the perambulatory sort). The occasional company of artists working in other mediums (I’m partial to opera composers and painters). But I’ve learned the hard way that fantasies of escape tend to backfire: wherever you escape, you still have to contend with yourself. That said, I do think it is unreasonable, for me at least, to expect to accomplish anything without a room of my own.

What can make or break a piece of flash fiction?

Unity or disunity of the experience. To me, a “flash” of story doesn’t necessary feel short—but it must feel whole. Of course, that’s both easier and harder to do in just 1000 words.

What kind of story would you love to find in your queue this week?

I’d love to find what I’m always looking for when I read literature: a story that does something I did not know fiction could do. (In my most optimistic moments, which might be my most writerly ones, I believe such stories—long or short—can open the door to something we humans did not know we could do. High hopes for literature and for us, sure. But why not?)

 

 

“Dance until 2am”: An Interview With Guest Reader Erin Fitzgerald

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What themes do you find yourself returning to in your writing?

I write as an attempt to make sense of something I don’t understand, and it almost never works. So there’s usually a shortage of empathy hiding somewhere. The last several years have been an, um, interesting time to deal with that.

You’re teaching in an upcoming online short fiction boot camp through Barrelhouse (where you’re also an editor). The topic you’ll be leading is Setting. I’m curious what your thoughts are regarding setting in short fiction, particularly in regards to flash fiction.

I’m really excited about boot camp! But I don’t think it will be like boot camp. I’m not much of a yeller, and watching people do obstacle courses just makes me worry they’re going to trip and break an ankle. Maybe I’ll wear boots during my week? I can probably manage that, at least.

So many conversations about craft in fiction are focused on making the final choices in one’s work. Exploring setting, in all of its forms, is one of the easiest and best ways to firmly put those choices aside and do some excavating. As for flash fiction in particular: I’ve never felt uncomfortable in or apprehensive about the form, and I’m certain part of the reason is because I’ve always been captivated by music videos. They occupy a similar space in time, and they have a similar goal: permanently changing the audience. If I ever write a piece of flash fiction that Russell Mulcahy could direct, I will be happy. 

What does an ideal writing day look like for you?

Get up relatively early. Coffee. Spend several hours working, surrounded by other writers who are also working, because looking up and seeing them working keeps me focused. Lunch. A conversation or two with other writers that gives me fresh perspective on my own work. Dinner. Someone starts a campfire with a flamethrower. We all watch a beloved movie on a giant screen, and then dance until 2am to music in almost every genre. TL;DR: Writer Camp, with fewer mosquitoes. 

What kind of story would you love to see in your queue this week?

I’m the kind of messy person who likes to think “Sure, it looks like a disaster, but I know where everything is.” I’d love to see stories that feel the same way.

SmokeLong Flash Reading 2 at AWP in Portland

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SmokeLong Quarterly presents a flash reading at Ex Novo Brewery 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. March 28. We are thrilled to host Nancy Au, Michael Don, Sherrie Flick, and Kathy Fish. Seating is very limited for this event, so please come early. We are asking that attendees choose one reading so that as many people as possible can attend one of the readings. Facebook Event Page.

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Nancy Au‘s stories appear in Redivider, Gulf Coast, Michigan Quarterly Review, Catapult, Lunch Ticket, The Pinch, SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. She teaches poetry to biology majors at CSU Stanislaus, and co-founded The Escapery. Her full-length collection, Spider Love Song & Other Stories, is forthcoming from Acre Books in fall 2019.

Michael Don is the author of the story collection Partners and Strangers and he co-edits Kikwetu: A Journal of East African Literature.His work has appeared in journals such as Washington Square ReviewSmokeLong QuarterlyFiction InternationalSouthern Humanities Review, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. He has taught at Penn State University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and St. Paul’s University in Kenya. He grew up in St. Louis, Missouri.

Sherrie Flick is author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness and two short story collections Whiskey, Etc. and Thank Your Lucky Stars, both published by Autumn House Press. Her work has appeared in Flash Fiction ForwardNew Sudden Fiction, and New Micro. She served as series editor for The Best Small Fictions 2018. Photo credit Richard Kelly

Kathy Fish has published five collections of short fiction, most recently, Wild Life: Collected Works from Matter Press. Her stories have been featured in The Best Small Fictions, the W.W. Norton anthology, New Micro, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She teaches for the Mile High MFA program at Regis University in Denver.

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Ex Novo Brewery  7:00-9:00 p.m. March 28
Facebook Event Page
2326 North Flint Ave
Portland, OR 97227

“What we pass down”: An Interview With Guest Reader Sharmini Aphrodite

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What themes do you find yourself frequently writing about? 

I’m really interested in history as a theme – not in strictly in the sense of historical fiction but more as what we pass down: through bloodlines, landscapes, living. I frequently find myself writing about memory, how it intrudes into the present. About the things that don’t go away.

What do you love about flash fiction?

I love how reading a flash piece shows you what a writer is all about! When you’re working with that sense of compression, it really shows what matters to you in your writing: is it a sense of atmosphere? Is it the characters? Is it dialogue? When you’re talking about “cutting to the bone”, flash really shows what a writer considers the “bones”; what they think is crucial and non-negotiable in their writing.

What does an ideal writing day look like for you? 

My ideal writing day consists of me not having to leave the house. It’s about two in the afternoon and I’ll be writing until six; I’ll have finished all my chores in the morning so I can write without anything nagging in the back of my head. The sky would be yellow!

What kind of story would you love to see in your queue this week? 

I’d love to see something with a strong sense of itself: whether we’re talking about the writing, the story, the characters. Despite what I said about themes I frequent, I don’t necessarily want anything that follows those lines – I’m open to any sort of plot or no plot at all. As for the writing, it can be lyrical or plain, but what matters most to me is rhythm!

AWP SmokeLong Flash Reading 1

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SmokeLong Quarterly presents a flash reading at Ex Novo Brewery in Portland on Thursday March 28 — 4:45-6:45 p.m. With Dennis Norris II, Tyrese L. Coleman, Megan Pillow Davis, and Gwen E. Kirby — and maybe a few surprises. We are thrilled to host these amazing writers, whom we are so proud to call SmokeLong family. Please come as early as you can to make sure you get a seat. Facebook event page (seating limited — first come, first served).

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Dennis Norris II is the author of the chapbook Awst Collection—Dennis Norris II, named a best book of 2018 by Powell’s. A recipient of fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Tin House, VCCA, and Kimbilio Fiction, their short stories have twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and named a finalist for the Best Small Fictions anthology. They currently serve as Assistant Fiction Editor at The Rumpus and co-host of the critically acclaimed podcast Food 4 Thot. Based in Brooklyn, they are hard at work on their debut novel.

Tyrese L. Coleman is the author of the collection, How to Sit, a 2019 Pen Open Book Award finalist published with Mason Jar Press in 2018. Writer, wife, mother, attorney, and writing instructor, she is an editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, an online journal dedicated to flash fiction. Her essays and stories have appeared in several publications, including Black Warrior Review, Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, and the Kenyon Review. She is an alumni of the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University and a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow. Find her on twitter @tylachelleco.

Megan Pillow Davis is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a doctoral candidate in the University of Kentucky’s English Department. Her work has appeared recently in Electric LiteratureSmokeLong Quarterly, and Mutha Magazine and is forthcoming elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter at @megpillow.

Gwen E. Kirby’s stories appear or are forthcoming in One StoryTin House, Blackbird, GuernicaNinth Letter, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Johns Hopkins University and a PhD from the University of Cincinnati. Currently, she is the George Bennett Fellow at Phillips Exeter Academy.

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Ex Novo Brewery  4:45-6:45 p.m. March 28
Facebook Event Page
2326 North Flint Ave
Portland, OR 97227

“Light up the heart”: An Interview With Guest Reader Gay Degani

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You recently traveled to Costa Rica (how wonderful!). I’m curious if your travels influence your writing? And if yes, in what ways? 

This is a two-part answer. First, I travel to write. Being surrounded by one’s tribe is always a good thing, makes me feel embraced, encouraged, home. The energy, the camaraderie, the inspiration all work on my soul. I was lucky enough to attend the “Writing Wild” retreat in Costa Rica facilitated by Kathy Fish and Nancy Stohlman. I’ve gone to a Bending Genres retreat in Taos, spent a week in Banff with Joan Clarke, and time at the Vermont Studio Center as well as a few others including AWP in several cities. All these adventures nurture one’s writing.

Second, since my husband’s retired, we’ve traveled quite a bit and though I find inspiration all around me in my own little city, there is nothing quite like being away to light up the heart and mental circuitry. While I don’t always end up writing about something specific we’ve seen, I return home feeling expanded, eager, and renewed. I have several “starts” inspired by place, yet I haven’t tapped into that resource as deeply as I should.  Thanks, Shasta, for this specific question. I feel something in me stretching down into the well of remembered travel.

Why do you like to write flash fiction?

I write flash fiction mostly because it’s fun, challenging, and gets me to the computer every day.  Even as I struggle to finish my second novel, I can’t seem to get myself to focus on longer work exclusively. One trick is helping me: deciding that each chapter is going to be a 1000 word piece of flash. My first novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016), has 70 1000-word chapters. What works with this idea is that when one thinks of each chapter as a flash piece, it forces the mind to create an arc, to think in terms of movement from point A to point be, to make every word count.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

I really can’t think of anything specific, anything like “write every day.” I’ve been inspired by so many books on writing (I’ve read most of them over the last fifty years) and writers who have given me hope and faith in myself. Maybe that’s it: surround yourself with like-minded people, those wild-minded writers on the net and in your town, engage them, read them, mingle and drink with them. I would say the community, my community, has been the source of great encouragement, knowledge, inspiration, and solace.

What kind of story would you love to find in your queue this week?

I look for reality in small moments. Awareness of being in those small moments. I like grounded work. Put me in a specific place, with flawed people who have to face some life challenge, large or small. If I see a Greek god or obscure writing, I will most likely roll my eyes. I am not one for the abstract. I want to have a movie in my head beginning like all movies, with an establishing shot, a character that catches my attention, a story that promises to make me think and feel. Feel more than think, but both. This doesn’t mean I won’t love something that is experimental or absurd, but the writer must give me something to hold onto while I’m flapping in the wind of unique prose. In other words, make the writing mean something to me. The non-specific me, the reader.

 

“A decade of transformation”: An Interview With Guest Reader Ashley Inguanta

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You are a writer, photographer, and yoga teacher. Can you tell us how these areas intersect? Do they each inform the other? 

I wouldn’t be able to write or navigate art photography without my yoga practice. I practice classical yoga, and in classical yoga the postures are tools, or carriers, for larger things; for example, becoming more aware and less reactive. As a student and a teacher, my classrooms are places for everyone to develop first-hand Knowledge by exploring these practices (yoga and writing) themselves. Instead of pushing all of my students to work at the same pace, I teach them how to self-evaluate so they can find the right pace for themselves and choose practices based on what is balancing for them.

What do you love about flash fiction? 

I love how flash fiction can be so rhythmic and lyrical and carried by mood in a different way than a longer piece could. But my favorite thing about flash is its lack of context. I dream of being able to communicate with this way; to be so in-tune with an entity that you only need 1000 or so words (or less!) to “get,” or comprehend, a decade of transformation. I adore the way wordlessness combines with language in flash. It is such a gift.

What themes do you find yourself frequently writing about? 

For the past two years I have been exploring death and dying through writing mostly poetry, sometimes essays, sometimes hybrid forms that feel like flash. I have also been navigating how language can lose its meaning when we try to connect with people after loss (“I’m sorry,” for example, is something we say when we bump into one another, and it’s also something we say at funerals). Of course, I keep writing about love, too, and gender, and sexuality. I will never stop that.

What kind of story would you love to find in your queue this week?  

A story that uses language to bring me to a place I’ve never been before.

 

Wild Life: An Interview with Kathy Fish

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by Josh Denslow

Over the last 10 years Kathy Fish has done more than probably anyone to influence the direction of flash fiction. She’s a popular and sought-after workshop leader, a flash retreat organizer, and a champion of flash writers. In this interview Josh Denslow from SmokeLong talks to Kathy about her new collection, Wild Life (Matter Press). You can see Kathy read from the collection at the second SmokeLong reading on Thursday March 28 in Portland. And you can also see Josh read from his debut collection, Not Everyone is Special, at the same reading.

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With Wild Life being your collected works from 2003-2018, it made me think of that ten-year challenge that went around social media of people posting a picture from ten years ago and one from today. Let’s do the writer version of that! How do you think you have changed as a writer from the Kathy Fish who wrote stories in 2003 to the Kathy Fish in 2018?

Oh what a great question! What I liked about that challenge was that most people thought they looked rather better ten years on. More themselves. It’s a bit like how I feel about my writing, then and now. As if the earlier writing was me trying to find my way in to my own voice and style and aesthetic. That’s also why so many of the very early pieces didn’t make the cut for this edition of Wild Life. You know how you keep writing basically the same stories over and over again? That’s been me, sifting through the same material. I do think the more recent writing is sharper, more focused, truer to myself. But a few early stories still make me proud.

I hadn’t thought of it, but you’re right, most people did think they look better now. Imagine how proud we’ll all be of ourselves in ten more years! Is there something you’d like to explore in your writing that maybe you haven’t done yet? Something to move you toward that next ten-year milestone?

I think what you lose in skin elasticity you gain in–I don’t know–confidence? Wisdom? Self-possession maybe. I want to try everything as a writer. I’d like to write more plays (I wrote and published one, “Stop Dragging” in Hobart last year). I’d like to write prose poetry. And I’m always, always jotting down ideas for science fiction stories or a novel. My one and only science fiction piece was “A Thousand Perfect Strangers” published in SmokeLong! But I’d really like to try my hand at more. I just never go beyond the notes stage. I see a string of rejections for me in all of these pursuits, but that’s okay. I’d still like to try.

You have a rhythm in your language that can only be called poetic. You have some more straightforward fiction pieces, but others like “Faulty Keys and Latches” and “Petunias” and “Watermelons” are so visual and so reliant on your unmistakable voice. They feel like poems to me because they land in the places that poems land when I read them. Deeper. Past the parts of me where I parse reason. When you start a story, how much do you think about things like tone and plot and structure?

I feel like I have two writers in me. The straightforward, traditional writer and the more experimental and poetic writer. Yes, I think a lot of my pieces are prose poems. And “Collective Nouns” was declared a poem (and I, a poet) over and over again, so I guess I’ll own that part of me. But it’s a struggle, then, when pulling together a collection. How to make those two parts work together as a piece of art that feels organic and cohesive?

In answer to your question, I think about tone and structure a fair bit and plot, almost never. Very often, I start with a “sound” in my head. And sorry, every time I try to articulate this, I come across as kind of daft. But it’s true. You mentioned “Faulty Keys and Latches.” That began in my head when I heard Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” on the radio. So that rhythm stuck with me. I liked how it felt in my ear. So I just plugged in some words for a title and went from there. I almost always start with sound. Gah. I’m such a weirdo.

I absolutely love this idea of a sound in your head. It actually makes so much sense to me. And here might be a good time to talk about teaching. You are an incredibly sought-after flash fiction teacher. How do you relay that “find a sound” element for each individual writer and all their unique writing styles?

You are absolutely correct that there are so many different writing styles and writers all have their own process (like I do with keying into sound and rhythm first). And that’s challenging from a teaching aspect, no question. What I say during my course, over and over, is the following: 1. Don’t overthink it. 2. Allow whatever comes. and 3. There’s no wrong way to do this. In other words, my exercises and prompts are very open-ended and non-prescriptive. I’m mostly interested in giving writers a variety of ways into their own material. What they do with it is entirely up to them!

Also, I’m a huge believer in subconscious processes in creativity. I’m always seeking out ways in which I can help writers tap into that. I think pre-writing, the sort of “dreaming on the page” that Robert Olen Butler talks about, is invaluable. So for instance, instead of just handing writers a list of words and telling them to insert them into a story, I have them do a mind-mapping exercise aimed at discovering their own word bank. Using words drawn from the subconscious leads to deep, startling work that surprises the writers themselves.

I suddenly very much want to tap into my word bank, though I’m worried it might just be disappointingly filled with the word just. But what you’re doing sounds incredible and I can see why so many writers are starting stories in your classes and then going on to publish them. Do you offer any advice to them on submitting stories as part of the class?

Ha, some days my own word bank would just be “just”s, Josh! And yes, it is a very effective exercise.

When writers get to the end of the 10-day spring of Fast Flash, they have a lot of fresh material, and my biggest advice to them is to give that new work time to cool. In rare cases, the first draft is that golden gift from heaven that needs no further editing or revision, but most new stories benefit from a little time to sit. It’s amazing how much we see that needs changing that we didn’t see before! So yes, set the drafts aside for a whole two weeks if you can. Actually, my second draft advice is not to edit or cut per se, but to find a way deeper into the material. Once you have a more fully realized piece, by all means go in with red pen in hand, ready to hone and sculpt.

Let’s shift gears and talk about one of my favorite subjects in writing: Humor. You write some truly powerful stories, but you’re also slyly funny as well. I especially like how you set expectations in story titles and then spin us around. In particular stories like “Everything’s Shitty at Price King” and “I Have Not Pushed Back My Cuticles With An Orange Stick Since The Nixon Administration” can knock the wind out of you partly because you aren’t expecting it. How much of a role does humor play in your process? And just because I’m in awe, how do you consistently go against all expectations in your stories?

I love that you say I’m “slyly funny.” I feel like I have an odd sense of humor. More weird than outright hilarious. But thanks. And humor adds so much humanity to stories and characters. It makes the sad parts sadder. I think one’s title is a great way to subvert the reader’s expectations. It’s a means of establishing voice or tone from the get-go. And then when the shift happens, the underlying grief or sadness is revealed, it’s all the more effective.

I never consciously insert humor into my stories. It seems to bubble up organically. Oh, you asked how I consistently go against expectations and I think that happens because I never know myself where a story is going. So I’m going against my own expectations a lot of the time.

I’m always happy to hear that other writers don’t know where their stories are going as they write. I’m in the same boat. I never plan anything! So I think a good place to end would be this: How do you know when a story has gotten to where it’s going?

Right? I like the idea of knowing the ending ahead of time and writing to it. I’ve just never been able to work that way.

To your question, it’s that moment when the story reveals to me the reason for its telling.

Wild Life is available from Matter Press.

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Kathy Fish has published five collections of short fiction, most recently, Wild Life: Collected Works from Matter Press. Her stories have been featured in The Best Small Fictions, the W.W. Norton anthology, New Micro, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She teaches for the Mile High MFA program at Regis University in Denver.

Josh Denslow’s debut collection Not Everyone Is Special (7.13 Books) actually exists! His recent stories have appeared in Catapult, Pithead Chapel, wigleaf, Okay Donkey, and a bunch of other awesome places. In addition to wearing matching sweaters with his three boys, he plays the drums in the band Borrisokane and edits at SmokeLong Quarterly.

“Layers of meaning”: An Interview With Guest Reader Eva Wong Nava

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Eva Wong Nava will be giving away a signed copy of her book, Open: A Boy’s Wayang Adventure (Ethos Books, 2018) which won the bronze medal at the Moonbeam Children’s Book Award in 2018.

 

You have an interest in art (as well as an M.A. in Art History). Can you tell us about how your interest in art and flash fiction intersect?

As an English teacher, I used to teach creative writing using images as prompts. They could be any type of images, not necessarily ones that have an art historical value (yet).  We are surrounded by images on a daily basis and these images — moving and still — find their way into our minds where they are embedded into our unconscious. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the human experience is one lived in imagery and images. Every image we see or live through tells a story. Every image prods us to seek meaning in its (back) story. Art and Flash intersect at the juncture where, as writers, we pull those story threads from the canvas onto the screen or paper where they unravel into a new story. Since gaining a Masters in Art History, I have been writing Flash from works of art.

What does an ideal writing day look like for you?

I wish I had an idea on what a typical writing day looks like — my writing life is so atypical because I am always working on different projects at a time; these projects don’t always require me to write fiction. What I do know is that my day begins early and as soon as my younger daughter is out the door to school, I sit at my favourite spot in the living room and begin to write. Writing could take the form of blog posts, reflections, rewriting story ideas as well as working on drafts of stories in my cache. If I am working on a project — ghostwriting or writing for art journals — then I stay focused on these which means that I have to leave my own stories on the back burner. Sometimes, they could stay on the back burner for months. I recently finished a story which I’ve submitted to several journals. This was a story that I’d been working on for some time in between projects; it’s a story that materialised from an image that popped into my head while I was waiting at the hospital. It took several re-writes as I allowed the picture to morph and forge its way as the imagery meandered unconsciously in my head.

Is there a writer/book/story that you continually return to for inspiration or guidance? 

Raymond Carver is a favourite go-to; I am still trying to find the layers of meaning in his stories — do meanings exist? I love F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night which I think I will read again soon. Gabriel Garcia Marquez — Love in the Time of Cholera — is another because I love Magic Realism as a genre in writing. Isabel Allende is a wonderful storyteller and I love how she intersects politics with Magic Realism. Currently, I am reading the delightfully titled book — Memoirs of A Polar Bear –by Yoko Tawada translated from the German. I am inspired by translated works for their ability to stay close to their original versions. I am also inspired by diverse stories written about other cultures and from different cultures. At the moment, I am interested in historical fiction written in Flash.

What kind of story would you love to find in your queue this week? 

Magic.Realism. Historical.Fiction. Diverse.Stories. Fiction under 1000 words. Entice me!

 

SmokeLong on the Road — A Video Interview with Helen Rye

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In 2019 we’re going on the road to meet as many SmokeLong contributors and editors as possible. This time, I’ve met up with Helen Rye, one of our submissions editors, in Munich to have a serious discussion about her experience reading the SmokeLong queue. Since joining the journal in July 2018, Helen has read and commented on over 750 stories. Helen is one of nine SmokeLong submissions editors, who read the passes from guest readers. We are grateful for the time and energy they put into reading the work submitted to the journal.

And now for that serious discussion:

Our next stop is AWP in Portland on March 28 where we will be presenting SmokeLong contributors and editors Dennis Norris II, Megan Pillow Davis, Tyrese L. Coleman, Gwen E. Kirby (first reading) and Josh Denslow, Nancy Au, Sherrie Flick, and Kathy Fish (second reading). Seating for these two events is limited, so please arrive early.

Christopher

“A shot of espresso”: An Interview With Guest Reader Kate Gehan

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Kate Gehan will be giving away a signed copy of her short story collection, The Girl & the Fox Pirate (Mojave River Press, 2018), to the writer of the story she selects for publication from this week’s submissions!

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What themes do you find yourself returning to you in your writing?

Power structures in personal relationships, and between individuals and society. Loss and loneliness.

What do you think flash fiction can do that longer stories can’t do?

They’re a shot of espresso. Even if a piece of successful flash is quiet and lyrical, it can invigorate and elevate you to a higher wavelength almost immediately compared to a longer story. I love the efficiency of getting to the core emotion or point of action.

Can you tell us a little about your writing and revision process? Are you a fast and furious drafter or more of a slow burn writer? Do you prefer to write at home in complete silence or at a coffee shop in town?

Honestly, I’m all over the place, depending on the season and my ability to focus based on work and family obligations. Sometimes a story is a lightning strike on the page and I get it down all at once. Or, it can take me three or four sittings to craft a true first draft, and I may realize I need to blend or cut apart portions of other stories in progress. Before revising I put my writing aside for long enough so that it feels like a stranger’s words and I am able to be far more creative and brutal with edits.

I like writing in silence or with very specific music playing to match my mood. If I’m in public, I’m usually wearing headphones.

What kind of story would you love to find in your queue this week?

Heavy metaphors and sentimentality tend to be out of fashion these days, but if you can deliver either of those with modern style and vivid imagery, you’ve got my attention.

A Review of Patrick Crerand’s The Paper Life They Lead

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by Emily Webber

In The Paper Life They Lead, Patrick Crerand takes risks in his storytelling, and the result is an inventive collection. In this slim book of just over 50 pages, Crerand’s mixture of flash fiction and slightly longer stories drops the reader into bizarre and unexpected places. Fantastical events occur even when the world looks much like the one we live in. The interesting and weird premises are stated upfront allowing the reader to focus on the characters—their relationships and how they react to the situations they are in.

In “PIT-DAY” the passengers on a commercial airplane deal with a pilot who is suddenly flying them into outer space. In another story, an auction is held at an abandoned zoo with greedy investors. A mother pays the ultimate price while the others look on unconcerned, calling to mind how easy it can be to dismiss another person’s suffering:

The man in khaki lowered his rifle and led the crowd back to the front entrance of the zoo, leaving the mother alone on the brick ledge. In the parking lot, they waited for the valets to bring their vehicles. The women winced from each of the boy’s screams while the men made small talk to cover the noise. Better to put it right out of your mind, they told their wives.

Crerand asks the reader to think beyond what is on the page and relies on his readers to attach their own meaning to these stories. The flash fiction pieces, such as “42 & Lexington” and “The Ear,” seem to ask too much of the reader and do not push past the fantastical premise as well as the other stories in this collection. Crerand’s most successful stories have the bizarre backed by a very real, emotional world. The reader encounters characters who have the same fears and desires that link us as human beings. This emotional component is how Crerand can pull off these wacky scenarios without becoming gimmicky.

“Semi-Love” is the story most grounded in the real world. It tells of two truck drivers as they grapple with the future of their relationship. In one scene, one of them describes the cows she drives to slaughter, and this image comes back to resonate beautifully at the end:

You can tell if it’s going to rain because they’ll be out under a tree like a clump of mushrooms hours before a cloud is in the sky. But they know. When I walk over to the fence, they stand up and those sharp shoulder bones stretch their skin like wet paper. They walk out to see how I am. They’re so stupid. They should run away and hide. ‘I’m the one who drives you to the butcher,’ I say, but they’re drawn to movement and don’t know better. They eat anything if it’s in the grass. Nails, barbed wire, tires. They make the cows swallow a magnet when they’re young to collect all the metal they eat in their first stomach, before it gets to the rest of their insides.

In “The Glory of Keys,” originally published in McSweeney’s, a Pontiac Sunbird takes the place of its owner in high school. While it is hard to truly care for a car as a protagonist, using this technique made the story’s message more apparent. The car rises to the top as a football star and valedictorian and then faces a less glamorous reality post-high school. The reader becomes acutely aware of the way we sometimes randomly raise a person up to hero status and place our hopes on them.

“The Paper Life They Lead” is another of Crerand’s most compelling stories. The life of a father, mother, and their son living on the picture of the Pepperidge Farm packaging is detailed. The bleak setting is revealed in the opening lines:

Morning on the Pepperidge Farm box is not all chocolate and cheese. The three of them—the farmer, his wife, and the boy—dot the whiteness like breadcrumbs on an apron. It is always cold and it is always morning.

The son pushes against the boundaries of his world and dreams of something beyond the repetition of his daily life while his father constantly reminds him:

“This here’s a paper life. Nothing but you, me and your mother. The sooner you see it, the better.”

Throughout this collection, there is an overarching theme of desire, and many of these characters are searching for something while they try to understand their world better. When getting down to the bare bones of these stories, there’s a lot to unpack, and readers will take away different insights.

The Paper Life They Lead is the debut book from Arc Pair Press—a new publisher of “mini-books” of short fiction and nonfiction. Since the release of Crerand’s collection Arc Pair Press has published another collection of short stories and a prose poetry collection, with an essay collection forthcoming in 2019. It’s no trivial undertaking to form a small press, and I’m grateful that Heather Momyer, Arc Pair’s founder, took the plunge and that there exists another outlet for writers to get their work out. This refreshing new press is definitely one to support and keep an eye out for future releases.

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Emily Webber was born and raised in South Florida where she lives with her husband and son. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Writer magazine, Five PointsMaudlin HouseBrevitySaw Palm, and Slip Lip Magazine. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press.

Nominations — The Best Small Fictions 2019

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Congratulations to our nominees!

 

“We All Know About Margo” by Megan Pillow Davis

“History” by Maia Jenkins

“Itinerary” by Laurinda Lind

“Boy” by Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor

“Whale Fall” by Alvin Park

 

You may notice that “Whale Fall” by Alvin Park has appeared several times in our nominations. This story won The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction (The Smokey) in May 2018. In addition to winning a large sum of money, the recipient of this award is also nominated for every award we can find. Our next competition is in 2020. Start working on that award-winning story now. You all know how long it takes to write flash. And while we have you, we begin taking applications for the 2020 SmokeLong Flash Fellowship for Emerging Writers this summer (2019). New: We’ve opened this fellowship up to writers previously published by SmokeLong Quarterly. We can’t wait to read your applications.

— Christopher, Tara, and SLQ team

 

 

Editor’s Choice Week: An Interview with SLQ Editor Tyrese L. Coleman

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This week’s submissions will be chosen by a member of our editorial staff. All stories submitted January 28 – February 3, 2019  will be read by associate editor Tyrese L. Coleman.

Tyrese will be giving away a copy of her collection, How to Sit (Mason Jar Press), which was recently named as a finalist for the Pen Open Book Award, to the writer of the story she selects for publication.

An associate editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, Tyrese L. Coleman reads stories that are submitted for inclusion in our weekly and quarterly issues. She is a second-tier reader, meaning after a story has gone through an initial read, it comes to her for a second read to determine if the story should move forward for a staff read. She’s been with SmokeLong since September 2016 and enjoys working with the different writers and reading the amazing fiction and craft essays. SmokeLong is very grateful to

have her on our team.

Themes, topics, or styles I’m drawn to:

I am drawn to stories that involve marginalized groups and the experiences of characters who aren’t typically represented in lit mags or anywhere really. I am a fan of writing that is immersive and that isn’t afraid to take risks with language. Voice is more important to me than plot. I like to read flash that has something more to say than what is on the page.

Dealbreakers in flash:

These aren’t so much as “deal breakers” but rather themes that I am just not interested in reading: Dead kids, dead pets, dead parents, divorce or break-ups, rich-people problems, writers writing about how hard it is to write or how they have failed as a writer, any story that involves boating or the beach or summer getaways, stories where it is clear the writer knows nothing about the culture in which he/she is attempting to recreate in his/her fiction, and dead spouses.

A flash story I LOVE:

I LOVE “Poke Salad” from Stephanie Soileau published in the Fall 2016 Issue of Oxford American, one of my favorite magazines.

A flash I’ve written:

One of my favorite pieces of flash that I’ve written is a story inspired by my own uncle entitled “Uncle Pug.” As you can see from my writing and the writing that I enjoy reading, Southern experiences and themes have a particular place in my heart.

SmokeLong on the Road — Flash Reading in Singapore

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What a pleasure it was to meet Shasta Grant, our coordinating editor, in person at the BooksActually reading in Singapore. Shasta manages the guest readers for SmokeLong, conducting interviews and communicating with them during their week of reading for the journal. This is a lot of work. We’re so grateful for the energy and time Shasta puts into this job.

We also met up with two SmokeLong contributors, Elaine Chiew and Sharmini Aphrodite, whose readings you can view below.

In 2019, we’re going around the world to meet as many SmokeLong contributors and editors as possible. We’ll be at AWP in Portland, where we’ve planned two readings on Thursday evening (more information coming) and at the UK Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol at the end of June. We’re also in the beginning stages of planning another reading in April, but you’ll have to wait to find out where that will be.

The first video below is our introductions. The individual readings are provided in separate videos. We hope you enjoy it.

“Ride the beat”: An Interview With Guest Reader Ron A. Austin

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Your collection of linked stories, Avery Colt Is a Snake, a Thief, a Liar, won the 2017 Nilsen Prize and will be published this fall. Congratulations! Can you tell us a little bit about the collection and the process of writing a linked collection?

Thanks for the congrats! It’s strange to say, but the process of actually moving forward with book publication is pretty surreal. I feel like the dog who finally caught the car and has no idea what to do next—besides attempting to get halfway decent at summaries—so here goes: Avery Colt Is A Snake, A Thief, A Liar is an episodic narrative following Avery Colt as he struggles to survive the economic downturn in early ‘90s North St. Louis. From a technical standpoint, I like to tell folks this is my attempt at American realism, charged with oral story-telling traditions, remixed with low-key post modernism—or something like that. I mean, I’m not saying I was successful in this synthesis, but it was hella fun trying. The hardest part in writing the collection came toward the end when I needed those final stories to both stand on their own, but also connect to larger narrative arcs. To meet this challenge, I started studying the way poetry collections and concept albums are structured to coalesce and deliver maximum emotional impact. With this theory as a guide, I found that, in an earlier draft of the 12 story collection, the most effective ending actual came in the ninth story. After some cutting, splicing, polishing, and rearranging, I surprised myself with how well the stories began working together. Now in subsequent readings and editing sessions, the book functions independently of my hand, has grown beyond my will, greets me with a new spirit both familiar and all its own.

What is one thing that you think is essential to good flash fiction?

Urgency.

Who are some of your favorite writers? Are there particular books you find yourself returning to again and again?

This is a tough one, but I think I can swing it. In recent years, I find myself regularly enthralled by “When My Brother Was an Aztec” by Natalie Diaz, “Stars of the New Curfew,” by Ben Okri, “Delicate Edible Birds,” by Lauren Groff, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” by Karen Russell, and “Song of Solomon,” by Toni Morrison. Special shout outs go to William Kennedy, Jorge Luis Borges, Richard Wright, and Mo Yan, who, I like to imagine that if he were a rapper signed to 88rising, his stage name would be “Mo Yams.”

What kind of story would you love to see in your queue this week?

In my time serving as a fiction editor, I’ve never had the privilege of choosing works for publication solely based on my aesthetics. I’m grateful for this opportunity—while at the same time—consolidating my tastes in a few words is a challenge. I can only say I’m looking for club bangers, deep cuts, and quiet storms; slow jams concerned with how sensuality reconciles the abstract; syntax texturized, high-glossed, faded; narratives that ride the beat, invade brain waves, live life in electric afterimage. I’m looking for lyric made poltergeist, tongues turned tectonic, fever dream fluctuations, lungs filled with comet fall, bronchitis, nostalgic distortion. I’m looking for what called you out/what you’ve called out, what you cleaved from bone/what cleaved you from bone, what you’ve wrung out/what wrung you out—I mean, I’m just looking for good-ass, intellectually-stimulating, emotionally relevant stories built with the careful application of technique. I’m looking for work that makes you feel seen. But if some of that other stuff was in there too, that’d be tight.

Flash: The Literary Theory and Analysis Teacher’s Best Friend

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The following essay by Jolene McIlwain is part of SmokeLong Quarterly’s series on Flash in the Classroom, in which we invite instructors to share how they use flash fiction. If you’re an instructor who teaches flash, we’d love to hear about your experience. Submit your essay HERE.

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by Jolene McIlwain

I love literary analysis and literary theory. I love writing and reading short shorts: micros, flash, sudden fiction. So, deconstructing short forms in the classroom has been an amazingly satisfying treat in my work at two Pittsburgh-based universities: Chatham and Duquesne. I’ve had the luxury of choosing the texts—unconstrained by required anthologies, length, genre, or author—and exposing students to recently published pieces by lesser known authors in lesser known journals as well as the well-known, well-worn anthologized pieces like Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” and Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel.”

Flash can hit you emotionally, but it can hit you in more objectively quantifiable ways, too, when you take the time to deconstruct it. Here are six approaches I use when utilizing flash to teach students how to deconstruct and analyze texts:  

1. Close readings/Multiple readings. Understanding literary analysis and theory requires an investment from the students to enter the text multiple times, each time thoroughly searching for new details, inconsistencies, and possible meanings/readings, layering their analyses with more information. Flash is so short so one can analyze every single sentence, phrase, word without becoming too overwhelmed. Also, because flash comes in around the 1,000 word count or less, it’s uniquely set up to propel the reader to the end, leaving them asking for more, as in Annie Proulx’s “55 Miles to the Gas Pump,” a micro from CLOSE RANGE about a serial killer found out after his wife’s snooping in the attic, which ends with the line: “When you live a long way out, you make your own fun.” I’m not suggesting a twist or shocking ending is required, though some flash offers that. Sometimes readers are left saying, “Wait! what?” They are compelled to go back to the beginning and reread the story, like hearing that nice click of a door closing and wanting to open it again, to revisit. Either of these scenarios is a literary analysis or theory teacher’s dream. You don’t have to tell the student to reread it—you know they will. A favorite I teach for both Marxist and popular culture theories is Ian Frazier’s “Tomorrow’s Bird,” (originally published in Harpers, reprinted as “Count on Crows” at UTNE). The ending reads like a marketing slogan. A close re-read will expose all the sales language missed.

2. Gaps. Lovely gaps. Word count requirements force the author to leave much out. Literary analysis thrives in the gaps, in the ambiguity. It’s where the reader climbs into the text to figure out what it means, which emotions it taps into; they gain a sense of mastery by puzzling it out. Gaps can lead to outside research where the reader is driven to look up obscure phrasing or perhaps other works by the author in their search of connections, recurring themes.

One of the most appealing aspects of flash is that there is no room for large swaths of explanation, back-story, history. The author must cut extraneous details—and the elements they keep gain greater importance. In “The Colonel” a piece set in 1978 El Salvador, the unnamed daughter files her nails. Why does Forché include that detail? What’s left out is equally—if not more—important in literary analysis. In flash, setting can be hinted at more than explained (in “The Colonel” there’s a maid, a commercial in Spanish). Authors can bring characters to life with minimal description—sometimes, strategically, without names as in “The Colonel.” Also check out David Foster Wallace’s “Incarnations of Burned Children” and ask yourself why he chooses not to name the parents, the baby.

3. Voice, tone, POV. These come into play especially with psychoanalytic theory. Choosing POV, creating tone, establishing voice through word choice, word count, etc., all greatly affect the reader’s experience. With psychoanalytic theory, again, we look at what is repressed/left out as much as we look at what’s there. In one class period, we can reimagine and rewrite the whole story in another POV to see how this affects the message. What if Aimee Bender’s “The Rememberer” were told in all of the husband’s devolving voices? How might he see the human condition differently? Why does Leelila Strogov use the second person POV in her story “Paper Slippers” (why NOT first or third?) and what does the imagining part of the story reveal? (Psychoanalytic theory is big on imaginings and dreams.) Rewriting and reimagining is yet another way to enter the story.

4. Experimental/Hybrid forms. What is a story anyway and how can a list or a lecture or “fake” function as a story? Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” Kathy Fish’s “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild” and “Lifecolor Indoor Latex Paints® – Whites and Reds” by Kristen Ploetz show that form is an essential part of the “telling.” The anthology, FAKES, includes stories written as multiple choice tests, police blotters, letters, etc., which can ignite great discussions on how form functions and how form can shape how we interpret stories. One such favorite is Michael Martone’s “Contributors Notes.”

5. Titles. Creativity in flash titles never ceases to amaze me. Take another look at the pieces I’ve mentioned thus far. Analyze how these titles enhance the stories, how these titles function in the stories. In Jim Heynen’s “What Happened During the Ice Storm,” the title asks, the story answers… But we can also count the number of times Heynen repeats some form of the word “ice” from the title (10) and consider how these words counter the warmth in the end.

For another example of a memorable title and a story in list form, take a look at Gwen Kirby’s piece “Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans…” up at SmokeLong, a piece I plan to teach in the near future within my feminist, psychoanalytic, and pop culture theory units.

6. Repetition. I love to see the boldness of flash authors who use/exploit repetition even when held to a word count. We can count the number of times Peter Markus repeats a handful of words in “The Moon is a Star” or “Good, Brother,” and many of his works. The repetition creates tone, voice, character, atmosphere that help to focus us. Repetition alone does all the work!

With literary analysis and theory, we must look at the piece as objectively as possible, citing quantifiable numbers: How many times does the author repeat this word, motif, or consonant for effect/message? How many sentences are there? What is their length? Long? Short? In “Incarnations of Burned Children,” DFW writes just over 1,000 words in one eight-sentence paragraph. Why? Authorial choices such as this lead the reader to make assumptions on what we think the author wants us to notice.

If you write but don’t teach flash, consider, while revising, how a reader might climb into your piece and nose around. Write lines that welcome analysis, endings that compel the reader to re-read. Cut, cut and leave some work for your readers. They might love you for it! Play with titles, repetition. Try out fakes if you haven’t. Explore changing POVs. If you want to learn more about “reader-response” theory, see the work of Wolfgang Iser. For other theories, check out the text I’ve used for years, Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today. We literary theory and analysis teachers can’t wait to teach your work!

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Jolene McIlwain’s work appears online at The Cincinnati Review, New Orleans Review, Atticus Review, Litro UK, Prairie Schooner, Prime Number, Fourth River, and elsewhere and has been selected finalist for the 2018 Best Small Fictions anthology, Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction contests, and the Arts & Letters Unclassifiables Contest, as well as semi-finalist for Nimrod’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize and American Short Fiction’s Short and Short(er) fiction contests. She’s an associate flash fiction editor at jmww Journal, and while taking a short break from teaching, she’s currently working on a short fiction collection and novel set in the hills of the Appalachian plateau in Western Pennsylvania.

“Delight me”: An Interview With Guest Editor Audra Kerr Brown

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What themes do you find yourself returning to in your writing?

childhood traumas, dysfunctional families, death.

What can make or break a flash story?

Beginnings are crucial! The reader should be able to hear the tone/voice of a story within the first two sentences. If it’s not there, the writer has some work yet to do.

What is the best (or worst) piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

I used to fret over the purpose of my writing, about its place in the world. These two quotes set me free of all of that:

“When the book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think for the writer to worry about this is to take over God’s business…” ~ Flannery O’Connor

“The work is larger than the writer. It’s smarter and truer than the writer. It can go in more mysterious places than the writer could ever go in his brain.” ~ Andre Dubus III

Both quotes suggest that the writing is beyond the writer, and I would agree with that. I don’t think that most writers know exactly how the magic works or why. We just need to trust it and not worry so much about process, purpose, or achievement.

What kind of story would you love to find in your queue this week?

I’m a sucker for magical realism and child narrators. I also have a soft spot for figurative language, but I’m open to anything. Surprise and delight me!

 

SmokeLong on the Road: A Video Interview with Hananah Zaheer

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In 2019 we’re going on the road to visit as many of our contributors and editors as possible, to say thank you and to get to know these passionate, talented people better. Our first stop is Dubai where we had lunch with Hananah Zaheer, who does interviews for SmokeLong. After lunch, I talked to Hananah about her life in Dubai and the short story collection she’s working on.

Our next stop is in the exciting city of Singapore, where we meet up with our co-ordinating editor, Shasta Grant, and contributors Elaine Chiew and Sharmini Aphrodite.

Christopher

Listen Up! The Issue 62 Playlist is Here!

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Listen to the Issue 62 playlist on Spotify! We decided to wait until after the holidays to bring this to you. Enjoy!

Brendan Stephans, “Rascal” –  “For Wanda” by Silver Mt. Zion

This is one of the few memorial songs about a dog that I know about. It also seems fitting since it is a single melody that builds and swells around it, which is kind of like my one-sentence story.

Shelli Cornelison,”Trespassers” – “Almost Lover” by A Fine Frenzy

I chose this song because the narrator in “Trespassers” is unable to fully let go of two early relationships, or more accurately, her romanticized fixation on them, to the point those memories have a negative impact on her ability to form lasting relationships so many years later. She’s cherry-picked ideals from those almosts of her youth and uses them as comparison measures in her adulthood.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt, “The Unicorn” – “Who Do You Think You Are” by Spice Girls

Of course The Unicorn’s song is “Who Do You Think You Are” from the Spice Girls. The main character isn’t just channeling their fashion sense, she’s definitely got her favourite ladies on her ears buds. There’s no better mantra than trust it, use it, prove it, groove it.

Ashton Carlile, “Earlove” – “Geyser” by Mitski

In my story, the narrator goes to see a movie where there’s yelling involved to feel the vibration/release of it without having to actually scream herself. Sometimes you need someone to do the screaming for you. I listen to Mitski, particularly this song, when I feel like screaming but I’m too tired. Her voice makes everything bubble up to the surface. She just…makes me sob!

Judy Darley, “Milk and Other Lies” – “Man of A Thousand Faces” by Regina Spektor

I love Regina Spektor’s vivid, quirky imagery – she’s an amazing storyteller through her songs.

Ashan Butt, “Moon” – “The Big Sky” by Kate Bush

The song’s perpetual lift, Kate’s lyrics and her deeply touched vocals all express what I hope awaits Raheem. I wish him to be ecstatic, at peace with his isolation, wide-eyed and blissfully watching the big sky. And then the song’s video (*please* watch the video — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sV7w5TaYjRA) is an uncanny stage of state propaganda. Whether Lajiristan’s or ours, it’s just… remarkably accurate.

Taryn Tilton, “Garden Snake” – “One More” by Yaeji

There’s an insufficient apology in my story, as there is in this quietly devastating song.

Ellen Rhudy, “Glory Days” – “Big Change” by Swearin’

This song captures so well the feeling of being young, discovering who you are, escaping something (or someone). I imagine my narrator will get along with this song if she manages to get out of her town.

Trevor Fuller, “A Short History of Those Who Came Before Us” – “The Power of Love (You Are My Lady)” by Air Supply

I’ve been somewhat taken with this song since I heard it at the end of Adam Wingard’s Death Note adaptation. It was a song I already knew and didn’t really care about, but I thought it was a weirdly appropriate choice there and imbued the song with new significance, and now it seems like an appropriate choice for this considering the content of my story, which has the beginnings and endings of several different relationships and is maybe a little sensational, like the song.

Brooke Fossey, “The Great Abide” – “Wake Up” by Arcade Fire. “Wake Up” is a perfect fit for “The Great Abide” because it’s a retrospective look from someone who’s escaped the likes of Ginger and Cassidy’s dad. If you play it after the read, it adds a whole different dimension to the story.

Christopher Drew, “Alligator” – “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M.

Maddy Raskulinecz, “What I Have Coming to Me” – “Godmother” by Holly Herndon and Jlin, featuring Spawn

Stressful and catchy. The frantic breathy noises and vocalizations remind me of my story, and there’s an exciting mother/daughter dynamic between the human artists and the computer they trained to generate the song by imitating them.

Laurinda Lind, “Itinerary” – “I’ll Fly Away” by Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss

Uses the flight metaphor, also contained in the flash piece, and the suggestion that things on the earth here aren’t terrific, and it might be so nice to get away elsewhere.

Kaitlyn Rice-Andrews, “Second Base” – “The Best of What’s Around” by Dave Matthews Band

This is a totally sincere pick, I promise. As an adult I’ve become nostalgic for the past and curious (and anxious) about the future. I’m equally fascinated and repulsed by technology, and I think the teens in “Second Base” feel this same tug-of-war, torn between wanting to be adults and wanting to be kids. It’s like when you were a kid and you thought braces were cool. Until you had braces. Not cool. “The Best of What’s Around” is one of DMB’s earliest songs, one that most exemplifies my high school years, one that I have I listened to so many times and sung at concerts so many times. Pretty sure I’m supposed to feel ashamed about this, embarrassed about my love of something that eventually became uncool, but I think that’s why I love it so. If being an adult means I have to give up this song, I don’t think I want to be an adult.

Vivien Cao,  “There Weren’t Even Any Bubbles” – “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” by Doris Day

I grew up with classic American movies and songs like this one, mindlessly blaring in the background and seeping into my subconscious. Aside from a thematic connection to my story, I hadn’t realized how sad this song actually is since I had thought of it as a whimsical song from my childhood.

Elearnor Pearson, “The Riddle” – “Toussaint Grey, First in Life and Death” by Jeremy Messersmith

It captures the same feeling of regret and nostalgia that I was aiming for with my piece.

Kathryn Kulpa, “So Silent, So Still” –  “Wonderful” by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks

I chose it because I love the old-fashioned, fairy-tale mood it evokes, with the little girl wandering off into the woods. It’s also a song that retains a sense of mystery. No matter how many times I listen to it, I’m still not sure exactly what’s happening here, but that’s okay. I like that not every question is answered.

“The thing you love”: An Interview With Guest Reader Leonora Desar

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Happy New Year! What’s your philosophy on New Year’s resolution? Did you make any? Do you feel invigorated by the idea of a fresh start at this time of year? 

Happy New Year!! I’m terrible with New Year’s resolutions (making them and keeping them) but it’s never too late to start, right? Here’s a list:

  1. To stick to every resolution on this list
  2. To stop being late for stuff
  3. To actually finish stuff
  4. To write—cheesy as this will sound—for the sheer joy of it, even if it stinks
  5. To lock up my Inner Critic in the basement. I don’t actually have a basement, but I’m thinking of getting one, for this purpose. Which might be difficult living in New York. I’ll probably just end up leaving her with the neighbors—which also might be difficult. She’s persistent. She’s already telling me how off-track I’m getting and not to talk about the MetroCard
  6. The MetroCard— This is a thing. I usually have not one but seven MetroCards, none of which have any money on them. So my goal is to always and only have one card in my purse at all times
  7. To get a purse. A real one. (Only 11-year-olds have pink purses with ink stains everywhere)
  8. To get more glittered notebooks. Glittered notebooks rock. 

Are there certain themes or topics you find yourself returning to in your writing?

Great question. I’m thinking about a recent workshop. Here’s some feedback (loosely paraphrased).

—Leonora, you tend to write a lot about imaginary family people. Brothers, uncles, sisters

—Leonora, you seem to really like em dashes a lot

—(and lists)

—Leonora, your stories are really short

—There’s a lot of sex in this one

—Leonora, what’s the deal with you and This Is Us (*A great show. This is NOT part of the loose paraphrase)

—This one’s a bloody mess

I also tend to write a lot about weird-metaphors-turned real. Naked women showing up to the door, oppressed wives getting buried, cheating men turned to fire. 

And fantasies. I’ve given up on giving them a plot. I’m bad at that: Plot. I simply call it “In this fantasy…” In this fantasy I hang with Jack from This Is Us; In this fantasy me and Dexter are BFFs; In this fantasy I save my father from himself.

In this fantasy I can actually write a plot.

In addition to writing fiction, you’re also a journalist. I’m curious how you move between these two forms of writing – do they inform each other?

I don’t write much journalism anymore but doing it really taught me a lot. Mostly, that concision can be a good thing, and that people are always challenging your expectations of them—A professor called this the “Airplane Theory.” He said, one day you might be on a plane going to an interview. You’ll have all these ideas, expectations of how the person is going to be. These will probably be wrong.

I couldn’t wait. I’d always wanted to fly in to an interview. In my case it was more the “F Train Theory.” I met a blind photographer. A ghost hunter. I met a con artist. I met a private detective whose idea of a high-extreme stakeout was chilling in the car—

I was expecting drama and I got bupkis. But that’s ok—bupkis can be a good thing. It’s real. And in some ways more interesting. I like having my expectations challenged and I always try to remember that when writing fiction.

I think, is there enough bupkis here? Are these characters real enough?

What kind of story would you love to find in your queue this week?

Well. This is a hard one. Hard because it’s like a guy. You can make a laundry list of amazing qualities but in real life the mojo just isn’t there. My laundry list story-wise would look something like this:

  • sad
  • funny
  • both
  • so more like funny-sad, or sad-funny, or maybe sad-sad funny. Or sour-funny; depending on the whole sadness/funny ratio proportion
  • resonance (where the sad-funny thing really hits you)

I’m not doing a good job of explaining this. I tend to do that. I should probably just give you an example. But I’m also afraid that if I do that you won’t send me your best work. It’s the Laundry List Dilemma—maybe your best work, the thing you wrote with joy and off-the-cuff while banning your Inner Critic; doesn’t fit these rules.

In that case ignore me. Send me the thing you love, the one that breaks the rules, the thing you wrote with feeling.*

*a.k.a. with your Inner Critic chained up in the basement. But let out for good behavior later, of course; for editing.

PS I already broke two of my New Year’s resolutions. I won’t say which—

A Review of Maria Romasco Moore’s Ghostographs: An Album

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by Kelly Lynn Thomas

In Maria Romasco Moore’s debut collection of flash fiction, Ghostographs: An Album (Rose Metal Press, 2018), vintage photos serve as the jumping off point for stories that subvert and redefine our conceptions of light, time, and life—what they are, what they do, and what they mean for us and our experiences.

Ghostographs follows an artificial constraint—each story is inspired by a photograph that appears alongside the text—but it does not feel restricted or stunted. Rather, Moore’s prose enlivens and complicates each photograph, often taking the visual reality presented in an unexpected direction. Although not without flaws, Moore’s stories are delightfully unnerving without being creepy or feeling gimmicky.

For example, the photo that accompanies the story “Tess” is an over-exposed image of a young girl who looks like she is glowing, and indeed, the story is about a girl who glows so brightly it hurts to look at her. In “Lewis,” a group photograph of women standing in a field of tall grass inspires a story that transforms the women into beings that grew from the ground like any other plant. A photo of a woman holding a child atop a mailbox becomes a story about a defective mail-order baby in “Hannah.”

While the vintage photographs range in subject matter, most contain people, and many contain spots of unnatural brightness or areas of overexposure, revealing Moore’s likely inspiration for her exploration of light. She reveals in the author’s note that most of the photographs came from yard sales or flea markets.

It’s unlikely the images share anything aside from their age, but the author stitches them together into a cohesive whole by using the same narrator throughout. Presumably a child, the narrator acts as an observer of the strange town in which they live, but also as a repository for accumulated wisdom about the town’s more fantastical elements.

The narrator, who is never named, explains what her grandfather taught her about light in “Different Kinds of Light,” which is paired with a picture of a cat sunbathing. “You’ve got to be careful with light, he told me. Some of it is shadow in disguise. Some of it isn’t light at all, merely the absence of darkness. Some of it can burn you. Some of it is colder than ice. Ice casts a light, as does stone. Some light is dangerous. Some light is safe.”

Photographs, are, of course, light that is captured and held in stasis, forced into one never-changing form. And light, as the narrator points out too often, is tricky. But so, too, are these stories.

Ghostographs opens with a single line of text positioned beneath a cut-off photo: “Every story is a ghost story.” The photo, bifurcated by the book’s binding, takes up only a quarter of the two-page spread. It shows a sepia-toned image of a group of men dressed in white, faded and ghostly. The taller men’s heads are cut off by the physical ending of the page.

Two pages later, the narrator—or perhaps the author, it is unclear—explains further that “The truth of it is that every single instant, we are, all of us, obliterated and refreshed.” This means that we are all ghosts of our previous selves, and all stories are therefore ghost stories. “These are mine,” the narrator tells us, before we turn the page to the first story.

“The Woman Across the Way” feels more like a vignette than a true story, but it does serve the reader as an entrance point to this strange world of living light and shadow. The opening line, “Underneath her skin there were snakes,” shows us that while the narrator uses the word “ghost” more as a metaphor for constant change than death, she is doing so in a world where the impossible has become possible. The choice of snakes imparts a sense of danger that only grows in the second story, “The Bridge Over the Abyss.”

The photograph paired with this story is one of the darker ones in the book, almost completely consumed by shadow. A woman in a hat stands at the end of the bridge, her facial expression inscrutable. Unlike many of the stories in Ghostographs, which make characters directly from their photographs, this woman is not mentioned. She is a ghost in the sense that we see her there, but know nothing about her. For all we know, she could be the abyss.

Moore’s flash fiction stories are skillful compressions that use specific language to great effect, although “The Woman Across the Way” is far from the only one that feels more like a vignette than a complete story. Even so, the rhythm of Moore’s sentences and the precision of her descriptions carry the reader through. With the exception of the preface, each flash story takes up no more than a page, and many of them require only half a page.

The real talent, and what makes this a fun, playful exploration of image and text instead of a pretentious affectation with no real depth, is how Moore strings the collection together. Ghostographs reads like a more mysterious version of the classic novel-in-stories Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Throughout the collection, characters appear and disappear and reappear, always changed in some (often sinister) way.

“And like the flicker of a shutter, light remakes us every instant. Every bird. Every leaf. Every ripple on the surface of the river. You. Me,” the narrator observes in “Light,” the second-to-last story in the collection.

It’s this change and ultimate erasure of the town and its inhabitants that makes the collection work. Characters morph physically and emotionally, they die and are reborn, they are forgotten and swallowed by the abyss. Moore presents them as ghosts of the moment, and brings this point home as she shows us subsequent snapshots of their lives.

We are our own ghost selves, past, present, and future, these photographs and stories say. How will we be remembered?

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Kelly Lynn Thomas reads, writes, and sometimes sews in Pittsburgh, PA. She lives with her partner, one dog, and a constant migraine. Her fiction has appeared in Permafrost, Sou’wester, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart. Kelly received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, is a coordinator for the VIDA Count, and can always be found with a large mug of tea.

Muddy Boots by Tim Morriss

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Editor’s Note: Today’s fridge flash comes from 12-year-old Tim Morriss from the UK. Tim likes reading, writing, hiking, and staying up later than is advisable.

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Hiking is a great thing to do, when you’re bored. When you haven’t got the new game everyone else has, you’ve read every book on your shelf, all your mates have gone to Spain or France or wherever it is people pretend to be when they don’t want to meet up with you…

Just buy some nice boots, pack a bag, bring your tent, and go away for a week’s walking. Over the hills and down the glens, the country is your limitless sandbox. Find a place to pitch your tent, cook hot-dog sausages over the fire… Bedtime is whenever you want! Visit the local castle ruins, or gaze down into a ravine… just don’t overbalance! Stop off in the idyllic village for a hearty meal at ye olde tea and bunne shoppe, and off you go again! There is no limit. You don’t have to avoid the puddles, either, when it’s just You and your Dad!

Up in the mountain, with all its pointy stones and peaty bogs, you can peer through the fog at the niceness of it all, with all the people with big rucksacks like yours, going to where you are, as you eat your sausage sandwiches.

And possibly best of all, as you trudge through the poo-scattered sheep fields and make that final, leg-burning slog up the road back to camp, wondering whether it was really worth it, you come back and decide that it definitely was, as you pull off your muddy boots and feel so much lighter, and you lay back later with a full belly and your legs just comfortably aching a little, satisfied in the knowledge that you just walked 12 miles.

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Got a great story from someone 12 or younger? Submit it to us here. 

Losing and Finding in the Debris Field: A Review of In the Debris Field

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by AnnaLee Barclay

To a flash fiction newcomer, the task of writing such a short story may seem easy, as though length is an indicator of difficulty. In my experience, it is the opposite—having a small amount of space to tell a full story adds extra weight to every single word because there cannot be anything superfluous or unnecessary. Each detail must be working to tell the story as succinctly as possible, as well as move the plot forward. This is generally true of writing, though longer forms of narrative have a bit more wiggle room to pack a punch while the shorter forms barely have time to wind up a fist. The Bath Flash Fiction Award posed the challenge of writing flash pieces that together comprise a novella but could stand alone if read apart from one another. The three authors of this chapbook created remarkable works of fiction that carry heavy loads on the very short, but strong backs of flash writing. Taken together, this compilation invites the reader to share liminal spaces with grief-stricken and confused characters who are written with honesty and acute awareness of the human condition.

The winner of the award, Luke Whisnant, presents us with “In the Debris Field”, a fragmented look at a broken family as it is navigated by one of the three children, Dennis, who is almost exclusively referred to as “you” throughout the pieces. Utilizing second person as a consistent narrative can be hard to pull off because it risks alienating the reader if he or she does not identify with anything following the “you”. However, Whisnant’s distillation of emotions and memories into strong language and imagery draws the reader in immediately and arguably has an even stronger impact than had he written from a different point of view. The stories cover specific, disjointed memories, such as schoolchildren using various items to construct a witch to burn at the Halloween festival, a father and his two sons rummaging for loot in a debris field after a hurricane, and siblings discovering a haunted, gnarled tree root while wandering the woods. A father leaves a mother for a young woman. Later, the mother leaves for good, abandoning her children with the father and the new step-mother, who eventually leaves to go back to her first husband. A brother gets addicted to heroin and eventually dies of an overdose. A sister struggles with romantic relationships over and over. These small, quiet tragedies that mark everyday human life are navigated by Dennis, a sensitive boy whose nonlinear memories thread together seemingly random instances that come together as a whole portrait of the pains that quietly mark us throughout our lives, particularly adolescence.

The second story, “Latter Day Saints” by Jack Remiel Cottrell, jumps from saint-to-saint as a young man seems to be searching for something, anything he can learn from each one. It never becomes entirely clear what it is he’s after but through his interactions with the different saints, the reader comes to understand that he is grasping for answers to life’s questions through the various facets of the human experience. Even if you don’t know what each saint represents, Cottrell’s unique portrayal of each clearly conveys their various domains—but there is still a handy index at the end, which even works as its own powerful flash piece. We travel with the narrator from St. Oran, the (unofficial) patron saint of atheists, to St. Jude, not to be confused with Judas, with some others in between. We meet St. Francis, who lives alone in a cottage on a cliff above the ocean where people go to commit suicide, as he is the patron saint of solitary death. Cottrell pushes up against our celebrity obsession through St. Clare, the patron saint of television, who makes a striking statement: “No one on TV is a person.” Our narrator has a similar realization about these saints our society worships when he says to St. Oran, “No saint reminds me of myself. That’s what I like about them.” This highly unique novella asks us to dig into our own perceptions of the world and how it operates as we struggle with our own personal journeys.

Victoria Melekian closes the book with “A Slow Boat to Finland”, a grief-stricken novella about a mother, Kat, trying to navigate the horrendous sorrow that engulfs her after losing a toddler daughter, Molly. Melekian’s prose is strong and blunt, yet there is a dreamy lyricism to it that carries Kat through the sort of brain-fog that comes after trauma. We experience her unraveling as she develops a relationship with the young girl who received Molly’s heart in an organ transplant and the tension between the sacrifice and gift is palpable. Melekian takes advantage of the different pieces by introducing other perspectives, including Kat’s husband whose extremely human “mistake” is what led to Molly’s death, helps illuminate the insidious and subtle ways tragedy touches different people’s lives. Kat wonders, “How do you move on from a loved one you carry in the marrow of your bones?” The reader will be left wondering not so much how Kat will move on but how will she learn to carry her sorrow and live a full life again as a motherless child.

There is a constant sense of finding and then losing throughout these pieces, as though everyone is in a debris field of their own lives, searching for answers to unanswerable questions or people never to be seen again. The joy of reading flash fiction is being completely absorbed and emotionally impacted by a small window into characters’ lives. This chapbook is an incredible compilation of flash at its finest.

In the Debris Field (Bath Flash Fiction Award compilation)–by Luke Whisnant, Jack Remiel Cottrell, and Victoria Melekian–is available from Ad Hoc Fiction.

__________________________

AnnaLee Barclay is a photographer and writer from Long Island. She was recently a member of The Lie Factory, a 12-week long fiction workshop taught by Lidia Yuknavitch and Chuck Palahniuk in Portland, OR. She is a reader for The Southampton Review and her work has appeared in Pretty Owl Poetry. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @annaleebarclay.

Flashgiving Winner: Ellipsis Zine

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For the month of November, we asked our readers to nominate other flash-focused journals that they thought were doing great work. In exchange, we would pick one to award $318 to (our tip jar donations for the month of October).

We received more than 100 entries, and we are pleased to announce that Ellipsis Zine stood out from the crowd. An online literary magazine for flash fiction and flash creative nonfiction, Ellipsis publishes three new stories per week as well as print anthologies several times a year. The press also publishes flash fiction collections and novella-in-flash.

This was not an easy decision—as there are so many great journals publishing flash fiction and treating their writers well—but time and time again, Ellipsis’ readers showed a great dedication and passion for the publication and its founder and editor in chief Steve Campbell.

“Positive and constructive. Accepting of writers of all backgrounds. Incredibly supportive. A joy to work with. A pleasure to work with. Modest and down-to-earth,” wrote one person. Another says, “It takes a lot of time and love to produce something like this.” And yet another, “When I saw this opportunity, I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving.”

We agree!

We got to chat with Steve Campbell recently about the publication and what he might do with the award money. Here it is, and also check out below the list of other wonderful journals that were nominated.

SLQ: Congratulations, Steve.

Wow. I’m beaming. Shocked, but very happy. It means a lot. I can’t quite get my head round it. It’s made my year. I’m so pleased that fellow writers get what I’m trying to do. I’m chuffed that people love the quality of the zines. That was important to me. I could have produced them much more cheaply, but I wanted the quality of the finish to reflect the quality of the writing. A big thank you for the vote of confidence. I promise I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing.

SLQ: Tell us about Ellipsis Zine. What motivated you to set it up?

I’d only been writing for about six months—just little bits here and there that I passed to friends and family to read—when I realised I needed to find more resources to broaden my reading, in the hope this would improve my writing. I began following other writers and online magazines en masse, reading as much published work as I could.

One of the writers I followed vented one day that they’d had a serious run of rejections (like we all do, from time to time)—and I thought, naively, that if I ran a magazine, I’d have published them.

It was that simple.

I have a background in web and graphic design, and so building the website and setting it up was actually the easy part. Getting people to engage, early on, was tough. I hid anonymously behind the masthead for the first few months, worried that my lack of publishing and writing experience would dissuade submitters and visitors; but almost immediately, I was inundated with great work. Once published, this work generated more and more interest and before I knew it, I was running a lit mag that people seemed to really, really like.

SLQ: The day-to-day running must be a lot of work, and you seem to fund it pretty much out of your own pocket. You have a full-time job and a young family. How do you do it?

Coffee and a patient wife. I spend a ridiculous amount of time with my nose buried in my phone tweeting, posting, liking, following and generally keeping Ellipsis in our followers’ timelines, and the published work out there. I’m surprised my wife hasn’t hidden my phone before now.

Did I mention coffee?

Initially, there was quite a bit of work, but I have a system in place now. Most of the submission reading is done while I commute (I have around three hours on a train each day). Selecting artwork and uploading work to the website can be done during lunchbreaks. Keeping on top of the workload is important. I have a great collection of writers who have joined the editorial board, and who’ve chipped in with blind reading, judging and been on hand to offer advice and guidance. This has helped me keep on top of things. I also schedule breaks throughout the year to give myself breathing space and time to concentrate on my own writing.

I do pay for the running costs myself, but I see it as an investment in my own writing. I feel I’ve developed so much more than I would have done without reading the diverse work I receive.

SLQ: How do you plan to use the FlashGiving award?

To attract authors from all backgrounds. We don’t charge submission fees, so this donation will go a long way towards covering our costs. I also plan to use some of the money to publish a second debut flash collection in 2019, and to hold a mini-giveaway of previous issues. We have plans for three zines and one collection, for which published authors receive complimentary copies and a share of the royalties.

SLQ: What’s next for Ellipsis Zine?

Long term, I’d love to expand the printed zine into a publication with a wider readership. I’m looking into ways to do this, but it’s a big step. It would potentially mean making funding applications to pay for larger initial print runs, and negotiating with stockists, etc. which is another whole mountain of work to take on. I’m not sure I’m quite ready for that just yet.

 

SmokeLong FlashGiving Nominees 2018

ActiveMuse

apt

Barren Magazine

CHEAP POP

Collective Unrest

Daily Science Fiction

Dead Housekeeping

Ellipsis Zine

Exposition Review

Flash Frontier

FlashBack Fiction

FRIGG

Ghost Parachute

Gigantic Sequins

Jellyfish Review

Kikwetu

KYSO Flash

Longleaf Review

matchbook

Monkeybicycle

MoonPark Review

Okay Donkey

Pidgeonholes

Pithead Chapel

Rhythm and Bones

River Styx

Split Lip Magazine

Synaesthesia Magazine

The Brown Orient

The Cabinet of Heed

The Citron Review

Third Point Press

Threadcount

unstamatic

Whale Road Review

Wizards In Space Literary Magazine

X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine

Zeroflash

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Kaitlyn Andrews-Rice

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I’m fascinated by your decision to shift point of view multiple times in such a compact narrative space. You begin with second-person plural (we) and then revert to first person (I) and back again throughout. What motivated this decision? What did you want to accomplish? 

Originally I was interested in a group narrative, and early drafts were only in second-person plural. But in the course of revision, I had a feeling something wasn’t working. I knew this wasn’t a story about a group so much as a story about independence, but it wasn’t until I brought in the narrator’s solo voice that it fully came together. Most of my high school experience was an internal conflict between wanting to be in the group and not wanting to be in the group. The switch to first person was a direct nod to that conflict: a teenaged girl wants to be liked but also wants to be herself.

The story’s narrative question—whether or not the teen protagonists should get phones for hands—is a beautiful metaphorical device that suggests a host of coming-of-age readings and is a wonderful foil for the sanctity of touch in the final scene. What did you hope this question would impart to readers about teenhood, decision-making, and/or growing up?

Whenever I wanted something that all of my friends had, my dad would say (in the way only dads can), “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?” I’d always roll my eyes (of course), but I think this was a subconscious prompt for “Second Base.” I was a teenager just before the proliferation of cell phones, so I’m especially fascinated by what technology has done to teenage friendships/relationships. Most teenagers “hang out” online. They no longer go to the mall or the movies, and most of their flirting is done via Snapchat or some other app I probably don’t know how to use. I’ve been thinking about what happens to our relationships with humans when those relationships are filtered through a phone. Remember when flirting was passing love notes during European history? Now flirting is a bunny ears filter and emojis and the ability to carefully curate your life. It’s a weird thing where technology has made us all grow up too fast and yet not grow up fast enough.

Similarly, the image of phones for hands immediately made me think of biohacking and especially Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto.” Her central argument—that a cyborg is a model of hybridity that frees us from dependence on binaries—is interesting to read against your final scene, where the narrator and Devin root themselves fully in human touch. Did you intend this piece to offer a commentary our relationship with technology or posthumanism? If so, what?

I haven’t read “A Cyborg Manifesto,” but I will now! I’m definitely interested in our relationships with technology, particularly as technology takes on a more and more human form. And with this story, I was curious whether the girls who decide to get phone hands will ultimately be more independent, more able to achieve their dreams. Lack of access to technology is a barrier for many. If you don’t have the internet, much of the world—jobs and house-hunting and socializing, just to name a few—can feel inaccessible. The girls who decide in favor of phone hands are making a choice to move ahead. You could applaud them for that choice. The narrator and Devin will likely be left behind, though their personal relationships may be stronger and more fulfilling. I think I would prefer the latter.

I personally have a love-and-hate relationship with technology, so I’m often exploring whether technology is good, bad, or somewhere in the middle. I haven’t come to a conclusion yet, but I will say that writing these answers to you on a computer is much easier than handwriting!

I loved your revision of Dickinson’s “I dwell in possibilities” to “I dwell in indecision,” which comes at a moment when the narrator is debating her prom pairing and remembering a sexual encounter with Devin. What other writers are you reading and incorporating? Who else informs your work?

Thank you! As weird as this sounds, I do a lot of YouTube research for stories, to get down a voice and to develop a story’s language. I keep a massive document of conversation bits, weird words, and vocal tics. Whenever I’m in need of inspiration, I turn to the document. Sometimes the research is obvious (e.g., I’ll watch women selling makeup as research for a story about makeup). Other times I’m looking more for a feeling or a vibe. Maybe it’s a Disney star talking about achieving his/her dreams or it’s a yoga instructor talking about the importance of essential oils. My YouTube search history is a weird place.

And of course I’m also reading. I re-read Saunders’ Tenth of December and Pastoralia quite a bit, and lately I’ve been spending time with Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, which is hilarious and heartfelt and just brilliant.

Finally: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard or have to offer on writing a killer piece of flash fiction?

  1. Don’t overexplain!
  2. Leave room for the story in what’s not said.

So often my early drafts are explanation followed by explanation. Over time I’ve learned to cut back excess and to trust the reader. A piece of flash isn’t meant to be a dissertation. It’s meant to be a slice of the larger pie. You know what you’re eating is pie. You know it’s apple or pumpkin. You have an idea of what the pie looks like whole, but because you only have a slice, you’re going on faith. I think that’s what flash is at its core: a slice of pie, a little faith.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Ahsan Butt

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One of the most intriguing things about this story is the way it is told. It reads like a factual counter-account to the idea of propaganda. Why did you decide to use the distant narrator as a way of telling?

The short answer is—it came like that. The story, including its voice, came all at once, which is unusual for me. Usually I have only the residue of an idea, certainly not its voice, and have to struggle to find anything. Here, the voice was anchored in the first line.

I’d say the narrative distance felt right because of its authority. Once the strangeness on the moon begins, there is the sense that this narrator, at this distance, knows the story in a definitive way and could—and might—reveal what “truly” happened. This, I hope, gives the story some momentum, and then at the end, as it pushes into Raheem’s interiority, a feeling of expansion and opening out. Whereas if the narration was coupled too closely to Raheem from the beginning, one would intuit the limit of what can be known, which might stunt the story’s affect.

This story seems a commentary on the way propaganda interacts with the stories we are told about events in our real life.  How do you see your portrayal of Raheem here? Is he a part of the machinery or a quiet rebel?

The moment Raheem tells mission control that there was an azaan, he loses ownership of that experience, and to an extent, his life. The way we are set up to consume lives is tragic.

I think “rebel” is too a strong a word. I think Raheem has integrity, but even that’s strained under the circumstances. After all, power coerces. It forces compromise and renders so many choices irrational. Maybe the question of his complicity is best answered by his appearances on state TV. Should he have refused? Did he really have a choice? What did he respond to the trite questions and how did he say it? Personally, I imagine he said nothing false, but also nothing that would offend the regime. Is that enough one way or the other? One could view his retreat into solitude as a kind of protest or simply the need to shut the world out to make sense of his own experience. Maybe both. In any case, I think he did the best he could think to do.

This story uses a lot of exposition. Can you talk about why you made that choice as opposed to creating full scenes and what your intent was?

The short answer is again—it came that way. I liked how self-contained and complete it felt, like an extended sidebar in a weird book about Lajiristan. I was conscious, too, of length. I knew the story should be short, and I didn’t trust myself to write succinct scenes. I would have chased details that served the scenes, sacrificing the overall tone and focus.

The expository mode also invited me, for some reason, to be a bit playful. Of course, my first impulse—when my wife pointed it out—was to erase the humor, but I quickly realized I couldn’t. The tone was doing something subtle to set up the story’s arc and the slight shift of the final moments with Raheem.

Heavy here, also, is a feeling of want and nostalgia for the repetition of that one moment. What does that moment represent for Raheem and for you as a writer?

For Raheem, I think it was a deeply intimate moment of conviction, of faith—of connection, somehow alone on the quiet moon. Who wouldn’t want to return to that amid the noise of the regime and the discourse of the media and the Internet? And I think I’m as caught up in that as Raheem. The image of an astronaut experiencing the azaan and performing salat on the moon has a charge for me as a Muslim.

As a writer (and reader), I’m interested in fiction that grasps at what’s beyond our perception, whether it’s weird, eerie, scary, or simply speculative. I obsess over how these modes can defamiliarize the familiar and re-engage us with everything’s complexity.

But more generally, I think many people can relate to having what they perceive is a moment of transcendence, indescribable to anyone else, only then to become stuck by it—desperately trying to relive it, or failing that, to mourn it. Maybe Raheem’s moment on the moon is a respite from loneliness. Or maybe it’s a moment of supercharged loneliness, a kind of trauma.

Have you ever wanted to travel in space? Where would you go?

This is where you find out I’m a chicken. Flying on a plane, which I regularly do to visit family, is terrifying enough. My wife is the one who dreamt, and dreams, of being an astronaut, and still says she’d consider piloting life on Mars, if volunteers were called for—which, no matter how hypothetical, stings a bit, I promise.

Beyond my terror of travel itself, I find the loneliness of space daunting. I crave my moments of solitude as much as any other decent introvert, but then I like to enjoy my solitude in public. The traffic of people around me is inspiring.

But could I imagine ever going to the moon? For an hour, if somehow my return was guaranteed—OK, let’s say yes. I’d perform my salat pointed at Earth, then come home, sit in a café with my wife, and dream about it.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Ashton Carlile

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Let’s begin with the first line of your story: “My therapist is pregnant and has mirrors for earrings.” Both features seem to alter her status in some way, at least in terms of how the narrator views her as “a professional,” though possibly in contradictory ways. Can you explain their significance to the main character?

I want to start off by saying: I’m not very bright or deep. While writing, I considered those images to be physical representations of taking a good look inside and outside oneself, I guess. I think the narrator is grasping onto these details because they’re so concrete and she envies what branding yourself as a “professional” can display or have the illusion of displaying—direction, understanding, confidence, all that. Pregnant women tend to have this enlightened look to them. It’s intimidating. So, I think my narrator’s worst nightmare is an acutely aware therapist who encourages critical examination.

Though the narrator spends the majority of the story interacting with her therapist, she does reference two other seemingly important figures from her life: her pastor from when she was nine and her former “other half.” All three relationships suffer from poor communication, and both the therapist and the pastor reinforce their authority over the narrator through oblique language. What do you consider to be the common thread among these three characters?

They all gave her some sort of structure, good or bad. The pastor told her what to think. The “other half” was a kind of validation that she’s a real person and capable of love. The therapist gives her very literal phrases to make sense of the world around her—“exactly” or “not exactly.” It’s easy to feel like you’re a stick figure and the people around you shape you into, like, a more complete drawing. But it’s important to leave some of the drawing to yourself, is my point. You should color yourself in.

Expanding on the previous question, the role of language within your story is particularly interesting. Throughout, questions go unanswered. Words are easily mistaken for others. Common objects are given new names. Multiple paragraphs begin with the narrator insisting that what she’s about to say is the truth, implying this has not been case elsewhere. What does this say about language’s ability to deceive?

Whenever you decide to convey something through language, there is a high chance that it will be diluted, inflated, or distorted in some way. I used to get upset when I couldn’t get language to do what I wanted it to do—to wrap my thoughts perfectly into a little bow. Now I’m more interested in the gaps and failures.

Because your story so effectively overlaps the past with the present, the focus lands squarely on the aftermath of the transformative events rather than on the events themselves. Is this a common strategy you employ? What is your general approach to writing flash fiction versus longer works?

I never plan on this, but I usually find myself writing around events—focusing more on the impact rather than on the event itself. A lot of my work is about avoidance. I consider myself an indecisive, quiet, and frantic person—so, naturally, I’m drawn to flash fiction. I enjoy the challenge of picking from all of the words in existence and collaging them to create something that will leave an impression and still only take, like, two minutes to read. It stresses me out in the best way. Flash gives me the restriction I need, but it also gives me the freedom to zoom in and really play with style. When I write flash I try to grab and hold onto my reader’s attention from the very beginning. With longer works it’s different because it’s kind of like You’re stuck with me for a while.

To wrap things up on a more personal note, which authors have had the most profound influence on your writing?

So many to name-drop here! Grace Paley changed something in my core. Amy Hempel, Tobias Wolff, Mary Gaitskill, Lucia Berlin, and others—I don’t want to make a super-long list. I’ve had really great professors, and I’m inspired by all of the work they’ve put out into the world. My friends, too. I enjoy reading anything that makes me feel like I’m camping in a tent: very exposed, connected, both large and small, face warmed by a flashlight.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Maddy Raskulinecz

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Flash fiction is such a condensed form; are you drawn to other forms of fiction that you write?

I write longer fiction, too, but I’ve always really enjoyed flash. And I think the compression of flash helps me to form good habits for longer work: trying to say things in crisp, taut ways. This story was unusually short for me—most of the flash fiction I’ve written is between 500 and 1,000 words long. This one I wanted to try to keep to a single page.

Who are some of your favorite flash fiction authors?

I like Deb Olin Unferth and Amelia Gray a lot. One of my recent favorite books is Joy Williams book of flash fiction from a couple years ago, Ninety-Nine Stories of God. And I always have Lydia Davis’ collected stories nearby.

Are there elements from real life that inspire your fiction?

I think the element from real life that inspires my fiction the most is anxiety. I’ll often create a fictional situation designed to put pressure on or explore a set of anxieties that have been worrying me. When something is really preoccupying me, every detail and anecdote I see or hear starts to seem to be “about” it. So some theme will begin to gobble up all the details from life that present themselves, and a lot of texture from real life will end up in a story.

Did you study writing in college, or do you come to fiction from another field of study?

I did a minor in creative writing in college, and later went on to get an MFA. Flash fiction was very celebrated in the creative writing department at my college, UNC-Chapel Hill. They ran a flash contest for students called the Mini-Max, named after Max Steele, the former director of the program and a big proponent of the short-short. So my early exposure to creative writing academia was very pro flash.

Are you putting together a collection of flash fiction?

I’m not working towards a collection of flash fiction in any organized way. I often find myself turning to flash when something longer is frustrating me, or to work out some small idea that doesn’t fit with anything else, or to play with style elements that would get tiresome if sustained for a long time. For now I’m happy to let shorter stories happen on a more spontaneous basis and see what organizing principles reveal themselves.

Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Jessica Dealing

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THIS: “You don’t have to love something to like it. She wonders how long these words of wisdom have trickled down the female stream of her family.” My goodness. This story is ubiquitous, and I ached each time I read it.  I am a woman who grew up in a family structure that trained women to play “traditional” roles in relationships. I think “Arrangement” also evokes memories of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Janie’s first marriage. Were you influenced by Hurston’s story at all?

Most likely, yes, on a subconscious level at the very least. I definitely see the parallels between my protagonist and Janie in her first marriage—particularly being that neither of these women wanted the marriage, and probably don’t believe in a successful marriage without love. There are many wonderful women writers that explore the pervasive ways in which marriage in a patriarchal society can disenfranchise women. Although stories that explore this concept have been around for some time, they are finally starting to gain popular attention and critical acclaim, something I see—maybe too optimistically—as progress.

I returned to thoughts of Janie toward the end of your story as the protagonist cuts her finger, and I’ve spent days thinking about what she might do next. What do you imagine she’ll do next?

Hmm, I don’t really specify how far forward in time the last two paragraphs have jumped, but I imagine it’s about a decade later, and by that time, I feel the protagonist is like the soap bubbles in the kitchen sink—windows are everywhere through which there is escape, and yet her duty keeps her stuck in a domestic space. I had fun exploring how we can all make mistakes in an ostensible sense (her premarital affair), and yet in being true to ourselves we need to make those mistakes and have a right to feel good about making them. I like exploring the intersection of the rights and wrongs of society and one’s own ethics because I believe at certain points, in everyone, they differ.

Can you talk about your writing routine? Where do you write? Is there a particular time a day when you write/research/edit? How do you shift from woman of the world to writer?

I am fortunate enough to have a part of my house staked out for my writing. I write for about four hours every week day. Being a woman of the world is all I really know, but as a human being I try to live compassionately and open-minded, and when I write I attempt to bring this same attitude to the characters in my fiction by seeing them as fellow humans, with reasons for acting as they do, reasons why they think they are doing what’s right or natural in their minds.

I see the father (not the husband) as the story’s villain. I imagine some people see him as the hero. How did you anticipate your reader responding to him?

Good question! I was thinking from the protagonist’s perspective, and the things we do that, although feel right and true to ourselves, can disappoint our loved ones, and no one likes to disappoint the people they love. I think, ultimately, the protagonist goes through with the “arrangement” because she wants to be a dutiful daughter, even if it makes her unhappy. I agree that in this story, the father is the antagonist, mostly because he prioritizes societal values above his daughter’s happiness. But I don’t think of him as a particularly bad person, only a function of societal values. He, just like his daughter, must negotiate between individual and societal values. The protagonist’s values, though, seem to diverge a bit more, and for this I see her as possessing a stronger sense of self.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Gary Fincke

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In Debra Spark’s essay “Getting In and Getting Out,” she discusses how the best story endings have a sense of “opening up,” of communicating that “it all counts. Everything makes a difference.” Could you talk about how you let this story open up at the end, even as the image narrows to a pinprick?

I’m glad you asked. Everything until the last long sentence moved steadily along the surface. All I knew was the cow was inevitably going to leave, but when it turned and left by the same path it had arrived on, that last “opening up” sentence wrote itself—always a good thing to have happen.

Every tree and lawn, every cow description seems essential. When you have so few words, what influences which details you’ll paint and which you’ll ignore?

“Half-grown” is the detail I debated as perhaps misleading, but then I realized that though the mother tells the story, the daughters “see” it, and the detail seemed accurate. Another? Once I chose a willow tree for its size and shelter and association with child’s play, the other yards grew full of shrubbery and small decorative trees, the world maintained by adults.

It seems most contemporary writers cringe at the idea of symbolism. But why a cow? If not symbolic, what does it evoke for you?

For sure, if those girls had said “Mommy,” that cow becomes less real and more symbolic. For sure, I worked against that. But it is the surprise, the near-miracle of its presence, and the girls’ spontaneous response that matters.

This story understates the father’s absence, but once it’s mentioned, the story takes on a whole new glow of uncommon visitation. How did you plan where to reveal this and what to include/exclude?

I never “plan” a “reveal”—and though sometimes that results in losing whatever thread I thought was there, I’m not interested in writing any other way but toward discovering what there is about my characters’ lives that might surface and be somehow significant to me and to whoever might choose to read my work. I did, however, drop a couple of sentences of exposition that surrounded the “mention.” The daughters are so young, I had to trust that a reader would understand it’s an absence that comes to them spontaneously and without analysis.

As a prolific writer of both poetry and prose, could you discuss how you see the genres colliding in this story and in the flash fiction form?

I’ve come late to flash fiction, almost by the accident of adapting scenes that seemed striking but led nowhere in what I believed would be long stories. I hate to discard anything, from old town league basketball T-shirts to ticket stubs, and I discovered a new pleasure in reworking a few such scenes, finding enough success that, from time to time, I set out intentionally to write flash fiction.  Since I’m pretty sure my biggest fault as a writer in any genre is knowing when to shut up—the audience may not have the patience to stay while I continue to associate—flash fiction feels like a healthy thing to do.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Trevor Fuller

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My apologies, but I like getting straight to the money—are you married or in a long-term relationship? What are the essential insights about communication in committed relationships you want to convey in “A Short History of Those Who Came Before Us?”

I’ve been in a long-term relationship since 2013, and I think I started thinking up these things about a year or two into that relationship. The insights I had in mind when I put this all together actually have less to do with communication exactly and more to do with action, the choices we make to continue loving others when the inevitable difficulties of a relationship meet us. Communication is definitely one of those actions/choices. I guess the essential insight of the story, in my mind, would be trying to recapture that notion of choice and duty in terms of what it means to love others, a la Fromm’s The Art of Loving or Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. How well-developed that idea is in the story is uncertain to me, however.

Breaking the narrative into vignettes is structurally interesting. The white space stretching between each couple’s lifetime mimics epochs of time and creates distance that allows for reflection. Before settling on this structure, was the story more conventional? Also, did you aim to tell the story chronologically from the outset, or did you explore different patterns?

I’m not too innovative or creative a thinker: The only structures I entertained were sort of assembling all of the events into the vignette-style piece you have before you or expanding each event into a story unto itself. A part of me still thinks the latter option would have been better. As far as chronology, each abnormal event occurred to me on its own terms, meaning I never really saw the vignettes as part of some larger chronology until I put them into one. But maybe more to the point of your question, once I decided to make the events all a part of the same piece, having them be ordered chronologically seemed inevitable and that wasn’t something I ever questioned. I just unthinkingly followed my instincts, which is what I normally do.

“A Short History of Those Who Came Before Us” features magical marital communication ailments, including wholesale fusion, anti-magnetism, and disembodied voices—what ailments were left on the cutting-room floor? Why are the featured ailments important?

Most of the ailments I thought up made it into the piece. One that didn’t was a couple becoming suddenly invisible to each other and each person sort of accidentally haunting the other by continuing to live in the same house and follow the same routines they did when they could both see each other. If memory serves (again, I’ve been messing around with all of these for about four years), I cut that one because I felt it was covering roughly the same metaphorical ground as the antimagnetism vignette (being able to see each other and be close to each other). I wish I could say why the featured ailments are important, but that presupposes I have a bunch of other ailments I never used, which I don’t. These were simply the best ones I could think up. It was important to me that each one be distinct from the others, but why my subconscious gave me these ones and not others is probably best left up to a psychoanalyst to explain.

Here, you blend together speculative and postmodern traditions to tell a story about falling out of sync and (hopefully) back into sync with a loved one. Do you usually work with these literary traditions and genre elements, or does the purpose and theme of a given story dictate the mode you work in?

I would say I’ve been emulating postmodern writers ever since I decided I wanted to be semi-serious about writing and began earnestly reading and thinking about the practice, and I think my influences can be all too obvious sometimes. I’m not sure whether or not that’s the case here, but a couple of years ago, I don’t think I was even able to imagine not trying to write like Pynchon or DeLillo or Wallace, which is embarrassing, but also the truth. Whatever inclination toward speculative fiction is present in my work probably issues out of my interest in postmodernism (and post-postmodernism, or whatever it is we’re calling what came after postmodernism now). Wallace writes about a character being able to levitate while he concentrates really hard in The Pale King; DeLillo’s most recent novel is about trying to achieve immortality through cryo-freezing; Barthelme wrote about a giant balloon dwarfing a metropolitan city—this is the only way I really remain in contact with speculative fiction; otherwise, I don’t pay attention to the genre.

Please tell us about some of your recent works and what stories you’re currently pursuing.

I had a piece published in The Matador Review called “The Right Object” earlier this year, and that is essentially one of these vignettes blown up into a short story. I’ve kind of moved away from love-in-the-face-of-the-supernatural, though, and am currently working on a collection of stories centered around the appreciation of film and how we interact with art in our daily lives and our relationships. I’ve also been haphazardly thinking about and occasionally writing a novel that is set entirely in a theme park not unlike Disneyland and would be one part Harry Potter and two parts, I don’t know, something like Underworld.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Jules Archer

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I think my favorite part of this story was when I realized it was actually about the reincarnated Anne Boleyn. When did you know you were writing about the reincarnated Anne Boleyn?

Right from the very beginning. I love reincarnation stories and I thought Anne Boleyn had as good a reason as anyone to come back, right? Then toss in some curiosity and revenge and bam! I had a story cooking.

Why don’t people talk more about mead these days? I could easily see an online journal called Tumbler of Mead.

I think it’s because mead sucks. Back in college when I became obsessed with Anne Boleyn I hunted some down at a liquor store. It was disgusting. I poured it out. I’m sure real, back-in-the-day mead is very different, but so far, based on what I’ve tried, no one is drinking mead.

I love the bit where Anne gets a job bartending because the uniform reminds her of her original time period. How much of our lives is given over to dressing how we want to be perceived, and then how much is spent judging others based solely on how they are dressed? And how does this play out for Anne in her reincarnated form?

I think you dress for who you want to be, and for Anne, that waitress uniform was the closest she could come to reliving the past.

How do I go about achieving a legendary waistline like Henry’s? (Also, wow, another great online journal name!)

A legendary waistline is probably the result of vast amounts of meat, pies, ales, and wine. It doesn’t sound like a bad life. I mean, minus the whole murdering-your-wives thing.

Seriously though. Why does the past have to mess up our future so much?

I don’t know. I guess it can mess up our future. But I also think it shows our future a lesson. Whatever that is. I’m not reincarnated. At least not to my knowledge. Fingers crossed.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Brooke Fossey

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Your story “The Great Abide” is about two sisters waiting for their father to come back from a hunting trip. I love the mystery here of the absent father. I know the reader should be left to wonder what has happened to him, but while I have you here, Brooke, what’s happened to the father?

In my mind, the father’s story splintered a few different directions—eaten, starved, beaten—but no matter what, he died. However, not before he instilled in these two little girls a very specific view: the world is out to get you.

While this story is very much about the absence of the father, there is a greater and subtler absence in the story. The mother. She’s never mentioned. Is this intentional?

When I first wrote the story, the grave belonged to the mother and she had a few callbacks. But during revision, she lost her space in the piece all-together. I think by that point the story had become more philosophical. I needed one authority with one singular message, and the first draft dictated that it’d be good ol’ dad. As for mom, she lives somewhere in the prequel…or maybe the epilogue.

The father tells Ginger and Cassidy that they live on an island surrounded by shark-infested waters. Is this lie a form of protection from an evil world or imprisonment? Or both? Or neither? The physical world you create for these two characters is memorable.

Both. This lie produces fear, and fear’s a funny thing. We’ve all been told shark stories—by our parents, teachers, friends, even ourselves—and mostly they keep us safe and comfortable. But sometimes they keep us from the kind of uncomfortable risk that can ultimately save us. The question these girls have to ask (and maybe we all should ask when looking into the great unknown) is this: are the sharks real? And how far out are we willing to venture—professionally, emotionally, physically—to find out for ourselves?

Ginger and Cassidy are survivors (at least I want to believe they survive). If you were to write their lives 20 years later, where would we find them?

Do they survive? I’ve waffled, depending on the day. One thing is for sure: if they’re going to make it, they have to do it together. Cassidy is full of mischief and imagination. Ginger is full of obedience and realism. They save each other in different ways. So when I’m having a good day, that’s what happens, and together they go on to live long and happy lives. On a bad day, when the world is being a hard and ruthless place, Cassidy hits the road and dies trying, while Ginger stays and dies waiting.

What are your literary influences?

So many. I had a very late start in the writing world, so my education has been a product of happenstance. I picked up INFINITE JEST because it was big and looked like a challenge, not because I’d ever heard of David Foster Wallace before. (Yes, I lived under a rock.) Other happy accidents: Bryce Courtenay, John Fante, Dave Eggers, Jose Saramago. One of the first “writing” books I ever bought was by Anne Lamott. These are the authors I read and loved without realizing what they were doing to me. Nowadays, I’m not so selfless about it. I bleed amazing authors dry. (On the night stand currently: Rebecca Makkai’s GREAT BELIEVERS.)

You’re the current president of the DFW Writers’ Workshop. Could you tell us a little about this organization?

It’s only the greatest thing in the world. DFW Writers’ Workshop (www.dfwwritersworkshop.org) is a 40-year-old nonprofit that helps writers improve their craft. It hosts weekly read-and-critique sessions that are multi-genre, which is super helpful. You can sit in a room and hear children’s, sci-fi, memoir, literary, and romance all in one night. I think if you only read and listen to your own kind, your work runs the risk of getting corralled. Everyone starts playing a single note.

DFW Writers’ Workshop also hosts the largest multi-genre writing conference in the state of Texas (www.dfwcon.org). I’m biased, but I think it’s the second greatest thing in the world.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Kathryn Kulpa

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First, I want to tell you how hard “So Silent and Still” hit me. The way pain unfolds in it is just lovely. It is such a small space, flash, which we fill with such hard emotions, but I think it’s rare to see pain unveiled as slowly and delicately as you do here. What draws you to this minimal form?

Thank you. I love writing about small moments, deeply felt, and I think flash lends itself to that kind of exploration—writing that’s the opposite of epic.

One of my favorite things about “So Silent and Still” is the fact that immediately I wanted to read it out loud. Sound and rhythm are forefronted so that it reminds me both of poetry and of children’s books, in all the best ways. Do you have a strong connection to those genres? How do you think they speak to flash if you do?

I’m so glad you picked up on that connection! This is one of those stories that I heard in my head before I put it on the page, and the rhythm and repetition are essential. They’re where the story started—the image of that folder and the words “Trapper Keeper.” You know how you can sometimes fixate on a common word and say it over and over and it becomes strange to you? That happened with “Trapper Keeper.” And I love children’s and young adult literature, and especially stories where someone discovers a secret world that exists beside our own, and I think elements of that come through in this story.

I always wrote stories, going back to when I was really young, and then I went through an adolescent-gloomy-bad-black-eyeliner poetry phase for a while, and then I said nope, no poetry, but I think flash is my way of writing poetry. Hopefully not the gloomy, bad kind! But stories come to me through image and sound. Those elements are not always in the forefront in traditional plot-driven fiction, but they’re essential in flash.

The question of voice here is so poignant. I think we think of it as a binary—either you have a voice or you don’t—but this seems to offer a more complicated view as it allows us to witness the time period when a child learns to choose silence. Can you talk about your own relationship with your voice (or your silence)?

It’s complicated and contradictory. It probably is for most writers. I’m an introvert; I live in my head, and I’m not always happy being dragged out of it. Small talk, parties, social events—those are my kryptonite. But at the same time, even if you’re writing alone in your room, you’re still writing, not just thinking. And writing assumes there will be a reader. I’m a very private person. Most people I interact with probably have no idea I’m a writer, and I’m OK with that. But then if you Google me, there I am.

So the child in my story has a private world that, for her, is incredibly rich and fascinating, and part of her wants to share it with people, but the other part of her is saying, “No, don’t, they’ll just make fun of you.” Not without reason! But I don’t see her silence as weakness. She’s protecting that private world, keeping it alive inside her.

What are you reading right now?

I’m a multitrack reader, so I’ve always got several books going—classics and contemporary and YA and graphic novels. Right now I’m reading Madame Bovary, because somehow I never got around to it before, and I’m also reading a young adult horror novel called The Sacrifice Box, set in the eighties—sort of like if Black Swan Green were written by Stephen King—and I’ve been binge-reading a graphic novel series called Saga. I’m on the library waiting list for Kim Magowan’s short story collection Undoing, and there are two recent poetry collections I loved, Doe by Aimee Baker and I Am Not Your Final Girl by Claire C. Holland.

Is there anything you need when you are writing (a talisman, a food, a space, etc.)?

Coffee always helps! But I’m not someone who writes in coffee shops. I need a quiet place. I usually write alone, but I can also write with other people if they’re also writing—I have a wonderful writing group, and we always have at least twenty minutes of silent writing, and that’s such a productive time for me.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Eleanor Pearson

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I’m not familiar with this box riddle. Do you happen to recall how you encountered it? And what is your answer to it?
I actually encountered it in the exact same way as the narrator! It was one of many puzzles and jokes that got passed around my school ad nauseam between about 1st and 3rd grade. To everyone else, the box riddle was just a bad pun disguised as a logic puzzle, but it stuck with me past the punchline.
The story is ultimately an inquiry into the limits of knowing, especially as it relates to what happens to us after death. What’s your personal heaven/box/reincarnation notion?
I’m a committed agnostic (as much as that’s possible), so I can’t give anyone a satisfying answer here. I think that, ultimately, we are all left where the narrator is: holding a belief that may be considered “silly,” but one that’s our own.
I like the feathers-on-dinosaurs smarty-pants mischief-making. You were clearly a smart kid; tell us about a time you were a headache for your teacher.
In fourth grade, I had a teacher whose response to most questions was, “Because I say so.” I wrote a story for her class in which the characters used a word in their language instead of ours. (You knew this because one sentence was literally, “X? No, we call that Y!”) My friends understood what I meant, but my teacher was confused. She claimed that my friends couldn’t possibly understand something that she didn’t, since she was a grown-up, implying that one or all of us were lying. I argued with her for days!

That was only one of many incidents. We did not get along.

Whose writing excites you at the moment?

I am continually in awe of how Nathan Ballingrud blends the fantastic or supernatural with the textures of everyday life. For almost the opposite reason, I love how David Mitchell twists language to make ordinary experiences fresh. And I am an eternal fan of Ursula K. LeGuin. I find something new and profound each time I return to her work.

How do you know if an idea lends itself to flash fiction?

For me, it depends on how complex the idea is. Flash is like a story bubble: very self-contained. Any movement or change, and the piece grows into a short story or beyond.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Michelle Ross

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Michelle, your story’s beautiful. I love the mother, and I’ve seen you write about imperfect mothers before. You’re so good at it! What attracts you about this relationship?

I seem to be a little (cough) obsessed with writing about mothers and motherhood. For me, it’s such rich territory—inexhaustible. Partly that’s because as a mother myself (my son is now eight), motherhood is a concept and identity I grapple with in countless ways every day.

I’m struck by that word, “imperfect.” Of course, all mothers are imperfect, as all humans are imperfect, but because we live in a sexist culture that holds mothers to a much higher standard than fathers, their imperfections are more glaring and more alarming. Not to mention that our demands of mothers are rife with contradictions and nonsense. I’m deeply critical of how unfair this is to mothers (and also to women who don’t want to be mothers).

But I’m drawn to writing about mothers, too, because as a daughter of an emotionally inaccessible mother, and as someone with many friends who have difficult relationships with their mothers, I feel all kinds of feelings on this topic. And as a mother myself, I’m deeply cognizant of the ways in which my son’s emotional development is affected by his relationship with me.

Secondary characters in this story are important, too—the sister hanging out the car, the woman pulling up crabs. They feel real. Do you begin with the character or the action? Does the sister lean out the window because that’s obviously what this sister would do, or is the sister born of the movement?

The action is very much what gives rise to these characters. The sister is barely on the page in this story, yet I think one has a strong sense of who she is, at least in contrast to the protagonist, because of that reaching arm in the first section and the sifting of the candy in the second section. Especially in flash fiction, but even in longer stories, I often don’t see my characters so clearly when it comes to physical attributes. I guess I just don’t care that much what they look like, unless the characters themselves are focused on each other’s physical appearances. More often I see characters in terms of the way their bodies move, the way they hold themselves, their twitches and quirks. I find actions and gestures more revealing.

There is so much here (including time travel)! Which part of the story came first?

The seed for this story was the idea of almost being pulled out to sea under the watch of a mother who doesn’t know how to swim. This actually happened to me as a kid. It’s something I’ve tried to write about several times now, first in a longer story titled “Cinéma Vérité,” which is in my story collection, There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You. Ultimately this anecdote felt in the way in that story. It was too backstoryish and just not really necessary ultimately, but I couldn’t let it go entirely. I returned to it again when I took a weekend Word Tango workshop with Kathy Fish about two years ago. For that workshop, Kathy asked us to braid together several different strands to make a unified piece. I worked on the story off and on for a few months. Then, frustrated with it still, I put it aside and totally forgot about it. When I rediscovered it in August, right before submitting it to SmokeLong, I saw clearly what needed to be done. I cut a few sections, tweaked a few things, and just like that, it was done.

Besides being a wonderful writer, you also edit the fantastic Atticus Review. How does your experience editing shape your writing, if at all?

It’s made me more cognizant of the reader. It’s easy for writers to get kind of self-centered in their writing. After all, I’m writing this particular story or about this particular subject matter, in theory, because it’s important to me. Of course, it’s super important to write for ourselves, to write what we want to read. But the reader has to be every bit as important as the writer if that story is going to resonate with an audience. One of the most common failings of story submissions is that they’re boring. Sometimes they’re boring because nothing happens. Sometimes because what does happen is too expected or too mundane. Sometimes because the writer is in the way of the story, preoccupied with trying to be clever or charming. Sometimes because the prose is lazy. Sometimes because the story lacks heart. All of these things boil down, at least in part, to a failing to give the reader due respect. In a recent Writer’s Chronicle article about the revision process, George Saunders wrote, “Banality is what happens when we take our reader for granted.”

At the same time, editing has made me more cognizant of the biases, whims, and other factors that shape editors’ impressions of submissions. As one editor I know confided, he’s aware that he very well may occasionally overlook great stories just because he happens to be tired or hungry or cranky when he encounters them.

Finally, and most importantly, what’s the best ice cream flavor?

This just might be the hardest question you’ve asked me. I love so many flavors of ice cream. But I’m going to go right now with cinnamon ice cream. I love it for the flavor—cinnamon is one of my favorite spices—but also for the subtle grittiness of the spice on my tongue.

Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Judy Darley

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Your story was fascinating to read. What was your inspiration? Did you have a specific image in mind?

The story began with wanting to explore the idea of hunger on a fundamental level, where it can pervade your every waking thought. I was considering how a river could represent the lies we tell ourselves for comfort, but how truth can ultimately be far more sustaining, even if it reminds you how hungry you are. The title, “Milk and Other Lies,” refers to the travesty of multinational milk companies convincing women that bottle feeding their babies was better than breastfeeding, which led to infants dying in poor communities, especially in third world countries. My story aims to examine how something can appear to be enticing, but is in fact a treacherous and dangerous illusion.

This piece felt very impactful, its flash fiction form playing into how striking it is. Did you start out knowing that it would be this short? When do you feel like you’ve told enough of a story?

The story actually began life as a poem, which is probably why it’s so distilled. I often write in one mode and then change to another to tease out more depth, hopefully without losing the power of the original form. I like the fact that the extreme brevity invites the reader to be fully engaged, as they’re required to fill in the gaps between words.

I write fairly instinctively. I finish the first draft where the ending feels right, but I go back after some time—that can be half an hour or half a year—and check that the ending still feels right. Often, I find I need to add a little more at that point. In this case I wrote fast, with each stanza pouring after the previous one. Re-jigging it into prose gave me a fresh view of my sentences and word choice and helped me understand my narrator more deeply. The story structure and final line, however, remained the same.

You have used fairy-tale-like imagery to describe a rather jarring situation. What has led you to this approach, and were you ever afraid of romanticising the topic?

Fairy tales are a form most of us have been familiar with since childhood, when we were still wide open to discovering the world. Studies have shown that fiction helps us to develop empathy, and I’m pretty sure this is because they speak to us at an emotional level. Like the key to a magic door, fairy tales provide a way in—a means for us to identify with creatures and characters utterly unlike ourselves, from princesses to ogres, and with problems ranging from thousand-year sleeps to murderous step-parents. I do not believe fairy tales romanticise terrible situations, but rather equip us to consider them head-on and potentially find a route forward.

Your piece can be read as a critique on poverty and the way children suffer from it. What do you think is the role of fiction in addressing issues that we would rather look away from?

Fiction is often a good way into examining stark truths. We’re all somewhat jaded from the relentless bad news we are presented. I’m sure that means we are more closed off to what’s actually going on. When we read fiction, our frame of mind is usually more receptive—effectively, our drawbridge is lowered. Fiction helps us get our heads around vast, frightening truths, and captures the emotional honesty that prompts empathy without making us turn away in fear or boredom.

You have a blog, SkyLightRain.com. Does it function to some extent as a journal? How does maintaining this blog help you with your writing?

Writing can be a rather solitary experience. Over the years I’ve discovered an array of creative communities that I enjoy being part of, and which often inspire me. SkyLightRain.com offers me the chance to big up the talented individuals who make up those communities. I have a background in arts and travel journalism, and the blog keeps me connected to those worlds as well as providing a platform from which I can mention my own writing successes. I’ve learnt that’s it’s vital to celebrate every success—if you don’t tell the world, who will?

Can you suggest a piece of short fiction that you would recommend to beginning writers?

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson is a brilliant, roller coaster of a read. First published in 1948, it’s an examination of how easily we humans accept the roles society casts us in, and the rules it sets for us to live by, to an extent that can lead perfectly rational people to commit atrocities. Jackson guides us with assurance into a world very like ours where a terrible act takes place with such regularity that no one bats an eye. It reminds me of how commonplace slavery was across the globe, that women were widely considered possessions, and how exceptional individuals are able to start movements that upset the status quo, making the world a more positive place.

Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Ellen Rhudy

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I can tell you were in marching band because “half the drumline” is the first group to get swallowed by the earth during band practice. I know the drumline deserves it because I was also in marching band. They always thought they were so cool, didn’t they? I played trumpet. We also deserved to get swallowed, I know. What instrument did you play? What instrument section least deserves to get swallowed by the earth?

It’s true, the drumline was the coolest, and they made sure we all knew it. I played mellophone, which was not cool and also frightening because I couldn’t really see around the bell. I never had any idea whether I was about to run into someone. This probably means I would’ve in actuality been much more likely to be swallowed than the drumline, but obviously I think the brass section as a whole should be saved.

Mrs. Hawkins is said to discipline anyone who tries to call her anything other than “Missus Hawkins.” What are some of the other things you heard her students calling her as you worked on this piece? Also, what’s in her flask?

I didn’t have specific names in mind, but a sense that these kids would be trying to figure out what her maiden name was, any way to dig at her. At the very least an exaggerated “Miss Hawkins,” which somehow makes her name feel like a taunt. And her flask is full of whisky—Old Smuggler, because there was always a bottle of it in the liquor cabinet for my grandmother when I was growing up. Which is not to say that she reminds me of Mrs. Hawkins!

Does Mrs. Hawkins’ prediction about Jay and Matt turn out to be right or wrong? What outcome did she really want?

I like the narrator’s idea that Jay and Matt turn up on the other side of the world, but I don’t think they really go to a better place or are saved. I think Mrs. Hawkins is about as wrong on that as you can be. Maybe she knows she’s wrong but can’t admit it. It must be more pleasurable to think you have this predictive power and can know who’s saved and who isn’t, rather than it is to admit that these poor kids died in an earth vent.

How long do you think we have before the events of this story occur for real?

Oh, boy. To be very literal, the story exists because Centralia, Pennsylvania exists—it’s a place that has stuck in my brain for years. I’ve tried to write this type of place before and came back to the image after reading Brandi Reissenweber’s “What’s Left of Streeterville” in the Southeast Review. I guess it’s such an interesting place to write about because the idea of the earth opening like that feels unreal and almost impossible, but it’s always happening, all around us—in a place like Centralia, but also a few blocks from my home (a sinkhole swallowed a stoop last winter!). And in another sense, the way the adults behave in this story and really don’t do what they should do to make sure their kids are safe feels very present to me and, in many ways, more frightening.

We wake up to a new global crisis every morning, so I still feel a sense of verisimilitude when it comes to the ground opening up and swallowing people from the surface. There’s also something realistic about the complacency of the characters, the way they wait peacefully for an imminent catastrophe to befall them. And yet, I still feel the hint of magical realism or even flat out surrealism or absurdity tugging at the edges of “Glory Days.” How did you approach striking a balance between something that sounds ridiculous to begin with, but is somehow believable at the same time? 

All my fiction takes place in off-kilter versions of our world, so this ends up being something I think about a lot. The best way I’ve found of striking that balance is to focus on the characters: their responses to the ridiculous elements of their world, but also all the other pieces of their lives. Sometimes I think that the less focus on the world, the more real it feels—I have to remind myself that as much as I want to focus on some strange element of the setting, it would be normal to my characters and not something they’re thinking about too much. In this story they’re thinking about it all the time (it would be hard not to) but there’s also college, sports, this interest in the teacher’s life. My belief/hope is that if my characters treat their world as real and expected, readers will do the same.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Shelli Cornelison

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What inspired you to write this story?

I grew up near Galveston and there was a phantom face on one of the buildings at UTMB. You had to trespass to see it, so of course everyone did. A Google search will reveal everything you need to know about it. A memory of going to see that face came back to me one day and I thought it might spark an interesting story. I had no idea what story would emerge. I also had no idea that I’d start to type and the face in my story would be at a poultry farm instead. That’s my brain in a nutshell. I try to take it to an island, and it detours to a slaughterhouse. But I liked the narrator’s memory, so I went with it. I’m fascinated by the very thin line that sometimes lies between reminiscing and obsessing. It’s interesting how some people can revisit memories and leave them in the past while others slip so easily into obsession and allow a memory to trespass on their present. And the thought of someone remaining so fixated on such early relationships that she’d allow them to dictate her adult experiences is both intriguing and incredibly sad to me.

Where do you like to write?

I prefer to revise at home, but I can draft anywhere. I participate in two regular weekend retreats with two different groups of writers, and I get so much done at those. One is at a place between Austin and Houston, a dusty, ramshackle lodge loaded with questionable taxidermy. All I can say is there’s a particular form of magic there that I hope I never have to give up. The other retreat takes place at a lovely house in the Texas hill country. It has a long porch with about a dozen rocking chairs on it, and it features beautiful, expansive views. And it has a hot tub. (Did I mention the hot tub?) I also love to write in coffee shops and at the new Central Austin Public Library, which has its own great views from the rooftop garden. It’s not your average library.

What are you reading now?

Funny you should ask. I just won this inventive story collection, Second Acts in American Lives. And yes, I have a favorite story in it so far. It’s “A String of Hot Seconds.” I’m also reading a fantastic new young adult novel written by Kendra Fortmeyer, Hole in the Middle. And because I’m taking liberties here, I’m going to add that I just finished Nova Ren Suma’s hauntingly beautiful latest novel, A Room Away From the Wolves.

Tell us about Texas.

Texas is my home state, and aside from a year spent in southern California in my early twenties, I’ve always lived here. Beaches, mountains, desert, charming small towns, big cities, great shopping, excellent food, vibrant arts scenes, and, yes, small pockets of troubling, terrible things, but mostly it’s crammed full of people with huge hearts and a willingness to help each other, even when we don’t entirely agree on everything. Oh, did you want to know about Austin, specifically? It’s terrible. No one should move here.

What are you listening to?

Jarekus Singleton, a blues artist out of Mississippi. He opened a show I went to recently, and I’ve been listening to him since. I think everyone should be listening to him.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Ashley Kalagian Blunt

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“The Unicorn” is a piece that, through the use of language, content choices, tone, and voice, creates for readers an emotional embodiment or essence of a character that ends up being the narrative; in other words, The Unicorn, as a character within this story, essentially is this story. And I can’t really imagine her being any other way (really, she’s perfect just the way she is). I was wondering what early drafts of this piece were like, whether you at any point felt pressure to pull this character through a more conventional narrative arc, or how you came to decide on leaning into the character study aspect of her in relation to place/setting.

“The Unicorn” was a rare moment of pure inspiration—the story came fully formed, practically dictating itself to me as soon as I touched pen to paper. This is about as common for me as encountering an actual unicorn.

I write mostly nonfiction, and most of my fiction comes from a real-life starting point. The Unicorn is based on a woman I saw one afternoon when I was actually in Lane Cove, a sleepy suburb of Sydney. In a different neighbourhood, the woman I came to think of as The Unicorn might not have stood out the way she did in Lane Cove. When I sat down to write something new a couple weeks later, she came to me immediately, and I was keen to explore who she might be.

How is “The Unicorn” telling of the kind of writing styles or themes that might be common threads in your work, and how might this piece be different from other pieces you’ve completed or are working on?

“The Unicorn” takes the everyday and looks for the sparkle in it. Really, it’s pretty banal—a person asks for change at a bus stop. But that person is a force unto herself, so she makes the story. The playfulness at work here, the way the story endeavours to entertain while also saying, Go ahead, be your own person, is actually new ground for my fiction. My most recent major fiction project was a crime thriller drawn from real events, including a series of international terrorist attacks in the 1970s and ’80s; it wasn’t quite so lighthearted. My nonfiction is likewise divided. I write serious work about genocide, but I also write comedic pieces that, like “The Unicorn,” aim to portray the everyday from a compelling perspective.

Towards the end of the story, there’s a part where The Unicorn “… realizes she’s left her wallet at home, and she has chosen you to give her change for bus fare,” situating her in scene and moving through narrative time in a really rooted sense for the first time. Your choice or instinct to ground her in this specific moment is what links the descriptive characterization in the middle to the early the narrative thread of The Unicorn being “Lane Cove’s natural enemy,” and creates the sense of reaching the climax of a robust narrative arc. Was this always how the story apexed? How did you arrive at this as your way of creating a narrative turn?

The Unicorn stood out, and she stuck in my mind, and when I sat down to write she demanded to be written. The story starts with her almost as she was, slightly improvised. But in real life I only passed her by, which doesn’t make for much of a story. In the writing, I imagined what sort of interaction we might have had in that moment, on that street corner. I felt this character would make that interaction unique to herself—which she does, by offering her eyeliner advice. I also knew she’d be bold enough to envision a Lane Cove in which more people did rock electric blue eyeliner or whatever would add some spice (or Spice Girl) to their lives.

The final line of the piece is a command to “bow and receive [The Unicorn’s] benediction.” I love how the piece leaves absolutely no room for any other ways of receiving The Unicorn. She moves through her life and interactions in a state of complete authenticity. What is it about this character that interested and intrigued you as a writer, and what do you hope her impact ultimately is?

The Unicorn was really owning it. For comparison, on that same afternoon in Lane Cove, I was wearing plain jeans and a gray jacket, like I was trying to camouflage myself against concrete. I couldn’t have walked down the street wearing the same outfit as The Unicorn, even though I really liked her outfit—it had a lot more personality than mine! What struck me most was that she exuded comfort with who she was, even when everyone around her was dressed more or less like me. In a way I wrote the story for myself, to remind myself to just be who I want to be, to not blend into the concrete so much. And by extension, it’s for anyone who needs to hear that message.

Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Christopher M. Drew

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Your story “Alligator” is striking for the way it balances melancholy and the absurd. When you sat down to write this story, which came first to you, the dissolution of the marriage or the alligator in the pool?

I find it difficult, usually, to pinpoint the genesis of a story, but the origin of “Alligator” is clear. I was on vacation, reading in the corner of the pool, the sun on my back, when I felt something nudge me. I looked over my shoulder and there, turning slowly in the water, was an inflatable crocodile (or what I thought was a crocodile). This got me thinking: what if there was an actual crocodile in the pool? And what the hell is the difference between a crocodile and an alligator anyway?

I sat down to write a draft soon after, and that’s when the guy, his absent wife, and their struggling relationship appeared on the page. I didn’t plan it; the story just happened. That’s one of the things I love about flash—I don’t need to worry about character arc or plot beats or any of the trappings of traditional longer form fiction. The limited word count actually gives me more freedom to magnify a single moment, often anchored by a specific image, without diluting it with peripheral details.

Let’s talk about opening sentences. This story begins with “the second thing”—an unusual way to open a story. I like how the reader’s attention is drawn sideways in this manner. Do you often look at scenes sideways and enter them through an oblique angle? How did this opening sentence come about—and was it an unusual process for you?

I spend most of my time working on first and last lines. For me, a good introductory sentence is one of the most challenging aspects of writing flash fiction. Not only where you start the story, or the information you choose to put in, but also introducing the tone of the piece—the emotion. I wanted to give a sense of the protagonist’s despair and longing right from the outset. Despite the fact his wife’s handprint is the second thing he sees, it’s this, and not the alligator in the pool, that is the focus of his attention.

I think it’s also important to try and approach something from a new angle, to engage the reader, but only if it serves the story. It’s a difficult balance. With flash, you have such limited space to work with that sometimes trying something new with form, structure, voice, etc., is the only way to express an idea sufficiently. On the flip side, experimentation for the sake of it rarely has an impact. For this reason, I don’t consciously try a radical approach with everything I write, and in fact up until the last couple of drafts of this story, the first line was, “The last thing I expected to see when I pulled the bedroom blind was an alligator in the pool.” This was fine as lines go—it set the scene and introduced the voice—but it was empty. I read it and didn’t feel anything.

Do you have personal experience with alligators yourself? Tell us about your writing space—out overlooking a pool, perhaps, or gazing out over a gator habitat on the bayou?

I wish! I’m from the UK, where the closest I get to an alligator in the pool is finding a frog in the garden. I do live in a beautiful part of the country, though, in a quiet village bordering a National Park. Inspiration is just a few minutes’ walk away. So to answer your question, I have no personal experience. As a kid, Crocodile Dundee was one of those films I used to watch on repeat until the VHS ribbon wore out, but that’s as far as it goes.

The only dedicated writing space I have is inside my head. I write wherever I can, whenever I can. Usually it’s late at night when my family is in bed, or early (and I mean early) in the morning before everybody wakes up. There’s something liberating about writing in the twilight hours—creativity is sharpest on the edge of things.

Your character Googles alligators, so he knows when he’s looking at one. What’s the oddest thing you have Googled lately?

Delving into my Google history, between the regular stuff like “what to do when a mouse chews through a water pipe” and “how to carve a Spiderman pumpkin face,” there are always odd little searches related to my latest writing projects. A couple of recent ones are “Do tortoises have teeth?,” and “What shoe size is the Statue of Liberty?” Turns out the answers are “No,” and “879.”

And finally, if there were a follow-up to this story, what would it be called?

I’m never going to win the award for World’s Greatest Title, so the working title of a sequel would probably be something like “Alligator 2: The Second One,” or “The Alligator Strikes Back.” I often want to rewrite the same story from another angle, so it would be interesting to explore the other half of this relationship. Maybe pick up on that final memory of his wife diving underwater, holding her breath for one, two, three lengths before she bursts above the surface. What does she see when she looks at him, sitting on the window ledge, smoking? How does she feel? Does she swallow the world, or choke on it? Now there’s a title…

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Laurinda Lind

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You begin this story with a description of city dwellers worrying about the dangers of an algae bloom. As the story goes on, even though the action is a meandering walk along the tree line above a shoreline, there is a mysterious air of risk, a palpably thin thread connecting spirt and body. What is the most dangerous kind of story to write?

For me, it feels dangerous to start to let a narrative unravel, because then all that subconscious stuff jumps out to say how anything can happen to anybody at any time.

The descriptions in “Itinerary” remind me so much of the tree-shadowed beaches that surround much of the Olympic Peninsula. I have a friend who calls that bracketed pause between shoreline and tree line a liminal space, a sort of fairy ring of consciousness, even though it’s a more or less straight line. What are your liminal zones? What happens up in there? 

If you’re day-dreamy like I am, every place is quicksand. A corner box selling China Daily newspapers just did that to me in New York City this weekend. But, yeah, usually anywhere near water.

I love the specificity of your language, which gives us the names of bacteria, toxins, and veterinary sedatives. I’m imagining you plunging into research. Do you know exactly what you are looking for when you begin researching, or does discovery guide your narrative choices?

When I am wandering into descriptions that don’t feel grounded enough, I start to Google so I can narrow my focus and grab onto something more solid.

As a dog lover, I adore the dogs in this story—they seem to work as narrative pathfinders, moving us forward as they go, pulling attention toward critical elements. It occurs to me my dog basically does that for me in actual life. How do you choose your narrative engines? Is it mostly a matter of instinct, craft, or maybe an actual dog leads the way?

These are instinct dogs, for sure. I feel as if the character is hunting for authenticity, so the dogs help to root it out and root it up. In a sense, they seem a bit like psychopomps, too.

How do you feel about social media accounts that post as dogs (e.g., @BillytheChouChou or @TalulaEatsGrass)?    

I am still bewildered by Twitter and all its stepsiblings, so I have been shielded from these by ignorance. However, if people need this kind of avatar or muse, I’m happy they found a means of expression. Maybe I’d feel differently if I actually saw one of these and it was nasty.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Brendan Stephens

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People love their pets, sometimes more than people. What is it about animals that makes us so irrational sometimes?

I was totally unprepared for this question. My gut reaction says it has something to do with how they fully depend on you, which makes you care for them because of their helplessness. But part of me kind of also thinks about how humans have been selectively breeding pets for 10,000 years to make the most adorable breed suited to a person’s taste. So maybe we love our pets because they’re evolutionarily lovable?

Are you a cat person or a dog person? Either way, have you read “Cat Person”?

I’m definitely a dog person. I feel like that might just be because I found out really young that I was allergic to cats, so I wasn’t allowed to pet them or else I’d start to break out. But a few years ago I got an allergy test again, and it turns out I’m allergic to dogs as well. So now I just watch gifs of dogs and cats online.

Honestly, I’m embarrassed that I haven’t read “Cat Person” yet. I’m so unbelievably backlogged on books and stories that I want to read. This is reminding me to bump it up on my winter reading list.

For a second, I thought about stringing all five questions together into one sentence. That would have been pretty dumb, right?

Honestly, I think that would’ve been kind of great. It definitely would’ve made me have to give my reply as one long run-on. If not that, I’d do something like answer in as many sentence fragments as possible.

Tell us about your favorite pet. (I mean, unless you, uh, already have.)

I haven’t had as many pets as a lot of people—2 dogs, a rabbit, a hermit crab, and a couple of hamsters. My favorite was probably the second dog that I had. She was part husky and—somehow—dachshund and looked like a little black fox.

Best Little Rascal?

Spanky was probably my favorite growing up. He was definitely the biggest rascal of them all. The others were always a bit more innocent, but Spanky was straight up scheming all the time. If not Spanky, then probably Buckwheat because like 30 percent of my life I’ve had “We got a dollar, we got a dollar, we got a dollar, hey hey hey hey” stuck in my head.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Vivien Cao

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What makes for a strong piece of flash fiction for you?

Personally, the flash pieces that resonate most with me tend to be very “voice-y”—that is, the protagonist’s voice shines through in the writing. They also have a palpable rhythm when it comes to word choice and syntax, and a last line that hits a lingering, transformative note. I don’t expect—nor necessarily want—twist endings or pat resolutions, but I do hope the overall journey guides me toward a surprising or unfamiliar way of seeing something.

Who are some of your writing influences and why?

I come from a film and TV background, so from that world, some writers I look up to are Jill Soloway and Mike White. They craft stories that speak to me thematically (nostalgia, innocence, melancholia) and layer so much depth into seemingly obvious characters. As for fiction, I really admire Raymond Carver’s ability to tell a subtle story through dialogue.

If you were marooned on a desert island, what five books and five pieces of music could you not do without?

I chose these five books because no matter how much I revisit them for pleasure or teaching, there’s always a new nuance to discover in the details and rhythms.

Tim O’Brien: The Things They Carried

Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby

Jennifer Egan: A Visit From the Goon Squad

Junot Diaz: Drown

Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex

I can put these five albums on repeat and never get sick of them. Plenty of other artists and songs hold a special place in my heart, but these particular albums are pretty perfect all the way through.

Wilco: Summerteeth

Fleetwood Mac: The Dance

The Beatles: The White Album

Weezer: Weezer (Blue Album)

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs

Can you tell us a little about your writing process and why it works for you?

I actually ventured into writing flash as an exercise whenever I felt stuck while working on a pilot or screenplay. I’d start to feel lost in the dialogue, and so in order to distill a character’s want or need, I’d work them into a piece of flash. Sometimes I’ll end up more excited about the flash story than the original scene. I find having more than one work in progress at the same time can help motivate me to keep writing when one thing starts to feel unexciting or stale.

What do you consider more important in a piece of flash: plot or character?

As a writer I think both are equally important, but as a reader, I gravitate a little more towards plot. Usually if a character is flat, I’m open to seeing if the plot is at least compelling or entertaining, but the most interesting character meandering through narrative limbo is just a boring story. With flash I think the reader deserves some kind of payoff, unconventional though the plot may be given the economy of words.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Taryn Tilton

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Where did the idea for this story come from? Is there any semblance of creative nonfiction blended into this piece? Did anybody drape a snake across your shoulders without saying a word? Have you ever been in a tornado?

I have consented to every snake across my shoulders, and I have never been in a tornado, but I have been in tornado weather, and I have been in a relationship like this one. So the idea came from capturing how that feels.

Personification of vegetation seems integral to the visceral beauty and profundity of the piece. The rhubarb, poplar, and bulrushes are almost characters in and of themselves.

I don’t see the plants as personified; they are portents.

The specific relationship between the women is never mentioned. I imagine they’re sisters or stepsisters—but might be totally wrong. The ambiguity and mysteries leave me intrigued, curious, and contemplative after reading the last line. I suppose not knowing makes it more fascinating, as each reader can interpret things differently?

These dynamics are possible in any long-term relationship—whether that be between friends, sisters, lovers, or even business partners. The nature of the relationship did not strike me as central to understanding.

Do you have any writing routines, and do you think they’re conducive to creating art, or do you believe being able to improvise is beneficial to art? You have lived in Buenos Aires and Shanghai. Would you recommend living abroad as an expatriate?

I don’t have a set schedule, but I do ritualize my work, getting some boring things in order first (hair off my neck, two things to drink). I don’t recommend living abroad to anyone except those who want to do it.

Artist Spotlight: “Junk Artist” Chris Roberts

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Chris Roberts is Dead Clown Art and has illustrated a couple stories for SmokeLong. He is a full-time freelance artist, using mixed media and found objects to create his self-described visual nonsense. Roberts has made art for Another Sky Press, Kelp Queen Press, PS Publishing and ChiZine Publications; for authors Will Elliott, Andy Duncan, Tobias Seamon, Shimon Adaf, Seb Doubinsky, Ray Bradbury, Kaaron Warren, Ellen Klages, Claire North and Helen Marshall. He was nominated for a 2013 World Fantasy Award in the Artist category.

SmokeLong art director Alexander C. Kafka asked Roberts about his work and inspirations.

___________________

Chris, would you tell me about yourself? How old are you? Where do you live? Family? Work? School?

I’m 44 years old. My brain is 24 years old. My body is 64 years old. I’m wildly conflicted. I live in Waukee, Iowa. Living the quiet life with two strong, lovely, smart, rage-filled women: wife and daughter. Currently in between jobs, so making art and taking naps. Well out of school, but I think they’re still a really good idea. What else are kids going to do during the day?

… Oh. Where did I go to school? Graduated from Grand View College in Des Moines, way back in 1996. Yes, they had colleges back then.

When did you become interested in art?

I’ve been making art for as long as I can remember.

Wow! That was a super cliché answer.

Take 2: My high school art teacher was the first direct example of somebody making art into a career. I was aware that “artist” was a profession. I grew up in small towns, but I wasn’t born in a barn. But high school art class was when it first clicked that I could be an artist when I grew up. There have always been outside influences of course–comic books, music, movies, museums–but that’s my origin story.

You work in mixed media. What are your favorite materials to create with?

Found stuff. I proudly consider myself a “junk artist.” Garage sales. Estate auctions. I walk around this amazing antique mall we have in Des Moines, looking for discarded treasures. I pick up interesting stuff on sidewalks and in empty parking lots. I have drawers and containers and folders filled with all sorts of random detritus. Each piece of junk is waiting patiently for the right illustration. Old keys. Brittle scraps of paper. Faded photos. Broken bits of plastic. Jagged rusty pieces of metal. Junk.

What are your favorite kinds of works to illustrate?

I love making art for words. I’ve made a pretty decent number of book covers for various presses, especially for the incredible PS Publishing. I always manage to find a way to channel my personal work through my professional work. Two birds, one stone.

I love weird and challenging projects. Feels like I’ve become the go-to guy for oddball stuff that publishers aren’t quite sure what to do with visually. And while I understand that makes me and my work sort of niche, I have absolutely zero problem being that go-to guy. Those are the projects that sink their hooks into me. The projects that I would have chosen, but they ended up choosing me.

Your pieces often have a warped religious or totemic feel to them. What kinds of imagery are you drawn to and why?

Astute observation. I’ve been an atheist since my early teenage years. But I’ve always been interested in what attracts people to religion. There’s no atheist iconography, obviously, so I’m drawn to the vast array of religious icons. I enjoy turning monsters into worshipped objects. It’s probably my way of taking those familiar symbols and unraveling them with an opposing visual context. Whatever religion used to be about, today it’s about power, money, corruption and division. It’s definitely not what it claims to be. It’s become a wicked mask. I try to expose that in my work when I’m able.

Which artists have you been most influenced by?

Dave McKean; Bill Sienkiewicz; Ted McKeever; Henrik Drescher; Galen Dara; Andrea Sorrentino; Jason Shawn Alexander; Jean-Michel Basquiat; Fiona Staples; Ralph Steadman; Jean Dubuffet. One of my favorite paintings of all time is Dubuffet’s The Villager with Close-Cropped Hair. It’s hanging in the Des Moines Art Center and I visit it as often as I can. It’s brilliant!

What other aspects of life and culture inspire you?

First and foremost and forever, my wife and daughter. I couldn’t do what I do without them. Truth.

Comic books have always been an inspiration, as you can see by the majority of my artist influences in the previous question. No matter how pleased I am with a finished piece, I can look at any piece in Dave McKean’s staggering catalog and instantly feel like a discarded toothpick of an artist. And that’s okay. That’s part of the fuel I need to keep going. Not to ever create a piece that’s better than his, but to just keep making the art that makes me happy. Keeps me sane.

What do you like to do in your free time?

This bounces nicely from the previous question. I enjoy movies. Comic-book movies especially, because they’re something I can share with my daughter. Light horror movies with my wife. I’m sort of a chicken when it comes to some of the darker, bloodier horror movies. My imagination is way too wide open for them. They creep in and take up residence. Hereditary, for example. That movie poked around violently in my head for weeks after I saw it. Loved it, but it rattled me.

I love music. Radiohead forever!

And, of course, reading. So many books in my to-read pile! It’s towering and probably a fire hazard. Ready for the name dump? Josh Malerman; Joe Hill; Sarah Pinborough; Kaaron Warren; Sarah Langan; Stephen Graham Jones; Nick Cutter; Tom Piccirilli; Helen Marshall; Lauren Beukes; Gemma Files; Rio Youers; Gary McMahon; Daryl Gregory; Michael Marshall; Neil Gaiman; Stephen King.

If you could assemble any group in the world for a mandatory meeting, who would it be and what would you say to them?

This one’s easy! All of the Fraggles from Fraggle Rock. Except for Gobo’s Uncle Traveling Matt, because fuck that guy!

Wouldn’t say a thing. I’d just wink and nod and we’d go on all sorts of Fraggle adventures together. We’d eat Doozer sticks. We’d masterfully elude being eaten by the Gorgs. We’d have all of our questions answered and problems solved by the ever-wise Marjory the Trash Heap. We’d swap insults with her ratty hench-creatures Philo and Gunge.

Then we’d leave the Fraggle caves, emerge in the human world and rapidly topple the evil patriarchy. Then, having worked up quite the grumbly appetite after toppling the patriarchy, we’d head to Taco Bell. Best. Day. Ever.

___________________

You can watch Roberts misbehave at deadclownart.com, or on Twitter @deadclownart.

 

 

“Narrative Risk”: An Interview With Guest Reader Anne Rasmussen

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What themes do you frequently find yourself writing about?

I can be all over the map with this! I’d say my writing projects can fall into a couple of categories: whatever is breaking my heart at the current moment, and/or when a particular concept or image pops up in a way that makes me excited to play with words or explore it from an unexpected angle. Since my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago I’ve been thinking a lot lately about language and memory and storytelling and childhood and parenthood and loss and how best to weave these strands together into a coherent whole.

As an obsessive thinker, I can turn a potential story over and over in my head for months before it finds its way onto the page. I love coming across writing that makes me see the world in new ways, and I’m always hopeful that whatever images or structure I use may inspire a similar “Ooohh, you can DO that?” light bulb response from a future reader out there.

You write both fiction and creative nonfiction. Can you tell us a little about how you move between the two genres? Do you have a favorite?

As a reader I enjoy both genres, though I’m able to “lose myself” more reading fiction. I’m a total process geek, so I’m drawn to pieces that are inventively structured, have a strong voice, or take narrative risks, regardless of genre. I don’t always know when I sit down to write what form will best serve the story and resonate with others, and figuring that out is part of the fun.

Both fiction and CNF borrow from each other in ways that defy our attempts to categorize them. I think of myself as primarily a fiction writer although many of my real-life obsessions find their way into my stories. I do think the CNF tag can lead some readers to assume they know more about the writer based on one piece than they might reading or responding to the same piece as fiction. I’ve felt more comfortable exploring certain aspects of my experience through the added layers that fiction permits.

I decided to remove some of those layers in a recent piece about my dad’s Alzheimer’s, partly to push back against public stigma surrounding the disease. But even that piece has fictional elements. I take on perspectives outside of my own: it’s not just the daughter’s POV–the mother and father speak as well. There is quite a bit of invention in that narrative choice and I considered submitting it as fiction before deciding to send it out as CNF. There’s power in saying “this is my experience,” as terrifying as that is, and I’m learning to sit with my vulnerability in this regard.

You served as the interview editor for Late Night Library from 2014-2017. What makes for a good interview?

I love interviews that have the feeling of a conversation between peers and also make space for the reader. I always appreciate when interview questions provide some context for those who haven’t read the work, and when they genuinely engage with the work rather than rehashing promotional copy or questions that have been covered in previous interviews. I love the artist-to-artist conversations in BOMB Magazine, particularly when they cross disciplines, because they always leave me excited about the creative process and ready to dive back in with fresh eyes.

The author interviews I did for Late Night Library were by email, which had the advantage of letting everyone be introverted and take our time crafting thoughtful questions and responses. My favorite interviews were those in which we had time for two or even three exchanges of questions, as opposed to sending the full set questions at once. That exchange felt more dynamic on the page and took the conversation in directions I couldn’t have anticipated. That said, I never quite lost the terror of sending off a first batch of questions and waiting for the response.It felt nerve-wracking every time, but it was a pleasure and privilege to have these conversations, especially in support of emerging writers.

Last but not least: what kind of story would you love to see in the queue this week?

Surprise me with your best! That sounds trite, I know, but I’m continually amazed by the diversity of styles and subjects that flash encompasses. I love how some flash writers are capable of sophisticated world building and others use the form to zoom in beautifully on some microscopic detail. I love a well-executed narrative risk,I love a strong, compelling voice, I love dark humor and playfulness of form, but mostly I love work that takes me completely out of myself. Those of you who can do this in under 1,000 words are magicians.

Simply said, I’m always interested in seeing what writers decide to grapple with on the page. We all want to be seen, so write what feels vitally important to you right now. What delights you? What keeps you up at nights? What distracts you from your day job? I’ll be on the other end of the queue, ready to find out.

Book Review: Ben Berman’s Then Again

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by Beret Olsen

With two volumes of poetry under his belt—Figuring in the Figure (Able Muse Press, 2017) and the award-winning Strange Borderlands (Able Muse Press, 2013)—Ben Berman has turned his pen to a collection of flash fiction. Due out in November, Then Again includes forty-two triptychs strung tightly with a thread of words.

The surface structure of the book is readily visible in the table of contents, which reads like a word association game: “Breaks,” is followed by “Tears,” then “Openings.” Likewise, “Beats” follows “Switches,” then “Currents.” But dig deeper to appreciate the many layers in Berman’s linguistic tapestry. Within each story, the author proves an astonishing gymnast —semantic, geographic, philosophical, and chronological. In a single sentence, he can travel through college, love, and loss, and land in Nepal:

Sometimes you have to let something shatter just so you can see what it’s made of, and after all those months of heartbreak I needed more than a mere break from school—which is how I ended up in Kathmandu, three mangy dogs chasing me through a maze of alleyways. —from “Breaks”

Berman takes a word and tinkers, seeing how far it might stretch without snapping. In “Presents,” for example, Berman assembles a three-layer literary confection using a common ingredient: the Latin praesent-, or “being at hand.” Now wielding it to mean current, then focused, then gift, he steers the reader from inner peace to scattered peas and a dirty diaper.

Inspiration for this body of work came from his young children, who marveled that one arrangement of sounds could have such a jumble of meanings. His aim? “To write about disconnects in a form that stressed deep interconnections, to explore the contradictions of our lives by contemplating the tensions within and between words.”

Though the author calls the stories a “blend of fiction and nonfiction,” each is written in first person and crosses his personal map and history. Turning a page, we are as likely to find him as a parent, a child, or a teacher; in Zimbabwe, at a drive-thru, or in Paris, hankering for a few cubes of cheese. The slippage is not just between connotations, then, but also between cultures, between versions of the self, all while keeping the prose deceptively simple. No matter the age or location of the protagonist, he is trying to make sense of himself through the lenses of past, present, and future. The resulting stories fit snugly but vary widely: some poignant, others provocative, even humorous.

Because no one really wants to hear about that time you held a goat down as blood spurted all over your arms or what it’s like to have parasitic worms burrow into your feet then lay eggs on the walls of your bladder, we figured we’d better bring home some finely crafted masks to hang on our living room walls. —from “Figures”

In fact there is a lot of humor in this slim volume. There are spoon-armed showdowns with three-year-olds, grandfathers in wheelbarrows, and pubescent tongues working like plungers. The games Berman plays with words and ideas makes the opening line of “Balls” a comedic achievement: “Benny had the brains, says Marc, and I had the balls—which would be funnier if he were speaking metaphorically . . .” But proceed cautiously. Some of the pieces that linger longest are the ones that go beyond semantic games. These can sting. In “Sounds,” he listens to the breaths of his sleeping wife and children—hers meditative, theirs restless—while writing about the death of a boy on a bus in Africa, witnessed years before.

While each short work feels effortless and alive, en masse the stories accentuate their structural similarity. Better to read a page or two at a time, so as not to lose sight of the arc and integrity of the discrete narratives. As Berman reveals in the opening story, these “. . . shards and peaks, slivers and alleys, [are] strokes of a single landscape.” Take the time to follow the author into the alley with dogs, to Pitch ‘n’ Putt with a can of beer, or down the aisles of Bed, Bath and Beyond with a screaming toddler. Each handful of sentences reflects a raw truth about self and other—self as other. Sifting through the pieces allows the whole to take form.

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Beret Olsen is a writer, a photographer, and the photo editor for 100 Word Story. Her art, essays, and fiction have appeared in publications including First Class Lit; Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine; the Masters Review; and her blog, Bad Parenting 101.

“Very small, tender things”: An Interview With Guest Reader Molia Dumbleton

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What themes do you find yourself frequently writing about?

You know, it was really interesting putting together my collection over the last year or so, because that process really forces this question. The challenge was to read my entire body of work—more than sixteen years of stories written by all these different versions of me, in such different stages of life—and to try to suss out which stories were reaching out to one another thematically, and which ones were just doing their own thing and probably weren’t part of the collection. Eventually, what rose to the surface was the juxtaposition of very small, tender things: children, animals, loneliness, fragility—set against epic, sweeping, menacing things: violence, war, illness, neglect, abuse of power. Everywhere I looked in the stack of stories, I just kept finding animals, children, and other tender, disempowered entities trying to find their way out from under authority figures, gods, and other threats.

You’ve won and placed in quite a few writing contests. Do you have some advice for writers who are either thinking about or just getting started entering contests? What’s the secret of your success?

Right! So, I know there are a lot of mixed feelings out there about contests, and I do have some of those feelings, too—but for me, honestly they are just a fun little indulgence that makes things a bit more suspenseful and exciting and…is it weird if I say social? It’s a bit like gambling, maybe. I love horse-racing (I know I’m not supposed to, but I do anyway, just shh) and it’s always nice to go watch, but isn’t it just a little bit more fun once you’ve plonked down your two dollars and have a specific thing to root for? I think, for me, contests just break up the solitude and plodding loneliness of it all, and give me a deadline and a word-count and a fun little goal. (Oh! And by the way: my favorite contests are the ones that drum up a nice little community among their writers/submitters during the rollout, and sort of make it fun whether you do well or not. The ones that just take your money and then months later, silently stick a name on Twitter…sort of defeat the purpose, to my mind.) In terms of advice, I guess I’d say: if it will make you write more, write better, have more fun, and feel more connected, go for it. If it will just make you feel cranky, skip it.

What kind of story would you love to see in your queue this week?

Oh boy. Is there any way to answer this that hasn’t already been said? All right, let me try it this way: I read a lot of stories in any given week. Like, a lot. And somehow I never stop being amazed at our ability, as humans, to find brand-new voices, stories, and moments to tell. How can we still be tugging the hearts out of one another’s chests, after all this time? How is that even still possible?? But somehow, we do. Yes, there are a lot of stories that feel like re-treads (like, a lot), but in among them are also these sparkly little gems that feel brand-new, and make us feel things we haven’t felt before or, remarkably, didn’t see coming. Probably not very helpful on a practical level, I realize, but in every stack an editor goes through, remember that they are always just looking for the thing that is not like the others.

You’ve recently made a pretty major mid-career shift. That sounds exciting and scary at the same time. How is it going?

I did, I did! So exciting and so scary, that’s exactly right. I’d been doing full-time corporate editorial work for about fifteen years, and teaching Creative Writing part-time during that span as well. At the end of 2017, I finally got brave enough to make the leap out of the corporate ship and fully into contract work, freelancing, and teaching. It’s been amazing. This year alone, I’ve taught fiction, flash fiction, poetry, essay, literature, and history of creativity courses at DePaul University, The Newberry Library, The Loft Literary Center, and National Louis University, and have gotten arts and education writing contracts from Chicago Humanities Festival, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Hyde Park Jazz Festival, ThinkCERCA, and a few others. I’ve also been doing freelance reading, editing, and coaching for individuals, which is my absolute favorite thing. Life is less predictable now but so much more rewarding.

 

Flash in the Classroom: Winesburg to Las Perditas

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In the SmokeLong Flash in the Classroom series, we ask teachers to share how they use flash fiction in their classrooms. If you are a teacher and have a story about how you use flash to get your students excited about writing, please submit your work here. Today, James Claffey, a writer and teacher in California, shares a grand idea.

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by James Claffey

In 2008 I took a “Forms of Fiction” class taught by Jeanne Leiby, the editor of the Southern Review. Flash fiction was unknown to me, and the first exercise we did in that class was based off Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, his linked stories about the assorted citizens of that town. The twelve students in the class (mostly in their twenties, and me several decades further down the road) created a fictional town, “Beersville,” and populated it with a variety of businesses, shopfronts, and assorted characters. Mine was the undertaker, based no doubt on my family’s long-defunct business in an Irish midland’s town, “Claffey’s pub, grocers, and undertakers.” Our brief was simple: to create a piece of fiction about our chosen character and to limit it to 250 words, no more, no less. On this, Jeanne was unwavering. The other stipulation was that we had to “write after” someone else’s story and mention their character in some way, shape, or form in our narrative (except for the first set of writers). The process of writing about the denizens of the town proved enjoyable, and it was my introduction to the art of flash fiction.

Flash forward to 2018 and my freshman classroom at Santa Barbara High School. Jeanne is almost eight years dead now, and I’ve been back in California for seven years, one child, two books, a major fire, and a disastrous mudslide. This year I’m reinventing my curriculum to generate greater buy-in from students, and to engage them more both in what they are reading and what they are writing about. This means trying on new strategies and reading more diverse authors, hopefully providing my students with a variety of mirrors in which to see their own experiences reflected back at them.

Every year I begin with great hopes of incorporating more fiction writing into the classroom, and each year I end up disappointed due to the curriculum maps to be followed, the Common Formative Assessments to be administered, the reading tests to be given, the core texts to be rushed through, and on and on and on. This year, with a supportive administration willing to let some of us experiment with a “different approach” to engaging our students I am actually able to incorporate Jeanne’s “Winesburg, Ohio” exercise into my teaching.

So far, my 9th grade honors students have chosen a town name–“Las Perditas,” West Virginia–and created character sketches for their fictional citizens of the town. The first five students have written their stories to varying degrees of success, and to varying degrees of adherence to word count. I can’t use names, but one student wrote about a transgender teen boy, another about a newly arrived junior high boy, Jimmy, who takes over the school’s Racketeering enterprise, and another wrote about a boy named July. There’s dialog, setting, color and humor in the writing, and while the stories may be “school appropriate” for language and content, they are running with the project and bringing the town of “Las Perditas” to life, and in a way, keeping Jeanne’s spirit alive, too.

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James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA. His work appears in the W.W. Norton Anthology Flash Fiction International, and in Queen’s Ferry Press’s anthology The Best Small Fictions of 2015. He was also a finalist in The Best Small Fictions of 2016, and a semi-finalist in 2017. He is the author of the story collection Blood a Cold Blue, published by Press 53, and the novel The Heart Crossways, published by Thrice Publishing.

2018 Pushcart Prize Nominees

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Congratulations to the following writers whose stories we’ve nominated for a Pushcart Prize this year.

“Earlove” by Ashton Carlile

“We All Know About Margo” by Megan Pillow Davis

“History” by Maia Jenkins

“All the Other Dogs Screaming” by Devin Kelly

“Whale Fall” by Alvin Park

“Sky Like Concrete” by Mike Riess

 

“A Willingness to Go”: An Interview with Guest Reader Bix Gabriel

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What themes do you find yourself frequently writing about?

I find myself frequently returning to writing about family. I especially end up writing about siblings, possibly because, as the youngest of four, my own sibling relationships have and still profoundly shape me. I also see a lot of violence against women – and women pushing back against these violences – showing up in my work.

In addition to flash fiction, you also write essays and are currently working on a novel. Can you tell us a little bit about your novel? How do you move between long and short form?

Thank you for asking about my novel! It’s – inevitably – a family story, with three women, and their relationships, at the center of it. But it’s also about two wars, and how we – publicly and privately – remember them.

I actually never thought I would write flash! Until a few years ago, I hadn’t read enough flash to know what writers can do with the form, and so I sort of dismissed it. But now I love it, and I return to it frequently as a break from working on the novel, in part, because I can write/finish a flash piece in the spell long enough to take me out of the novel, and short enough so I don’t lose my way. I find it really hard to write short stories while working on the novel — something about needing to be immersed in each world – of the story, and the novel – to successfully pull each off — is impossible for me.

Between fiction and nonfiction?

Nonfiction comes easier to me, perhaps because I’ve had more practice at it, in that I’ve been writing some form of nonfiction for most of my life. And, personal essays are really a journey into figuring myself out. Fiction demands a willingness to go where the story wants to go, and that is hard, because I am just a teeny tiny bit of a control freak.

What can make a break a flash story?

It’s hard to say, but I think language needs to be super-super precise in flash because of its brevity of form. While I think a lot of flash can be very successful and strong without much attention to setting, flash stories without a strong sense of a character don’t really work for me as well. I also really don’t like what I think of as ‘gimmicky’ work where the form overtakes the content, which is super-vague, but it’s where the form calls attention to itself, is self-conscious.

What kind of story would you love to find in your queue this week?

I’d love food-related stories, because, um, food. I’d love something funny; there’s just not enough funny in my reading! I’d love something that makes me feel something, which is so personal; I guess I want that passé thing: emotional resonance. I’d love to see work from first-time authors, especially writers of color and LGBTQ writers. Writing that I didn’t know I’d enjoy. Thank you so much for the chance to read and select some great work!

 

Review: Christopher DeWan’s Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales for Grown-Ups

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by Amanda Krupman

Christopher DeWan, in his debut flash fiction collection, Hoopty Time Machines (Atticus Books, September 2016), creates new “fairy tales for grownups.” Fairy tales, fables, myths, and parables: These are formative narratives, extracting magic from the sensical and then putting that magic back to work. Told and retold, the tales are palimpsests, utilizing deceptively spare structures and loosely associated archetypes. DeWan’s flash fictions are indeed grown-up stories, built on contemporary anxieties. With this collection he joins writers like Donald Barthelme, Kelly Link, Etger Keret, and Carmen Maria Machado in crafting satirical and sly postmodern fabulism that doesn’t so much aim to subvert fairy-tale tropes as much as uproot them and toss them on the compost pile.

Hoopty Time Machine is 45 stories, arriving just prior to the election of another 45—a U.S. President who doesn’t seem so far removed from the Biblical and Grimm villainy of snakes, ogres, and evil stepmothers. Escape fantasies from the age of late capitalism, a superhero’s existential crisis,  a son being the only person who can see his estranged parents are trolls, a mother haunted by her murdered child’s ghost and a father disturbed by his witchy teenage daughter’s power—these are some of the 21st-century scenes animated by DeWan’s dark whimsy.

DeWan’s disillusioned female characters are particularly well conceived. In stories like “Goldilocks and the Three Boys” and “The Little Mermaid,” DeWan doesn’t just offer feminist reappraisals of their fates; he imagines them as the complex, brilliant women all of us know in real life, just trying to get along the best they know how. In “Rapunzel’s Tangles,” Rapunzel, an introverted stay-at-home mom forced to play hostess at her husband’s work parties, cuts off her hair in a bob every day only to find it wrapping around the kitchen by nightfall. She has the same problem with her eyebrows, but she finds grooming them to be a kind of meditative hobby she compares to gardening. And yet Rapunzel’s meditations may better be described as a depressive’s ruminations:

Her worries receded into the simple task: tweeze and pluck. Tweeze and pluck. So close to the glass, her face ceased to be hers, and instead became its own landscape—her own face, a faceless alien landscape of pores and follicles, and staring longer, this dissolved further into just shapes, colors, no labels, no words.

A few of the stories work more like a Stephen Wright joke or a Woody Allen anecdote. “Conestoga Wagon” and “Sacramento” are essentially paraprosdokians, ready to be inserted into a certain kind of stand-up comic’s bit. In “The Dinner Party,” guests include Anxiety, Sadness, and Futility. “Indestructible” is five lines of gallows humor in the age of craven politicians who would dismantle the Affordable Care Act.

Other stories in the collection set aside dry wit and dig deeper under the skin. In “The Wallpaper,” rose-colored glasses are too transparent for a woman who papers over her life. In “Intrusion,” a woman turns to masochism in the face of unbearable grief—leading her to, in a stranger-rape role play, ensure a “hate fuck” from her husband by offering the name of their dead child when he asks for a safe word. In “The Signal,” humanity is initially buoyant but then bereft when realizing that the signals sent to us from alien life forms were sent back in the Middle Ages and that any conversation is subject to a thousand-year time lag.

It’s a fecund period for post-apocalyptic stories; joining popular works from television, film, and genre fiction are literary novels like Emily St. Mandel’s Station Eleven and Laura Van Den Berg’s Find Me. But when reading DeWan’s “Blog of the Last Man on Earth,” I’m reminded of an elegiac short story by Tess Allard, published last year in the Black Warrior Review: “The World Holds What It Remembers Most,” which imagines a girl on a bike, riding alone in a desolated world, seeking both meaning and solace through memory. In “Blog of the Last Man on Earth,” we read the protagonist’s journal and witness a transformation through loneliness that has him imagining he is speaking fluent French with Amélie (yes, that Amélie). Blog posts at the opening of the story are labeled simply by day and time (“Monday, 3:45 pm”), but soon become vague markers like “Evening” and “Middle of the Night I Think” and, finally, “The Scurf of All Yesterdays.” Some of DeWan’s most striking imagery is found here at the end of the story, when the protagonist, musing that “[l]eft to our own devices, maybe we all become artists,”  begins painting over the billboards, creating murals from his recollections of an Earth that no longer exists. The Last Man on Earth remembers all of the small, quotidian, and precious moments like “present wrapping and unwrapping” and “road trips and road trip games,” but then:

I remember the smell of my mother, the tinkling of the mobile ceramic swans over my crib, the cozy caress of the satin baby blanket. I remember, before that, sweeping forests far as the eye could see; thick, rolling oceans; endless, mind-flattening plains. I remember fields coated with mustard gas; the groans of sinking ships; piercing bullets and bayonets and the sticky warmth of my own blood; I remember rounding Cape Horn, scaling Mount Everest, building the Pyramids brick by behemoth brick; I remember Pangaea, and the terrible, explosive rending of the Moon. I remember the ignition of the Sun, and the swirling center of the galaxy, the whip of its arms screaming through the vacuum. I remember the end of infinite density, the Big Bang, a gasp of breath, a baby’s laugh, a cosmic orgasm, the same spasm of anticipation that comes at the dawn of love, the true fear of loss; and I remember, before all that, the bottomless, bottomless silence like the silence I hear now. It’s all right.

DeWan’s protagonist no longer has any use for his personhood, for what makes him an individual. He strips it all away in favor of painting pictures of scenes from an ancient, collective memory.

In a rich collection of flash, Hoopty Time Machines mines our collective memory and imaginatively spins multilayered versions of stories that have been developed and adapted over generations: stories that live in our bodies, attached to the spine, keeping us upright as we move through the obstinate moment-to-moment and often terrifying unknowns of what’s yet to come.

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Amanda Krupman’s work has appeared in publications including Flapperhouse, The Forge Literary Magazine, BLOOM, The New Engagement, and Punk Planet. Amanda received an MFA in Fiction from The New School’s graduate writing program and was recently a recipient of a Jerome Foundation Emerging Artist Residency Award. She teaches writing at Pace University and “From Page to Podcast: Writing Audio Fiction” at Middlebury College. She is currently working on a collection of short fiction. Follow her on Twitter: @akrupman

Myth — Origin of the Blood Moon by Aravah Chaiken

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“Yes! Finally! Time for the story!” I cheered with excitement, nearly ruining my new red dress my mother sewed me for the mourning. “Watch it!” Fifteen people snapped at me. How many people can get angry at you at once? That was an experiment I didn’t want to try. I settled down, bumping into more people than I could count.

I am ARETHA, a moon Crackon. I am seven and have brown hair and emerald green eyes. My favorite color is blue, because the oceans of earth are a beautiful blue. I can only wear red one day of the year, the mourning day. We separated from Earth seven generations ago, and each generation mourns the loss by wearing red. Our elder tells us all about Earth, the ocean, the corn, the animals, and most importantly, the dirt. We only have dry moon dust.  The reason you have no proof that we exist is that we hover, whereas you need to step on the ground to move.

We have saved everything you have left behind, your nuts and bolts, and everything. I wish I could see Earth on the ground, with all its beauty and worth. Our oldest elder, IGGI, told us that that there was a thing that was used for drinking and swimming: water. We have extracted that too, but I don’t know how to swim, and neither do the rest of us.

IGGI stood up. “We left Earth seven generations ago because of the dreaded meteorite.” Everyone booed on cue. I slowly tried to stand up without hurting a single other person. “Oh IGGI, may take I a moving picture of your speech and send the record to the Earthlings, so that they may take us home?” IGGI was absolutely amazed. “Of course! Did you invent the taker?”

“Yes, IGGI. Three, two, one, Begin!”

“The water there is crystal clear, the ground, filled with grass and dirt. They have fish with gills, and trees. The trees sometimes have apples, oranges, pears, and even berries! The sun shines like silk, and the moon that we live on shines during their night time. And then the second great shaking came. Thankfully, everyone was safe and no one was separated.

”Oh Earth, we need to connect. Please, Earthlings, see our red moon and remember us.”

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Aravah Chaiken is an eleven-year-old who loves bike riding and reading. One of her favorite books is Murder on the Orient Express. She has been asking for a telescope for three years. She dreams of travelling into space and tracking nebulae.

Fridge Flash: Never Taste a Rainbow

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Editor’s Note: Today’s Fridge Flash—and good, sound advice—comes to us from 7-year-old Amelie from the U.K.

Never Taste a Rainbow

Never taste a rainbow. Especially the red. All of the rainbow is spicy and hot, but the red is the hottest of chilies, and it will burn you.

Tears taste nice, when you catch them on your tongue like raindrops. Trust me. They do.

 

About the Author

Amelie likes climbing trees and going like really high, and Parkour, where she also climbs and runs up walls and jumps into the foam pit. She likes playing with people and making new friends, and that’s all the information she’s giving.

Got a great story from someone 12 or younger? Submit it to us here. 

“There’s a story in everything”: An Interview With Guest Reader Hillary Leftwich

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What themes do you frequently find yourself writing about? As a reader, are you drawn to these same themes?

I find myself frequently writing about death, deer, birds, water, murder, ghosts, magic, aftermaths, society’s forgotten, and heartbreak (in any form).

As a reader I’m drawn to ugly realities. I don’t want to read insane fantasies or what someone wants readers to believe is their reality. The usual diary of a mad person *eye roll*. I think of writers like Venita Blackburn, Renee Gladman, Carol Guess, Khadijah Queen, Erika T. Wurth, Natanya Pulley, Richard Froude, Bud Smith, Steven Dunn. These are writers who know the ugly realities and know how to tell them without the fake sugar coating that I sometimes see in writing.

What kind of story would you love to find in your queue this week?

I would love to find something that pushes the veil between a Schomburg-like surrealism with the horror of a predictable reality. I’m also a sucker for language sounds.

You’ve had a number of interesting jobs — private investigator, maid, repo agent, and pinup model — can you tell us more about your experiences with these jobs and how they inform your writing?

When I was still cleaning houses as a maid, I was referred to read Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. Lucia Berlin made me realize there is writing potential in everything we do, even for me, pushing mops and scraping off burnt cheese from the inside of microwave ovens. There’s a lot of writers that have and never will hold any type of an academic position in teaching or a field related to writing. I’ve scrubbed rich peoples’ toilets. The rich are crazy. Money brings out weird little obsessions in people. I’ve changed sheets on pay-by-hour motels where dozens of sex toys and used condoms were a typical finding. There’s something about cheap motel rooms that brings out people’s repressed fantasies. I watched a car drive into a water fountain during a photo shoot I was on because the driver was distracted. Had someone urinate on a repossession driver because she didn’t want him taking her car. I’ve worked on horrific murder cases. Studied crime scene photos I can never forget. Watched a man light himself on fire across the street from my work during my smoke break. A line of elementary school children happened to be walking by on their way back from a tour of The Mint and witnessed the whole scene. There’s a story in everything, and not necessarily where you think it’s going to be. We need to be exposing ourselves to the uncomfortable realities if we’re going to write about them. No one likes a poser.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Write your truth. And if people hate you, or are jealous of you, or disagree, or mock you for it, then you know you’re writing the good shit. Never, ever cater to an audience. And never, ever be afraid to write something because you’re worried how the world is going to receive it. The writing world can feel like junior high. But we have to find our own voice and our own style and learn to trust our guts.

Review: Stephanie Hutton’s Three Sisters of Stone

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Stephanie Hutton’s Three Sisters of Stone (Ellipsis Zine, May 2018) is a novella-in-flash that follows three sisters from childhood through adulthood in Australia, spanning about thirty-five years. Hutton is a clinical psychologist living in the UK who rewards her readers with a psychological precision and an economy of language that deepen the reader’s understanding of these characters and their relationships to each other as she moves through slices of their lives. Details are specific and carefully chosen and result in a depth of character and humanity that has stuck with me long after finishing the compact stories.

The novella is told in fifteen flash stories, each designated with the year of their occurrence, from 1981 to 2013, flanked on either side by a prologue and an epilogue. The middle sister, Bella, narrates the stories. Hutton’s decision lends the novella a sense of wholeness it wouldn’t have if each sister had varyingly told part of the story, and provides a sort of symmetry, a narrative choice that makes it feel like looking forward and backward simultaneously.

The prologue begins the novella with a fantastical look at the adult lives of the sisters we don’t yet know. Drawing on the fable of the “Three Little Pigs,” each sister builds a house of a different material—Agnes an “anti-wolf” home of metal without windows, Bella a home of glass bricks from which she can keep vigil for the wolf, and Chloe a door-less, window-less home allowing anyone—any wolf—access. The choice to literalize each personality makes the reader quickly form a distinct idea about each sister, and the references to a wolf establish a sense of danger and foreboding. This opening also provides a blueprint for how the sisters deal very differently with the abuse and neglect visited on them by their parents.

“Fortune Teller” is one of the best examples of this. The sisters make and play with a paper fortune teller, which ingeniously allows for present character development and also shows the sisters imagining future lives away from their abusive childhood. Agnes, the eldest, folds the fortune teller, and Bella writes the fortunes. “There was no point,” Bella says, “in trying to cheat and choose which fortune would be mine, as Chloe would add the colours on the top of each section last.” Agnes gets lost “in the rhythm of moving the paper machine forwards and backwards,” just as she will later get lost in her accounting job, and chooses a fortune that tells her, “You will find your heart’s desire.” Her reaction is subdued as Bella explains that Agnes’s desires are small and obtainable. I get the sense that perhaps her future dreams have already been reduced to the simple need to not be traumatized and abused.

Chloe chooses next and shows her impatience by only having the paper flower move one time. “You will shine bright,” Bella reads to her. Chloe wriggles her fingers in delight and Bella muses about how stars die, and I began to wonder when Chloe will burn out. Bella, having chosen to let both of her sisters go first, ignores her instincts to pick green and instead chooses blue. Agnes reads to her, “Hmm, blue. What will be will be,” and Bella, disappointed with the results, wonders what would have happened had she chosen green like she wanted. In addition to revealing more about the sisters’ personalities, there’s evidence of the punishing psychological effects abuse has on young girls—the sisters’ hopes for the future diminish from youngest to oldest. This is another way Hutton utilizes the middle sister as narrator—Bella is showing us how abuse is cumulative, with Chloe being least affected because she’s been, by virtue of her age, abused for the shortest amount of time.

The abusive father’s presence is felt throughout the girls’ lives, whether psychologically or physically. Details about him become sparse, which works in a surprising way, giving space to the idea that the sisters are unconcerned with what happens to him. Hutton is adept at working in a kind of relief, making certain things clear by their absence and letting the reader’s imagination do just the right amount of work. The tone is dark and it rarely lets up, an ominousness lurking over the sisters wherever they go and whatever happens to them. Hutton seems fascinated with how darkness envelops this family, with Bella wondering after the disappearance of their father, “[W]hat kind of God takes your angry father away but forgets to cure your mother of her sadness?” Hutton is clearly interested in trauma and how it can ricochet through a family, harm being passed around from one member to others.

Another standout, “What Mother Never Did,” is the first glimpse of all three sisters as adults. The effect is like holding a mirror up to their childhood selves. Who we are as adults is so often who we were as children. Chloe is still wild and boy crazy. Agnes is still socially out of touch and overly responsible, her large, shiny car seeming “too big for a woman who usually drove alone, but it had the highest safety rating.” Bella, as always, is sandwiched in the middle, the peacemaker, and it’s no surprise that she weathers the only alone time any of the women spend with their mother. But this gives “What Mother Never Did” one of the most satisfying endings in the book.

In the epilogue, Bella imagines a trip to the mountains with her sisters to visit “the rocks they called the Three Sisters.” Breaking from the past tense of the rest of the stories, it imagines an impossible day, perfect in its distillation of what each of the sisters would do if they could make the trip and ends, predictably, in darkness. Everything in this novella is dense and rendered in miniature, a generation’s life explored in poignant flashes of childhood and character detail that both satisfy and leave the reader wanting more of these girls. As Bella says in the epilogue, “With our view reduced from miles to metres, we’d feel each other’s breaths and heartbeats, the world shrunk down as if there was only us in it.”

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Natalie C. Brown is a writer and editor currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at Texas State University in San Marcos. She loves all things bookish and literary and is a lifelong Astros fan. She lives with her (almost) husband and two dogs in Austin, TX. You can follow her on Twitter at @nataliekins.

“Elegant falsehoods”: An Interview With Guest Reader Nancy Au

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You are co-founder of The Escapery, a collective of teachers who are dedicated to diversity, and to writing and art as a form of resistance. Can you tell us more about The Escapery? What sparked its creation? What’s your mission?

I co-founded The Escapery with Carson Beker, who is an incredible writer and artist and friend. And earlier this year, we teamed up with Haldane King, who is also an amazing writer and friend, as well as curator of the Terra Incognita reading series. The Escapery is based in Oakland, California, and offers thematic and blurred-genre writing workshops, drop-ins, ekphrasis museum fieldtrips, online classes, and editing/coaching services. We created The Escapery to provide supportive and inspiring art spaces that resist the hierarchical and competitive nature that can often permeate toxic writing workshops. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have worked with and learned from wonderful writing mentors—Peg Alford Pursell, Carson Beker, Carolina De Robertis, Michelle Carter, Barbara Tomash, Toni Mirosevich, Nona Caspers, Andrew Joron, and many others—who taught me how to foster inclusive learning spaces, how to empower and inspire my students.

You have an undergraduate degree in anthropology and an MFA in creative writing – and you teach writing to biology majors! I’m curious about how your education and teaching influence your writing.

I am constantly in awe of how big the world of Knowledge is, how much I have yet to learn (and most likely could never master within my lifetime). I am fascinated by the natural processes that I depend on to live: my physical anatomy and microbiology, the chemical processes that make it possible for me to breathe and eat and walk and type this sentence, the mechanical physics that make cars Go and planes Fly, and more. I did not major in science as a college student because I had difficulty in moving the science off the page and applying it to the world around me. So, instead, I pursued a degree in anthropology. I love studying the intangible How’s—the how and why we do the things we do, how and why we speak the languages we speak, or how and why individuals utilize certain (mutable and subjective) social currencies, such as basing a person’s worth on their level of education, or their physical appearance, or whether they pick their nose or fart in public, or the type of job they have, etc.

I love how, as an artist, I can write my own answers, craft impossible origin stories, rewrite endings, explore the past, imagine a different future. I believe that anthropology shares this quality with creative writing—both practices require piecing together artifacts from people’s histories and cultures in an effort to tell their story.

You write everything: short stories, flash fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry. What do you think is special about flash fiction?

Flash fiction holds a very special place in my heart. I love the succinct way that it reaches into a moment and tells a small truth. I love how flash can be dense, packed with saturated color and wooly textures, sharp sounds and vivid tastes. I love how every word counts. I love how, in flash, a writer can also use the tight space to be incredibly playful with language and syntax. I love how flash looks and feels on the page—a compressed truth that the writer crafted by pulling in all the disparate pieces of their own or their characters’ lives. I love flash because I can read a piece in one sitting and sit there for many minutes afterwards, still shaking, haunted. And I love how I can also sit there, laughing and nodding in wonder about a truth that I connected deeply with, a small truth that is so utterly human, so direct and simple, something that I myself had witnessed or felt a hundred times before. I love how flash defies genres, that it is simultaneously poetry and story and truth and elegant falsehoods.

I recently read Sung Yim’s novel of interlinked flash, What About the Rest of Your Life. In this collection, the author elicits powerful connections, sometimes in the space of just fifty words. I return to this piece over and over:

“You need your mother. Your mother beats you. Translation: You need your mother to beat you. Your mother loves you. Your mother beats you. Translation: Sometimes love looks like this. You look for a love that looks like this. You love your mother. Your mother hurts you. Translation: Pain becomes a beautiful thing.”

I recognized my own mother while reading this piece, the difficult life she lived with her conservative Chinese parents. I recognized our shared difficulties in expressing and receiving love. I also recognized that I had inherited my mother’s pain from the very first time she slapped me, or when she compared me to my siblings, or quantified my worth based on the number of pimples or pounds of fat my body carried. When I lashed back as a teen, my mother would respond, Why are you always so angry? Why so defensive? Go look in the bathroom mirror. And, from the doorway, arms crossed over her chest, she would share my reflection in the mirror, and ask, Do you see your face? Do you see how ugly it is when you are like this? Is that what you really want to be? And I would remain silent because I didn’t know how to answer her questions.

It has been fourteen years since my mother died, and it has been many years since she asked me those questions in the bathroom mirror. After reading Sung Yim’s work I realized that perhaps my mother was speaking to her own reflection, that she did not feel worthy of her family’s sacrifices. And that perhaps she was hoping that my reflection would argue with her, question her parents’ cruelties, validate her, prove that she was not the source of her mother’s pain. I hope that she learned to see her own reflection before she died. Translation: I am no longer part of that equation, where Pain equals Love.

Translation: Reading flash started me on the arduous journey of redefining for myself what I want Love to look and feel like.

Translation: I know that the definition will change countless times in my lifetime. But, right in this moment, I can tell you that love smells like my dog’s paws (warm corn chips), tastes like pesto, reads like poetry, and heals like art. 

What kind of story would you love to find in the queue this week?

Just like in Sung Yim’s flash, I am in search of stories that might challenge a reader to think differently. I am in search of moments that might be simultaneously heavy and light, or nourishing and depleting, or agonizing and healing. I am in search of characters holding tangible space in the narrative—maybe it’s sitting on the sticky floor, or hidden beneath peeling wallpaper, or overhead in the trembling, yellow leaves of aspen branches. And, I am in search of characters and writers from diverse cultural backgrounds.

But, mostly, I am in search of your stories! Guest-editing for SmokeLong Quarterly is truly a dream-come-true! I am so excited to read your incredible writing! So, send me your stories! I can’t wait to hear from you!

 

There Weren’t Even Any Bubbles

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Grandma swung in a hammock while complaining about her bad knees, so I told her she was being dramatic. “Bà nội,” I asked, “Do you know how many people in America are homeless?” I didn’t actually know the answer but I just wanted her to make the most out of this life. She was so old that her bun was the size of a cherry and her boobs dangled against her rib cage. One time I found her stash of rumpled bras shoved inside a purse inside a suitcase inside a musty closet. I tried to put one on but there was nothing for the satin cups to support, so I stuffed them with tissues and tied my ankles together with a scrunchy. Then I flopped around on the bed like a beautiful mermaid until my parents came to pick me up.

When grandma asked for my help getting back inside the apartment, I humored her by taking her papery hand. First it was her eyes, now her knees. Sometimes it felt as though I was the one babysitting her instead of the other way around. Last year grandma had surgery because she claimed her eyes were bad. For a week she wore boxy sunglasses that made her look like the Terminator. I taught her how to say “I’ll be back,” which she said over, and over, and over again in her lolling accent because it made me laugh so hard. But after all that she still wasn’t happy. “What good are my eyes now?” sniffled Grandma. “My daughter is gone. My home was destroyed and so were all the places I fell in love. I abandoned my ancestors’ graves. Tell me, what is left to see?”

***

My friends get it. They have grandmas too. Shoshanna’s grandma was always crying about the numbers tattooed on her arm. Shayna’s grandma was always crying because she never got a chance to learn how to read big books. Sylvia’s grandma always cried while folding tamales, which their family sold from a cart that they pushed around downtown.

“It’s like save the drama for yo mama,” I said, and Shayna giggled. “You mean yo mama’s mama’s mama,” Sylvia said, and then Shoshanna started sobbing. Who knew her grandma just died? We carefully studied Shosh’s face to see if she was crying for real or just being dramatic.

***

Grandma told me to go take a bath while she made the rice porridge. “Aw man, cháo again?” I exclaimed. She told me it was for her bad stomach, which she blamed on the greasy bucket of fried chicken my parents brought over for dinner last week. The point was my parents thought that spending time with Grandma could help instill some culture in me. For example: “I’ll be back,” I said with a chunky Austrian accent as I retreated from the kitchen, to which Grandma retorted, “Say it in Việt.

In the bathroom mirror I checked myself for any sign of development and sure enough, I was still flat as a rack. Grandma only had bar soap so there weren’t even any bubbles. I floated underwater for a while anyhow. At first I tried to drown like Grandma’s daughter had when pirates hijacked her boat and took all her possessions including her children, aged two and three, and let the captain live to tell about it. Then I crossed my ankles until my legs fused so that no more babies could be born or killed, and my boobs grew plump, pressing against my seashell bra. In breathless wonder, I kicked up my fin and dove into the depths of the shining sea to see all that I could see.

Artist Spotlight: The Unusual, Extraordinary Worlds of Cindy Fan

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Cindy Fan is the cover artist for SmokeLong Issue 61. Fan is a Toronto-based artist who studied Illustration at OCAD University. Her work takes inspiration from poetry, mythology, urban legends, folklore, flash fiction, and other forms of creative storytelling. She uses elements from her stream of consciousness to create ambiguous, dreamlike realities, painting her work digitally while incorporating a diverse array of textures to achieve a rich, atmospheric quality. She discussed her background and visual imagination with SmokeLong’s art director, Alexander C. Kafka.

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How old are you and where did you grow up?

I am 23 years old. I was born in Szechuan, China but immigrated to Canada when I was 6 years old. I grew up in and around Ontario. I currently live in the greater Toronto area.

Can you tell me about your family?

Both my parents left a comfortable life and well-paying careers in China to come to Canada in the early 2000s when they found out their immigration application had been accepted. I never really figured out exactly why they chose to leave, but I think it was out of a mixture of thrill seeking and wanting a different experience as well as possibly a better life for me. They faced various struggles and regrets at first but eventually found their footing. No matter what, they have always been very loving and supportive of my dreams.

When did you first become interested in art?

Before I can even remember. I was extremely young. But I began seriously pursuing art during high school.

The Performer by Cindy Fan

Do you primarily work in digital media?

Yes, I enjoy the versatility and convenience of working digitally. That said, I usually start illustrations off through analog either in graphite or watercolor and try to retain some of those lines and textures in the finalized versions. I also enjoy acrylic. I’ve been told that I have a very distinct way of using brushstrokes and a lot of my analog paintings resemble my digital ones. I like doing analog when pursuing pieces that are more gestural and expressive while working digitally for pieces that require more detail.

What are your favorite themes and subjects?

My favorite themes are anything to do with the idea of adventure and mystery. I love stories that explore places and worlds that are unique, unknown, and full of weird things. I also love looking into the different ways people interact with the world and creating illustrations inspired by that.

Who are your biggest influences?

I would say Yuko Shimizu, James Jean, and Christina Mrozik have definitely played a role in inspiring me stylistically as well as to always be improving and practicing my craft.

Rebirth by Cindy Fan

There is a lot of interplay in your work between people and nature and machines—whimsical combinations of fairy-tale type images, cyborg, steampunk, and erotic fantasy. How did that aesthetic develop for you?

Hmm, it’s hard to pinpoint. I guess I am very much drawn to the human figure as well as the beauty of decay and abandonment. A visual that I always seem to gravitate to is that of architecture and technology being overtaken by nature. I love images of abandoned buildings, statues and objects being enveloped by vines, dirt and flora. Additionally, throughout my teenage years, I consumed a lot of sci-fi and fantasy content because I loved being transported to unusual, extraordinary worlds and some of that aesthetic is also incorporated into my work.

Are your dreams like your images?

I have very vivid and sometimes frightening dreams and will draw influences from them for specific objects in my work or as a base mood or setting that I want to work from. However, my compositions mostly come from trial and error and just creating a lot of preliminary sketches. I’ve never really tried creating an illustration based purely on my dreams.

Which do you like better—single illustration images or GIFs and narrative graphic stories?

Although I mainly produce single illustration images, I like to dabble in all three types because I enjoy the variation in approaches. I usually like to work on two different projects at once. For this reason, there isn’t a concrete preference for a single format and it ultimately depends on how I am feeling at the time.

Sexual Magic by Cindy Fan

What are your current projects?

I am working on preparing some of my pieces for an upcoming local exhibition in addition to creating some new illustrations and possibly working on an upcoming zine.

If someone gave you $10 million, how would you spend it?

Well, first I would convert it all into dollar bills and make a money fort or at least some sort of money pile and just throw it all around. And then I’d probably spend it on housing, traveling, events, and helping support content and art that I enjoy.

Do you have other creative pursuits besides art?

Yes, I enjoy writing free-form poetry. I don’t think it’s very good by any means but it’s a nice way for me to lay out my thoughts and relax if I’m having a stressful day.

What do you do in your free time?

I enjoy hiking, reading, and watching a diverse assortment of movies and TV as well as playing video games (though I have significantly less time for that now than I used to).

____________________________

The artwork included in this interview is the property of Cindy Fan and may not be used without permission of the artist. 

Nominate Your Favorite Journal with SmokeLong’s 2018 #FlashGiving Contest

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For the month of October, SmokeLong Quarterly received $318 in tip jar donations. We’ve decided, in the spirit of giving, to send it to another journal. Nominate your favorite flash fiction journal and tell us why you love them, and we’ll pick one publication and give them $318 to do with what they wish!

Nominate a journal you had a great experience with or who you think treats writers particularly well. Or maybe you know of a journal who you think could do good things with a little boost of cash. If you are a journal editor, tell us what you would do with the money to make writers’ lives a little better. (Note: Publications that are nominated do not have to publish exclusively flash fiction or even publish flash at all, though we admit we are a little biased toward flash journals.)

To enter, fill out the Google form on or before Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2018.

The winner will be announced in early December.

Thank you!

Nominate Your Favorite Journal for Our 2018 #FlashGiving Contest

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For the month of October, SmokeLong Quarterly received $318 in tip jar donations. We’ve decided, in the spirit of giving, to send it to another journal. Nominate your favorite flash fiction journal and tell us why you love them, and we’ll pick one publication and give them $318 to do with what they wish!

Nominate a journal that you had a great experience with or who you think particularly treats writers well or does great things. Or maybe you know of a journal that you think could do good work with a little boost of cash. If you are a journal editor, tell us what you would do with the money to make writers’ lives a little better. We’re open to whatever stories of goodwill you’d like to tell–and we look forward to hearing all the wonderful things that other publications are doing. (Note: Publications that are nominated do not have to exclusively publish flash fiction or even publish flash at all. But we admit we are a little biased toward flash.)

To nominate a journal, fill out this Google Form on or before Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2018.

We will announce the winner in early December. Thank you!

Review: A Bright and Pleading Dagger by Nicole Rivas

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Each year since 2007, Rose Metal Press holds its Short Short Chapbook Contest, which the press’s founders describe as a way “to showcase one of our favorite forms in a format more typically used for poetry than for prose.” The winning 2018 entry is A Bright and Pleading Dagger by Nicole Rivas, an L.A.-based writer whose work has appeared in such publications as Passages North, The Adroit Journal, and Paste Magazine.

In his thoughtful introduction, poet Rigoberto González lauds Rivas for her “skillful use of compression,” noting how this collection places a “finger on the pressure point” of “‘what girls’ lives do or do not depend on’” (a quote from the book’s title piece).

While what women’s lives depend on can readily be seen as an underlying theme, one might argue that Rivas’s tense, clipped pieces don’t so much place a finger on pressure points, as they do create the impression of a battle-scarred warrior, pointing out each of her wounds with a dispassionate finger, sharing her “war” experiences with other, equally-scarred veterans of life as a woman today.

It is to González’s credit that he recognized Rivas’s theme and the emotional impact of her intense pieces, but it is, perhaps, a different experience for a woman to read them. Each piece, in Rivas’s blunt, matter-of-fact, almost terse style, focuses on experiences many women will recognize all too well:

There is, for example, the ever-present sense of danger inherent in a woman’s vulnerability that permeates the title piece, “A Bright and Pleading Dagger,” in which a teenaged narrator and her friend hitch a ride with two older men. When her friend disappears into a cornfield with one of them, the narrator is left alone with the other: “The belt buckle moved faster. I could hear it tapping against the steering wheel, just like his knuckles had done before. While I knew knuckles belonged to a hand, the penis to a pelvis, it didn’t matter. In the truck, the penis had the presence of a closed fist.”

Rivas reminds the reader that it is not only men who take advantage of that vulnerability; sometimes, it’s other women, as in the startling “Death of an Ortolan,” which originally appeared in Passages North: “On my first date with Penny, I was very nervous because I was only nineteen and Penny was fifty-two.” Penny is the narrator’s gynecologist, too—is there any more vulnerable position for a woman to be in, than in those stirrups? Still, their relationship continues: “I was so nervous, because this was only the third date with a woman I’d ever been on, let alone a gynecologist, my gynecologist, and it was a good thing those napkins were cloth, or else I would’ve ripped them to shreds all over again.” And yet, younger, inexperienced, and vulnerable, the narrator falls under the older woman’s sway.

Few experiences of modern womanhood escape inclusion here. There is the young girl with the heart of a lion in “Bulldog,” who dreams of being strong and fierce, but whose mother—her mother—only laughs at her dreams: “She apologized for laughing, but I had already started the water and didn’t answer. In the shower I made some promises to myself about who I was and who I would always be.”

There is the richly satisfying title character in “The Butcher”: “When no one is watching, she works with bare hands, cleaning chicken carcasses and extracting lolling tongues from cow heads…To the butcher, the inside of a hog’s rib cage is much like the beauty of a vacant skyscraper stairwell. She drums her fingers against each rib like a child running up the steps two at a time.” Her work, her joy, and her passion, are full of blood and warmth and offal, she’s up to her elbows in life and death itself, yet she hides that part away; it’s hard not to draw a parallel here, given how much discomfort any talk of women and bleeding in general can generate for some people.

There is Gretel, dreaming of escaping her life with Hansel in the poignant re-imagining of “Gretel’s Escape”: “She watched Hansel poking into the can with his pinky finger. She was tired of being simultaneously lost and bound to fate. Gretel wanted to do something before she was forced to wit her way out of death by cannibalism, something just for her. Only Gretel knew what that was.”

There is also the entertaining heroine in “The Woman on the Bus,” sharing her painfully familiar experience of being the captive audience of a self-important man: “You become silently infuriated, a simmer bordering on boil. He’s grabbed your attention with his remark about the woman he met on the bus…and now that he has your attention, he forces you—either intentionally or unintentionally—to endure the spectacle of his mastication.”

It may sound to this point that perhaps Rivas has it in for men in general, but that would not be a fair assessment at all. Rather, this sharp, chest-tightening collection draws on what are, sadly, familiar and heart-breakingly common experiences for many women. Rivas shares those in the tight, gristly, almost detached prose of a warrior pointing to each scar as proof of having survived that particular battle. Those who would avert their eyes from those scars, who would prefer to remain oblivious to the battles fought and the pain experienced, probably will not find what they’re looking for in this steely little book. For others, it’s a chance to find a bit of solidarity, and perhaps a bit of enlightenment, too.

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Julia Tagliere is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Writer, The Bookends Review, Potomac Review, numerous anthologies, and the juried photography and prose collection Love + Lust. Winner of the 2015 William Faulkner Literary Competition for Best Short Story and the 2017 Writers Center Undiscovered Voices Fellowship, Julia currently resides in Maryland with her family, where she recently completed her M.A. in Writing at John Hopkins University. She serves as an editor with The Baltimore Review and is currently working on her next novel, The Day the Music Didn’t Die.

Students take over our queue!

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Creative writing professors Wade Geary and Huan Hsu teach at Amsterdam University College in the Netherlands. This week, their students will be reading the SmokeLong queue, discussing the stories, and ultimately picking a favorite for us to publish in our next issue. We talked with Wade and Huan about their class and what they hope their students get out of such an exercise.

What can you tell us about your college?

Wade: Amsterdam University College (AUC) is a fairly new liberal arts and science program; this year will mark its tenth in existence. It’s part of an expansion of university colleges within the Netherlands. Like the city of Amsterdam, the institution is quite international—close to 50 percent of the students are from outside of the Netherlands.

I feel pretty lucky to be teaching at AUC, especially to be teaching Creative Writing at the school. There aren’t many places on the European continent where students can take creative writing courses at the university level, especially in English. Many countries rely on art academies for these sorts of studies.

What is the creative writing course structure?

Wade: I’ve taught the course at AUC for seven years now. Some of the students are studying literature, but there are several that are in other areas of the humanities or even in the sciences. This means the students view writing creatively in pretty diverse ways. And the course structure itself—split into three sections (Romance, Exposure, and Refining)—tries to celebrate a variety of writing practices. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the structure is borrowed from a math education researcher who studied how to get students interested in mathematics.

Huan: I think you’re being a bit modest here about the course structure, which I think is really effective in addressing the tyranny that genre can have on a creative writing syllabus. So rather than a rigid trudge through fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, we start reading (and writing) all three genres from the start, and put the focus on allowing students to explore, engage, and fall in love, hence the Romance. The upshot of this is that when we do get into the genres in the Exposure section there’s already a foundation.

Tell us about your students.

Huan: This is my fourth year teaching the course and I think my class composition is pretty typical of the creative writing sections: 23 students, mostly women (only 6 guys), comprised of second and third years (AUC, like many European universities, is a three-year program). As with the college at large, about half the class is from the Netherlands and half from the rest of Europe; there are usually also a handful of exchange students. All the students are typically well-educated, well-read, well-traveled, and far more sophisticated than I was as their age. They are sharp, motivated, and empathetic. All have excellent spoken and written English. They are so fluent that I have to constantly remind myself how marvelous it is that so many students are writing creatively in their non-native languages.

The writing backgrounds of the students vary widely, as do their ambitions. Some are just beginning to engage with creative writing in a structured environment; some know the New Yorker inside and out and have taken writing workshops before. Some are likely curious to explore the limits of their abilities—how far can they go with writing? Some seem to simply wish to scratch an itch. All of them do share the common trait among writers of feeling the urge to write—to say something—even if they aren’t yet sure what to say or how to say it. Many of them keep writing journals. I’m pleased that very few, if any, appear to be taking this course just because they think it will be easy. They all seem quite invested in getting the most from the class, and stretch themselves accordingly on the assignments. They are strong critical readers when it comes to other people’s work.

How familiar are they with SmokeLong?

We assign an exercise early in the semester in which the students have to explore SmokeLong and find at least one story that they really loved and explain why. Most find more than one, and there is often quite a bit of overlap both in terms of stories they love and also stories they dislike, and the subsequent discussion in class is usually so lively and critical that we’re always convinced that they are up for the responsibility of selecting a winning submission.

What do you hope they’ll learn from reading submissions from the slush pile?

Wade: An activity like this makes the act of writing more tangible. They’ll see that writing doesn’t exist within a bubble and isn’t only discussed in a classroom. And that the world of writing is multi-faceted, where editing is equally important.

Huan: Exactly. I think teachers naturally teach in reaction to their own experiences as students, and one of the things I disliked about my creative writing education was the sense that professors were gatekeepers for the larger writing world and thus enforced a hierarchy that turned established writers into celebrities beyond reproach and kept writing students (and their opinions) at the bottom. Questions about, say, how literary journals worked or which you should read were dealt with in a way that discouraged curiosity, punished inexperience, and suggested that students had to first be deemed “ready” to engage this larger world. Often this anointment could only be attained by gaining the favor of the instructor, which often meant hammering away at a story until it became “good” (whatever the instructor meant by that). This might be how that oft-maligned “workshop story” comes into being. I completely agree with the reasoning at the heart of this philosophy, that too many young writers get caught up on publication and that all writers should focus on process and not outcome. But the orthodoxy in practice was annoying (and counterproductive to developing writers, in my opinion) then and completely outdated now—it’s about as tone deaf as journals that still forbid simultaneous submissions.

So all this was in my mind while I was guest edited for SmokeLong a few years back, which, first and foremost, was just a lot of fun. There was a sense of falling in love with reading and writing again (Romance!), and a reminder of how a great piece of writing can inspire by making it all seem so easy and natural and possible. And that’s what we want our students to feel. Likewise, many submissions also affirm by not being great. In fact, it might be more helpful for young writers—who can struggle with confidence and courage and often get paralyzed by some imagined gulf between them and “real” writers—to see bad or mediocre writing to remind them that there’s nothing to fear. And it occurred to me as I was reading and deliberating over my selections that I was doing exactly what we ask of our creative writing students when it comes to fiction: considering narrative and storytelling and voice and character and completeness, to name a few.

Given that the process of guest editing practices all the skills we are trying to build, and given my belief that writing should be demystified and democratic, why shouldn’t a group of bright young writers—and SmokeLong readers themselves—be trusted with determining the most worthy journal submission? In my experience, students—like all people who want to be successful—thrive when challenged, when trusted with responsibility, and when they feel their work is meaningful. Finally, it’s logistically more feasible to ask our students, who have little time between academics and extra-curriculars, to review about 80 flash pieces in a week than full short stories.

Your students have guest edited for SmokeLong several times now. Can you reflect on this partnership?

Wade: We’ve been delighted that we’ve be able to cement the SmokeLong editing activity into the Creative Writing course as we’ve found several reasons to feel good about the activity from a pedagogical standpoint. The activity perfectly fits within the structure that we’ve given the course.  We have purposely scheduled it during the tenth week as it is right when the students enter the “Refining” stage. As we hoped, the activity allows them to implement the vocabulary they’ve learned over the first half of the semester; conversations have become more focused as they move beyond basic notions of why a piece is or is not “working” into a place where the students can start to pinpoint specific reasons (language, narrative, et cetera) for how a piece “succeeds”.  One could argue that this evolution is a natural progression in a class like this, but I think there is something to the fact that we are discussing pieces that are being submitted for publication and not just for workshop.  That subtle difference somehow signals to the student that more is at stake in the discussions – and it reinforces the democratization of writing that we hope to instill.  While we don’t want our students to solely focus on publishing within the course, we also don’t want publishing to be seen as an abstract achievement for only those that, as Huan stated previously, have been anointed.  In the end, I think the students view their task of giving a fellow student feedback during the workshops with more importance since they understand exactly how helpful their observations might be for an author that is aiming to publish. And as beginning writers, the activity has given the students an incredible amount of confidence.  Our initial hopes have really come true in this sense. Reading through a slush pile has made it easier for them to see that there will always be submissions that fall short, which allows them to understand that they don’t have to wait for permission to consider submitting a piece. There is not a undefined space between them and practicing writers; in fact, they are already practicing writers themselves!

Editor’s Choice Week: A Few Words from Christopher Allen

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As we’re putting the final strokes on Issue 62 of SmokeLong Quarterly, I’d like to thank our readers, our contributors, and also the many writers who submit their work to SmokeLong. We believe in treating everyone with respect and fairness–and we love reading your work. Every last one of you.

I’ll be reading every submission that comes in during the week of October 22-28, and I guarantee a quick turnaround. In November I’m going on a trip to meet a few people who’ve contributed to SmokeLong, so I’ll be choosing a story by October 31. Submit something that tears you apart, please.

When you submit to SmokeLong remember please to make sure your name is not included on your story, or in the title of the story, or in the file name of your story. We can consider your work only if it’s blind. Your biographical information belongs in the cover letter, which is not visible to our weekly editors. In case you’re new to SmokeLong, we are now a paying market. We also now have a tip jar option, and we are very grateful for your donation (which of course in no way influences our decision concerning your submission, so please donate ONLY if you don’t need that money for coffee).

I will be giving away my collection, Other Household Toxins, to the writer whose work I choose for Issue 62. After my publisher’s website was hacked and deleted last year, I’m happy to say Matter Press is back in business with a beautiful site. Please check it out and send Randall Brown some love. Also, look for the beautiful new edition of Kathy Fish’s Wild Life coming soon from Matter Press.

While I’ve got you here, I thought I’d share some SmokeLong news.

Starting November 1 until Thanksgiving, SmokeLong Quarterly will be sponsoring FlashGiving to give you, our readers, the chance to tell us what you love about one of your favorite flash fiction journals (excluding SmokeLong of course). At the end of November we are going to give one of these journals some money to do with as they wish. Keep an eye on this site and our Twitter account @smokelong for more details.

Also at the end of November SmokeLong is going to be in Singapore. If you live in Singapore, come to hear me, Shasta Grant, Elaine Chiew, and Sharmini Aphrodite read November 27 at BooksActually.

In the middle of 2019 we will start accepting applications for The SmokeLong Flash Fellowship for Emerging Writers 2020. The summer of 2019 may seem like a long way off, but I can tell you killer flash fiction doesn’t write itself in a day. It’s never too early to get your application packet together. We’re going to make a couple of adjustments to the fellowship guidelines, so please keep an eye on @smokelong and the SmokeLong blog for those changes. I think you’ll like them.

But you’re actually here to find out what I’m looking for in the queue this week. One great sentence after another, memorable characters, a profound moment, a gripping voice–all these things will keep me reading. Please don’t send a story that doesn’t make you feel something. Take some chances. I like experimentation. It should go without saying that I gladly read LGBTQ+ characters and work by LGBTQ+ writers. Why in 2018 would we need to stress this? Thank you to everyone who supported our Twitter protest of the recent flash fiction competition that excluded LGBTQ+ (characters? writers?) while listing LGBTQ+ themes and issues among the “genres” of swearing and profanity, horrific deaths, torture, and sexual scenes. If nothing else, this situation has brought the flash fiction community closer.

There are just two other small things. One of them is tiny. I’m talking about the Best Microfiction anthology. The deadline for editors to submit to this anthology is December 31. We’ve nominated six stories and have two more slots. It wouldn’t hurt to send me your best micros under 400 words this week. We can’t nominate you if we don’t publish you, and we can’t publish you if you don’t submit. The same goes with Best British and Irish Flash Fiction. We’re chomping at the bits to publish more UK and Irish writers. Here’s a story I chose at the beginning of this year by the UK writer Rob Yates. Send me something I’ll love, chaps!

Looking forward to reading your work.

Christopher

Social Media and Politics in Kenya: An Interview with John O. Ndavula

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For the last few months, the SmokeLong team have had the pleasure of having John O. Ndavula on staff as our Kiswahili editor and translator. The story he chose appeared in issue 61, out now. John has recently published a book about the effects and uses of social media in Kenyan politics. 

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Allen: John, first of all thank you so much for choosing the Kiswahili story for the September issue of SmokeLong Quarterly. This is a busy time for you. Twitter is exploding with pictures and videos of you on Kenyan morning TV. Congratulations on the publication of your book, Social Media & Political Campaigns in Kenya!

Ndavula: I was planning for my book launch while I read the Kiswahili submissions. So yes, it was a bit tough for me. My new book arises from the research I conducted in my doctoral studies. It is the first book in Kenya to explore the relationship between digital networking sites and contemporary Kenyan politics. Digital communication is an emerging area in communications and I am excited that I have contributed to this area of research.

Allen: What would you say are the demographics of internet usage in Kenya? 

Ndavula:  Most users of the internet in Kenya are the youth. According to statistics, the internet user penetration among the youth is over 60 percent. Of these, the youth who have five years or more of using the internet stand at 20 percent. The youth in urban areas have a greater access to the internet than those in rural areas.

Allen: In your research for the book, you spoke with Kenyan political candidates. Did they welcome your research? 

Ndavula: Most younger politicians were enthusiastic about the study. However, some older politicians who have run their campaigns for many years without using social media were mostly skeptical.

Allen: I read on Twitter that political candidates in Kenya started using social media in earnest in 2013. What do you predict for the future?

Ndavula: I think more political candidates will use the social media platform for their campaigns in future. Candidates who are not flexible enough to adapt their campaign strategies to the continuously evolving digital world may lose out on younger voters.

Allen: Of course you’ve seen how the Trump campaign allegedly misused social media to manipulate voters. Do you think the same danger exists in Kenya?

Ndavula: It is quite easy to spread hate, disinformation, hoaxes and fake news on Facebook and Twitter. Kenya tends to be polarized along ethnic lines during general elections and social media could be used by political actors to fuel this animosity.

Allen: To bring the discussion back to flash fiction, are there journals in Kenya who are catering for an online audience? 

Ndavula: We have a couple of journals like Kikwetu, Enkare, and Jalada which have dramatically expanded the literary space in Kenya. The journals provide writers with a publishing platform at a time when most mainstream publishers are either closing shop or focusing on school textbooks.

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John O. Ndavula is the author of Social Media and Political Campaigns in Kenya. Ndavula is also a fiction writer whose prose has appeared in Kikwetu. He is co-founding editor of Kikwetu: A Journal of East African Literature and has published literary criticism books on East African and European fiction. He teaches creative writing at St. Paul’s University in Kenya. He earned his PhD in Mass Communication from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya.

Christopher Allen is the co-editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.

“A single word”: An Interview with Guest Reader Qiana Towns

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What themes do you find yourself frequently writing about?

I write quite a bit about women and the lives of women of color in urban communities. My world is filled with black women being exceptional. Starting businesses. Earning degrees. Uplifting communities. Caring for families. Traveling. My writing captures these experiences so that 500 years from now people will know we were here and doing all kinds of things the history books may not record.

What can make or break a flash story?

Conciseness. Like poetry, a single word or phrase could spell the end for a piece.

What kind of story would you love to find in your queue?

A story about a kick-ass woman doing something I’ve never imagined doing.

A story that can successfully use the image of a rainbow without being…corny, I guess. Or, even if the piece can use the word rainbow without triggering a negative response.

Can you tell us about your work with Flint City Riveters in Flint, Michigan?

The Riveters are a semi-professional women’s football team. I’ve worked as their Community Outreach Manager for a few years and it primarily consists of finding volunteer opportunities for players and staff. I’d joined the team at one time, but my community and life commitments kept me away from practices. I loved the idea of working with the team so much that I asked the owner to give me a job. She did and I’ve been supporting the team ever since.

Book Review: Sarah Layden’s The Story I Tell Myself About Myself

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by Frannie McMillan

The 15 stories in Sarah Layden’s new collection of flash fiction, The Story I Tell Myself About Myself (Sonder Press, August 2018), offer readers failed couplings, bad medical news (or anticipated bad news), infertility, death, unexplained physical anomalies, attempted recovery, and a mad libs style fill-in-the-blank story. The Story I Tell Myself About Myself is the 2017 winner of the Sonder Press chapbook competition. A recipient of the Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize for fiction and an Association of Writers & Writing Programs Intro Award, Layden is the author of the novel Trip Through Your Wires, and her short fiction and non-fiction appear in a range of publications.

Described by NUVO writers Dan Grossman and Laura MacPhee as “Slippery, secretive, and sensual, Layden’s short fiction is simply magical,” The Story I Tell Myself About Myself brims with secrets and words left unsaid. There is a Bradbury-esque feeling to these quirky, sometimes otherworldly stories. Reading them is like that moment of realization, hours later, that you said something insensitive, or forgot something that you needed to say.

The first piece, “Hang Up,” introduces readers to a man who has been calling the same woman for fifteen years. He never speaks when he calls, and she tells him stories over the phone. “Hang Up” is such a fitting introduction to this collection because, like the female character in this story, Layden’s voice beckons the reader onward through an array of stories that range from the mundane to the fantastic. The last few lines plead, “You are the story I tell myself, about myself. Stay with me. Stay.”

“Decoy,” a tense, tightly woven story about a woman named Alice, manages to be lightly humorous and gut-wrenching at the same time. I’m left not knowing what happens to Alice’s daughter, Sylvie, by the end. From the ducks on the pond to the “mostly harmless lies” that Alice remembers using as a kid, “camouflaging her whereabouts,” Layden explores the many meanings of the word “decoy.” Even the color of ice on the pond is “a trick of the orange and purple sunset.” Sylvie hopes to “attract the real thing” with her ducks on the windowsill; Alice wonders why people ruin brand-new furniture by making it look shabby, hiding its newness under a beaten façade while also thinking, “the face ought to map your life,” explaining why she declined the Botox proffered by her dentist-turned-date.

“He Waits, Wants” was so perfect that I, having experienced infertility, could hardly stand it. In a delightful twist, Layden creates a world where the male is physically responsible for carrying a child. He charts his cycles, takes his temperature, and pees on the ovulation stick, while his female spouse just wants to go to the bar after they finish having sex. She is annoyed with his constant worrying, but admits to feeling jealousy when the neighbor’s kid “got knocked up at sixteen.” While there is a humorous element to this piece, Layden skillfully illustrates a role reversal that gives both sides a chance to wear the other’s shoes.

“The Woman Who Was a House” features a woman whose body was an actual house, vacant after her family moved to the Caribbean to pursue a life as underwater Civil War reenactors. “The Woman with No Skin” deals with a character whose protective suit became covered in the words of others. Both pieces explore some of the ways women adapt to being taken advantage of or hurt by the world. In “Arrested Development” readers meet Vera, a woman who never grew and still looks like a child. Like the female character in “New Thing,” Vera is “waiting for the knock at the door that would change her life, but it was usually the mailman with a package she had specifically ordered.” Layden portrays women who are making the best of their circumstances, surviving life at a day-to-day pace. While women take center stage in this collection, “Comet’s Return,” “Marv’s 11 Steps,” and “Two Hearts,” showcase Layden’s ability to write a believable and compelling male perspective.

Male or female, Layden’s characters are faithful to their routines. The characters in each story are connected to various daily rituals or lifestyles. Some seem to question these practices, and some seem oblivious to them. For example, the man in “Hang Up” always calls the woman, and she always tells him a story. The woman in “The Rest of Your Life” always takes a moment to wink at her reflection in the elevator. “Sex in Secret” considers the old habits of sexual encounters before the digital age created new ones. The couple in “He Waits, Wants” is tied to the schedule dictated by infertility. Davey considers his own habits in the context of his father’s lifelong pattern of alcoholism and womanizing in “Comet’s Return.” “The Woman Who Was a House” replays old family films through the projector in her lungs. Vera is tied to her routine of watching television and eating junk food while she waits for her life to change in “Arrested Development.” Marv, the title character in “Marv’s 11 Steps,” is so loyal to his daily routine of visiting the newsstand that the narrator observes “daily he paced this sidewalk, a short Marv-sized path worn into the cement.” Marv visits the same bar, makes the same joke as the same song plays on the jukebox every night, his feet “stepping in the same cracked pattern” on the dance floor. “Collision Physics for the Math-Averse” considers how these patterns and routines can shift and alter lives. The Story I Tell Myself About Myself gives you no choice but this: stay. Stay with these characters and listen to what they have to tell you.

The Story I Tell Myself About Myself is available from Sonder Press and elsewhere online.

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Frannie McMillan’s poetry has appeared in The Coachella Review, K’in Literary Journal, The Indianapolis Review, and others. She is currently at work on her first chapbook, You Ain’t By Yourself. By day, she connects young people with books as a secondary librarian in Richmond, Virginia. You can find her on Twitter @franniemaq.

Flash in the Classroom: The Pleasure of Risk-taking

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The Flash in the Classroom series on the SmokeLong blog explores creative writing teachers’ various approaches to teaching flash fiction to their students. We–and the entire flash fiction community–are interested in hearing from anyone who uses flash fiction in a classroom setting. Please submit your essays HERE. We’re thrilled and grateful to have Steve Edwards as our first teacher in this series. What lucky students he has. 

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by Steve Edwards

Back in the 90s, my first creative writing teacher in college started every class by reading flash fiction. We called them “short-shorts” then. I’ll never forget the anticipation I felt as he cleared his throat and began: Something wild was about to happen. My life was about to change. Being read to was enough to make me feel like a kid again, experiencing the magic of stories for the first time. But it was the stories themselves—their pacing, their daring, the way so few words suggested so much world—that brought the wonder.

I had to learn to do that.

Until a student feels that desire, I’m not sure our teaching ever accomplishes much. The mere transmission of information isn’t learning. I’d trade all the craft talk in the world for the simple pleasure of getting high on words.

In working to build that kind of pleasure into the creative writing classes I teach, I’ve begun filling my syllabus with flash fiction. What I like about flash for this purpose, as opposed to, say, longer and more conventional works, is that its brevity allows for us to pinpoint the exact moment something explodes off the page. We can zoom in and attune to the micro concerns of language without losing the larger thread of the story. I also feel less compelled with flash to overexplain, to contextualize, to lecture…in other words, to do the work for them. Maybe it’s psychological but I think students approach texts of 1000-words or fewer with less fear and skepticism. And maybe less cynicism. What’s the point of reading a 20-page story if the teacher’s just going to choke the life out of it with explanations? A flash fiction is an experience at once dissectible and inscrutable. It’s right there. The students’ gut reactions are right there, too, and from them I can elicit further reflection that helps us all reimagine how we approach storytelling.

In addition to being dazzled by the intensity and immediacy of flash fiction, I have another learning goal in mind for my students. I want to get them in the habit of taking risks, striking out for new territory, failing hard and trying again. The cost-benefit ratio as I imagine it is something like this: If what I’m writing is only a few pages long, how much do I stand to lose if it doesn’t work out? And the same is true for reading flash fiction. If what I’m reading is only a few pages long, how much do I stand to lose if I don’t like it?

I think we’re all secret geniuses. But I think what often holds us back is that we want to write something “good,” and that the pursuit of “good” forces us to return to what has worked for us in the past. A semester of flash fiction sends a different message to students: Try this. Try this. Try this. Try this. Try this. Try this.

If you don’t like something, or if it just doesn’t work for you, you can abandon it guilt free. If you find something you love—something weird or diabolical or heart-wrenchingly beautiful—it’s yours forever now.

I think what beginning fiction writers need about as much as anything is to get into the habit of looking for moments. You walk through your day and think: There’s a story. A detail catches your attention: There’s a story. Something someone says or does. Something you remember from when you were a kid. There’s a story. Immersion in flash fiction is a study in how to train your mind to pay attention to what will light up someone else’s mind. What fires together wires together. What you see on the page, you see in the world. And like a figure-eight curving back on itself, you fill up your own pages with the worlds you discover. Flash fiction is risk-taking made manifest, and who wouldn’t want to get in on the action? It’s like being at a public pool and watching kids jump off the diving board, wriggling and contorting their bodies. It’s fun. Always something new to try. Even after a belly-flop they’re back climbing that ladder.

The other change I’ve incorporated as a teacher over the years—and this is made possible by the proliferation of great flash fiction sites like SmokeLong—is that I task the students with finding flash fiction online to share with the class. One of the fun facts I like to ruin their lives with is that no one really cares if they don’t write. They have to make people care. And they can. By asking students to search out work to share with the class, I’m offering them the chance to reflect upon what it is about a given work that makes it matter. In essence, I want to hold them accountable—not just to me but to themselves and each other.

It occurs to me I’m describing a kind of classroom economy whose currency is pleasure, risk-taking, care, and accountability. In flash fictions of 1000 words or fewer, or in novels of 100,000 words or more, it’s where we begin.

And beginnings matter.

When I was a little kid, somebody opened a book and blew my mind. It happened again when I went to college and my teacher read “Girl,” “The School,” “No One’s a Mystery.” And it still happens when a student comes to class with a story they are dying to read out loud because, as the kids say, “They can’t even.” We listen and are transported, transformed, transmogrified. We’re children again—with very old souls.

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Steve Edwards is author of the memoir Breaking into the Backcountry, the story of his seven months of solitude in the Oregon wilderness as caretaker of a 95-acre homestead. His writing appears in Longreads, Orion Magazine, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives in Massachusetts.

Editor’s Choice Week: An Interview With Josh Denslow

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The story from this week’s submissions will be selected by a member of our editorial staff. All stories submitted October 8-14 will be read by Josh Denslow.

Josh Denslow has been an editor at SmokeLong since 2012. In that time he’s read thousands of stories for SmokeLong and still found time to make three sons. We know his plate is Thanksgiving-dinner full, so we feel very fortunate to have his valuable feedback and to call him one of our own. Look for his short story collection, Not Everyone is Special, in the not-too-distant future from 7.13 Books.

We asked him a few questions, and here are his replies:

Themes, topics, or styles I’m drawn to:

I like to be immersed in a totally believable world and then something happens that makes me question reality. Give me a talking chinchilla at a funeral and we’ll be best friends.

Dealbreakers in flash:

I don’t know if there are any dealbreakers. But I know things I’m not that in to. Like a murderer plotting a murder. Or stories that are almost entirely dialogue. Or the slow, wasting death of an elderly parent.

A flash story I LOVE:

I love the story “Recess” by our previous Fish Fellow Adam Peterson. It’s about how recess is canceled after a boy is found murdered on school property and it has this line in it: “It seemed unfair to teach us about mortality then not let us live.”

A flash I’ve written:

A flash I’ve written: I’ve been working on a series of thematically-linked pieces that I hope to put into a collection. Many of them are flash or flash-adjacent and I think one that really sums it up was over at Catapult in May. It’s called Where the Magic Is.

“The lines are blurred”: An Interview with Guest Reader Michelle Elvy

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Michelle Elvy will be giving away a copy of Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand to the writer of the story she selects for publication from this week’s submissions!

You have judged quite a few flash fiction contests. What advice would you give to writers interested in entering contests?

Write about something you love to write about, and push yourself to break out of your own boundaries. Experiment and play. Keep it light, even if you are dealing with heavy stuff. Find a groove that feels right and pursue it. Step back from your writing and allow yourself – and it – time to breathe. See what changes with time. Edit, edit, edit.

What ingredients are essential for a great flash fiction story?

These days there are so many writers doing such accomplished things with the short form – there is no easy answer to this question. I read many different kinds of stories for various projects: online journals, Best Small Fictions and, most recently, Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand. The best flash fiction may have beautiful poetic elements; the best prose poetry may reveal a story. What I love most is that space where the lines are blurred – I think breaking down the barriers is most exciting.

For me, a terrific piece of flash fiction will surprise the reader in the best possible way: it will enlighten, or touch down in an unlikely place, or meander slowly and subtly to its main point and generate such power that the reader cannot forget it. It may be poetic, or jarring – but it will most likely be language-driven. The smaller the space, the more language matters. There are many ways to write a ‘great’ piece of flash, but the thing that strikes me about excellent flash is that it demonstrates a careful attention to content and form; a memorable piece of flash will balance both.

Editing runs in your family: your daughter is co-founder of fingers comma toes, an online literary journal for children and young adults. Can you tell us more about this? 

How wonderful that you ask – thank you! My daughter Lola founded the journal with another friend when they were 13; they are 17 now. They wanted to create something that was for youth, by youth. They did not want adult authority involved – it was an organic project from the beginning, originating from their own joy for creative space. Both Lola and Tristan are keen about creative writing themselves. They have also both live on sailboats (and met in Thailand, when our two sailboats were anchored in the same small bay), so they are adept at communicating via the internet and reaching out to others across time zones and oceans. The internet provides an excellent platform for them to involve themselves in a creative community, even if their lives are somewhat fluid and unpredictable. The journal has published writers and young artists, including musicians, from age 4 to 25 from New Zealand, Australia, US, Germany, The Cook Islands, Singapore and Tanzania. The most recent issue was themed ‘WILD’ and came out in August (here). They are about to put out the call for submissions for the January 2019 issue (later in October), and they have invited another talented young writer to guest edit with them. It is exciting to see how the project began with a spark and continues to grow. I think they set a high standard – and yet, the journal is also very inclusive. I love how each issue includes poetry and prose as well as excellent art, from the opening image of the inaugural issue – a finger painting titled ‘Goody Goody’ by a four-year-old – to the mural done by 17-year-olds in the last issue.

What kind of story would you love to see in the queue this week?

Something that will challenge me to rethink my answer to Question #2. Build beyond expectations – make me see/feel/ think more and more and more.

Book Review: Sophie Van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods

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by Tiffany Sciacca

Sophie Van Llewyn’s debut flash novella, Bottled Goods, (Fairlight Books, July 2018) is the perfect place to start whether you are a longtime fan of flash fiction or new to this still evolving and exciting genre.

Bottled Goods, a collection of 51 stories, some as brief as a thought, others going for several pages, follows the life of Alina, native of communist Romania in the 1970s. Alina weds Liviu, yet their promising future is soon upended when Alina’s brother in law decides to defect to the West. Bottled Goods not only describes the toll taken on Alina and Liviu’s relationship but also other members of her family. It’s a fascinating watch, a slow descent like a series of coins going down a spiral wishing well.

From the title of the first story, “The Low People in Our Family,” I knew I was in for an interesting tale. In this story, we meet members of Alina’s family, one in passing. The opening is normal enough—the characters are on their way to a loved one’s funeral—and it is easy to get lulled into the banality of the journey; yet by the end, when her aunt tells her about her grandfather, who the communists were after and whose friends, were “killed, beaten, tortured,” I was left feeling uneasy but wanting more.

A better glimpse of Alina is revealed in the second piece, “Glazed Apples,” where she works in the midst of luxury at a Romanian resort but is confined to its underbelly. A clear line divides the haves and have-nots, with Alina firmly placed in the latter category. Although under communist rule, her job as a tourist guide allows her experiences she’d never have had otherwise, like setting eyes on the sea.  And she must not only sell her country to visiting foreigners, but also her happiness as a citizen. It is at the resort where she meets Liviu and we witness the beginning of their relationship.

In “Prima Noctis,” we are uninvited guests at Alina’s wedding. This should be the happiest moment in her life but already we see what makes them different: the all-important fault line. Alina, who herself feels like an outsider “trapped in the bride’s body,” has come from money. Liviu’s family—rough, mountain people without airs—and the distinction Alina makes in her mind is startling as she feels “as dirty as any of them, a princess dragged through the mud.”

Bottled Goods is full of unique forms. From wish lists, as in “Dear Father Frost,” where we get a peek into Alina’s heart. Yearnings from the material, like a pair of Levi’s, to the practical needs, a portable electric stove. There are also entries in a diary, her handheld confessional, How-To lists, used to account meticulously for her missteps. And in “Quotes From My Mother (Commented) – Part I” we learn of Alina’s mother’s disapproval of her daughter’s marriage from the very first line. It is a point that she makes more than once, planting a seed that doesn’t take too long to take root. Postcards written to this same difficult and overbearing mother are another medium that allows the reader to follow the unraveling of Alina and Liviu’s story, though strictly from her perspective. I also appreciated the shift in voice throughout. Delivery is everything here and Van Llewyn displays the depth of her craft.

There are harbingers of ill-fated love and betrayal that go unnoticed, some more blatant including that elusive pair of Levi’s from “Dear Father Frost” and some that even the reader might miss on the first read. And as a marriage weakens, a country tightens its grip around the couple—love, trust, and loyalties tested throughout.

The defection of Alina’s brother-in-law does bring trouble, yes, but it is someone else’s misstep that proves detrimental. In the end, you may wonder if it was bad luck or a bad choice that seals everyone’s fate. Pay close attention and you will find the answer along with healthy doses of irony and karma.

Van Llewyn’s use of language is hypnotic and the worlds she creates stark and grotesque, calling to mind Shirley Jackson or Muriel Spark. With just the right details, whether it is the curve of a black Volga, sounds of bracelets around a wrist or faces “like cassettes with their tape pulled out,” your eyes will devour the pages as you are led through stories that turn from the supernatural to the hyper-real. Sophie Van Llewyn knows her Romanian history and lore but nothing feels forced or unnatural and you will find yourself hitting the last page of Bottled Goods quicker than you wanted.

Bottled Goods is available from Fairlight Books and elsewhere online.

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Tiffany Sciacca is a writer who has recently moved from Sicily back to Illinois. She is currently a staff writer at Luna Luna Magazine. Her work has appeared in SOFTBLOW, Angry Old Man Magazine, Plague, and Moonchild Magazine. When not writing she binges Nordic Noir and giallos.

Listen up! The Issue 61 Playlist Is Here.

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Listen along to Issue 61’s playlist on Spotify!

Svetlana Beggs ,“The Photo” – “Звезда по имени Солнце” by Viktor Tsoi  

Victor Tsoi was a necessary force of nature for USSR high school kids in the late 80s. The two main characters in my story love this song, and indeed know by heart every song by Victor Tsoi.

Janika A Oza, “Gathered Family” – “Garden Prayer” by Anju

Lindsey Baker, “Ourself, Ourself” – “Black Sands” by Bonobo

I like this song because it’s seemingly dramatic, but has swells of something that feels like humor. Or if not humor, whimsy. I think the narrators would enjoy playing it while riding with Jack in his car.

Michael Riess, “Sky Like Concrete” – “Colorblind” by Counting Crows

I chose this song because my story—like the lyrics in the song—describes a colorless landscape and a narrator unable to properly express his feelings.

Megan Pillow Davis, “We All Know About Margo” – “DNA” by Kendrick Lamar

“DNA” is the song that’s playing in the background of my story’s moment. Although Lamar is clearly speaking to the particulars of black cultural appropriation, the song still aligns well with Margo’s character because both hip-hop and the female body are often stereotyped and objectified by white culture; while certainly not identical experiences, the pain and anger that both groups feel has some small kinship. When I wrote this story, I imagined “DNA” as the kind of song my white suburban teen male narrators would play while driving around in their parents’ BMWs, listening only to its beat and completely missing its adept celebration of black history and culture and skewering of whiteness.

Tiffany Quay Tyson, “Now You See Me” – “Someday” by Steve Earle

This song really captures the feeling of being stuck in a particular place through no fault of your own. The narrator in “Now You See Me” is stuck. She hasn’t done anything wrong, but nothing goes right for her.

Steven Grassel, “Weather Person” – “Hopefulessness” by Courtney Barnett

Caroline Bock, “Government-Issued Bunnies” – “Is This the World We Created” by Queen

This song asks is this what we have created? All the hungry mouths we have to feed and all the suffering we breed, where does it lead us? It led me to “Government-issued Bunnies.”

John Mancini, “Swans” – “Poor Joan” by John Mancini Band

Like “Swans,” this song is a story about people confronting change and loss. Joan and Billy live on Back River, which is not too far from where Sherry lives on Stoney Creek.

James Amata, “Shopping ya Shilingi Elfu Tano” – “Ka Nameka” by  Tabu Ley Rochereau & L’Afrisa International

Translated from Lingala as WACHA NIJARIBU, (Let Me Try). It was a competition entry at a concert. His band won!

This song so soothes me as it so encourages me to always try.

Lynn Mundell, “Sister Wives at the County Fair” – “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” by Aretha Franklin

We never see more than a flash of Husband, so a love song won’t do. Instead, in honor of the legendary Aretha Franklin, here’s an anthem perfect for sing-alongs.

Rebecca Dashiell, “If the Light, Then the Light” – “Lioness” by Songs: Ohia

I feel like this is the kind of song the filmmaker’s wife would listen to and think this is what love should look like: desperate longing and vulnerability.

Jeff Landon, “Ringo Starr” – “I Don’t Want To Control You” by Teenage Fanclub

Because I love Teenage Fanclub, and I don’t really love Ringo Starr’s music… except
“Photograph… and this song is about the exact opposite type of man as the dildo in my story.

 

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Janelle M. Williams

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The connection between character and geography is so tight throughout “The Way to Reach You.” How did you decide when to lean into that connection (“the West Side is so different than the East Side, and you were never as compact as a character”) and when to zoom in on Tony himself (“The last time she saw you your braids, straight backs that barely reached your neck, had weeks-old fuzz”)? It feels like a delicate dance.

Tony is forgotten throughout most of the piece. He is simultaneously the center of the story and an afterthought as life moves forward. But even when it’s not realized, he is synonymous with Atlanta. He’s a means of contextualizing the city, and in many ways, it’s impossible to forget that. She (the I voice) knows she loves the city, even if she can’t say why. But the why is Tony. So by the end, there’s that realization, and also there he is up close, nothing of what she remembers him, of course. Really, the story just came out that way. This was one of those (rare) pieces that wasn’t a struggle. It flew onto the page. I think it wanted to be told. I’d written short story versions of this before, and they never quite worked. I guess brevity did the story justice.

Would you identify yourself as a Southern writer? Or, more specifically, an Atlanta writer? And has living in New York changed what that means to you or your writing?

I haven’t lived in Atlanta since I was 18, but I still consider myself a Southern writer (and an ATLien) because I see the world (write the world) through the lens in which my adult self was created. I write about New York, particularly Harlem, a lot. In fact, the novel I’ve been working on is set in Harlem. But Atlanta is always a reference point, and my characters tend to be from there. I have a short story that I’ve been reworking (and reworking!) about going to a high school similar to the one I went to in DeKalb County. Eventually, it will be one of the pieces that I’m most proud to have written.

In the story, Donald Glover serves as another access point to both Tony and Atlanta. And I have to ask—were you listening to Childish Gambino while working on this story? And does music play any role in your writing process?

Music plays a huge role in my writing. Childish Gambino is cool, but his music doesn’t make me feel Atlanta, at least not in the way that Outkast does. When I’m writing about Atlanta, I listen to Big Boi and Andre, their earlier stuff, particularly songs from Aquemini and ATLiens. I love “85 South” by Youngbloodz. It’s a classic. Also, I spent my high school years leaning and rocking, so trap has a place in my heart, too.

What are you listening to now?

I’m always listening to oldies, R&B and some hip hop. Anything from the Delfonics to Rufus and Chaka Khan to DeBarge to the Spinners to Janet Jackson (huge Janet fan) to Xscape to Anita Baker. As far as more current artists, I like Chance the Rapper and Noname Gypsy and GoldLink a lot. Right now I have “If” by Davido on repeat. In combination with an oldie, “Sending My Love” by Zhane, it helped me write my latest story. A different flash piece was inspired by a Kaytranada song. Really, music is my thing. I just don’t have an ear for it in the way of musicians and singers.

Finally, what draws you to write flash?

The feeling of completion, having told a story in just one breath. And I write for my friends and family, some of whom are more willing to read short fiction. I’m getting them ready for the novel. But also, I think the story calls for the length, so I write in all lengths, even that awkward length that doesn’t quite meet the standards of flash fiction or your typical short story.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Gary Moshimer

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What are the risks and rewards of using dark humor about difficult or painful circumstances to drive a story?

I don’t think much of the risks. I think a reader must be thrown right in there where they want to cry, but then find out they’ve been tricked into some humor, or the other way around. Those juxtaposed feelings are the great reward.

In a very short span of life on the page, Sweetie transforms from a quirky love interest to a sex idol to goddess who represents safety and connection to humanity. Was her growth over the story intentional or organic? How do you flesh out your secondary characters?

I didn’t think too much about it, so I guess you could call it organic. Once she starts reading about existentialism, she’s evolved into a new person.

The sentences in “Sweetness” are very clear, clean, and rhythmic, smoothly balancing style, aesthetic, and narrative movement. What’s your revision process like? How do you develop sentences that move so well?

I keep cutting sentences until there’s a rhythm when you read them out loud. That’s my key, reading out loud. Plus, it’s damn fun to write like that.

Share a line (or two or three) from a writer you admire and describe how these lines exemplify the writer’s influence on your work and on literature at large.

“Only that which does not explain or instruct is irresistible.”—Maeve Brennan.

What are your current projects? What’s next in your artistic life?

I’m currently working on a book of flash fictions.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Mike Riess

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The landscape feels very present in this story. In the scene at the end—which wrecks me every time I read it, by the way—the man’s connection to the land feels very strong. Was this something you consciously worked into the story?

First off, thanks for selecting my story! I’m beyond thrilled to be published in SLQ. When I started writing the story, I knew that I wanted to incorporate the surrounding landscape because it’s something that the characters—a farming family who’s anticipating a storm—would be acutely aware of during the drive. Also, I feel like the father, whose own father is dying, would be particularly sensitive to the bleak, winter landscape. On a personal level, I’ve always lived in densely populated, urban areas, so I’m particularly grateful when I have a chance to visit (and write) about open spaces and unfamiliar landscapes.

You’re an attorney by profession, and you said you’ve only recently begun writing short fiction. Leaving aside how astonishing that is, given how accomplished and downright beautiful this story is, can you tell us something about your writing journey up to this point?

I’ve always loved to read—ever since picking up the first Goosebumps (Welcome to Dead House, in case you were wondering)—which I think is the first step in any writing journey. I took a creative writing class in college, which I enjoyed, but wasn’t too successful (I got a “B” and the professor called my final story “haphazard”). I believe that law school and practicing as an attorney really improved my writing. The law requires me to be precise, to value words, to think critically, to consider the opposing side, to develop creative arguments—all skills that help me write fiction.

About a year and a half ago—after I had just read a bunch of short story collections, including, in my humble opinion, one of the best collections of all, George Saunders’s Tenth of December—I decided to try to write my own short stories, and the results were disastrous, to put it mildly. I had no idea what I was doing, and I kept getting rejected. But I kept writing and started working with an editor (Joe Ponepinto, who’s amazing, by the way), and I kept writing and kept getting rejected, but slowly, through Joe’s feedback, I improved.

What are your thoughts/hopes/beliefs about what happens to “patterns of information in the brain” after death?

I take the scientific view: Consciousness does not survive death, and patterns of information in the brain are lost and irretrievable. Uplifting, right?

Your writing style in this story is very natural and unadorned, and incredibly affecting for it. Who are your influences? If we crowd-funded a year at author college for you under the guidance of one writer, dead or alive, who would you choose?

I would choose George Saunders, hands down, to be my teacher at author college. I’m in awe of his writing for so many reasons: his unique and simple prose; his convincing portrayal of absurd characters who are flawed but worthy of redemption; his ability to create layers of emotion—stories that on the surface are funny and on a deeper level are terribly sad but also have a touch of hope. I think, in fact, that the writing style in a Saunders’s story, Addams, influenced my writing style in this story. Plus, I met him at a book signing once and he was really nice.

What are you working on at the moment, in terms of writing? Is there a specific direction in which you’d like to take your work—are you hooked on flash, now that you’ve started, or do you have a novel trilogy sketched out in a drawer somewhere?

I just moved from DC to New Jersey, changed jobs, and have a nine-month-old daughter, so it’s been difficult to find time to write, and honestly, I haven’t given too much thought to the direction of my writing. As a new writer, though, I want to continue to improve, to learn from my mistakes, to take risks, and to seek feedback. I think that for now I’ll be sticking with flash and short fiction because I believe that’s the best way to learn, and I like being able to obsess over each word in a story, which is not something that I’d be able to do with a novel.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Jeff Landon

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Jumping right in, I have to ask about your inspiration for this piece. Do you have a certain fascination for the Beatles, particularly Ringo Starr? What was your reason, if any, for choosing a fictionalized version of him as this sort of foil to the narrator?

I like the Beatles, sure, but I figured Ringo would be the most likely to have a foot fetish.  I picked Ringo, seriously, because it felt more possible for the narrator’s ready-to-leave wife had this moment in her past. The story is about obsessives/destructive impulses … I didn’t have to dig too deeply to understand how they work.

Your narrator here is complex, though in flash sometimes that complexity is difficult to draw out. What changes for you when writing long-form fiction (novels, novellas) versus flash? How does the development and presentation of your characters change?

I’ve written failed novels—not bragging, but, yeah, nailed it, another never-to-be-read pile of paper. With novels, you really get to know your people, where they live, how life hits them. Things play out. Side journeys occur. Stories, short and shorter, are glimpses (more or less), and you don’t have time for long descriptions. They feel more like movies playing in your head—to me, anyway. I need/want to see just enough, and I don’t think explanations work that well in fiction or life.

There are two moments in the story where the narration from the character mixes with the authorial vantage point. I’m speaking particularly of this moment: “I can’t even spell enunciate. I just now looked it up.” I’m also speaking of the moment when the narrator says, “I know, I know ….” Was this intentional, and how much do you find yourself mixing with first-person narration?

It was intentional. For the “I know, I know,” business, that was just me putting up some defensive hands, going, OK, yes, I understand this is nothing new I’m saying here. For the moment when he couldn’t spell a word, that was, sadly, an admission to age and getting more stupid with every passing moment. These moments, of course, are way more likely with a first-person POV. They would be crazy awkward otherwise, and maybe they already are.

Tell us about your use of food imagery, particularly fruit within this story.

I wasn’t aware of that at all. I like to bring in food for sensory reasons, but, that’s it. I do love tomatoes and the smell of mulch, but I’m no friend to the apple. I’ve never tried to be symbolic, but you do need to be wary/careful with images. So, it’s a pretty bad sign that I was unaware of the fruit contained in this particular story.

What other flash fiction writers do you read and who would you recommend?

For flash writers I read, read the new Norton anthology, New Micro. Almost every flash fiction writer I admire and read and steal from—all gathered here.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Janika Oza

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For such brief prose, this story is as once intimate and hugely resonant. How did you conceive of “Gathered Family” as a piece of flash?

I wrote this piece with a beginning and ending in mind and no conception of how long the middle would be. As I was writing, I felt like I could say what I wanted to through a collection of moments and memories filling it out. I think the story is grounded in those smaller details—of what it’s like when a family gets together and how there can be this intimacy without even knowing each other’s names—but it also speaks to something larger, the journeys we make to get here and the unspoken bonds that connect us. The idea of home is both immediate and vast, which is what I was trying to get at in this piece.

I enjoy the concept of the interloper in this story—Carl is an outsider at this familial junction, but the narrator’s family members might be read this way as well—and the contrast of reader as interloper versus reader as implicated character. What led to writing this story in the second person?

I used second person in this piece to bring the reader into the story, to close the distance between outside and inside and make the reader feel as if they’re part of the family gathering, another character in the story. I wanted to create a sense of closeness, mirroring the subject and settings of the story, and I liked the idea of pulling the reader right into it and having them travel through space and memories with the narrator. I wanted to invite the reader in, to allow this experience to become their own rather than that of some distant person, and to have that experience be one that is full of urgency and sensory details and emotion.

I find myself clinging to the buildup of this story’s end and the long, momentous sentence that concludes it. When writing, how do you know when and how to end a story?

I kept adding to that last sentence until I felt satisfied. I think that’s how I treat endings in general—I don’t have an exact idea planned out, but I have a feeling that I want to end on and that I want the reader to be left with. And it’s just about writing until the point that I can get to that feeling, until the feeling translates onto the page.

How does “Gathered Family” speak to your own personal and writerly questions, concerns, and obsessions?

I write often about migration and identity and place and displacement and the idea of home and family, whether inherited or chosen. I write stories that center my people, and I write what feels both important and close to me. I’m interested in the idea of heritage, how we each carry these stories/places/times/memories/people that shape the way we experience the world. I was exploring these ideas as I wrote “Gathered Family”—how all these individuals with their own experiences and identities can come together and still have something greater binding them, the power of the collective. Beneath these themes, I think I’m always writing about empathy, about these small humanizing moments or the ways that big changes and events play out in everyday relationships. I guess you could say I’m obsessed with the minute, the little details and nuances that can take something distant and make it personal. Even the smallest details can hold so much significance.

Lately, I’ve been writing in this kind of vignette form, pulling together small moments, observations, or words that work together to say something larger. It’s not really a conscious choice, just something that’s been showing up in my writing again and again.

What are you working on now, either in terms of writing or other forms of expression?

I don’t regularly write flash fiction, but sometimes I sit down to write and that’s what comes out. I’m actually working on something very different to flash right now—a novel. It’s a long, long process that’s pulling me deep into the world of research and family history, but I love the process of working on a big project that feels both personal and important for me to write. It can be a challenge to keep working at it, though, which is probably why I write smaller pieces at the same time. I’m working on some essays around food and diaspora and some shorter fiction. And I’ll most likely find myself back writing more flash, because it’s very satisfying to write a whole draft of something in one sitting.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Tiffany Quay Tyson

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How does place influence your writing?

Place influences everything. A person raised in a rural area and a person raised in a big city might witness the exact same thing, but they will interpret the event in vastly different ways. Where we come from colors our view of the world, whether we want it to or not. I try to think about that, especially when writing characters. I’m always trying to suss out how their past influences their view of the world.

Are there differences in the ways you approach writing as a former resident of the Delta and a current resident of Colorado?

No matter where I live, I write about Mississippi. I don’t know why, but I can’t seem to leave it behind. I do think it’s helpful to be able to examine a place with a wider perspective. It’s hard for me to write about any place when I’m smack in the middle of it. I see things more clearly from a distance. So, writing about Mississippi from Colorado helps me focus on the details in a richer way.

“You don’t see me at first and maybe I don’t exist, but the swing creaks again and you step in the yard. Now you see me.” That cleaving. That desperation. To be wanted by the only person you want to want you. This story captures a portion of the human experience some of us would rather turn away from. What prompted your exploration of the subject?

I like to dig into the raw emotions of my characters. I don’t necessarily set out to explore a particular subject or theme in my writing. I create characters and situations and see what happens. In this case, the narrator wanted to be seen. She wanted to be noticed and valued. It’s something everyone wants, I think, but no one likes to admit it. It feels like weakness in someone with no power. Yet, if you look at some of the most powerful people in the world, they demand to be noticed and admired. Why do some people get to demand attention while others have to beg for it? I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe I’m trying to figure it out.

In the section where Buddy is hit by the truck, why do you think the man yells at the narrator? What, do you imagine, is his problem?

Well, he has many problems, doesn’t he? First of all, he is privileged in a way the narrator is not. He has more advantages and more opportunities, so he is surprised when bad things happen. The narrator is not surprised. In her world, bad things happen all the time. He looks for someone to blame. She understands that loss is part of life and no one is to blame. It’s the thing that sets them apart, but it also brings them together. He needs her, even if he doesn’t really know why.

It’s interesting that she is smart enough to know how to contact the clinic and how much it’ll cost to have the procedure, but she doesn’t take a pregnancy test before doing all of this. Is this driven more by ignorance than desperation? What do you want this moment to reveal about the character?

Well, a home pregnancy test costs money. She’d have to pay for that at-home test on top of the visit to the clinic. This way, she only expects to pay once. I think she is quite smart in a way that might not make sense to someone who has more resources. She’s practical. Also, she doesn’t fall apart when she believes she is pregnant and she doesn’t fall apart when she learns she is not. I think people have a tendency to underestimate her and overlook her. She is really quite strong in her own way. It’s the sort of strength that isn’t valued as much as it ought it to be, in my opinion.

Which of the characters would be an Aretha Franklin fan? What would be his/her favorite Re-Re song?

Oh, I think the narrator would be the Aretha fan for sure. In fact, I’d like for her to put “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” on repeat. It’s what she longs for, isn’t it? A little respect. I think she deserves it.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Steven Grassel

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Your story “Weather Person” focuses on one character’s defiance against a force predicted as “inevitable.” How do you best defy the inevitable forces you encounter?

I cross my fingers.

Tell us: What is the worst thing a person can do at a ballgame?

When I was a kid, a drunk gentleman spilled a bunch of nacho cheese on me. I thought that was annoying. Also, every person that goes to a baseball game should be required to eat a hot dog.

Your story is filled with the color blue (flood water, business suits, a dress, bandages). How would some of these images be translated in a different color?

This is a hard question. I don’t think I think this way. Maybe a slightly spookier version where everything is black? All the images stay the same except flood water becomes shadow or nighttime.

The protagonist of your story appears on your TV the same way John Donovan does on theirs. What do you say to them?

“Hello. What are you doing in there?” I’d probably be more interested in what they would say.

What can we do to “prepare for the reality of our future”?

Cross our fingers and eat hot dogs.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with James Kemoli Amata

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The following interview with James Kemoli Amata is part of SmokeLong Quarterly‘s Global Flash Series. The English translation follows the original, which is in Kiswahili. 

_____________

 

Kwanza, ningependa nijue ilikotoka dhana ya hadithi hii.

Dhana, kwa minajili ya hadithi SHOPPING YA SHILINGI ELFU TANO, ilitokana na soga ya kusisimua aliyonishirikisha rafiki yangu.

Twambie kisa cha kuchagua urefu na mtindo wa hadithi hii.

Nilichagua kuandika hadithi fupi kwa kuwa nimekuwa nikisafiri sana siku hizi. Nilitumia lugha rahisi kwa sababu ninataka hadithi yangu iwavutie wengi. Nilichagua majina ya wahusika ambayo yana maana kwa sababu hadithi yangu ina funzo la kimaadili. Kwa mfano, jina la mhusika mkuu, Goldman, linawakilisha uungwana na utajiri.

Mpaka iwe ilikuhitaji ujasiri mkubwa kuandika hadithi hii.

Taasisi ya ndoa katika jamii yetu imekabiliwa na changamoto nyingi. Wanandoa wana maswala mengi ambayo hayajasuluhishwa yanayotatanisha ndoa zao. Nilipoisikia hadithi hii, niliona ilikuwa na funzo kubwa kwa wanandoa. Kwa kuwa sikutaka kuandika hadithi ya kutambulisha chanzo chake, nilibadilisha mandhari na majina ya wahusika.

Mke wako mwenyewe anaweza kufikiria nini?

Mke wangu anafikiri hii hadithi inatoa tafakari nzuri kwa wanandoa ambao wana upendeleo kwa wakwe zao.

Ningependa nijue kuhusu maandishi yako mengine.

Nimeandika vitabu vingi lakini ningependa nivitaje  vitatu. Cha Kwanza ni Kisa cha Zahara Mage, ambacho ni riwaya ya Kiswahili  ambayo inagusia mapenzi na ukabila. Pia, nimechapisha, Highly Regretted: An Autobiography of a Bad Teacher  ambacho kinaangazia sana niliyopitia nikiwa mwalimu katika shule za sekondari nchini Kenya. Mwisho, nimeandika kwa ushirikiano, kitabu cha masomo, Taaluma ya Ushairi ambacho ni muhimu katika ufundishaji wa ushairi wa Kiswahili katika shule za sekondari na vyuo.

Ni mada zipi ujikutazo ukirejelea?

Mara nyingi mimi huandika kuhusu maswala ya kijamii na uchumi na yanavyoingiliana na ndoa na dini.

Unashughulikia nini wakati huu?

Wakati huu ninashughulikia toleo la pili la kitabu Taaluma ya Ushairi. Nijipapo mapumziko mbali na upitiaji, ninaandika hadithi fupi.

*

First, I’d love to know where the idea for this story came from.

The idea for the story Shopping ya Shilingi Elfu Tano came from some juicy gossip a friend shared with me.

Tell us why you chose to write in the length and style that you did.

I chose to write flash fiction because I’m currently traveling a lot. I used simple language because I want my story to have a wider appeal. I also chose character names that have meanings because my story has a moral lesson in it. For example, the name of the main character, Goldman, represents gentility and wealth.

It must have taken a lot of courage to write this story.

The institution of marriage is under siege in our society today. Couples have a lot of unresolved issues that strain their marriages. When I heard this story, I thought it had a great lesson for married couples. Since I didn’t want to write a story that gave away the identity of my source, I changed the setting and the names of characters.

And what would your own wife think?

My wife thinks the story offers a good reflection for couples who tend to have a bias towards their parents-in-law.

I’d love to know about your other work.

I have written many books but I would like to consider three. The first one is Kisa cha Zahara Mage, which is a Kiswahili novel that touches on love and tribalism. I have also published Highly Regretted: An Autobiography of a Bad Teacher, which captures my teaching experiences in Kenyan secondary schools. Finally, I have co-authored an academic book, Taaluma ya Ushairi, which is an important textbook on teaching Kiswahili poetry in secondary schools and colleges.

What themes do you find yourself returning to?

I find myself writing about socio-economic issues and how they intersect with marriage and religion.

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on the second edition of the book Taaluma ya Ushairi. Whenever I take breaks from the revisions, I write flash fiction.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Lindsey Baker

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I’d love to know about the process of writing this story. Where did the initial idea come from? Did you know from the start that it would be a flash story?

This story was originally a broader exploration from the perspective of teenage girls who are in these types of problematic relationships, where being with a partner requires that you reduce and reorganize the way you think about yourself. I didn’t want to dismiss the variety of those experiences, though, so I set the piece aside for a while. When I revisited it, I had just finished rereading Barbara Gowdy’s incredible collection We so Seldom Look on Love, particularly the story “The Two-Headed Man.” In the story, the two heads are completely different people, suffering through life with opposite and equally hostile personalities. I wanted to explore how a two-headed teenage girl with a combined consciousness, or at least a complimentary consciousness, might fare in a world that doesn’t know where to put them. How do they regard their own complexity when thrown into this questionable relationship? I wouldn’t say I knew it would be flash from the start, but I tried to answer that question as concisely as possible.

There are so many wonderful and surprising details in this story, especially details about the narrators, but the one I’ve become fixated on is that the narrators share a name. How important was it for you in writing this story to clarify (even if just for yourself) how your two-headed narrator functions in the world? Also, did you give your narrators a name? Will you tell us what it is?

I didn’t give the narrators a name! Perhaps I should have. I tried thinking about the common issues they would run into—not getting a part in the play, not having a driver’s license, not looking like other girls. In that way, the narrators don’t function all that differently in the world. They experience the same small tragedies as everyone else, only there’s a more obvious root.

In addition to sharing a name and a body and a lover and pretty much everything, the narrators also share daydreams of having a life with Jack. When you let your mind wander, what do you think about most often? If you could share daydreams with one other person, who would it be?

Aside from the usual mind-wandering, I often think about living by the ocean. I would love to have a patient and understanding future-self to share my daydreams with.

Another moment I love is when the narrators describe Jack’s poem as “haunting. “We liked the way that sounded—everything was haunted, fraught, perilous.” What are some words that you like the sound of?

The word “lugubrious” is one of my favorites because it just barely sounds like what it means. Also: ephemeral, ethereal. Words that are fun to say.

If the narrators of this story read your work, how would they describe it?

It’s likely that they would find Jack’s poetry more enchanting, but they might think my work is a little dramatic. A little haunted, maybe. There would absolutely be some points where they would roll their eyes.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Caroline Bock

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Your story is dystopic. What did you set out to achieve with it?

In this story, I started out with the idea that it’s the future, absurdist times, the government is issuing rabbits for food, and a young woman must eat, love, have sex, and hold onto the idea of children, of possibilities.

In the story, we watch as rabbits are gruesomely murdered for meat. But we can’t help but empathize with the narrator and Jim, as they have no other source of food—the government only supplies bunnies. This situation can be likened to modern-day media coverage. People are fed only what the media choose to feed them. As an author based in the U.S., what do you think of modern-day reportage?

We don’t have in the United States, like in other parts of the world, public literary intellectuals. If I were to be one for this fascinating question, I would say we are too often given entertainment, not news. We are given “spin” and left to our own devices to unwind it—too often without the help of an unbiased press. (There is a huge apparatus devoted to spin—I should know; I spent twenty years in public relations.) And we, as media consumers, are unstudied and unquestioning. Even more so, we like pablum; it’s easier than substance and analysis to digest. We are given rabbits and told to survive. We are unhappy, however, and we don’t know why. We blame the government and the media for telling us what we want to hear. Yet we don’t demand more or better. We give up. I don’t want us to give up. So, I write.

I selected your story for many good reasons: great style, clear voice, powerful subtleties. What inspired you to write it?

Two things inspired this story—I heard a segment this spring on the radio, probably NPR, which I listen to way too much when I write, about an idea to pare back the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by having people, instead of shop for their own food, receive a set amount of canned goods, or even, raise their own animals, such as rabbits, for food.  Both ideas seemed absurdly mean to me, especially the rabbits. As a child, my family had a rabbit as a pet, and this rabbit was a handful to take care of for our family even though my father was raised on a farm and comfortable with animals. So, the two thoughts just collided into this story. I will admit this: our family’s pet rabbit was named Nutmeg or “Nutty,” and we did not eat him. He died of fairly natural causes.

As an author, what draws you to tell stories? What do you like to write about?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future these days—what the world will be like in fifty or a hundred years, when in all likelihood I will not be here. We will still have love, desire, sex, but what else?

I’m a big fan of “Government-Issued Bunnies.” I’ll like to know what writing project you’re working on next. Should fans like me expect another beautiful dystopic story or something very different?

I have my debut collection of short stories, Carry Her Home, coming out this October. These 47 very autobiographical stories, ranging from flash to full-length, won the 2018 Fiction Award from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House. I also have a novel-in-progress set in 2099: Remember the Future. It’s about a family separated by government intervention, official lies, and a government-backed fertility experiment. And while the setup is bleak, with a vastly depleted population, worldwide infertility, and a tyrannical United States government, the world is lush in its abundance. I hope this novel does have a future someday soon.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Megan Pillow Davis

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I’m so interested in your thought process behind some of the decisions you made writing “We All Know About Margo.” First, why did you choose this particular POV—first-person plural? It’s a bold choice to give this narrative over to what I read as a group of young men.

The first time I read first-person plural was in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, and then again in Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way. I loved both novels, and I was curious about how this POV might work in shorter fiction. I first considered it after the Steubenville rape case, which called up some of my own disturbing memories. I circled back to it this spring when I wrote about one of those memories in an essay on horror, and I wrote this story in tandem with that essay. I wondered what it would mean to allow the perpetrators to wrest control of the narrative while they wrested control of a young woman’s body. I knew it could be upsetting for readers, but I hoped my decision would seem warranted.

As a follow-up, the young men know Margo so intimately, both physically and psychically. How did you broach the idea and ultimately decide to let the young men have access to Margo’s thoughts, experiences, and personal history?

It was important to me that Margo read as a real person undergoing a horrible experience. And I think—I hope—she reads as more real than the narrators. I wrote these boys as somewhat flat on purpose, situationally and culturally rooted in their id, driven by power and collusion and lust in the story’s moment. I also wanted to emphasize how easy it is to take tidbits of information and construct a human representation that seems real but that’s really just a shadow. Each boy in this story knows a little about Margo, but none of them can fully assemble her. Only the reader can do that; only the reader gains access to the boys’ collective thoughts, the tidbits they’ve learned but never shared with each other. I wanted the story to remind readers of both how important collective knowledge is and how impossible it is for us to have full access to it.

With Margo having very little (apparent) agency in the story and the young men offering up a kind of first-person-plural, peripheral narration, who would you say this story is ultimately about?

The story is in part about our inclination towards making snap judgments based on limited information. But while I was writing, I also kept returning to the two novels I mentioned, both about girls who either disappeared or died. I know Nora Lindell’s fate was undetermined, but I always read escape as unlikely. The Lisbon sisters certainly don’t escape. I wanted to write a story about the girl who experiences something horrible but survives. That moment where the boys force themselves to forget Margo at the end can read on one hand as Margo’s erasure, but those boys are still stuck in the town where they grew up, living the same lives they always have. In a way, their forgetting means Margo’s freedom. So to me, this story is about the girl who lives. I wrote it in large part for those girls, too. There are a lot of us out there. It’s an idea that’s become central to my recent work.

The issue of consent reads as a pivotal one in this story. I’m curious—is there a definitive meaning and message you hope readers will glean from the story? Are you putting this story into the world to illustrate the complexities of consent, sex, sexuality, and other such themes? Perhaps neither, or both?

I don’t see this as a story about sex. Women can of course be sexual creatures and enjoy the fuck out of sex. But this story turned out to be about imbalances of power and the sometimes-muddy nature of consent. Please don’t mistake me: Consent should never be muddy. But it often is. We tell kids all the time that stating their wants will produce clarity, but in certain situations, we all know that isn’t true. Margo whispers to Andrew that she wants to be taken home; Andrew tells her it’s too late. Sure, none of the other boys overhear it. It’s just another Saturday night to them, like a dozen others before. But that’s the problem. They should hear Margo. They should be listening, and Andrew should be magnifying that whisper when Margo can’t. If consent were as simple as stating wants, Margo’s whisper would reverberate through that room because everyone would be paying attention and boosting her voice. Our cultural imperative shouldn’t just be to tell women to speak up. It should be to teach men to listen and respond appropriately. If we taught them to listen rather than look first, then maybe cultural conceptions of women and our understanding of consent dynamics would be healthier.

Lastly, I’d love to know which writers you’re currently reading, as well as who has, most recently, made an impact on your own writing. 

I’ve been reading a lot of work by women that speaks to the kind of person Margo is, what we always call a “difficult woman.” That’s partly because I’m currently teaching a literature class with a “difficult women” theme, so I’ve been rereading Roxane Gay’s short story collection of the same name, alongside texts by Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Sandra Cisneros. Kristen Arnett and Emma Copley Eisenberg are two of my long-form fiction favorites, but I’ve also been reading a lot of flash by, among others, Megan Giddings, Carmen Maria Machado, Leesa Cross-Smith, Monet Patrice Thomas, and of course, the inimitables Kathy Fish and Cathy Ulrich. All of these women write female protagonists whom society unquestioningly classifies as problematic, and I admire the hell out of how well they do it, with stark honesty and compassion and deeply unsettling insights.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Lynn Mundell

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A common (i.e. clichéd) question that gets asked in interviews is what three people—living or dead—the interviewee would have dinner with, and there’s always the Jesus, Gandhi, Elvis, John Lennon-type answers. I want to know which three women, living or dead, real or fictional, with whom you’d want to be a sister wife.

I’m imagining that sister wives spend a lot of time together. A lot. So I am going to make it work for me and my long days. I’m going with Dorothy Parker, for her acerbic wit and because she will be family, so she will have to edit my stories. Then Joy Mangano, the inventor of the self-wringing Miracle Mop and other household ingenuities, so our homes are in good shape with minimal effort. Then I’m going to round it out with Amanda Palmer, the glam-punk performer. She is going to bring the fireworks and feminism, and maybe teach me how to play the piano and generally be more dramatic and interesting.

Let’s pretend this is Bizarro World, and instead of sister wives there are brother husbands and a common Wife. Imagine that and tell me what pops into your head.

It’s not pretty. There are a lot of monster trucks in the driveway, and weekends playing paintball and evenings arm-wrestling since there will be frustrations. The wife would have to be pretty tough—a cross between Dorothy Parker and Amanda Palmer.

Floor-length denim skirts: Something you’re glad belongs to the sister wife sect, or something you think you might need to take back?

True story: I rocked a very long, tiered denim skirt in the ’80s. Sort of Little House on the Prairie meets Jordache.  I once stood too close to my parents’ wood-burning stove and it caught fire, which was put out by a quick-thinking visiting cousin. I really can’t endorse wearing yards and yards of material. It’s just not safe, people.

I’ve asked questions that assume you’re not a sister wife, share-married to some Husband. This just struck me: Is it wrong for me to assume that?

I’ve been bogarting the same man since I was nineteen. So long, in fact, that I recently miscalculated the number of years, which is thirty-four. I may have dental issues, poor math skills, and problems saying no, but I have been very, very lucky in love.

Since bigamy is illegal and most people don’t think it’s dope, is it OK to poke fun?

Since pretty much nothing is off limits these days, I am going with a resounding yes. I should say that I am alternately baffled and fascinated by plural marriage, but I was once a lonely young girl, so I really do understand Trudy.

Maybe I’ve been utilizing the wrong stereotype here: If you were a carny (again, I’m assuming you’re not …), what game would you operate, how would the scam work, and what tattoo would you have on your neck?

I’d like to say that I am not judging carnies everywhere. This is just me pretending to be a carny, OK? I would do something that is not dangerous, is in the shade because I have very fair skin, and where I am buffered from the public, because I am an introvert. I have landed on the somewhat benign pitching of pennies into goldfish bowls, with the winner getting to keep the fish and its bowl. I think I am using bowls with very small openings so the chances of getting a coin in are really slim. My tattoo is going to be of five goldfish in a bowl, with Trudy written in cursive above the smallest one.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Beckie Dashiell

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So this is the kind of story that makes me wonder how the human race has persisted, because we’re never paying attention to each other, are we? I was immediately curious if there was an image or a line that inspired this flash.

Wow, that’s a good, terrifying point! I find myself often writing about how people don’t communicate with one another—being either unwilling or unable to say what it is they need.

This flash piece grew out of the image of the hiker’s boots peeking out of the snow. I’d done some reading about Mount Everest—hikers that die on the mountain and how dangerous it is to remove their bodies. Because of the expense and risk to the rescuers, some families choose to leave their loved ones’ bodies on the mountain. There was a particular grief and loneliness that spoke to me as I envisioned next year’s hikers navigating the fallen hikers. And the people left behind. The characters and the situation in my flash piece grew out of that image.

Ah, I love that! Do you usually write flash? How would you define flash? (I ask because I’m hard-pressed to put it into words myself.)

I’ve come to write flash more recently—I used to tend toward much longer stories. A few years ago, I started writing prose poems, and I think writing flash fiction is, for me, some kind of bridge between a prose poem and the much longer stories I’m used to writing. The (mostly) accepted definition for flash is fiction of 1,000 words or less, though I agree that’s not particularly useful in thinking about flash’s essence. I like to think of it as illuminating a moment—a single breath, really. When I sit down to write, I’m not aiming for a particular length or kind of story—I try to let the story guide me. In this story, I wrote that final image, and I just knew that’s where it had to end. Sure, I could write these whole characters’ lives, but there is power in this small moment. It’s like a flamethrower, instead of a slow burn.

I thought there was a whole world in the words that went unspoken in your dialogue, a whole backstory of this couple without ever doing a classic flashback. I’m a bit of an eavesdropper, always listening to strangers on public transportation. How do you approach dialogue?

I do the same thing! Sometimes, if it’s really good, I’ll make notes in my phone so I don’t forget.

I still remember a teacher who cautioned us not to rely too heavily on dialogue, so I always have that in the back of mind. When I do write dialogue, I’m striving to use it to reveal something about my characters, not simply to advance the plot or explain something. The way we talk to one another (and what we do and don’t say) is so fascinating and telling! I also took some playwriting courses when I was in college, which requires a very different set of skills, but I think it also gave me an ear for dialogue—I usually read my work aloud to myself, to make sure the dialogue sounds natural.

I do that, too. Sometimes I record myself and then I can hear all the problems. Can you name your influences? I know everything we read makes an impression, but are there any that stand out for you?

Alice Munro. I think because she taught me there are no actual rules in fiction—you can switch POVs, you can do a flash-forward, you can really do anything you want. I also looked to her when I was thinking about my own writing style, which always felt so simple, like I wasn’t playing around with language enough. But then I found this: There’s this CBC interview from 1978, where the interviewer commented on her lack of style, and she said, “What I have as an ideal is something so clear, as if you’re looking through perfectly clean water, so that the words don’t get between the reader.” I love that. It gave me freedom to not worry about if my language was “beautiful” enough. It gave me freedom to focus on character and emotion and for that to be enough. Not that I don’t enjoy reading beautiful sentences! But there has to be something more behind them.

There are certainly other writers who have influenced me, but none so deeply as her.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Svetlana Beggs

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Can you walk us through the process of writing this story? Where did the idea come from? How long did it take you to write? What challenges did you face? Is the process for writing this story typical of the way you write in general?

Stories and poems tend to begin with images for me, often nostalgic images because I miss Russia. In this case, I kept thinking about an image of USSR high school girls cramped into a tiny bathroom to learn a secret. I wrote the first draft in Russian, in three days, then took a couple of weeks to translate it, fill it in, spice it up, and tighten it. I do typically write in Russian to begin with. I just give up control and write very quickly, intuitively. Translating what I write always comes with a challenge of finding the right tone and even the right metaphors because I’m writing for an English-speaking audience.

I know you grew up in Russia, and the story reads as though it could be autobiographical. How do you utilize and fictionalize your own experience?

My memory is not that great, and I don’t remember as much as I’d like to about growing up in the USSR, but I remember some episodes vividly, and these memories get my imagination going. I start wondering about motivations of people, I start asking “Why?” and then I begin to play, imagining “What if this happened or that?” and eventually I come up with a story I feel I should share. Sometimes I take an episode from my life and describe it, but it has to work for the story. For example, I vividly recall seeing a dead, wet mouse on the desk of our teacher in seventh grade. I remember how exciting it was for all of us, her students, to see her shock and helplessness. In that moment we had complete control over her, or so it felt. Teachers in USSR were very strict, merciless even, so this reversal of power felt quite satisfying. So, I revisited that poor dead mouse in this story, re-fashioned it into Lida’s little project to show to Lida’s genius at being in control.

What are your personal feelings—as the writer, or maybe as the reader of your own story—toward your characters, both the narrator and Lida?

I think the narrator is such a child, especially in contrast to Lida! She does give us pretty intimate, honest details about her crush on Lida, but, at the same time, she is looking back and feeling, I think, amazement and wonder recalling how possessed by Lida she once was. And I was hoping that maybe the reader would feel amazed along with the narrator and start wondering about the mystery of love in general, about that mad pull towards another person. Always this question: How is this pull even possible? But then Lida’s most defining quality is that she is at the very top of a hierarchy in her world and exerts a certain power from above over teachers, boys, and girls. Yet in the end it appears that one person, a boy she loves, has power over her. So, there is depth to Lida because she can be vulnerable and because she is devastated by her realization that love doesn’t exist. She can’t be right of course—love is real!

The story ends when the narrator realizes something new about Lida, but we are not told how she processes this new information. Do you feel certain the narrator feels one way or another about it?

I was hoping to leave the reader wondering what the narrator might be feeling after the revelation. What does she think of Lida now? This question comes up because the power dynamic shifts when those girls realize that Lida is in pain because a boy she loves abandoned her. Since Lida exposed her vulnerability, her power probably diminished a bit. Actually, I think it is possible that the narrator would find herself less interested in Lida after the bathroom revelation. She might now find herself interested in the boy who had sex with Lida, the boy Lida loves. I think the narrator might want to get to know this interesting boy, and of course make him fall in love with herself. Maybe I should write a sequel to this story!

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Diana Clarke

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One of the elements of “We Lose Our Virginities” that strikes the reader right away is the first-person plural. How did you come to choose that point of view?  

I’ve been slowly making my way through Simon de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and I was drawn to this passage: “Women—except in certain abstract gatherings such as conferences—do not use ‘we’; men say ‘women,’ and women adopt this word to refer to themselves; but they do not posit themselves authentically as Subjects.” Although, with phenomena like the #metoo movement and the exponential growth of participants in women’s marches and protests, access to unity in womanhood is starting to feel more and more pervasive, and hopefully this is a step toward seeing ourselves as active subjects rather than the passive “other.”

This story is interested in the idea of woman-as-community, and especially in the shared experiences that might take place in such a space. Virginity and what it is to “lose” one’s virginity has such wildly disparate connotations depending on one’s gender, or the gender one was assigned or raised as, and, for women, there are all of these conflicting ideas—false dichotomies, really, of girlhood versus womanhood, and purity versus vulgarity, and chastity versus debauchery. To have sex for the first time is to sort of debunk these strange myths about virginity that we’ve been told all our lives, and I wanted to capture the surrealism of that shared experience.

Alfred Hitchcock said—or maybe it was said of his films—that he shot his love scenes like murders and his murders like love scenes. You’ve written the loss of these narrators’ virginities as something all its own, but where would you put it on that Hitchcock spectrum?

That idea of finding love in violence, and violence in love, is definitely something I’ve considered, and have often tried to navigate in my work. But I also think that Hitchcock is fringing on dangerous territory there. As soon as we allow that line between love and violence to be blurred, we’re offering sympathy to abusers and softening what it means to be violent toward another person in the name of love, which is so often an abuser’s defense. In this story, when the “we” is no longer consenting to the act, and the boys become violent, the “we” experiences a transformation from the beautiful, this tranquil garden scene, into the grotesque, and hopefully this reads as a separation between love and violence rather than a convergence of the two. Once something becomes violent, it too becomes ugly.

Flash fiction is the perfect arena for this potent, surreal story, its brevity allowing the enormity of the moment to resonate in ways a longer story wouldn’t. Do you write a lot of flash fiction? What’s your relationship or thoughts on the increasingly popular form?

This is actually one of my very first pieces of flash, but I immediately fell head over heels, and now I’m writing a series of flash pieces all using the first-person plural. Each piece is about a different event or experience that is difficult for me emotionally, so maybe the decision to keep them short was a selfish one. I do think, though, that because these stories are about a community and, hopefully, an inclusive “we,” that having each experience as a brief encounter, a snapshot of an event, might allow each piece to exist as something like a photograph that readers can frame in whichever way best speaks to them, personally.

Lastly, what are you working on now?

This piece, as well as the other “we” stories I’m writing, make an appearance in the novel I recently finished writing, and, when I realized that they belonged in the manuscript, they sort of blew the whole project wide open. The novel is called Thin Girls, and it explores eating disorders, fad dieting, and diet cults, as well as women’s relationships with food, eating, and bodies more generally. It’s been hard to write, because who doesn’t have a complex relationship with their body these days, but it’s also been really fulfilling and therapeutic. All I hope is that some of the catharsis that writing it afforded me is accessible to those who read it. The manuscript is with my agent right now, so stay tuned!

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with John Mancini

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One of the things I really appreciate about “Swans” is the way the dark humor weaves its way into the story without becoming too “jokey.” In particular, I’m thinking about the creek and the rather grotesque blisters that appear on the narrator’s skin. Could you describe the role of humor within your work?

Thanks for noticing that. P.G. Wodehouse said that there were two ways to write fiction: to get down into the grit of life, like, say, Ernest Hemingway, or to treat life like a musical comedy, which is something Wodehouse was great at doing. I’m interested in finding the middle way, if there is one. Denis Johnson was a writer who struck that kind of balance, especially in his short fiction—there’s room for laughter despite the pain and the loss. Charles Bukowski saw the absurdity of life’s little tragedies—a broken shoelace or an empty bottle. Kurt Vonnegut had a way of shining some light on dark times, finding the humor there. “So it goes,” he liked to say. Maybe acceptance is the thing.

In part, “Swans” seems to entail a struggle with the trauma of urbanization. The narrator and Sherry witness the destruction of their neighborhood’s surrounding woods, and, as a result, the disappearance of the swan. Did any of the story’s ecological anxieties occur as a conscious choice on your part?

Ideally, setting should help develop the conflict and the drama on an emotional level, even in flash. You begin to see how you can work to develop a place like you do a character. I try to do that. In this story I was thinking about that time period—the early sixties—when the shores along the Chesapeake Bay started to see some development. This was about the same time the interstates were completed and the car started becoming more important, just before the Clean Air Act was passed. Creative pluming solutions like the one in the story were falling out of favor. It was a transitional period when the shores around the Bay went from being a sort of backwater to becoming prime real estate. Most of the areas I’ve lived in have in one way or another exhibited the effects of urbanization. It’s something that tends to crop up in my stories.

Although I didn’t know this when I selected your story, it turns out that you earned your MA from the University of Southern Mississippi, which is where I’m completing my PhD. Could you describe your experience as an MA student at USM?

I spent one rollicking year living in Hattiesburg when downtown was just starting to come back to life, thanks in part to the efforts of some folks taking an interest in things like organic grocery stores and Bloody Mary brunches—stuff the cool kids were doing in other, bigger cities—offering some alternative to the fast food and strip malls that thrived at the other end of town. It was a hopeful time, for me at least, especially when it came to learning how to write fiction. I had just read Frederick Barthelme’s Moon Deluxe, a collection of stories that made me want to live in an apartment complex surrounding a pool and write about amazing everyday things. I was fortunate to have studied with the Brothers Barthelme at the Center for Writers. That was in the Department of Morbid Wit, which I think has since disbanded. Perhaps the spirit still lives on.

How (if at all) might your approach to a flash fiction story like “Swans” differ from your approach to a longer piece of fiction?

Wrapping up a story in a thousand words is a challenge, especially if you like to stretch out and move your legs a bit, maybe pick up some rocks and see what’s under them. If you let characters talk too much or gather a lot of weird stuff around them, you might be surprised at what they do. But that means writing more words. I notice that some characters or settings are riper for development than others, but in flash fiction you don’t have three-to-five acts in which to develop them—you have three-to-five paragraphs. Working within that kind of limitation is a lot like songwriting: You want to get to the hook, tell the story in three verses, hit the bridge and head for that final chorus. I’m a fan of the three-minute popular song, and I like the simplicity of taking maybe two situations that might bounce off each other like call-and-response—adding some third unexpected element that surprises, trying to find the thing that resonates. So it seems that threes figure prominently, maybe even mystically.

You’ve earned a number of advanced degrees, and you’ve published work in a wide selection of lit journals. What’s your next goal as a writer?

I recently started writing a new novel as a way to keep myself from rewriting the one I completed earlier this year, which I’ve been sending to agents with the hope of finding someone who “gets it.” Meanwhile, I’m trying to draw on some of what I learned while writing that one—which was a lot, it turns out—and in the meantime, I’ve come back around to writing shorts, seeing what I can find there. I continue to write and produce music, which seems to offer a bit more immediate gratification artistically. I would also like to return to teaching, which is something I did for several years. I’m still honing the lessons I learned while earning all those advanced degrees and it would be nice to have a use for them. I started a blog where they might live for all eternity.

Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor

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“A Case of Fire” invites the reader to “consider” this man who commits a heinous crime. I see this as an entreaty not to look away. It’s a difficult, troubling story. Why did you need to tell it?

We live in a world of differences. For many people, differences make them uncomfortable. You are expected to conform to certain cultures in order to be accepted. Failure to do so means you are abnormal. Your abnormal is unforgiven, not condoned. In the story, I wanted to push these ideas to the point where they stretch along the thin line between horror and slight provocation, and nudge the reader to engage, to think differently. I hope I achieved that.

I’m struck by how alone Ukamaka is left in this story: abandoned by parents and delivered into the hands of a fascist uncle, betrayed by teachers of all people. What is going on here?

I think we are alone in some ways. We just don’t know it. In our loneness lies uniqueness. However, in Ukamaka’s story, we find a malignant sort of abandonment. I feel very emotional about her story.

This is your third story for SmokeLong as part of your fellowship. What story do you think the three stories tell together?

They speak of love.

You are in the throes of a sea change, having recently moved to the US to study. How are you doing? Can you tell our readers what it’s like? It takes such courage to take such a leap.  

It has been very much of an adventure. The U.S. that I know from the books I have read seems similar and different at the same time from what I’m presently experiencing. I think I have adjusted to the weather. I have made some new friends. I get cultural shocks almost every day, but I hope these wear off soon. Before I arrived in the U.S, I mentally prepared myself to accept my blackness which, in Nigeria, there would have been no need to. This has helped me, though not totally, and it would be sheer ignorance to pretend that racism isn’t a thing in the U.S. Some white people have asked me if there is internet in Nigeria. They have also wanted to know if people use phones in Africa. Some say to me, “You speak English so well,” and go on to ask if it is the same thing with every other person in Nigeria. I have read a lot about what it means to be black or African-American in America, however it is different experiencing it firsthand. This is not to say I haven’t had good experiences so far. I admire America. I admire the knowledgeable people in America. But I guess this is what it means to leave home: you become a stranger elsewhere.

What are the odds that we’ll see a unicorn in your next story?

Zero in a million. The world isn’t a completely happy place right now.

Nominations and More Nominations

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The SmokeLong Quarterly team are thrilled to have more and more opportunities for celebrating flash fiction writers. A couple of new Best-anthologies are accepting nominations, and of course we’re nominating SLQ stories.

Best Microfiction is considering submissions under 400 words–eight micros per journal!–until the end of the year. We have nominated the stories below but still have two nominations open (and a December issue of SmokeLong yet to be filled). 

“Satellite” by Elaine Edwards

“Blemish” by Jessica Cavero

“It’s Over” by Molly Giles

“Taking Notes” by Kerry Cullen

“Safe” by David Lerner Schwartz

“Crossing” by Alice Mercier

 

Best British and Irish Flash Fiction will be taking nominations from editors until May 31, 2019. We have nominated one story so far but remain hopeful that we’ll publish gobs of British and Irish writers before the deadline. 

“I’m Ron McRain said Ron McRain” by Jonathan Cardew

Congratulations to these nominees from the SmokeLong team!

Book Review: Dana Diehl’s TV Girls

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by Kelly Lynn Thomas

Dana Diehl’s new chapbook, TV Girls (New Delta Review, August 2018), is a collection of short stories based on reality TV shows and celebrities. You don’t need to be familiar with The Bachelor or Sister Wives to enjoy the characters or their struggles, though. Whatever you’ve gleaned from reading People headlines in the grocery store checkout line and from your friends’ Facebook feeds is enough of an entry point. The six stories in the collection aren’t exactly satire, but they aren’t exactly homages to reality TV either. They’re something in between, a chimaera of expectation-skewering, healthy cynicism, fascination with human behavior, voyeurism, and feminist commentary.

The poet Chen Chen, who selected Diehl’s manuscript as the 2017-2018 New Delta Review Chapbook Series winner, says of it, “Story after story, Diehl discovers fraught vulnerabilities and startling truths in the lives of girls and women confronting the expectations of TV, lovers, family, and one another.” An apt description, as reading TV Girls felt like being an archaeologist from the future, excavating 21st-century life, uncovering its dirty laundry and hidden secrets one by one.

The collection’s eponymous story, presumably based on The Bachelor, explores a group of 25 women “looking for love.” None of the women are named, only referred to with letters, and they drop out of the story one by one as they leave the set, seemingly having failed their quest. But of course, the quest was artificial from the beginning, and the story reminds the reader of this harsh fact over and over again. “The TV girls believe they can find love on national television,” the unnamed narrator states at the beginning. Right from the start, we know it’s a lost cause. What’s more, we as readers and watchers know that the TV girls themselves know it’s a lost cause. “Each TV girl says, he’s really, really the one.”

We know he’s not, but that’s part of reality TV’s charm—we get to watch other people make a mess of their lives from the comfort of our living rooms. The tension in this story comes not from which girl will wind up with the “Potential Husband,” but from the narrator’s increasingly naked desire to see things go wrong, and the more explosive, the more dramatic, the better. That theme comes up again in the collection’s final story, “Conjoined,” a story about conjoined twins Jenna and Lily, who also happen to be the last girls on earth. Before the world ended, they had their own reality show, and now they live in abandoned TV sets in Los Angeles. Their lives were always scripted, and even with no audience left, it’s as if they are performing, struggling to maintain appearances. “When everyone was already looking, there was no point in trying to hide,” the girls muse.

Because of course, Diehl’s stories are as much about the people who watch reality television as the shows and celebrities themselves. They push and pull against that base desire we all feel to watch the train wreck, mouths agape at the rubble, the blood, the fire. As a culture, we’re obsessed with reality TV because it allows us to indulge in fantasy and drama, not in spite of it.

Even the stories that aren’t directly based on specific reality TV shows have a reality TV show feel. In “Must-Haves,” a couple goes house shopping, and the story is told through a list of the things their new house has to possess. No fewer than three bedrooms to accommodate future children. A finished basement to shelter the family in case of tornado or hurricane. A claw-foot tub in which the narrator can escape an affair she imagines her spouse will have in the future.

This narrator imagines all the worst-case scenarios: fire, famine, the end of the world. The couple is young, and it’s easy to picture them, though Diehl never actually describes them physically. He’s a smartly dressed professional with a high salary and an eye on the corporate ladder. She’s the artsy type working on her first book. Both of them are fit and attractive with straight, white teeth.

It’s no leap to imagine them on a show like House Hunters, searching and searching for the right home, never finding it because of some minuscule flaw, like the “wrong” paint color or the lack of that claw-foot tub. Happiness knocks on their door, but they are too afraid to answer it, too afraid to face the possibility of failure, so their potential remains unfulfilled. The viewer remains on the couch, safely watching the drama of strangers’ lives, never venturing out to live her own life.

Regardless of the source material, Dana Diehl has a knack for the poignant detail. One of my favorites is from “Buddy,” a story about Cake Boss star Buddy Valastro. When he gets his family lost at sea, the narrator notes that “Most of the cakes he makes for his show are beautiful but flavorless, made of refrigerated sheet cake and covered with fondant.” It’s the artifice again, the beautiful lie. Appearances aren’t everything, though we all pretend they are.

Ultimately, TV Girls left me acutely aware of the way our culture has found innumerable ways to commodify the very act of living. We consume these stories, gobble them up, and we can’t get enough of them. The viewer is just as culpable for this spectacle as the people who are directly involved—and perhaps even more so. In a way, these six stories feel like cautionary tales. Instead of warning against vanity and vice, they remind us that happiness and fulfillment only come if we are willing to get down in the dirt, wrestle with our desires and shortcomings, failing, but in our failure finding truth.

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Kelly Lynn Thomas reads, writes, and sometimes sews in Pittsburgh, PA. She lives with her partner, one dog, and a constant migraine. Her fiction has appeared in Permafrost, Sou’wester, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart. Kelly received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, is a coordinator for the VIDA Count, and can always be found with a large mug of tea.

“The rawness of the words”: An Interview with Guest Reader James Claffey

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James Claffey will be giving away a copy of his debut novel, The Heart Crossways (Thrice Publishing) to the writer of the story he selects for publication!

You live on an avocado ranch in California. Please tell us more about this! Do you have avocado toast for breakfast every morning?

Our house is surrounded by avocado trees, and in particular four old Macarthur trees that give us welcome shade, and every other year a crop of gigantic fruit. Most of the trees on the property are Hass, which is the variety you see in the local supermarkets and fruit stands, but we’ve also got some heirloom varieties like Bacon and Nabal. Probably the best part of living in nature is the wildlife we see and hear. As I write this the great horned owls are hoo-hooing in the nearby trees, and later the barn owls will shriek as they hunt their prey. I’m a huge fan of birds of prey, so I’m in heaven. My wife’s family have been farming in these parts since the 1860s, so are considered locals around here!

We’re both expats (you’re from Ireland and live in the U.S.; I’m from the U.S. and live in Singapore) and the thing I always want to ask expat writers about is how living in a foreign country influences your writing. Can you talk about this a little? For me, I rarely write about Singapore but I’m a bit obsessed with writing stories set in fictional versions of my hometown.  

Ireland for me is Thomas’ “force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” My writing is suffused  by Ireland and it’s only when I consciously write about specific parts of the US that I move away from the rhythms and intonations of my homeland. I’m drawn to places like New Mexico and Louisiana with their rich traditions and deep-rooted heritages, and people who’ve lived in those places for many generations. I find the red earth and swampland infusing my writing, captivating my thinking, and when I write about somewhere other than Ireland it’s about those places. Nevertheless, my marrow is Irish and it is when I tap into that material sitting at my desk looking out at the burnt foothills after the Thomas fire and subsequent mud and debris flows that I find the richest material and bring my authentic self to the page.

What do you love about flash fiction?

The immediacy of creating something from nothing, or something unrehearsed. With flash fiction the unbridled flow of words opens up so many possibilities, so many opportunities to play with language and events, without the overpowering presence of a greater narrative to cleave to in a sense. Flash is first flush writing that contains something valuable, or beautiful in that initial brain dump onto the page. I like that the editing is a form of sculpting, of fine-tuning the sentences until that shape emerges from the rawness of the words. Also, for me as a busy high school English teacher it’s something I can create a first draft of in a short window of time. It’s also something I bring into the classroom to energize the students and get them excited about short fiction. Ultimately, flash fiction is the writing that remains when the rainstorm passes and the sparks of water on the ground shimmer in the sun’s rays.

What kind of story would you love to see in the queue this week? Are there certain themes or styles you’re drawn to?

I’d love to see something bewildering. Something obtuse and perhaps fragmentary. I’ve been re-reading Amber Sparks’ May We Shed These Human Bodies, and I’d love to see something along the structural lines of “the chemistry of objects,” or “you will be the living equation.” Simply put, I want to be surprised, for my mouth to form the words, “Holy *&%^ that’s amazing.”

 

Editor’s Choice Week — An Interview with Tara Laskowski

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The story from this week’s submissions will be read by a member of our editorial staff. All stories submitted September 3-10 will be read by our editor, Tara Laskowski.

It goes without saying that Tara Laskowski has influenced the direction of flash fiction. She has an ear for what makes a story flash.  At the helm of SmokeLong Quarterly since 2010, she was instrumental in the journal’s migration to its sleek, more reader/editor-friendly format today. In 2016, Laskowski’s short story collection Bystanders won the Balcones Fiction Prize. In 2017, she was a winner of The Best Small Fictions, and her story “The Jar” made wigleaf‘s Top 50 list. She is also a columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books. So, yeah, she’s our hero. — Christopher Allen

We asked Tara a few questions and here are her responses:

Themes, topics, or styles you’re drawn to:

I tend toward the more narrative, traditional kind of storytelling (see The World’s Worst Clown, for example). But I can get behind a crazy experimental story when I can see the method behind the madness. I like stories where the language and descriptions take over and make me keep reading. I want stories that feel fresh and original, where the little turns and surprises are so delightful it’s like I’m eating a bowl of ice cream topped with cherry syrup.

The story I choose this week will run during Halloween week, which is the best week of the year. Halloween is also my birthday. So I’ll be on the lookout for a celebratory creepy story if I can find one. Send me your ghosts, your monsters, your villains, your demons.

Dealbreakers in flash:

After eight + years of editing SmokeLong, I’ve come to realize I have no dealbreakers. Each time I think I’m tired of a certain kind of story, one comes in the queue that proves me wrong. Any kind of story can be told well if a writer can find the right angle. I firmly believe that.

A flash story I LOVE:

PTSD by Terence Lane

A flash I’ve written:

Coal Girl, from Jellyfish Review

Book Review: Mandy Huggins’ Brightly Coloured Horses

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by C.A. Schaefer

The title of Mandy Huggins’ collection, Brightly Coloured Horses (Chapeltown Books, 2018), evokes images of a childhood toy box. The stories inside this treasure chest are beautifully jumbled into an assortment that echo, overlap, and subvert each other. The epigraph, a quotation from Willa Cather that argues that “there are only two or three human stories,” serves not only as philosophical guide to the collection, but as a reminder that familiarity between stories is not a trap to avoid, but a strategy to be embraced.

Every story invites us to peer into the lives of its characters, returning to familiar narratives of loss and betrayal, or else healing and reparation. The collection circles the question of what it means to be with another person. Characters converge and then separate, or join together in astonishing love. In the title story, the narrator feels a profound and terrible isolation from her lover, realizing that even in the middle of a Parisian idyll, only she will recall these images and sensations as vividly as she does; her lover will return to his marriage, dismissing this experience and allowing it to fade. “She had felt sure that this moment would save them, but it was too busy, too impersonal.” Some relationships refuse redemption; in “Shooting Stars,” a wife imagines adultery a thousand times before she commits it. This wife, like so many of Huggins’ narrators, has moments of keenly devastating insight. “No one can protect her from what she wanted,” she says in a moment of realization. In “Fatal Flaw,” the narrator echoes her, declaring life as “the possibility of damage from which there can be no recovery.”

It is frequently Huggins’ vivid and precise descriptions of objects that speak to the connections between her characters. Some objects offer an elusive hope of redemption: a pair of yellow shoes serve as a harbinger of hope for a desperate young woman in “Twenty Dollar Shoes;” a jar of bean paste that sustains a memory of a lost beloved from “The Last of Michiko;” in “Kisses,” a biscuit dipped in tea acts as a substitute for a kiss. Other objects portend disaster. A small red ball, carelessly tossed out a window, catalyzes a horrifying accident in “Blood Red.” In “Car by Car,” a shining “curvaceous coupe” is witness to the end of a relationship and the fragments of the self that are inevitably lost during a separation.

But Brightly Coloured Horses sometimes warns us against believing too much in the redemptive power of these objects. In “The Turquoise Silk,” a child enamored with her mother’s “glittering tangle of diamante bracelets, necklaces of tiny iridescent shells, and cocktail rings set with rubies, amethysts, topaz, and amber” is devastated to realize that her mother values order and beauty over her child’s chaotic desires. “The Right Castanets” offers a story steeped in yearning, a child who tries to erase her father’s adulterous transgressions by searching for a perfect gift that he can offer her. But these objects fail to redeem and transfigure. In the end, they remain simply things, as they do in “Perfect Word,” which muses on the failure of these transformations. “The body of Christ can’t save me,” the mourning narrator muses, “only the blood of Christ: the wine that I drink to lessen the unexpected weight of grief.” In “Only the Best,” a wryly tragic variation on “Gift of the Magi,” an impractical object illuminates how profound the disconnection between a husband and wife can be.

Huggins turns away from the inanimate and towards the animal world throughout her collection. The sweetness and horror of animal behavior highlights some of the absurdities of human relationships. In “Nelson,” a small and beloved cat is discovered swirling limply in a washing machine. Although it miraculously survives, the cat and the narrator’s lover flee the next day, leaving the narrator bereft and waiting. The united actions of a pair of dung beetles, staggering together towards a blade of grass in “The Dung Beetle Race” is far more faithful than a human’s promise to return. Throughout the collection, dead rabbits, swooping seagulls, tiny crabs, and beautifully free dogs offer glimpses of a life deeper and richer than the tragicomedy of broken human relationships.

Huggins’ work is perhaps most piercing and revelatory in her moments of ambivalence. In “Whatever Speed She Dared,” a woman contemplates free and wild driving but hesitates because of a shadowy memory of bodies buried in peat. The narration only offers this incomplete reason, and refuses any further questions. Huggins allows us glimpses of understanding in these stories: the memory of a body, a trapped goose, or a moment of grace offered by the rain.

In a few of the pieces, however, these revelations don’t resonate as deeply as others do. Sometimes the pieces incorporate more thorough exposition, and their mysteries are resolved too quickly and completely. Sometimes, too, the language slips away from beautiful strangeness, and instead offers the occasional cliché. These are rare occasions in the collection, though; most of the stories linger beautifully, and their familiar chords begin to overlap in my memory, so that I am not always able to separate one story from another. These stories speak to each other, celebrating nuance, contradiction, and confusion. There may be, as Brightly Coloured Horses reminds us, only two or three stories, but their variations are both imaginative and tender.

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C.A. Schaefer’s stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, Phantom Drift, Passages North, and other journals. A former editor of Quarterly West, she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Utah. She currently teaches writing and other humanities courses in Salt Lake City.

“Fully losing yourself”: An Interview with Guest Reader Tim Fitts

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What themes do you find yourself frequently writing about? 

As a young boy in Alabama, I lived in two dramatically different worlds. One, was the strict Southern Baptist type school, an environment that was borderline a religious cult. Secondly, the extreme freedom that my friends and I experienced after school and during weekend. We were allowed to roam free – little packs of feral boys. I often find myself daydreaming about those days, horrified at near misses and struck with homesickness.

You teach writing at Curtis Institute of Music. I’m curious if/how teaching writing to musicians is different from a general liberal arts student body.

Turns out, people who have dedicated their lives to excellence end up pretty interesting individuals. Plus, one of the critical elements to writing is to know the difference between good and bad writing. Good musicians are naturally self-critical, and good musicians understand the experience of fully losing yourself in the creative experience. Imagine a classroom of kids down with the pursuit of reading with curiosity and writing with high style. What’s more, there is something beautiful about learning a craft, like music, that immediately makes you happy when it is properly executed. This goes for even casual musicians. All of this makes for an exciting environment, where everyone is curious about the pursuit and destination of writing.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Two pieces of advice:

  1. Reginald McKnight at the University of Maryland: Simplify
  2. Pawlowski, University of South Florida: Tim, you have to love language.

And finally, our readers always want to know what kind of story our guest editors are looking for, so what would you love to see in the queue this week?

When I was around ten years old, I remember lying flat on my back in my bedroom looking at the overhead reading lamp. The bulb was missing, and for some reason, I had to know if the light was on or off. How could I find out? If there was only a way to determine the presence of electric current. In the absence of a lightbulb, I stuck my finger inside and found out. That’s what I’m looking for.

Best of the Net Nominations

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It’s that time of year again, when editors put on their Santa hats and make writers’ days and weeks and years. This nomination season is going to be particularly brilliant for Alvin Park, the grand prize winner of The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction (The Smokey). We’ve promised to nominate the story for every award, and we’re starting with Best of the Net.

 

2018 Best of the Net Nominations from SLQ

Whale Fall by Alvin Park

Boy by Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor

 

Congratulations to Alvin and Tochukwu from the SLQ team!

Christopher and Tara

Book Review: Alligators at Night by Meg Pokrass

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by Julia Tagliere

Brad Watson (author of Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives) dubbed Pokrass the “new monarch of the delightful and enigmatic tiny kingdom of micro- and flash fiction.” Incredibly prolific, Pokrass has written four previous collections and a book of prose poetry. Her stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in more than 300 publications.

Alligators at Night, published in July 2018, is Pokrass’ fifth collection. Comprising 72 pieces, many of which first appeared in publications such as Atticus Review, Necessary Fiction, and Jellyfish Review, this fascinating collection does not present an easily discernible underlying thread, at least in terms of subject matter. There are dead or dying pets (“You and Your Middle-Aged Cat”; “Being Sheila”); aging women (“Invisible”); old divorces and new beginnings (“Therapy Cat”; “Why Not Now”; “Starting Over”). Many of the pieces do, however, share a unique emotional theme: loss—not past loss or current, but rather, anticipated.

In the title piece, for example, the narrator and her husband are walking at night, listening to the “sound of alligators crooning like deranged, nocturnal cows” when she observes, “…what you sometimes want is to never actually get there. He has not yet had his dose of whiskey…You have not yet said you have a migraine, and that you don’t really feel like snuggling…You have not yet cried or threatened to leave…” Or in “The Benefits of Krill,” when the narrator tells her favorite cashier at the market by her pharmacy job that “Duncan has lung cancer and that soon the pharmacy will be gone. I need to become more memorable to him, and soon…” Four words is all it takes in “Separation”: “After packing, I find myself staring at his penis…It is friendly-looking. I will miss it.” These are all futures that have not yet come to pass within Pokrass’ narratives, but that wound nonetheless with their very inevitability.

Just as David Gaffney writes in “Stories in Your Pocket: How to Write Flash Fiction,” reading Alligators at Night feels like you’ve “been run over by a lorry full of fridges,” but in the very best of ways. Each precision-crafted story strikes an emotional chord and hits it hard, hammering away at different feelings so that it is difficult to read more than a handful at a time. I found myself needing to take frequent breaks to reflect on and process what a particular piece made me feel—and feel, I did.

Take, for example, “Dismount,” where a little girl beams a smile at her father, visiting her unexpectedly outside of his arranged time, a smile so enthusiastic she dribbles saliva: “…she walked out into the sunlight holding his big-fingers with no fear.” There is, of course, a subtle darkness mingling with the girl’s joy at his appearance—his displeasure at her dribbling, the “darkish stairwell,” her freckles “landing like buzzards around her nose”—but as I read it, all I can feel is her joy: “She was his princess on Sundays.”

Pokrass swings deftly between swells of joy like this to floods of darker emotion, as in her poignant “Man Against Nature.” She sets the reader up with a cozy scene of a couple watching a nature-survival show on TV, fragrant soup cooking in the background, only to slo-mo gut punch the reader with her last few lines, revealing the stark, painful contrast between the couple’s reality and the reality they’re watching on TV.

It’s not all darkness, however—far from it. Pokrass certainly excels at emotional wallops, but she also possesses terrific humor. She reveals this mainly through her characters, who make me snort out loud at something one or the other of them says. From “Albino”: “We went to a thrift store and joked about trying on hats and getting lice. ‘Miami Lice,’ he said.” Or the little girl idolizing her older sister, in “Playing the Chicken”: “I love it when she says fuck. She says it often and I like to sing it in my head. Last year, I was kicked out of girl scouts for saying that perfect word.”

Part of Pokrass’ talent in wrenching such intense emotions from her reader comes from the vividness of her descriptions. She has a brutally clear, unsparing way of forcing readers’ eyes wide open, insisting they see what she wants them to see. A few of my favorite examples: “I’d gotten so used to Mike’s nudity that I’d stopped noticing his penis crouched like a worried squirrel.” (“Wouldn’t You Like Some Sun?”) Or the woman friend “of a certain age” at lunch in “Invisible,” of whom Pokrass writes this: “Looking at her meaty arms, I thought of pie-crust dough.” From “You Are Better Than This”: “Like a drunk car on the highway, her lips followed the road of his hair. She could taste the salt of a tidal basin.” Pokrass hits all the senses with her descriptions—which only deepens the reader’s visceral emotional responses.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess I’m a recent convert to reading flash fiction, but this potent collection has completely won me over with its complexity, intensity, and gratification. Veteran flash readers and fans of Pokrass will certainly not be disappointed by Alligators at Night; newcomers to the genre, like me, will find an outstanding way to get acquainted.

Alligators at Night is available from Ad Hoc Fiction.

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Julia Tagliere is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Writer, The Bookends Review, Potomac Review, numerous anthologies, and the juried photography and prose collection Love + Lust. Winner of the 2015 William Faulkner Literary Competition for Best Short Story and the 2017 Writers Center Undiscovered Voices Fellowship, Julia currently resides in Maryland with her family, where she recently completed her M.A. in Writing at John Hopkins University. She serves as an editor with The Baltimore Review and is currently working on her next novel, The Day the Music Didn’t Die.

“Authentic connection”: An Interview with Guest Reader R. Cross

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What themes do you find yourself frequently writing about?
Non-normative expressions of gender. The redefinition of different rites of passage in a largely secular society. Nature. Cacti. Feeling weird about having a body. Blood. Nondescript longings that drive dysfunctional behaviors. Empathic children. More blood. More cacti.

What can make or break a flash story?
For me a successful piece of flash forges an authentic connection with readers in a small amount of space; that authentic connection can be abstract and ethereal, merely evoking feelings in readers, or it can be a blatant narrative turn, twist, or development that leaves little room for interpretation. It’s kind of like meeting a stranger and connecting with them on a deeper level for the few minutes you know them in passing.

You’re currently working on an MFA in Fiction at the University of Michigan. What is your favorite thing about the program? What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard there that you can pass along?
The program has been incredibly giving. It’s hard to pick just one thing! My instructors have all been so down to earth and charitable with their time and professional honesty. That said, I feel beyond blessed to work alongside the other writers in my ‘19 fiction cohort; they’ve made my time here so far such a treat.

I’ve heard a ton of great writing advice at HZWP but really resonated with what Eileen Pollack refers to as a “zero draft” as opposed to a first draft. A zero draft is when you set off to write a story and what you ultimately come up with is not quite a story but a messy piece of writing that, when you look at it closer, you can see the makings of a first draft somewhere therein. The zero draft is a low pressure way of just getting something on the page you can later sculpt into something more substantial.

What kind of story would you love to see in the queue this week?

I’m a glutton for writing that really goes there on a prosaic, visual/sensory, and thematic level, especially when it comes to flash. Additionally, I like to feel continually surprised by what I’m reading and am delighted by narratives and/or characterization that are as convincing and fulfilling as they are not what I expected in the end.

“Fireworks in your brain”: An Interview with Guest Readers Ryan Ridge & Mel Bosworth

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Ryan Ridge and Mel Bosworth will be giving away a copy of their new book, Second Acts (Alternating Current Press) to the writer of the story they select for publication during their guest editing week.

Your new book Second Acts in American Lives, a collection of flash fiction, is a collaborative project. Can you tell us more about it? What was the inspiration for the book? What was the process of writing it together?

MB: It’s dozens of little stories that act as fireworks in your brain. There’s wit, sadness, laughter, hope, and despair. Lots of fun. It’s like riding on a roller coaster. And there are illustrations, too!

The inspiration for the book, I think, was our shared love of the short form. And I think we’re both poets masquerading as fiction writers, or vice versa. The result is a colorful hybrid that’s as fun to read as it was to write. And it’s super accessible. People who don’t generally dabble in “literary” fiction have nothing to fear here.

The process of writing it was easy: Ryan would start one, I’d finish it and start the next, and so on. We passed the pieces back and forth, melted ideas and voices together.

As readers, do you think you’re both drawn to the same types of stories?

MB: I’m drawn to all kinds of writing. We’re both big fans of James Tate, Lydia Davis, Mary Robison, and Barry Hannah. And Hunter S. Thompson, of course.  I think we share some solid common ground, and our differences in taste certainly add some different flavor to the mix when we’re working together, and in all the best ways.

RR: Yes, our tastes in stories are similar yet different, but similar enough to share an overlapping aesthetic.  I think in the final estimation we’re both drawn to work that walks that fine line between harrowing and hilarious.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

RR: A dozen or so years ago, I took a workshop from the great Western writer, William Kittredge. First round I turned in this thirty-page snoozer that traced the sociological implications of a small-town drug deal. It was a terrible story with a terrific title, “Guntown Mountain.” I’ve never tried to publish it. Kittredge didn’t have much to say about it either. Next round I turned in a series of short, experimental pieces (many of which ended up in my first collection, Hunters & Gamblers). Bill and I met for coffee a couple days later and he had “Guntown Mountain” in front of him and next to that he had the series of short fictions I’d written. He pointed to the short pieces and said: “Do this.” He pointed to the long story and said: “Don’t do this.” And that was it. We drank our coffee and talked about other things. But I’d say that brief exchange gave me the license to pursue my own weird whims creatively, which I’ve done ever since (for better or worse).

 What kind of story would you love to find in the queue this week?

MB: I’d love to find something darkly beautiful with a hint of humor tucked inside.

RR: Ditto.

Review: Karen Donovan’s Aard-vark to Axolotl

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by Ashley McGreary

Opening any collection of short fiction is like losing your senses to a curio cabinet of wonder, but Karen Donovan’s Aard-vark to Axolotl (Etruscan Press, April 2018) takes this precept to an almost literal interpretation. Based on a set of illustrations from the pages of her grandfather’s 1925 Webster’s New International Dictionary, this series of seventy-eight micro stories and prose poems represents an eclectic, lyrical, razor-sharp foray into the sphere of alternative definition, with its true allegiance laying somewhere between a lexicon and a bestiary. Like any cabinet of curiosity, each piece can be taken out, examined separately, and weighed in the humid cup of your hand, yet despite this microcosmic intimacy, its sheer breathless scope means that its fascination can never truly be exhausted. Karan Donovan is also the author of two collections of poetry: Fugitive Red, which won the Juniper Prize, and Your Enzymes Are Calling the Ancients, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award. Her recognizant contribution to literature is summed up in Ander Manson’s words: “This blurb won’t help save you, but Aard-vark to Axolotl just might.”

Logically, for a work whose title celebrates the kingdom Animalia, this series begins by examining the complex interrelationships between humans and animals, with its opening gambit: “Earth Pig” rendering our hypocrisies in blood across the page, while equally evoking a psychological proximity that makes the rationalized violence of the piece truly jarring. In a wonderfully postmodern inscription, the titular Aard-vark greet the possibilities of a new day, which include the chance of its own individual extinction, a fact that resonates across all life. This state of interconnection is further advanced in “A Lustrous, Pearly Interior,” which uses the backdrop of a beach, and its calcium carbonate substrate of history, to evince a deep sense of isolation and meaninglessness, against which even language itself is impuissant. The animal and human condition run together like an agate seam through this chapbook, creating a sense of lineage and inheritance that is echoed in the distant-but-still-touching experiences of grandfather and granddaughter. At its heart, this work attempts to define not just the physicality of an object: “Achene of Buttercup in vertical section, showing solitary seed,” but its abstract, metaphysical properties: “When she left, she folded her wasted body through a crack in space-time and bloomed out on the other side, pulling the long bright skein of my brain’s neural pathways with her.” It is a tour de force, which transcribes the dictionary into emotion.

Each micro-piece is accompanied by an original illustration, which acts like a holdfast in the oceanic possibility of language. Beside it, Donovan’s hyper-condensed prose spans a universe in form and tone, rendering each piece with a unique, imperishable signature. From the numbered diagram of “View From Southwest Airliner on Final Approach to Province,” to the jazz-like call and response of “Constraints Are Better Than Freedom,” and the self-depreciating, staccato sentences of “Makeover,” to the nested involvement of “Dinner Date’s” twenty-seven words, Aard-vark to Axolotl explores ideas of perspective, interpretation, pleasure and disappointment, creativity, ineffability, and the condition of being untethered from ones culture: in short, everything it means to be human.

The collection also focuses its lens on the darker side of the human experience too, with sequences such as “Burn Notice” depicting a spiralling lack of control, which unwinds from a superficial sunburn to “The towers and with them my psyche. My bridges ever since,” articulating an irretrievable state of entropy; and “Sales Job,” whose jaunty tone hides a tenebrous scepticism concerning our inability to escape the corporate order and its false-benign smile.

Parallel to the natural world in Aard-vark to Axolotl is the urban environment, and the efficiency or redundancy of technology, with “No Signal Detected” and “The Accident” offering rival perspectives. In the first micro-piece, a couple resist the tide of progress by persevering with their old “rabbit ears” aerial and its temperamental reception; after far too long of this, they finally buy a smart, new antennae, which, like their old one only works when it is “propped up at exactly the right angle over in the corner of the room on top of the CD player,” showing the cynical failure of technology to improve anything other than material aesthetics. The second micro-piece, comparatively, advocates the propensity of technology to remake life as secure and perfectible through the illusion of depth. Following a jarring cycling accident, the speaker trades the risk of reality for “the stationary bike at the Y, the one that’s like a videogame” and is satisfied with the substitution, a stance which challenges our own perspectives on modernity. Donovan’s collection is, indisputably, a work of and for our time, but it also represents a pantheon across all times, with its tendrils trailing between past, present, and future. The existential resonance in “Mesozoic’s” line: “Ask the experts where my bones lie: there, on the other side of catastrophe,” implicates both the fragility and endurance of life, and the ease with which all animation passes into history; while “Other Floral Borders I Have Known” paints a cradle to grave montage through the adornment of flowers, capturing the essence of existence as beautiful, fading, and brief.

To return, punctually, to the curio cabinet metaphor, it is impossible to appreciate everything in Donovan’s work through a single encounter, Aard-vark to Axolotl is a collection that not only stands up to a third, fourth, fifth reading, but actively encourages it. With a tone that shifts from lyrical, to scathing, deprecating, eccentric, empowering and introspective, this collection provides, at its core, a rumination on how we use language to construct and define the world around us, as well as the place of writing within that structure. “It was then I understood,” Donovan records, in conjunction to the etching of an Archer Fish, “I had a razor-tipped device inside me that could spear any prey I desired.” The rest, they say, is history, because the power of good writing has been hooking people ever since. Though most readers don’t prefer a comparison to fish.

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Ashley McGreary is a fledgling writer with a degree in English and Creative Writing, currently working towards an MA in English Literature. She is at the extreme end of starting out, but hopes eventually to shape a career out of the two things that set her soul on fire: literature and writing.

Review—New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories

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New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories (Norton, 2018)
Edited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro

Reviewed by Kara Oakleaf

The challenge of flash fiction is often what to leave out – limiting yourself to 1,000 words leaves little room for anything other than the absolute essentials of a story. Microfiction strips things down even further, fitting a full narrative into fewer than 300 words.

In New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories, editors James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro have assembled an impressive collection of these stories, pulling the best micros from online and print journals, story collections and anthologies. The collection features some of the most recognizable names of short fiction and flash, including Amy Hempel, Stuart Dybek, Joyce Carol Oates, John Edgar Wideman, Joy Williams, and Kathy Fish, alongside newer writers. Most of the stories – 140 total, from 90 different writers – are from more recent publications, but a few are from writers who have been experimenting with this extremely short form since the 1970s.

In his foreword, Robert Shapard says microfiction can be “as intense as poetry,” and this feels especially true of the stories in New Micro. I found myself reading this book the same way I often read a poetry collection, getting through only one or two stories at a time before I wanted to pause, let those stories swim around in my head for a while before coming back for more. These stories look small on the page, but each of them demands that readers give it room to expand long after they’ve set down the book.

The opening story, “Letting Go” by Pamela Painter, establishes a high bar for that intensity Shapard mentions in the foreword. It starts out as a contemplative piece – a woman alone on vacation encounters a young, happy couple as she thinks about her ex – but the events turn quickly when the narrator witnesses something shocking that haunts her, and the reader, long after the end of the story.

Other pieces in the collection also play with the idea of witness, exploring moments when a character brushes up against a scene they aren’t fully a part of, but are nonetheless changed by. Molly Giles’ “Protest” features two thirteen-year-old girls lying in the middle of the road, stopping traffic and creating chaos. The girls are the catalyst for the narrative, but what makes the story is the image of young boys watching them, fascinated with this strange glimpse of what might wait for them in adolescence. John Edgar Wideman’s “Witness” shows us a fifteen-year-old boy murdered, the police on the scene, and finally, the boy’s family mourning at the spot where he died, all from the vantage point of the narrator’s balcony. In “New Rollerskates” by Erin Dionne, a young girl sits outside an apartment building, keeping the secret of what she knows is happening inside – until she doesn’t. And Kathleen McGookey’s “Another Drowning, Miner Lake,” has another take on this kind of story: a narrator swimming in a lake, disturbingly unaffected by the knowledge that a woman drowned there the night before.

Micros lend themselves well to the extraordinary, and several pieces in the collection experiment with unexpected or fantastic premises. The narrator of Thaisa Frank’s The New Thieves replaces herself with a camouflaged woman, testing to see if her lover will notice. A repairman gets stuck in a furnace duct for days in Kevin Griffith’s “Furnace,” and chats with the family through one of the grates in the floor. Nin Andrews’ two stories are written from the perspective of an orgasm. A surgeon cuts a patient’s flesh in the shape of his home country in James Claffey’s Kingmaker. Whole populations abandon their homes to become hermits in Ana María Shua’s Hermit. Stories that might fall apart in longer form are expertly held together by these writers who ground their characters so firmly in unbelievable premises that you’re drawn in before you have a chance to question it.

Some stories use this miniature form to tackle big subjects. Brian Cooper’s “Hurricane Ride” and Francine Witte’s “Jetty Explains the Universe” bring together everyday scenes – carnival rides and the lives of housecats – with expansive questions about the nature of the universe. Michael Czyzniejewski’s “Intrigued by Reincarnation, Skip Dillard Embraces Buddhism” begins with a light, humorous tone before focusing on the allure of starting over, of slipping out of your own life and into another anonymous one.

Other stories tackle more familiar and realistic territory – marriages, affairs, and the birth and death of loved ones – but create an unexpected impact. In Josh Russell’s “Our Boys,” the simple experience of a parent mixing up his two sons’ baby pictures leads to the unsettling question of how well we really know the ones we’re closest to. Zachery Schomberg’s “Death Letter” gives a powerful twist to a break-up story. In Tom Hazuka’s “Utilitarianism,” the narrator sees a change in his parents’ relationship, and we suddenly feel that we understand the entirety of this decades-long marriage. And in Gay Degani’s “An Abbreviated Glossary” and Damian Dressick’s “Four Hard Facts About Water,” the authors use lists to narrate the worst kinds of grief, and hit the reader hard in the moment when their characters’ pain cuts sharply through the story’s structure.

The stories collected here are broad and diverse, difficult to narrow down, but if any single thing unifies them, it’s the language. Stories like Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “Sleepover”and Tara Laskowski’s “Dendrochronology” end on vivid, resonant images that bring every other detail into sharper focus. The rhythm and repetition in the single-paragraph stories “Flying” by Jeff Landon and “Black Cat” by Josh Russell are almost spell-like and completely transport you into the narrators’ memories. Every word carries extra weight in these stories, and it’s this attention to language, as much as their length, that makes the stories in in New Micro comparable to poetry.

And yet, these stories are clearly in their own genre. If what poetry does is crystalize a particular moment and invite the reader to linger there, microfiction crystalizes moments that immediately demand the reader imagine what lies beyond the story. Because there is a full world created by each of these stories. Micros may have the intensity and the economy of language of poetry, but this collection shows that they are distinctly narrative. As short as they are, the stories in New Micro are fully formed works of fiction, encapsulating nuanced characters, the scope of a long marriage, or the way small moments shape a day, or a year, or a lifetime. In every case, they outlive their size.

 

Kara Oakleaf‘s work appears or is forthcoming in journals including Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Jellyfish Review, Nimrod, Seven Hills Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Postcard Poems and Prose. She is a graduate of the M.F.A. program at George Mason University, where she now teaches and directs the Fall for the Book literary festival.

“Two Worlds”: An Interview with Guest Reader Christopher James

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You founded Jellyfish Review, an online flash fiction journal, a couple years ago. Tell us more about why you wanted to start your own journal and how you’ve made it so successful and popular.

Van Gogh said that fishermen know the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they’ve never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore. Which suggests Van Gogh had only limited knowledge of fishermen. I always wanted to start a flash fiction journal but found reasons not to. The sea was a peril. The storm didn’t look all that great. Then a couple of years ago a lot of journals were starting to charge for submissions or closing down, and the reasons to open a journal outweighed the reasons not to.

The main reason Jellyfish Review has had success is thanks to the writers and the community we’re lucky enough to be a part of. SmokeLong is a wonderful example to follow. You’re always so nice to your contributors, you publish great work, and everything you do shows how much you care about flash fiction. We try to be like that as well!


We’re both expats – you’re originally from England and now live in Indonesia (I’m from America and now live in Singapore – we’re almost neighbors, now that I think of it). How does being an expat influence your writing and your writing life?

Howdy neighbour!

Being an immigrant gives me access to at least two worlds, and things between those two worlds don’t always line up neatly. For example, when I first came here I thought durian (a local delicacy) smelled like the sweaty gymsocks of a rotting corpse. Not nice! Now I enjoy the smell, and gravitate towards the durian they sell at the side of the road. I had the same experience in England with the music of Jeff Buckley. It’s often challenging, and it makes me think, makes me question things that looked normal before, and that makes me want to write.

What is one thing you think is essential to great flash fiction?

Someone, maybe Asimov, said the most exciting phrase in science is not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny…’ Great flash fiction makes you say ‘that’s funny…’ and if you’re really lucky, it lets you say ‘eureka’ too.

What kind of story would you love to see in the queue this week?

Something both funny and sad.

Book Review: Barry Gifford’s The Cuban Club

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by Pilar DiPietro

Often we think of life in the 1950s as one of wistful innocence and familial ease. We may even term it “the Good Old Days.” Barry Gifford’s The Cuban Club (Seven Stories Press, October 2017), a collection of sixty-seven related stories, pushes back on these notions of nostalgia with the remembrances of Roy. Roy is a first-generation American, Chicagoan by way of Miami in his youth. Trying to make his way through the snarls of puberty, Roy unties the knots of race, marriage and fidelity, death, sex and love, violence, grief, loss, and parent-child relationships.

In the snippets that make up Roy’s memories, the reader gains an understanding of the changing parental, domestic, family and moral roles that were sweeping through America in the 1950s and early 1960s and the effects these changes were having on the next generation. Through Roy’s eyes the reader is given insight: not only the fascinations of youth but the reflections of a changing time.  Throughout the stories Gifford maintains Roy’s delightful innocence in the foreground, his youthful misunderstandings often tumbling out of his mouth, though alluding to the real situation that runs deeper, and often darker, behind.

Uniquely, and indeed digitally friendly, Gifford allows the reader to open to any of his stories and feel like it may have been exactly where you left off. There is no need to read this collection in any particular order. Roy’s stories, each approximately three pages long, identify the age at which Roy is recording them. This grounding is helpful in seeing Roy’s progression, his bildungsroman, as he grapples with situations that, perhaps, no boy should be aware of. I recommend mixing up your reading order and enjoying the stories outside linear time.

The book does contain some violence. While uncomfortable at times, it is palatable. Roy’s father, a mid-level racketeer with mob affiliations, is on one hand protective of his son, and yet his fatherly advice frequently verges on the morally hypocritical. For example, after Roy learns that Mean Well Benny’s cut-throated corpse was found in an alley garbage can, Roy’s father says, “Some men’s lives don’t amount to much, son. They get on the wrong road and don’t ever get back on the straight and narrow.” Luckily, Roy’s pops gives more solid lessons: “I’m sorry to say, Roy, I believe in the existence of evil. Hitler, for example, was an evil man who had the ability to inspire and manipulate people into committing the most gruesome acts of villainy.” Although Roy’s father is ambiguously depicted as being involved with illegal enterprises, his pronouncements, along with Pops’, are sound enough to aid in the formation of Roy’s ethical balance. Gifford writes in a manner allowing for reader understanding without author subjectivity.

Roy’s mother, an aging ex-model, ricochets from one boyfriend to another and often leaves Roy in the care of others while she jet-sets in search of love and adventure. By thirty-four she is quite jaded and has been married three times. The conversations between her and her equally disenchanted friend, Kay, are often overheard by Roy who is left to make his own conclusions and seldom have little to do with the actual meaning of the quips. For example, after Kay, speaking of orgasms, tells Roy that his mom has had an epiphany, Roy asks, “Do you have to be a Catholic to have one?” to which Kay answers, “No, Roy, but it probably helps.”

Johnny Murphy, Roy’s friend, teaches Roy about the underside of life, a seedy underbelly seems taken for granted by the characters. When Roy and Johnny decide to play detective after the grisly murder of a young woman is discovered, Johnny off-handedly states, “He raped the girl, strangled her—or maybe, if he was a real pervert, strangled her before raping her.” The eleven-year-old boys go to the crime scene to search for clues and Johnny deduces: “The killer’s a rich guy who lives in a fancy apartment around here, on Lake Shore or Marine Drive.” Indeed, the killer was found to be “a 42-year-old bachelor named Leonard Danzig, an architect,” who had determined the girl was the sister of Jesus Christ and “felt it was his duty to abort what he described as an immoral lineage.” After the killer was captured and committed, Roy asks his mother what she thinks. She tells her son, “You can’t execute all of the sick people in the world, Roy. There are too many. Once you start doing that it would never stop.” Roy then asks if she thinks the world would be better without the killer in it. Gifford’s next lines are typical of his style: “Roy’s mother, who had already been divorced twice and had a third marriage annulled, said, ‘Him and a few other men I can name.’”

Readers will enjoy Roy’s adventures, if not contemplate Gifford’s true intentions. The tales, often having many meanings, are a wonderful mix of ingredients that enfold a boy’s journey of adolescence in urban 1950s America. The result of the collection is a layered spiced cake with each of Roy’s episodes demanding the reader’s introspection of their own identity and values.

The Cuban Club is available from Seven Stories Press. Or from Amazon.

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Pilar DiPietro is a fan of crossing lines, changing lanes and the outside of boxes. She is currently a MA candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC.

Editor’s Choice Week: An Interview with Tochukwu Okafor

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The story from this week’s submissions will be selected by a member of our editorial staff. All stories submitted July 23-29 will be read by our Kathy Fish Fellow, Tochukwu Okafor.

Our 2017 Kathy Fish Fellow, Allison Pinkerton, recently interviewed Tochukwu. To find out more about Tochuku and his writing life, you can read the interview here.

Twelve Great Flash Fiction Novels / Novellas

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by Michael Loveday

The novel-/novella-in-flash is a curious form. Not a straightforward novel/novella, nor simply a story collection, it functions as a hybrid. Its enthusiasts, myself included, resemble TV evangelists on obscure late-night channels, full of zeal as to why this of all literary forms is the most satisfying, and the closest equivalent to real life – that fusion of ‘story’ and the individual, numinous moment.

What follows is a list of twelve examples of the novel-/novella-in-flash, with some commentary that tries to approach a definition of what the form is, and what it isn’t. I’ve included some examples that stretch the category a little, so we can get to know its edges.

Broadly speaking, the novel-/novella-in-flash consists of a sequence of individual but related short-short stories that somehow build momentum towards a bigger whole. The craft essays in My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form describe how the form “mixes the quick and the sustained” and blends “the extreme brevity of the flash with the longer – albeit still brief – arc of the novella.” Despite the requirement for a coherent whole, because any overarching story is broken into distinct mini-stories or fragments, the novel-/novella-in-flash “is a form of omission and lacuna.”

The Bath Flash Fiction Award now has an annual international competition dedicated to the Novella-in-Flash and publishes an anthology of the three winning entries each year. The sensationally good How to Make a Window Snake by Charmaine Wilkerson was its inaugural winner in 2017. This competition asks for each chapter or flash to be not more than 1,000 words long, with the whole (for the novella-in-flash) between 6,000 and 18,000 words long. However, some of the twelve books in my list below are more like novels, and so run to several thousand more words than this.

Inevitably, in a list of only twelve books, there are significant exclusions, and I acknowledge that the list is a very subjective one. Still, I hope it serves as a useful way forward for readers wanting to discover more about the form. (As the list is limited to examples of fiction, I’ve not included memoir-in-flash.)

  1. Candide, or Optimism (Voltaire, 1759)

Cannibalism, murder, STDs, flogging, hanging, shipwreck, El Dorado, earthquake – in a mere 86 pages this eighteenth-century proto-novella-in-flash has all the drama you could want. Nevertheless, a philosophical tale at heart, Voltaire’s book satirises the mode of the chivalric romance through its story of a young man beset by bad luck who travels the world to find (and lose) his fortune. It possesses many characteristics that would later become defining features of the novella-in-flash: it’s short; each chapter (with one exception) is less than 1,000 words; and, because of its varied locations and ensemble cast of secondary characters, each chapter has its own distinct mood and material, that necessary sense of being a ‘world of its own.’ If it falls short of the novella-in-flash as we now know the form in its purest sense, it’s because (as with many novels from the 18th century to the present day) many chapters close by preparing us for the next or depend directly on the previous one in narrative terms. What came later to the form was a stronger sense of a pause or ‘resonating space’ at the end of each chapter, and the feeling that the overall text offers, rather than one continuous narrative thread, an interwoven patchwork of self-contained moments. Nevertheless, the roots of the novella-in-flash can be seen in Voltaire’s writing.

  1. Mrs. Bridge (Evan S. Connell, 1959)

A magnificent portrait of a middle-class woman, and her family, in mid-twentieth-century suburban America. Its 117 short chapters are written with a relentless, quiet conviction that insists: these characters really do exist. Mrs. Bridge, whose story we follow from youth to old age, is alienated from her life and her feelings, as she raises a family and builds a life for herself in the absence of any romantic attentions from her husband. Readers glimpse an existential dread running through her observations and interactions, and yet she potters on distractedly, somewhat bewildered by the changes in her world, and keeping up appearances in that very middle-class, mid-twentieth-century way. Subsequently overshadowed by the careers of Updike, Roth and Yates, whose debut books appeared at around the same time, Connell’s tragicomic first novel is a classic of social realism – a brilliant portrait of the inter-war dissatisfactions of American women – and should be read in conjunction with its sequel Mr. Bridge (1969), dealing with the same family life from the husband’s point of view.

  1. Play It as It Lays (Joan Didion, 1970)

An appealing cocktail of ennui, glamour, tragedy and spiky dialogue, this book’s whip-smart sentences convincingly depict life on the margins of the Hollywood movie industry, as a minor actress heads on a path of self-destruction prompted by a growing indifference to her milieu and the realities of the choices she has made. Most of the unnumbered chapters are story-fragments – from one paragraph to five pages. Some are impressionistic moments; others run in sequence, picking up where the previous one left off. Thus, not all the chapters are fully developed to become self-standing stories, and a narrative momentum builds that makes it feel close to being a continuous novel. But the choppy, short chapters beautifully evoke the central character’s discontent and disconnection, and Didion’s writing is both nonchalant and sharp – like a drunk with a knife in her hand.

  1. Palomar (Italo Calvino, 1983)

In these 27 short-short stories about an elderly man studying the world around him – waves, birds, the stars, a cheese shop, etc. – there is little action described, let alone event or even (god forbid!) plot. But as a set of meditations, it rewards readers who enjoy grappling with complexity in their fiction, as Calvino trawls through verbose philosophical conundrums about perception, identity, and the cosmos. Mr. Palomar is as close to being a story collection as it is to being a novella-in-flash: what little forward movement there is comes from a kind of ‘mathematical’ scheme – a sequence of claimed shifts among the stories – cycling through precise proportions of ‘description’, ‘narrative’ and ‘meditation’. The scheme is so intricate that the appendix announcing it appears to be part of a literary game on Calvino’s part, entirely in sympathy with the over-meticulous Mr. Palomar himself.

  1. The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros, 1984)

A stone-cold classic. Esperanza Cordero is growing up in a run-down tenement building in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago, negotiating family, quirky neighbours, boys, new friendships, and hoping one day for a home of her own. The language is lyrical without being sentimental, and there is a Technicolour sharpness to Esperanza’s passionate observations of the world around her, which are riddled with hopes and fears in a typically adolescent way. Stories range from 7 lines to 3 or 4 pages long and don’t progress in an explicitly chronological way. Not without moments of darkness, The House on Mango Street is a haunting yet uplifting portrait of Hispanic American life.

  1. Why Did I Ever? (Mary Robison, 2001)

Throughout its two hundred pages – over 500 microfictions and fragments – Robison’s novel-in-flash emphasises character and voice: there is no real overarching narrative arc to glean from this stream of jump-cut mini-scenes, many of which extend for a few sentences only. As a character-study, the book is concentrated, sassy, and inventively-phrased. The narrator, Money Breton, a Hollywood script-doctor, works on a terrible-sounding movie about Bigfoot, dealing out barbed comments to various figures in her life – her cat, her friend Hollis, her methadone-addicted daughter Mev, her son Paulie (now in police care after falling victim to violent crime). The fragments offer glimpses of her life and relationships (work, family, lovers, friends), and although these separate strands don’t integrate we do get an impression of forward movement within each strand. There’s such relentless verbal and psychological energy it’s as if each fragment has been formed under intense geological pressure – like brilliant jewels.

  1. We the Animals (Justin Torres, 2011)

The novella-in-flash as Bildungsroman: Torres charts the growth of a boy into sexual maturity, in the midst of a madcap, chaotic, and harsh domestic life: three brothers jostling for priority (the stories are often narrated as a third-person plural “we”); an often absent, and at times abusive, father; a mother struggling to take charge. The family environment at first feels implausibly zany; yet the reader’s fondness for it grows, until one is charmed and captivated; then the novella shifts into darker territory as it concludes. Apart from a final one-paragraph story that’s more like a prose poem, most of the chapters here (ranging from 3-12 pages) are fully developed into self-contained stories, building to their own individual climaxes, yet cumulatively they describe a central protagonist gradually uncovering his own identity. In this debut work, Torres’s control of sentence-rhythms combines with a gift for narrative structure to create a stunning tour de force.

  1. Paperboy (Bob Thurber, 2011)

At 230 pages, this is one of the longer books in this list, and it’s remarkable how Thurber sustains the narrative feat of creating an impression of linear, continuous story (occasional flashbacks aside) from over 150 individual segments, each with its own resonant ending. The narrative isn’t for the fainthearted: in 1969, an astronaut-obsessed teenage boy in a dysfunctional family is drawn into incest, and the rest of the novel depicts how the ongoing transgressions are kept secret, as well as telling the story of his failures and frustrations working as a local paperboy. There are a host of reasons why the material ought to fail, but the book is a raw triumph, almost claustrophobic in intensity – equally funny and tragic.

  1. Petrol (Martina Evans, 2012)

Irish poet and novelist Martina Evans published Petrol as a “prose poem disguised as a novella”. These thirty-nine one- or two-page prose pieces certainly have a poetic, crystalline brilliance. They might also be stream-of-consciousness dramatic monologues confided to the reader with a kind of controlled anarchy, so vivid is the voice of a persecuted thirteen-year-old in rural County Cork. Working at the family petrol station, three sisters deal with the reality of a new mother-in-law, while the narrator is terrorised by her father and drawn inexorably towards the forbidden attentions of a local nineteen-year-old.

  1. The Dept. of Speculation (Jenny Offill, 2014)

An old theme of marital infidelity is given remarkable new life in Jenny Offill’s broken-hearted novel, in which the rupture caused by the adultery is palpable, but the narrator is too pragmatic to watch herself slip under. The narrator leaps from thought to thought, through streams of observations, incidents, quotations, aphorisms and scientific facts that are sequenced into separate chapters. The wife is a creative writing tutor, the husband a sound archivist; other characters include a philosopher and an almost-astronaut, and all these roles feed into the rich themes of the text. A classic novel-/novella-in-flash might more obviously be a sequence of self-standing stories, but it’s becoming increasingly popular to publish mainstream novels like this one [witness also Megan Hunter’s recent The End We Start From (2017)], where the writing is a patchwork of fragmented paragraphs, sometimes as short as one sentence long. And all that divides its form from Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever? (more widely accepted as a novel-in-flash) is the absence of numerical separators between fragments, which makes Offill’s book feel more like a fluid and continuous stream of material.

  1. My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form (2014)

Maybe I’m cheating the numbers to include it, but a list of twelve great novels-/novellas-in-flash would be incomplete without acknowledging this anthology from Rose Metal Press: it’s a crucial text in the history of the form, presenting novellas-in-flash by five different writers, supplemented by craft essays about the creation of each work, and an informative introduction by editors Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney. These essays are a wonderful welcome into what exactly the novella-in-flash is (or can be). The five novellas (by Tiff Holland, Meg Pokrass, Aaron Teel, Margaret Patton Chapman and Chris Bower) offer two coming-of-age stories, a portrait by a middle-aged daughter of her mother’s crankiness and frailty, a story about a child prodigy born to a nineteenth-century family, and an absurdist portrait of a contemporary family. This anthology will get you thinking about the potential forms of the flash fiction novella.

  1. Superman on the Roof (Lex Williford, 2015)

One of the shorter novellas in this list, this pamphlet offers ten 3-4-page stories that roam expansively through memories of a 1960s childhood. Williford ambitiously moves back and forward, covering the 1960s and the early 21st century, subtly placing the narrative in historical context through occasional passing references to contemporary politics. These elegiac stories circle, at their centre, a single, significant and haunting loss; in the process, they build a portrait of a harsh family environment and convent school education, in which adults seem hell-bent on punishing children’s petty transgressions. Apparently semi-autobiographical, the beautifully elegant sentences are written in a past tense that’s suffused with nostalgia – and guilt over the narrator’s involvement in family tragedy. In 38 pages, Williford weaves a tapestry that is more moving, memorable and skilfully crafted than many novels. Its form expresses all that is remarkable about the novella-in-flash.

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Michael Loveday’s novella-in-flash Three Men on the Edge was published by V. Press in June 2018. He helps to organise the UK’s annual Flash Fiction Festival and is judge of the 2019 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award.

“Make me laugh”: An Interview with Guest Reader Amanda Miska

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You’re Managing Editor of Split Lip Press. Can you tell us about your experience there? How has it influenced your own writing?

I am actually the publisher, which means I am managing editor, publicist, reader, copyeditor, etc. I have a great team of volunteers and could not do it without them, but I always joke that this is a one-woman show. I love getting to work on longform books with authors–SL Press authors, for the most part, have become like family to me. It isn’t always easy running the press due to finances and also because it takes time away from my own paid and creative work. But it is gratifying. In terms of my own book, I believe I have become a better writer by osmosis, as well as from conversations and line editing. I try to look at my own work with a more critical eye now and a little distance.

What could a writer do to make you keep reading? What is one thing that would make you stop reading a story?

Make me laugh or cry, that’s a sure thing. Also, I admit to being enamored with anything to do with sex and desire and love and the body. Those are some personal obsessions that find their way consistently into my own work. To make me stop reading: bore me. Or be a misogynist/racist/homophobe/etc.

What themes do you find yourself returning to in your own writing?

Ah, see above! Sex and desire and love and the body. Also motherhood, spirituality and shame, connection (especially in the digital age).

What kind of story would you love to see in the queue this week?

I am always impressed by someone who can pull off a happy ending (and not be trite): hope is truly subversive in times like these.

Book Review: Sherrie Flick’s Thank Your Lucky Stars

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by Cheryl Pappas

Lucky for us, Sherrie Flick has a new collection of stories. Thank Your Lucky Stars (Autumn House Press) comes out in September. If you read flash, you know her name. Flick’s stories have appeared in several anthologies dedicated to flash. She has published a chapbook (I Call This Flirting; Flume Press, 2004), a novel (Reconsidering Happiness; Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2009), and a collection of short stories titled Whiskey, Etc. (Autumn House Press, 2016), which Kathy Fish deemed “a sharp-edged, intelligent, brilliantly written collection of short shorts by a writer at the top of her game.”

In Thank Your Lucky Stars, Flick has arranged 50 stories of varying length—the shortest a paragraph, the longest 21 pages—into four numbered sections. The settings are often suburban towns in the West or Midwest, and Flick uses crickets, birdbaths with calm water, and deer heads as recurrent images throughout to underscore the agonizing quiet of such towns. Most of the stories are about love, but more specifically, finding someone to make a home with. Domestic spaces are the stage, and everyday objects, like two tin coffee cups, resonate with meaning.

Earlier sections contain stories of characters going through that very messy, fumbling search for the right person, moving from house to house, town to town, in the hopes of finally staying put, as exemplified in “Open and Shut.” By the third section, with “Garden Inside,” we see a shift: after leaving one house and its treasured garden, a woman and her husband move into a house with a neglected one and willingly start from scratch. The theme of starting over, already present in the earlier sections, now morphs into transformation. By the fourth section, we see stories about babies, kids, teenagers, a widower. With some exceptions, the book takes us through the stages of growing up, as it were, and finding not a house but a home.

The stories about relationships, on the whole, are about the illusions we wrestle with. “Bottle” begins with a woman cracking open a wine bottle over the edge of the dinner table to get her husband’s attention; she finds breaking things satisfying because he “looked at her then like the first time he’d laid eyes on her.” We see the couple in “Dance” actively trying to avoid pulling away the curtain of a horrific night from their past: Viv spends her day sipping whiskey and martinis on the patio (her drinking companion a deer head she pulls off the den wall), while her husband Matty dutifully serves her and obsessively bakes away his repressions. The “dance” in the title refers to the back and forth of their acquired roles, which they perform unconvincingly, like bad actors in a play. When Matty chastises Viv for her drinking, “You know, y’all shouldn’t be day drinking like losers in here,” Viv snaps back, “There’s just one of me, Matty. Who, may I ask, are you talking about with ‘y’all’?” But they also dance around the truth—one scene tracks the tense moments when they remember the night that a girl was killed and then how they quickly fall back into their agreed-upon forgetfulness.

Other stories in the collection defy a theme at all, like “Caravan, Suburbia,” a three-paragraph tale about a woman spying a mysterious rickety wagon crossing her front yard, and afterwards sensing the “smell of wood smoke, raw upturned earth, the quick scent of passion, and one low, unsung note abandoned in the stray leaves.”

Indeed, there is a range not just in theme. The opening story, “How I Left Ned,” in which a woman stops for corn on the side of the road and makes a dramatic life decision, takes bold leaps in narrative; “House,” however, about a woman who lives alone and peers out the window “like a suspicious widow expecting the worst,” has a slow, meditative pace. I admit, I am drawn to the strangeness and poetry of Flick’s shorter works. The sentences seem to come up from the deep, slowly and patiently, like they’ve been gathered from a Quaker meeting. Her story “Crickets” is just but one example: “They sing like pleasant car alarms again and again. Again and again. In their little black jumpsuits, they take to the crooked sidewalks in droves, not hesitating to leave the flowers and grasses.” Flick marries  patience, resonanance, and quality in her flash pieces.

The longer “Still Life,” about a man who plans to end his life, achieves Hemingway-level compression, spanning only one night and the next morning. The story begins mysteriously, with Harry undressing and folding his clothes carefully, tenderly placing them on his bureau. He drinks half a bottle of whiskey. I love that Flick doesn’t reveal what he is up to, not even when she has him walk out the door, at three in the morning, completely naked. We get the middle-of-the-night sights and sounds in poetic prose: “The trees’ silhouetted arms sang hallelujah. The leaves clapped. Harry walked down Maple Street. Dark houses, the faint muffled dog bark, a settling tick tick of a foundation.” I won’t tell you how it ends, but the story continues to offer surprising turns, poetic language, eerie atmosphere, and even humor.

Pre-order Thank Your Lucky Stars from Autumn House Press.

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Cheryl Pappas is a writer from Boston. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The Bitter OleanderCleaver MagazinePloughshares blog, SmokeLong QuarterlyTin House online, and Essay Daily. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars. She is currently working on a collection of fables. Her website is cherylpappas.net and you can follow her on Twitter at @fabulistpappas.

Fridge Flash: Mickey Mouse

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Editor’s Note: Today’s fridge flash comes from 8-year-old Shifa Asif, from Lahore, Pakistan.

Shifa Asif is eight years old and attends Beaconhouse Canal side campus, Lahore, Pakistan. Amongst her notable achievements, Shifa has won the post card art competition at the Broomhill Festival in Sheffield, Children University Bronze award, and swimming kingfisher award in UK 2014-2016. She also won best dress up for World book favourite character day certificate and WWF-Pakistan’s spellathon 2016-2017 certificate at LGS-JT, Lahore, Pakistan and was recently a runner-up in a poetry competition on poetry zone UK. She has published her work at ‘SmokeLong Quarterly Fridge Flash’, ‘poetry zone’, ‘scholastic’, ‘story jumper’, ‘Dawn Young World newspaper’, ‘Short-Stories-Help-Children.com and contributors.’ Shifa is an honorary President of Child Scholar’s Institute at Khan Bahadur Visionaries Welfare, where she encourages inclusive education. Shifa appeared amongst the top 100 students in the Kangroo spelling contest in Pakistan. Shifa has also taken part in sponsored bounce at Nether Green Infant School, Sheffield, UK.

Got a great story from someone 12 or younger? Submit it to us here. 

“As strong as espresso:” An Interview with Guest Reader Monet Patrice Thomas

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You lived and worked in China recently. Can you tell us a little about that experience and how it influenced your writing? 

I lived in Beijing for just over year, from Nov 2016 to December 2017. I left one week after voting for Hillary Clinton in Payette, Idaho where I was living at the time with my boyfriend and his mother. I went to China, not necessarily because of the current President, but more because of the environment that had allowed a man like him to become President. And because I had always believed I was a person who would travel the world, but had never followed through. Living in China was a pivotal time for me. I discovered I loved teaching, especially younger children and I had time to commit to my writing, which I did. That commitment bore more fruit than I could anticipate and I had a banner year of publishing and gaining new opportunities to be an active member in the literary community. It was also mentally exhausting to be in a place where the learning curve just never let up. But I grew so much while I was there and I recommend everyone do their best to travel and experience different ways of life.

What themes do you find yourself frequently writing about? What themes are you drawn to when reading? 

I love to explore power dynamics, between friends & lovers, but also between strangers. I also like to allow readers access to the minds of women — the kind men find frustrating or difficult — who don’t often get the voice in the story. I like to turn that around. My favorite thing to do is create tension between the interiority of the main character and her outward reaction to absurd circumstances. If I’m honest, my impulses are sex and murder and I often have to rewrite a story where neither are pertinent subjects.

What do you think flash fiction can do that longer stories can’t? 

I truly believe flash fiction is closer in form to a poem than a novel. Someone is going to fight me over that, but hear me out. When I went to graduate school to study poetry it seemed like prose poems were the new wave in form and we spent so many classes arguing over the difference between a prose poem and paragraph. I never fell on either side of the argument, because I’d read examples that could be perceived as both. But then Melissa Kwasny’s prose poems from her collection Pictograph were brought forth for discussion and she so perfectly captured how a poem without a line break could & should exist, that now I know one when I see it. It is a concentration of language, of necessary details, of movement both emotional and physical. And in that way, it’s like flash, which should be a distillation of emotion as strong as espresso, nothing extraneous.

What kind of story would you love to see in the queue this week? 

I want to read stories that move. I want to start in one place, metaphorically or literally, and end up very far away. I’d love to hear a voice so distinct I’d know the person if I heard them talking on the street. I want to read language that makes me take a sharp breath and burn with envy that I hadn’t thought of it myself.

 

Artist Spotlight: An Interview with Josh George

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A work by painter Josh George illustrates this issue’s story from Jonathan Nixon, “Anywhere We’ve Ever Wanted.” Smokelong art director Alexander C. Kafka asked George about his experiences and inspirations, then invited him to play word association.

First off, thanks so much for contributing to SmokeLong Quarterly. Tell me about yourself. How old are you? What kind of family do you come from? Where do you live? Where are you from? When did you figure out you wanted to be an artist?

I keep thinking I’m 35 but my blotchy skin, bald spot, and creaky joints remind me that I’m 45. I come from a totally normal middle-class suburban family. We were all creative. My mom painted, my dad plays guitar and sings, my brother makes a living as a musician, and my sister is a great dresser, has nice hair, and plays a mean tambourine. I was always supported in my creative pursuits and always encouraged to make a professional go at them. I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. I went to art school there, got tired of seeing the same sights every day and was craving a more urban adventure, so I set off for New York City 18 years ago to wander the streets and paint city dwellers like my Ash Can heroes did. I knew I needed to make pictures at a young age when I drew demons and devils for my religious grandmother. She told me god gave me talent to draw fucked up stuff.

Much of your work is focused on the city and its dwellers. How did that come about?

I was never really interested in big, conceptual subject matter in my work. I am more interested in process, the narrative is not so important, though the city has so many stories and situations happening on every street corner and apartment. I like the textures and the never-ending nature of my surrounding city and I try to record the patterns and surfaces with an aggressive mixed-media approach. I like a sense of mystery in my mark making. I want to viewers to wonder, “How the hell did he do that?”

There’s such a feeling of bustle and busyness in your cityscapes. Is your mind like that? Always churning and zipping around? Or do you feel removed from your surroundings, more an observer, fascinated and distanced from the mayhem?

My mind is always jumping around and it gets frustrated because I can’t participate the way I used to in searching for an ideal life. Lately I have been doing urban aerial views that disappear into the horizon. I want to fly away from the city to the south of France and paint Hallmark Card landscapes of precious villages. So I guess I want both urban hustle and bustle and idealistic rural socialist living at the same time, including a two-hour nap each day.

You describe yourself as an urban realist. But you also have this whimsical side that comes out, especially, in your figure work. I’m thinking of paintings like Buddy Patrol, Giddyup Up Buttercup!, and The Wind Carried It in Its Belly, the City Nursed It. Those images still incorporate the city, but in a more mythical, ethereal vein. Can you explain to me the dichotomy between those two modes of work?

I say my work is not concept driven and is just a way to record my surroundings, but I do like storytelling even if there is no specific story. Holdovers for wanting to do comic books when I was younger maybe? But more likely I never get tired of painting my beautiful wife naked.

You paint in layers and include collage elements. For instance, in Giddy Up Buttercup!, it looks like we’re seeing some wallpaper or wrapping paper or some such integrated into the figure of the woman on the horse. What’s in there? How many layers? Do you make sketches, or under-paint, starting a work envisioning that kind of mix, or do you just kind of go with the creative flow of it as you work? Can you describe your process in a little more detail?

I plan out every image with some rough prototypes. I carry a sketchbook and draw for inspiration in planning works, I take a lot of photos and I invent a lot of imagery, since buildings are just shapes in perspective with a little bit of a light source. I do an under painting on wood panel then I collage over the entire surface with labels, wallpaper, ticket stubs, fabric, building up general forms in a controlled mess. I then paint over the collage elements with knifes, dragging and scrapping. Then I finish it all off with delicate brush work before a protective layer of varnish.

You’ve had a lot of gallery shows. Have you been able to make a living as an artist or have you worked simultaneous jobs?

So far so good. I’m in five different galleries around the country. I do a few solo shows a year and am involved in several group shows and a handful of art fairs. I have been teaching art now for 12 years.

What are your greatest inspirations?

Wine, death metal.

Who are your favorite artists?

Different each day but I always come back to Degas. I’m on a Ferenc Pinter and Henri Jean Guillaume Martin kick right now.

What’s your greatest fear?

Cancer, house burning down, alligators (or crocodiles).

What’s the dumbest thing you ever tried to do?

Become an artist and not a rock star.

Quick word association exercise. Don’t think—just write!

cable

Shitty Marvel comics character

nostril

Nostradamus was full of shit and the people who believe him are idiots.

backward

This country

garden

Basil is my favorite scent perhaps of all time. Thyme is too.

“A cross-country hike in the dark”: An Interview with Guest Reader James Tate Hill

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You are the Fiction Editor for Monkeybicycle. How has this position influenced you as a writer?

This is a tough question, in part because I don’t think I’ve written any short stories since taking over as Fiction Editor in 2014. But all great fiction is fueled by bold choices, and because we only publish work shorter than 2,000 words, much of it shorter than 1,000 words, the risks of narrative, structure, and language are even more apparent than they might be in longer works. Writing novels sometimes feels like a cross-country hike in the dark, and few moments go by when you aren’t wondering if you’ve made a wrong turn. At the same time, a story is a story is a story, and all the wonderful pieces Monkeybicycle has been lucky to bring into the world remind me that narrative is a shape—many shapes, in fact— rather than a length.

You’re a novelist and a writer of creative nonfiction. Can you talk about your approach/process for both?

For me, writing a novel is painting, and writing nonfiction is sculpting. Fiction is inventing details and making narrative choices. Nonfiction is deciding what to leave out, giving shape to the unfathomable mass we call life. Both begin with voice, which, technically defined, is the hopeless attempt to make years of work sound natural and effortless.

What is your best piece of advice for writers of flash fiction?

Just because it’s short, it doesn’t have to be small. The emotions and worlds of flash fiction are the same size as those found in any novel.

What kind of story would you love to see in the queue this week?

Weird stories with a lot of heart, sad stories with a lot of humor, stories that contain a lot of story.

Issue 60 Playlist

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Listen along to Issue 60’s playlist on Spotify!

K.C. Mead-Brewer, “The Cover-up” – “Maneater” by Lower Dens

Lower Dens is a bright star in Baltimore’s dream pop sky. I like their cover of “Maneater” as a complement to “The Cover-up” not only for the sexual humor and cover/cover-up connection, but because it’s such a strong reinterpretation of the original song’s intention: It isn’t about a super confident, super sexy woman anymore. Now it has an almost melancholy irony to it, the titular maneater lacking the self-confidence that the lyrics imply, never letting anyone get too close.

Joy Baglio, “A Boy Who Does Not Remember His Father” – “Fantaisie for Violin and Harp in A Major, Op. 124: V. Andante con moto” Camille Saint-Saëns, Ruggiero Ricci, Susanna Mildonian

The violin in this piece creates a mood that feels akin to both the boy’s flights of imagination, as well as the loneliness, the sadness, the absence he feels. There is both a playful sense of vibrancy as well as a constant yearning, which reflects the mood of the story and seems like an apt parallel to the boy’s dreamlike visions of his father.

Alvin Park, “Whale Fall” (Grand Prize Winner) – “Switzerland” by Soccer Mommy

I feel like this is a song that the narrator and She would hold in their hearts at some point. The wistfulness of hanging onto love, of wanting to get away from things and start over again.

Samantha Burns, “Dark Little Spaces” – “Trust” by Flume

I found this song when I started this piece, and while I don’t usually listen to music with lyrics when I’m writing, the strangeness of it matched the tone of the piece and helped me get in the right headspace to work on it.

Kerry Cullen, “Taking Notes” – “Amie” by Damien Rice

To me, the narrator’s journey in this story is very much a coming of age. The world around her has suddenly become unsafe, and she responds by trying to learn how to keep not only her, but her own guardian safe, by herself. She knows this progression is a part of life (“Nothing unusual, nothing strange”) but at the same time, she still feels it very deeply, and she feels the existential malaise of going through something that everyone goes through, eventually, but that is still very difficult for her. (“But I’m not a miracle/And you’re not a saint/Just another soldier/On the road to nowhere”)

Jonathan Nixon, “Anywhere We’ve Ever Wanted” – “Brand New Sun” by Jason Lytle

I think this song really captures the yearning for something new. If Lydia and Viv were ever to take their road trip, I imagine “Brand New Sun” playing loudly on the radio while wind whips through the car’s open windows.

Elaine Edwards, “Satellite” (Third Place Winner) – “Arctic” by Sleeping at Last

For an instrumental, it more than hits every beat that I try to here, the melancholy and the depth and a vital, generous wonder.

Kathryn McMahon, “The Color of the Sea at Noon” – “Sadness Don’t Own Me” by the Staves

“Sadness Don’t Own Me” by the Staves and my story are both about someone not recognizing themselves because of how pain has shaped who they’ve become. This person needs to face their fears in order to make their way back to themselves, though they doubt they’ll do it.

Theresa Hottel, “Haunt” – “Phantasmagoria in Two” by Tim Buckley

I listen to this song a lot while writing. It makes me feel restless and haunted.

Jonathan Cardew, “’I’m Ron McRain,’ said Ron McRain,” – “The Whitby Lad” by The Watersons

The lad in this song could easily be Ron McRain; Whitby is obviously Whitby; and the refrain, “Oh son oh son, what have you done?” has a repetitive circularity to it, much like the title. Also, it’s a teeny-bit a love story, I think, so this verse:

“Oh, there is a lass in Whitby town, a girl that I love full well/ And it’s if I had me liberty, along with her I’d dwell.”

Jennifer Wortman, “A Matter Between Neighbors” – “I Need You” by Nick Cave

Like many great love songs, “I Need You” is also a dirge; its tender nihilism captures something of the mood I hope to evoke with my story.

Sara Allen, “The Reader in the Square” – “Nice For What” by Drake

It’s a flipped kind of girl power anthem. To me it’s a song about women being “real” and ignoring the scrutiny of social media, which could also be seen as an extension of the male gaze. I think it’s also about the fierceness of women despite their vulnerability when they love. . . that Lauryn Hill hook is killer. Also this song contains a big stylistic nod to New Orleans where my story is set.

Lyndsie Manusos, “Everything There is to Love on Earth” – “Under Stars” by AURORA

I imagined the character Zoe listening to this song to as she contemplates and processes her parents’ absence. It has a seemingly uplifting beat, but when you listen to the lyrics, it strikes me as a song about being alone in the universe.

Jessica Cavero, “Blemish” – “I Will Never” by Sóley 

I think about these girls staying together over the years and how tenuous the narrator’s sense of self might become. She might say to herself: “I love you, but it’s time to go. I will never ever be your woman.”

Josh Weston, “The Good Old Days” – “Weed Wacker” by Mark Kozelek

According to my wife, I’m not doing myself or anyone else any favors by contributing a Mark Kozelek song, but this is my current summer jam. It features a guy having an interaction with a stranger in a public place and having an existential crisis about it. Think of it as a flash lyric memoir set to a looped acoustic riff and enjoy.

Molia Dumbleton, “How Leopards Sleep” – “Father Kolbe’s Preaching” by Wojciech Kilar

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor

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This is a breathtaking piece. Let me begin by saying how much I admired the ambition of the story through the tension of its physical construction matching the tension of narration. It left me breathless until the last second when that ending, that last period, brought relief. Why did you make the choice to tell the story in one sentence? Are you usually experimental with your work?

I imagined that a good old friend who I had not seen in many years had visited me. I wanted to tell him about the story that I had been planning to write for months but had been very lazy to work on. And so I ended up chattering away the story to him on the pages of my notepad. It wasn’t until weeks later when I returned to the story that I realized what I had done. I wanted to tear up the entire thing. Had I written the story out of the euphoria of having an old friend visit? Was I willing to take up the risk that came with this sort of writing? Stories are a special, delicate thing to me. I am always deeply concerned by how stories are told. When I began to rewrite the story, breaking up its one-sentence form, the writing seemed dishonest to me, and I decided I would leave the story in its original one-sentence form. This conscious decision to tell the story in one sentence also stems from wanting to write a kind of story I would love to read. I don’t actively think of experimentation when I write. I am only a medium; I allow stories to lead me.

The use of this omniscient second person in this story means that it grabs the reader by the neck and forces them to watch, in fascination and horror, what is happening. Can you talk about how you arrived at that choice?

My imaginary friend arrived on a rainy night. I had returned from the gym, all wet and cold. I sat at my desk to a cup of hot chocolate, and there he was in my room, lying on my bed. As the house was exceptionally quiet and I was glad to have a visitor, I wanted to gossip away with my friend all night about this interesting boy who I had been observing for a while. And as it is with every gossip, the narrator seems to be everywhere and know everything.

I am fascinated by the character of the father in this story, in the absolute way in which he bends his surroundings to him, the overwhelming “maleness” of him. It is ironic, then, that there is a hint of a complaint, a sadness, at the boy’s mother not being able to see him for who he was, or at perhaps not seeing at all. How do you see those relationships?

Perhaps the boy’s mother sees the boy’s father, knows him for all he is, but yet she stays, taking all of it in, in the preconceived manner the world imposes how and how not women are to act. There are many permutations to those relationships. I come from a tradition—or traditions, as I’m Igbo and Catholic—where the man is often assumed to be a godlike figure and the woman is always expected to be submissive to the man, and marriage is such a sacred bond that the society is quick to ex-communicate either party that chooses to leave. In one way, the boy’s father is that dominant man who may care about family and still revels in the societal construct of male privilege, and the boy’s mother is that malleable woman who has to endure the man’s assholery so that she, too, is acceptable by society. In another way, like you rightly said, the boy’s mother is unable to see the man or she chooses not to see him. Perhaps this is her way of staying sane in a difficult marriage. Or perhaps she desires that the boy be raised in a “proper” family.

Reading this felt like an experience. What do you think it intends to leave the reader with?

I hope the reader enjoys reading the story as much as I enjoyed writing it. I hope the reader finds ways to experience the story in many other ways that I never did.

And because the brain that creates a story is just as interesting as what comes from it, I must know what drives you to write. Do you write short fiction a lot, and if so, what is it that you like about it?

I write because there are so many things—truths, especially—that I care about and would like for the rest of the world to care about as well. I write because my life will be meaningless without it. Above all, I write because it is one of the many things I love to do. For now, I do a lot of short fiction. I have plans for longer projects. But because I squander a lot of time looking up new food recipes and admiring contemporary male fashion on the internet and I divide my time between my day job as a business analyst and my active search for ways to further my engineering career, I haven’t quite gotten around to working on longer projects. This isn’t to say that my short fictions always take a short time to complete or are easier to do. There are short stories and flash fictions that have taken me two or three years to finish. I like that short fiction tasks me to create engaging worlds in few words. I like that I can go wild in short fiction and sustain this wildness in a short space.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Molly Giles

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As a celebrated short story writer with four (hello!) award-winning collections, you’re the perfect person to answer this question: How does your experience of writing flash differ from your experience of writing a short story?

It takes longer.

The image of the mother’s skull is grotesque and unforgettable and brilliant—the kind of image that sets a writer on her path. And so I’m curious to know if it’s the original impetus behind “It’s Over.” If not, can you share how you came to write your story?

The idea of the story came from—was stolen from—another writer whose pious but at the same time lip-smacking memoir about watching her mother’s cremation frankly upset me. The daughter didn’t seem to know how much she wanted her mother dead or how badly she needed to make damn sure she was. She appeared to be grieving but when she saw her mother’s hair flare up in the retort, for instance, she shouted, You look beautiful, Mom, and snickered. I was fascinated by the passive-aggression in her account—and repelled. I couldn’t begin to access its peculiar rich dark power; I failed, and I ended up, I think, watering my own fictional version down. I did add the image of the skull myself—that was fun to do—but the real story belongs to the first writer, and she hasn’t written it yet. Maybe someone reading this can.

The dynamic between sister and brother is finely rendered, yet form dictates that the reader has to infer much about the history they share with their mother. As you worked, how much of this history—if any—was fully formed in your mind?

In my mind, the mother damaged the brother more than the sister. I think the sister escaped. The mother perhaps kept the brother home too long, depended on him too heavily both for physical and emotional support, belittled him, spoiled him, and soured his sexual life with her jealousy and need for control. He was the hurt child to me.

Many of us in the U.S. grow up being told to share! Share! SHARE! our feelings, but now I’m wondering about the wisdom of that advice. This brother and sister, after all, connect profoundly in their agreed-upon silence. Do we talk too much? What role can/should silence play in our relationships?

I love Samuel Beckett, his pauses and ellipses, so perhaps I try to emulate him too much in my writing. In my life, I am a chatterbox, and if I had been the sister I would have been rattling away in the crematorium like a magpie. Most people who know me have the sense not to listen.

And finally, you taught fiction writing at various universities for many years. Can you drop into teacher mode for a moment and share some advice on character development in general or, if you like, within the confines of flash?

Oh gosh—character development within the confines of flash … that’s a hard one. Does this line from Mark Twain help? “She was not quite what you would call refined. She was not quite what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot.” Maybe that’s a thumbnail sketch rather than an actual story, but it tells me so much. I have also long loved Richard Brautigan’s “A fifty-three-year-old cat burglar from Santa Monica.” And I once tried to define an entire Southern city with a story titled “Honk If You Love Jesus.” The story consisted of a single word, endlessly repeated down the page: “HonkHonkHonkHonk” etc.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Theresa Hottel

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Theresa, what was the impetus for this story? 

I wrote the first draft of “Haunt” when I was feeling fragmented and almost debilitatingly nostalgic about certain memories. But these were memories I’d embellished and mulled over to such an extent I couldn’t tell if they were real or not. In fact, I knew that most weren’t. Still, I felt troubled by the feeling that I’d left something important in the past.

I wanted to fictionalize and explore this phenomenon on the page, to write about a mind looping on itself. I also itched to write a story sort of unhinged in time. The younger sister’s disappearance locked everything into place by helping me put these abstract feelings of loss into a more concrete form. Once I had that element, I could write this story.

I found myself thinking a lot about the boogeyman after I read your story—more critically than usual. What makes the boogeyman, in any form, so pervasive in human consciousness? What does he stand for that we can’t just write off and move on from?

Perhaps the boogeyman is pervasive because he is simultaneously so vague and so personal. He doesn’t seem to have an established form or method; instead he’s a catch-all symbol of the unknown, a hazy embodiment of terror to which you can attach your fears. At the same time, adults tell children the boogeyman will get them for very specific faults. He’s a personal monster tailored to your weaknesses. He cares whether you sort your socks, feed your cat, go down the off-limits road ….

In the story, I feel the protagonist is afraid of but also invigorated by the thought of a boogeyman, an entity that exists in hostile counterpoint to the established home.

You have some wonderful sentences. One that sticks out is toward the beginning: “They were barefoot walking home, dark dots darting in their cupped hands.” My question is, during your writing process, how do you know a sentence is finished? The way it sounds? The grammar? Your gut?

Thank you! It really varies and is a combination of the things you list. My sentences can be vague at first, so as I’m polishing I try to be alert to bland verbs and nouns. I try to get more specific with sensory details and to use each sentence as an opportunity to build a particular atmosphere. Towards the end I have to pretend I’m someone else, someone with very high standards, reading dispassionately and totally unimpressed. I adjust sentences until that person uncrosses their arms and nods—fine.

But ultimately it has a lot to do with sound, especially the number of syllables that feels right for various moments.

I was fascinated by the lack of dialogue in the story as I read along. Everything seems so quiet and contemplative, I felt like her sister’s disappearance was unspeakable to her—unknowable, too. Then, as she buries her tooth, in a moment when neither the protagonist nor the audience knows if it’s a dream, her sister speaks. It’s a stirring moment. You make two lines of dialogue seem so loud. What can quiet give to a story that action can’t?

For me, that unspeakability and unknowability is absolutely central to the story, but then there’s the challenge of not alienating a reader. I hoped to lull readers in with an engaging set of images that operated according to an emotional logic, for the quietness and haziness to make sense because the piece is so interior. I think dialogue, especially everyday dialogue, would puncture this interiority since a spoken line is so concrete and tied to a specific time. It could jolt readers out of the dream and put the focus on the exterior circumstance.

So instead it’s a matter of puncturing, or jolting, at the right moment. One spoken exchange between the sisters seemed right to me. I hoped it would give the moment weight.

There were moments in this story that felt cinematic. So, in that spirit, if you were to cast these characters in a short film, who would you pick to play each role?

Oh wow, the possibilities ….

If it could be anyone, the young sisters would be played by Ana Torrent and Isabel Telleria from Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive. In that movie they are experts at looking moody and pensive while staring at landscapes! For the others, I don’t know.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Kerry Cullen

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This is a beautiful story about what a person deciding what to take note of in the face of calamity. I was particularly struck by the things the narrator documents—after the first sentence, words are hardly mentioned—and by the instruments used: symbols and doodles, a taped bandage, Polaroids, a graphite rubbing of tire treads, a hole punch recording the “glum shine” of stars. They become less and less “likely,” but convey their own lyrical truth. Could you talk about note taking, in this story and in life? Are you a good note taker?

I’m a terrible note taker. I use one notebook for everything, so I’ve often gone back to college or grad school notebooks looking for class notes only to find a few lines of rigorous notes that turn into a journal entry or a short story with no indication. I’ll find a chunk of writing and have no way of knowing whether it’s a journal entry or a fiction, so I’ll be thinking wow, I was really going through a rough time there—and then I grew a shell and turned into a snail, apparently?

This story was inspired by a real thing that happened: two summers ago, I woke up to a bunch of missed calls and my mom was in the hospital. My mom is a nurse, so she is the rock of our family whenever anyone else is in the hospital: She’s the one who is able to communicate with doctors. Since in this case she couldn’t be in that role, I figured I would have to try, which meant writing down every single thing I could—to the point where it did almost get a little absurd. I had a list of nurses’ names with their physical descriptions because I knew at some point my brother would come take over for me and I wanted him to know who everyone was. I don’t know if any of it was remotely useful.

The reader enters “Taking Notes” in the middle, with almost no back story or explanation except that there was a fall by the narrator’s mother. While writing, did you, do you, have an idea of the parts of the story the reader doesn’t know and doesn’t need to know? How do you decide what to include and what to leave out of a story?

I did! It’s funny; I think of this as mostly nonfiction, but when I look back, I realize that isn’t true at all: In that time in my life, there were plenty of other people bustling in and out—we were at the hospital where my mom works, so she had many friends visiting, lots of family came to see her, and my boyfriend drove me to the hospital and was around most of the time. I excluded all of that because I was trying to get to the truth of how I felt at the time, so I didn’t want to make room for other characters (although I very much appreciated their presence at the time).

This piece is very compressed—three concise paragraphs. You have also published typical-length short stories and essays and have spoken of working on a novel. What dictates the form a work will take in terms of length and approach?

In regard to this one, I set out to write a very short story, and those parameters made the other decisions easy. I tend to choose a form very early in having an idea, and that form then shapes the idea.

In a recent guest blog post, you quote the last two lines of Yeats’ poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” which may be my all-time favorite passage of poetry. What are some of your influences, literary or otherwise?

Oh, I love hearing that! I love that poem so dearly. I fell for it when I was twelve and didn’t understand it at all, so it keeps yielding new meanings the longer I live with it. My other influences for short writings with any poetic sensibility at all are Sarah Manguso, Matthea Harvey, Kathy Fish, Richard Siken, Ocean Vuong. For full-length short stories, my favorites are Karen Russell, George Saunders, Hannah Tinti, Laura van den Berg, and Claire Vaye Watkins, and for novels I’m influenced by Justin Torres, Catherine Lacey, Madeline Miller, Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, and Claire Messud. Ideally, I would like my writing to be a composite of all the aforementioned brains.

The last line—”I am keeping you safe”—is so brave and resolute. What do you strive to keep safe?

Oh, that one’s easy. My mother. And anyone or thing else that I could fathom to keep safe through close and obsessive observation.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Molia Dumbleton

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The first question I always like to ask is if you could tell us a little about your process and craft for this story.

I think the most efficient thing to say here is that I knew I wanted to try to tell a story from the inside of a panic attack. I wanted to try to capture that sort of swirling, disassociative mess, when you’re sort of creating a tornado and trying to get out of it all at the same time.

I’m interested in the ways this story deals with various threats of violence: the deer and leopards, Fig’s unsettling presence, the rabbits to be hunted the next day. Can you tell us more about the process of layering these threats into the narrative?

Hmmm … OK. The honest answer? Here goes: I think there’s a very distinct feeling to living in the body of a prey animal, or perceiving yourself that way—and when you live like that, everything around you carries with it a certain threat of violence. (Sorry, that’s so dark! Dark question, dark answer, right?) Sometimes I watch people out in the world who just … live inside their bodies with no sense that they are prey, and it’s just so fascinating and enviable, isn’t it? I mean, to feel strong and capable of defending yourself at all times? It must be amazing! Then I see rabbits out munching away on some lawn and I think, how do you even manage? Why aren’t you trembling in the corner watching cartoons and eating comfort foods in your little hole all day long? I mean, at least I have a few—and Naadi has a few—places (and “places”) where we can retreat, lock the door, and tell ourselves we’re safe. Where can a rabbit go? They’re the ultimate in vulnerable.

Similarly, there seem to be various forms of isolation layered into the story. What was it like to work that in and balance it with the threats of violence?

I live in fear of these kinds of isolation—not at all the rural or being-alone kinds of isolation (both of which I love), but the isolation you feel when you’ve given up a layer of self-determination. Even something as simple as letting someone else drive you somewhere, or going somewhere you don’t really want to go, or being trapped under someone’s arm, or being mis-perceived a certain way and just letting that happen…they all take away one layer of being able to decide for yourself, don’t they?

But there are all of these normal little agreements we make where Yeah, OK, I’ll go along with this, and Yeah, OK, I’ll go along with that …. The steps are so little and one at a time and generally so not specifically disagreeable that it would be seen as strange to demur—but every once in a while, several layers down, we find ourselves in a situation we know we don’t really want to be in, but it’s sort of too late, right?

I think that “Cat Lady” story resonated with so many people because this sentiment maybe isn’t as unusual as we’d thought—and it obviously seems more than a little involved in #metoo, too. I guess this is the kind of isolation I was really trying to point to, as well as the isolation that comes from not really feeling like you can say anything unless—until—there’s some specific, clear, logical, and concrete complaint. Of course, by the time there is, the sequence of agreements you’ve made is generally so far gone that it’s hard to explain how you let yourself get there in the first place.

Your story incorporates the narrator’s memory of their Dadi and how and when memories resurface. What drew you to investigating this how/when for your character?

I’ve always just assumed that everyone has a very personal relationship with their own little brand of panic, and also has an evolving stable of little go-to, talk-me-down comforts they can turn to. I’m so incredibly curious about thiswhat a museum it would be!—but it somehow feels too personal to ask people, are there certain things they do, rituals they have, or even certain shows they watch when they’re sort of losing it?

I sort of tried this during a difficult period, after a significant loss. I asked my Facebook people if they had any very psyche-gentle television recommendations (a friend paraphrased this as “basically, the television version of Goodnight Moon”), and I was shocked by some of the recommendations people made. Who would enlist Call the Midwife as a soothing mechanism? But to each their own. Anyway, I suppose this whole line of thinking was probably swirling somewhere in the back of my mind, along with Dadi and Truman.

How do you view the relationship between the constraint of the story form (flash fiction) and the constraint in the story itself, such as the dark, the boyfriend’s arm, the cabin?

Fascinating question. I guess I hadn’t viewed that as a relationship! I’m in love with the constraint of the flash form. When I teach, I call it “fertile constraint,” and I’m such a huge believer in it. In terms of the constraint of the cabin, the arm, the dark … those are honestly my nightmare. Opposite of fertile constraint! Opposite of fertile constraint!

The thing I can’t shake about this story is that somewhere in that room, Naadi knows that Jeremy’s car keys have to be in the pocket of his jeans, and it would just be a matter of standing up, finding them, and driving away. Have we all been in situations where we play that little escape scenario on a loop, but don’t do it?

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Eliezra Schaffzin

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This very humorous story shows a person communicating with another species with some advanced technology. Do you have a desire to upload information to a non-human being? Do you think it will ever be possible?

I’m obviously amused and delighted by the fantastical notion of interspecies communication. (I’ve wondered plenty—who doesn’t?—what’s really going on between dogs and their humans, and I’m as much of a sucker for microscopic cuteness as the next person.) But in writing a story like this one, and in writing fiction in general, I’d say my real concern is whatever communication I might manage to achieve with my own species. That’s what seems most difficult to me, and most worthwhile.

It seems like you had to research tardigrades for this story, unless you were already familiar with them. Do you often research for your art? What was the process of writing this story like?

Before I wrote this story, I didn’t know a thing about tardigrades—I came pretty late to the mania about them that apparently thrives in certain regions of the Internet. It was ultimately human fascination with tardigrades that drew me to them, particularly what seemed to drive that interest: a sense that their survival skills predict they will one day be “the last life on Earth.” (Tardigrades were “discovered” in 1773, but I suspect it’s the trifecta of recent research on their resilience, the adorable 3D renderings of this micro-animal that we can produce and circulate in our time, and our mounting sense of planetary doom that has led to their present popularity.)

It was through reading some of the science that I formed my own understanding of their significance to humans, and the story came from there. In writing the story, I also embraced scientific imprecision (beyond the main conceit) where it made sense; my loyalty was not to the science of tardigrades but to the understanding my narrator had of this creature. I learned they are not, for instance, true extremophiles—they don’t adapt to catastrophe, only endure it. The narrator’s mistake when it comes to this distinction is relevant to what the tardigrade has to teach her by the story’s end.

You know, since you’ve asked, I do often research (somewhat casually) as I write, and often that research has to do with science. It used to come as a surprise to me that I turn so often, in my fiction, to science, technology, medicine … as any scientist reading my work is bound to recognize, I have absolutely no training in any of it! But I’ve realized that there is something in science that sparks my literary imagination. Part of this is because science is (currently) the means by which we all understand ourselves and our world, fundamentally (whether we agree with what science has to say, or not). I think that’s why science presents itself to me as a kind of mythology, with its own fascinating—and very human—internal rules and fallibilities. When I read a little snippet of science, it tends to strike me allegorically. I get an itch to play with the established facts of our universe, figure out where they might reveal something to us beyond the bounds of what science has declared to be true, something literature might uniquely have to offer. I think that’s why my narrator goes to the tardigrade on scientific terms, and, thanks to the tardigrade’s take on things, leaves with an answer that is, I hope, quintessentially literary.

We get a glimpse of this narrator’s life with this line: “I can’t withstand the pressure of a match.com date, even though my biological clock is ticking down loudly to generational extinction.” Not only is this funny, but also it gives the reader a glimpse of the narrator’s current stressors. How did you decide how much of the narrator’s personal life to include in the story?

I admit that my choice of these details, and where they belonged in the story, happened instinctively (and unexpectedly, since I’m pretty sure Internet dating was farthest from my mind when I sat down to write). Once I’d written the line, I asked myself what the heck I was doing, and I decided it belonged. I wanted my narrator to be something of an everywoman, and I let the story define for me what “everywoman” meant: She had to struggle with survivalist behavior in her everyday life.

At the end, the narrator says, “That’s why I’d come to the tardigrade. I knew she would have the last word.” Why does the narrator take comfort in the tardigrade’s final gesture? Was the narrator looking for confirmation that the nature of humanity is “nasty business,” as the tardigrade said?

That’s a thoughtful way of putting it—that the narrator was looking for confirmation. I do feel that the narrator wanted the tardigrade to share her low opinion of the state of humanity; maybe she thought the only way she could commiserate about this state was to talk about it with a non-human. And I suppose that by introducing the tardigrade to humanity via Twitter, she’s encouraging the “nasty business” assessment. But the narrator also hopes the tardigrade will offer a solution to the problem, something that will increase the odds that humanity will survive the fallout of its supposed “nastiness.” I think that in the answer she gives the narrator, the tardigrade shifts the terms of the problem (of our supposed nastiness, or profligacy, or impunity) as well as its solution. So the tardigrade does have the last word, specifically because it is not the last word our narrator expected. Scientific inquiry can sometimes yield unexpected results, not just confirmations, but I guess I’m revealing my own bias here in suggesting that fiction always uncovers the unexpected. It definitely does for me as I write it. I usually come in pretty confident about where I’m headed and then get knocked on my ass. I figure that if I don’t, I’m probably doing it wrong.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Jennifer Wortman

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This is a powerful piece about loneliness, about what people will do to make that feeling go away, but here, that just seems to lead to guilt and regret. What’s worse, at the end: this woman missing her husband or her feeling like she has to tell this story, justify her actions to whomever she’s telling it to?

Missing her husband. My husband is alive and well, but I’ve lost others I’ve loved, and not much is worse. Plus, I don’t view this woman’s need to tell this story as sad. Guilt and justification definitely figure in, but her main impetus, for me, is to make a little sense of the madness of grief and to break through her isolation by sharing her experience.

I have a broad view of this narrator, because this story belongs to a series of stories, mostly still unwritten, about her. Each story shows her navigating her loss in different ways. But she will probably have more sex, because I like writing about sex. And she will probably feel more guilt and regret, because I like writing about guilt and regret.

Your story made me think of Charlie Rose, how he’d walk around with no pants on at work, his special brand of sexual harassment. I’ve heard that he and Matt Lauer and other creepy celebs want to go on TV, roundtable-style, to apologize, tell their story, save their careers, etc., which is the worst idea in the history of ideas. But really, I pray they do it: Wouldn’t that be the biggest car crash of a TV show ever? I’d make popcorn. Would you watch that?

Nothing could persuade me to watch that.

What’s your best cure for loneliness?

Loneliness can be a bear, even if you’re lucky enough to have great people in your life. I can’t say I’ve found a cure. But a good hug from my husband or kids helps. Barring that, I turn to my weighted blanket and a mind-numbing amount of Netflix.

When you originally submitted this, it was called “The Living Room.” I can guess why you changed it (or why we asked you to change it), but will you tell the story?

Titles are hit or miss for me. When I can’t come up with a good title, I just try to pick one that isn’t bad, and sometimes I fail. I chose “The Living Room” because the story opens in the living room, the name of which takes on extra meaning in the wake of death. But Tara suggested the title didn’t quite capture the story, and, in hindsight, I agreed: It’s both heavy handed and off the mark, emphasizing the story’s beginning at the expense of the rest. We decided to provisionally go with “Neighbors,” which, if broad, was at least less strained. From there, after scouring the story for a motif that would sharpen the title, I came up with “A Matter Between Neighbors”; I think it sums up the story without giving too much away, while also evoking a detachment and ambiguity that fits the narrator’s mindset.

The inciting incident of this story is when your protagonist walks into her living room, naked, while her neighbor is waiting on the couch. She claims it was an accident, and does so in past tense, adding perspective, but I don’t really believe her, hence an unreliable narrator. And the way she keeps adding details to her story, making it less believable, recalls the universal paradox. That’s seven vocabulary terms in less than 900 words—I want to assign this to my intro classes next semester … only it’s pretty graphic for that audience, all the sadness and fingering and whatnot. What do you think?

First off, I’m honored that you’d even consider teaching my story. Thank you! I also appreciate your breakdown: I usually throw myself into the writing without consciously thinking of such things, so I always learn something when someone points out the craft.

As for the story’s suitability for intro-class students, I get why you’d think twice. But from what I remember, sadness and fingering—and then some—are pretty much college graduation requirements. It probably won’t hurt them.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Elaine Edwards

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Tell me about the process of writing this story. Where did the initial idea come from? Did you know it was going to be a flash story from the beginning?

Bits and pieces of “Satellite” sat in my drafts as the unfinished “astronaut apocalypse” suite for years, a sprawling ramble of a short story about someone sent into space just before the end of the world. Slowly, it became more about the person she was leaving behind, but in a longform piece there was still too much clutter. I’m a coward, and my words are, too. I’ll walk around and around the edges of something forever rather than say it outright. It took stepping back and writing some poetry about the first woman on the moon, some flash about a shipwreck, some creative Frankensteining, and a lot (a lot) of time to get this to a place where it could just brush up against all these immense ideas—space and the ocean and fear and love—without becoming overwhelmed by them. As a flash, the effect is (hopefully) subtle and artful, rather than just me being frustratingly, uh, noncommittal.

Though I should also add that this is a long way away from that original concept. I like to think Helen makes it home just fine!

There is a childlike wonder in this story that I love—the cartwheels, the idea of space, the simplicity of the way the story is told. It balances out the heavy bits about the dangers of traveling and the worry and love between these two people. Was this intentional? How did you strike that balance?

I like paradoxes. I like the way we collectively boil down ferocious, complex concepts into tiny, fragile, human words. I like the way we open the door to invite the world in even though we know that, eventually, the dinner party will end. Because our most interesting moments happen in the betweens, when we allow ourselves to feel and be multiple things at once, it’s important to me that, for instance, when I talk about my fear of losing you, the reason I’m afraid—that I love you—doesn’t itself get lost behind the fear.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call it intentional, but I’ve very clearly got a bias in that the way the narrator feels for Helen is echoed in the way she talks about space and the sea. There’s an awe, a tender reverence, in the way she approaches even their capacity for danger, and it’s my hope that in our search for anything we maintain that sort of unselfconscious curiosity and kindness, but especially when we look around at the world and at each other.

Strangely enough, my son and I practice our cartwheels every night before bed. Do you have any odd bedtime rituals? 

My work schedule usually makes my only ritual a long drive home and then straight into bed, but on the days I’m off, my pre-bed bubble bath ritual is a sacred one. We’re talking vintage silk robe, two-candle minimum, lavender Epsom salts, glass of wine and a playlist of ’40s hits (heavy on the Ink Spots or bust).

What was the last book you read that made you depressed when it ended (because it was that good)? 

Writer card revoked, but I haven’t felt this way about a book in a long time, which speaks less to the quality of the books out there than to the quality of my reading habits. I can say that at the moment I’m in the middle of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and I hope I never finish.

I hear this is your first publication! So exciting! And I’m sure will not be your last. What else are you writing/working on?

Thank you! I’m working on a wildly self-indulgent novel about some broody seaside detectives (think lesbian Broadchurch). It’s a little about guilt and redemption, and a little more about family, and mostly, there are boats. So if any of that’s up your alley, stay tuned.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Josh Weston

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In your story, your protagonist is involved in an awkward confrontation that both scares him and acts as an amusing anecdote to use with his friends. Tell us an anecdote you have of a very public and awkward encounter.

My wife Mara and I went out with our friends Rob and Christina to the Blue Dog Tavern here in Grand Rapids. The second time I got up to use the bathroom there was a line. Well, one guy. Not an uncommon thing for a small bar bathroom to fill up. We chatted. When the guy who’d been using the bathroom came out, I heard the lock unlock and understood: He’d been taking a dump, the bathroom was small, he’d wanted privacy. Understandable. I said as much to the guy I was waiting with as we went in. He took the regular toilet, I the urinal. We stood back to back, separated by a couple inches. Apropos nothing he mentioned how he’d just gotten out of the Marines. I said, “Cool.” When I returned to the table I told Mara and Rob and Christina about the bathroom’s strange design, the unpartitioned regular toilet in line with the urinal. Rob said, “That’s a one-person bathroom, you moron!” and cast my cozy interaction in a whole new light.

What else is on the insecure Soda Buyer’s grocery list?

Red Baron, meat-lovers (don’t ask).

One of the strengths of this story is your ability to include a plethora of precise description in under one thousand words. What advice can you give on how to find space in a flash piece to include in-depth detail?

I think the richness of the detail works in this story because it’s mimicking the guy’s state of mind. He’s in store mode. I based his store mode on mine, so I can tell you: Supercenters tend to make him feel anxious, almost claustrophobic, as if his brain confused an abundance of space with no space, an infinitude of products with no choice whatsoever. If you’re someone who has grocery store existential crises, you either try Shipt or make a plan for getting in and out fast. My guy knows the layout of the Knapp’s Corner Meijer and organizes his lists in an optimal circuit. His eyes are peeled. He’s analyzing his environment. Which is my whole narrational scheme. That boils down to The details should be in service to the story, but ugh, that sounds unhelpful.

Tell us: What is the most surreal event you’ve witnessed in a grocery store?

On Easter Sunday 2017, I wanted Ben and Jerry’s. Walgreens was closed, so I drove up to the twenty-four-hour Family Fare. The marquee read Open Easter Sunday. I had to push my way through the automated door, but that’s nothing new. The Fare in my neighborhood is janky. I walked around some people clustered in a loose huddle around the unstaffed customer service desk and hit the ice cream aisle. When I went to pay every single self-checkout lane I passed was closed. Which was odd. What was even odder: Every cashier-staffed lane was also closed. I turned around, confused. There was another guy about my age with a bag of chips standing there equally confused. I noticed a security guard scowling at us in the entryway and asked, “What’s up with the checkouts?”

“Store’s closed!” he said. His head was shaved and his left eye was twitching like mad.

“So like,” I held up my ice cream so he could see, “there’s no way to buy this then … obviously?”

“Obviously!”

Boy, was I ticked. I thought about setting the Chocolate Therapy down on the magazine rack, but chickened out. I walked it back to the ice cream aisle and put it with the Cool Whip. As I left I saw that the badge on the security guard’s shoulder read Grand Rapids Police. A real cop? As I pulled out of the parking lot two GRPD cruisers whipped in. Apparently, I found out a few days later, the Fare had closed early for Easter. They had it all on tape. The manager locked the doors and left. Then, a while later, some guy walked up and tried the door, but it was locked. Then another guy tried it and found it locked. But when a third guy tried, the door opened, and over time more and more people filed in, assuming, from the cars in the lot and the unlocked door, that the store was open. I’m not sure why the cop was so mad. He probably resented having to watch over a store thanks to what he assumed was an incompetent, perhaps even criminally malicious, employee. I ended up driving all the way out to Meijer for my ice cream. Meijer doesn’t give a shit about Easter.

When sitting down with the protagonist of your story, you ask him what was so great about the good old days. He tells you …?

I had no idea what to title this story. The only thing that came to mind was “The Good Old Days,” but that was plainly bad, and what would it even mean? The best I came up with was “Mia,” the name of the woman on the Land O’Lakes logo, which in its previous incarnations was famous for its Droste effect, or mise en abyme, i.e., the placing of an image within an image in a way that suggests turtles all the way down. I liked the recursiveness and the pun on M.I.A., but how many Land O’Lakes employees and pop culture professors would end up reading this piece of flash fiction? I have reasons why I stuck with “The Good Old Days,” but they’d take more space than we have and boil down to “speculative fiction.” My protagonist would probably say the good old days were great, but the tellers of good-old-days stories tend to want more from their audience than anyone could ever give.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with KC Mead-Brewer

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Your story’s protagonist has a history of eroticizing mythology. What was your first encounter with the “innocent” turned erotic, and, like Faye, how have you used this to your advantage?

If I’m being honest, it was probably an old episode of a Batman cartoon. I can’t remember what the episode was about, but for a long time I was haunted by the visual of Robin chained up in a dark place just before Batman swooped in to save him, tenderly carrying the young man away. As a little kid, I didn’t know what to do with this scene or why it made me feel so “weird.” For my fiction now, I often pan for memories of small, distinct ghosts like this, things that made me feel frightened or ashamed or turned on (or all of the above) and use them to sharpen my characters. Erotic memories and details are especially choice fodder, I think, because they can help to quickly ground a character’s physical body, making said character (and their story) much more relatable.

When you become a genie, what do you find in your smoke?

Oh, I love this question! In my smoke there glints a great many fangs and flashing eyes, there’s tons of sex, monsters and reptiles and fragmented memories of my biological father, a girl I shouted at in the fifth grade, deep inferiority issues, wind chimes, bats, trees, lots of trees, resentments, childlessness, my mother, Depression, a variety of pointy-hatted churches, lanterns, guilt, arrogance, all the people I’ve let down, a whorl of books, all the lies I’ve told, and all the lies I’m going to tell.

There is an irony in Faye feeling pressure to prove her validity as an artist by tattooing an image not considered “high art.” What advice would you give her while she struggled to balance the two?

My Dear Faye:

Not everything has to mean Everything. It’s OK to let work be work. It’s OK if work is difficult or if it’s fun or if it feels frivolous or overwhelming sometimes. None of that makes you less meaningful as a person or as an artist. You don’t have to explain or justify your work to anyone, least of all your mother. You’re already a success.

Faye is exceptional at covering up creations and covering up to create. Does this process parallel your own when writing fiction?

Oh, absolutely. I’m a deceptively private person. I’m not a hugger or much of a sharer, though I get the impression that people think I share a great deal. Under the cloak of fiction, though, I feel safe enough to truly share things. Similar to what Faye does with her artist bio pic, I’ll often start on a new project by thinking about something petty—something I might not even admit to my spouse or therapist or best friend—and use that as the skeleton around which to hang the magical flesh of a story. My pettiness fascinates me. My fears and my anger fascinate me. Fiction gives me the cover necessary to uncover the grossness in myself and make it into something new.

Please list some things you find “wet as shit.”

Celebrity, nostalgia, the internet, Batman and Robin—anything that uses the art of disguise to become more powerful.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Sam Burns 

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The story is presented in sections. Each section delivers the reader to a different setting and a different time, while centering around the black-haired girl. What prompted you to structure the story in this way? Did you decide on this method prior to drafting the piece, or did it happen organically throughout your writing process?

The structure of this story happened organically. I didn’t initially have this story written in so many sections, but after several drafts I realized that I had narrative problem (lack of precision) and a structural problem (the story didn’t have much velocity). Once I stripped away other parts of the story and was left with just the most essential sections of the action, it started to work.

Your use of pronouns in this piece provides an element of ambiguity, which intensifies the haunting tone. Could you say more about the premise of the story? Specifically, how were you inspired to construct the character of the “girl,” and what does she work to symbolize?

The girl came to me in two parts. The visual of her came from an image in a dream I had two years ago. I’ve never been a person who deeply analyzes my dreams or keeps a dream journal, but for some reason this image really stayed with me and was something I don’t think my waking, more rational mind would have come up with. I kept the idea of her in the back of my head for a long time. Then in the year leading up to this story, I was thinking a lot about intimacy and how we have to negotiate the parts of our partners we don’t always want to acknowledge, especially in how it relates to their romantic past.

I think the girl symbolizes a number of things: the speaker’s jealousy as well as her humanity, the husband’s literal past, the girl’s own primality in addition to the speaker’s, and a connection to some sort of spiritual intensity, whether it’s death or something else. I like to think of the girl as open to a number of interpretations. She’s both a character and something more allegorical, which is one of the reasons I decided to keep the ambiguity the pronouns offered.

Much of the story is infused with poetic description. Do you read and write across multiple genres? I am curious both about your writing process for this story as well as your overall experience with genres outside of flash fiction. 

Generally, when I start a fiction piece I have a set structure to begin with, a set of parameters or a couple structural moves that I tell myself I need to make happen. I use the parameters as a box I try to work my way out of. It’s a little mind game I play with myself in order to make the number of choices I have seem smaller than they actually are, and then the story takes on its own life and outgrows the structure I’ve imposed on it. I never start writing with an explicit plan of, I want the reader to understand “X idea” by the end.But I do start with the box as a way in, and then the writing process is attenuating myself to the capacities of the story, really listening to what it wants to become (in terms of the images and the voice), and once I understand that, revising relentlessly towards it. In this case, I wrote a bunch of drafts that didn’t work, but each one got me closer to understanding the speaker and her relationships. Then the last couple drafts were just revising with that intention in mind.

I love reading every genre. Right now, I’m reading Eavan Boland’s book of essays Object Lessons and Danez Smith’s poetry collection Don’t Call Us Dead. Last month I was really blown away by Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. I like it all.

As far as writing in other genres,I try to write a little poetry as well. It requires a huge amount of precision, which is the best kind of challenge for me. Personally, I find writing poetry more difficult than fiction because poems leap seamlessly from idea to idea and image to image, while in fiction I feel more grounded because I know the mechanics of a story a bit better. I have more structural tools I can draw on when things aren’t lining up. But I get a lot from writing poetry! I’m going to keep working at it. It’s useful as well to have a lot of failed poems because even if the images don’t coalesce as a whole, the process of trying to make that happen always helps my fiction. I learn something new every time.

How many drafts of “Dark Little Spaces” did you compose? Is there anything significant that you edited out of the story?

This is probably the eighth draft of this story. There have been so many significant changes. I wrote and edited out several scenes—it was much more dramatic five drafts ago. There was a dead cat and a confrontation on a staircase. Only my sister read that draft! It makes me cringe even thinking about it. But I knew there was something good inside of all that, so I kept working. Little by little all the things that were inessential got stripped away, both in the narrative and the imagery. And by the end of that process, I had this draft.

What is the single best thing that has happened to you in the last month?

A delightful pair of clogs just came into my life in the color “pineapple.”

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Alvin Park

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Though you never blatantly state it, a whale lurks at the heart of this story. And it got me to thinking, what is it about this mammal that makes it so perfect for metaphor? What drew you to the image of a beached whale?

This story was inspired by at least three whale-related media items:

  • I can’t find the article now, but I’d read about a group of beached whales that had been found with tons of plastic and garbage in their stomachs but were still somehow underweight.
  • About a year after moving Portland, I’d learned about the exploding whale incident on the coast of Oregon in 1970.
  • I stumbled on a video illustrating whale fall, which is when a whale dies at sea, decomposes, and essentially turns into this thriving, localized ecosystem.

I think I was drawn to whales as these beautiful, grand creatures—the fact that they’re the largest mammals on the planet that are also so incredibly vulnerable that they can ultimately be used and broken down.

This story keeps doubling back on the notion of hunger and consumption. The town has a hunger, the creature has a hunger, the main character and their wife hunger. And in this story hunger does not lead to fulfillment. How soon in the process of writing “Whale Fall” did you settle on this notion of hunger leading to blight?

This question makes me realize that food and hunger tend to be pretty common in a lot of my stories (I’m a Taurus). Anyway, I guess I landed on that idea pretty early on. I think of hunger as the most basic form of want and desire, of “not having enough” in the most physiological, inescapable sense.

Hunger or desire of any kind can be hard to fulfill. No matter how much you eat, as full as you get, your body will break all that food down, and you’ll be hungry again within a few hours. It’s a cycle with ebbs and flows.

I was very pleasantly surprised by the passage at the heart of the story where the narrator describes listing things. It makes me wonder about motivation: if the listing is an attempt to prepare for forgetfulness to come or if it’s something else, something darker. You’re able to create the feeling of mystery in a passage about clarifying things and chronicling them. Why do you think you landed on this passage as you wrote the story? Do you feel an act of articulation only creates more mystery?

As a writer, I think that the worst way to show that a character is in love is for them to say, “I love you,” but anyway!

Like you said, that list is a way for the narrator to prepare for the potential forgetfulness and remember the good times, but it’s also them trying to draw a portrait of this person that they fell in love with and trying to figure out where it might have gone wrong. That does kind of create more mystery. Because it’s sort of a futile act, right? Once, my friend asked me why I liked the color blue, and I got increasingly more frustrated because, as much as I can try to articulate it, it really just comes down to “Because I do.” Maggie Nelson wrote an entire book about it!

In the same way, as much as the narrator is trying to define love or give substance to it, they’re really just listing out moments and little details about their wife. Those moments and details clearly matter, but it’ll always be incomplete, biased, insubstantial. There isn’t always a clear answer to why. Sometimes people fall in love, and sometimes people just fall out of love. Trying to articulate it only really builds more questions. I guess that’s the mystery of it.

If Ahab, Jonah, Pinocchio, and Tom Waits walked into a bar, which of them would tell the story of this whale and why?

Oh, man, I’ll say Pinocchio, just because I can absolutely imagine a puppet boy piled with the trash and metal that the whale swallowed, but hearing Tom Waits sing about starving in the belly of this whale in his raspy voice would be pretty great.

How soon in the process of writing did you realize how the story would end? For you as a writer, what does the ending mean?

Endings are still an enigma to me. Sometimes I get the ending and work backwards. Other times I can get to it naturally. And then there are stories like this one where the ending is an ordeal. I mean, I’m sure I had a draft where the narrator and She both succumb to the amnesia but meet each other and fall in love all over again, but that ending feels really empty and invalidates Her feelings and experiences in an awful way. I just wanted to end in a way that felt right to the story and the characters, which maybe isn’t saying much considering everyone in that world still has to deal with the hunger.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Kathryn McMahon

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This story draws from the mythology of selkies, which are half-seal, half-human creatures. Did you start with the mythology as your inspiration, or was something else the catalyst for this piece?

The first three lines sprung up together, and I was struck by this selkie who was afraid to go back in the ocean, which was very unlike the myth. Selkies are usually portrayed as women who can transform into seals as long as they still possess their pelts—pelts that their husbands are cautioned to hide so as to keep them from taking their children and returning to the sea. At the heart of the myth is men fearing what women are capable of—which is certainly an issue relevant today—but I wanted a woman and her needs to be at the center of this piece. While it doesn’t quite pass the Bechdel test, I wanted to write a story with a character afraid of what she herself is capable of and a daughter who is frustrated with her for not pursuing it. It was only in later drafts when I realized that the daughter had to embrace her own identity before the mother could rediscover hers.

What was most challenging and rewarding about retelling a myth?

In the mythology of selkies, husbands are depicted as victims of betrayal, but I wanted to bypass that and still retain the element of uncertainty inherent to this particular shape-shifting figure. The mother’s struggle both simultaneously connects her to and distances her from her children, and I tried to balance the humanity of this with the wild nature of the seal by having the daughter take her own identity to a violent extreme. I always wondered what the kids of selkies thought of the whole thing. Did they want to return to the ocean, or would they have preferred to live as humans? Were they angry at having to choose? Or not being able to? Did they witness their mothers grieve the choices they’d made? Did they grow up to make similar choices? I wanted to bridge the gap between myth and reality by getting at questions people in the here and now might ask themselves.

The tension between mother and daughter drives this narrative, and I interpreted it as a story about the mother’s struggle with her identity after losing her husband. What are the advantages of telling this story from a fantastical perspective?

I think the mother’s struggle with identity depends more on her relationship with her grownup children, only one of whom recognizes that her mother has focused on others for so long that she’s uncertain of where she belongs. I think characters who are fantastical beings ask both writer and reader to look at what it really means to be human. If a character is too alien in their needs and wants, they won’t be someone a reader can relate to. But by playing with metaphor, a writer can poke at truths that are difficult to reveal (or face) because they typically camouflage themselves in familiarity.

I love the imagery and lyricism in phrases you use like “Her long teeth hollowed it and made its spine a necklace.” Have any poets influenced your work?

Yes! I came to writing through poetry and spoken word, and there are so many, many poets who have influenced me, particularly women, feminist, and/or queer poets writing cathartic, autobiographical poems. Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Nikki Giovanni, and Ada Limón are a few. Donika Kelly is a recent favorite. I love Bestiary and how she uses animals both real and mythical to confront her own monsters.

The story ends with a figurative and literal cliffhanger. Can you tell us a little about your choice to end the story with that moment of indecision?

It is definitely a moment of indecision, and it’s the kind of indecision where the tough choice is the right one. I really like writing about indecision and risk taking, and that’s probably something about myself that leaks onto the page. (I nearly added “Maybe not” and then changed my mind, if that tells you anything!) In many ways this story is also about the role reversal of a parent and child, specifically supporting a parent taking a risk when they are usually the one supporting you. That is a strange and terrifying place to be. Flash fiction is a great form for writing about big moments because the nature of flash is to be vaster than the space it takes on the page.

Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Sara Johnson Allen

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The first thing I noticed about your piece is the strong sense of voice, a voice that captured me immediately, so I felt I knew her after just a few sentences. This made me wonder, for you, does the character come first or the story idea?

Character 4-eva. I don’t think about story much at all, which is why my work then needs a long revision period to make the structure and pacing work. This piece was slightly different, though, in that more than other things I have written, it was inspired by a real experience. In March, I had a tarot card reading during the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in New Orleans. I was with another writer, and like writers do, afterward we started trying to construct the story of the woman who did our reading. I was so fascinated by what those readers in Jackson Square must see and hear that I wrote my first draft on the plane ride back to Boston.

I love the ways that the piece examines the feminine, especially the way it ultimately rejects a view of femininity as being beyond rage and violence. Your narrator reminded me of Hurston’s women, their ferocious negotiations of gender. Are there any writers who influenced this aspect of your writing, or who you, as a reader, turn to for these sorts of characters?

Now that I think about it, there is a lot of rage and violence in many of my female characters. Even if it’s sort of subdued, it’s there under the surface. Certainly an early influence for me was Flannery O’Connor, so the darkness of human nature was something I was drawn to even as a young reader. When I think about my reading list this year, there were a lot of strong female characters who challenged social norms: Difficult Women by Roxane Gay and The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti.

What I read that stayed with me this most this year was Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women, which has powerful female characters in the most dehumanizing of circumstances rising up against the worst kind of oppression.

So maybe my mind has been on women who have had enough. And in general, I love a good revenge story.

History and place and character are fully entangled in this piece, which is all the more interesting because of the short space that flash gives us to establish all three. What about the genre made it so perfect for this exploration?

I am forever obsessed with place. I moved around a fair amount as a kid, and it seems to me “place” has an incredible kind of power over us. I’ve been to New Orleans a handful of times over the years, and when I returned this March, I found it unchanged.