An Interview with Tony Huang, Guest Editor and Translator for Chinese
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.
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.
Wild Life: An Interview with Kathy Fish
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.
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.
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.
Flashgiving Winner: Ellipsis Zine
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 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
Daily Science Fiction
Rhythm and Bones
Split Lip Magazine
The Brown Orient
The Cabinet of Heed
The Citron Review
Third Point Press
Whale Road Review
Wizards In Space Literary Magazine
X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine
Social Media and Politics in Kenya: An Interview with John O. Ndavula
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.
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.
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.
Cool Stuff Writers Do: An Interview with Container
Doug Luman and Jenni B. Baker’s Container is a literary project for artists interested in nontraditional storytelling. Container tells stories on lunchboxes and Rolodexes, on View Masters and with textiles—artists aren’t confined to book form. Recently we got the chance to talk about their vision, their story-objects, and whether or not a flower pot can be a poem. (more…)
Cool Stuff Writers Do: Our Associate Editor Is Going to Be on Jeopardy!
SmokeLong Associate Editor and resident trivia buff Meghan Carlton Phillips will be appearing as a contestant on the beloved game show Jeopardy! this Friday, April 21, 2017. Will she make it a true Daily Double? Will she give an undying shout-out to SmokeLong Quarterly? Will she win big and buy us all jet planes? Check your local listings and tune in this Friday to find out!
In the meantime, we asked her some questions about her experience auditioning and being on the set, how she prepped, and what her most dreaded category would be.
Review and Q&A: ‘Exposure’ Reveals All
According to Webster’s Dictionary, there are generally three commonly used meanings for the word “Exposure:”
- “the fact or condition of being affected by something or experiencing something: the condition of being exposed to something;”
- “the act of revealing secrets about someone or something, and”
- “public attention and notice.”
Katy Resch George’s collection entitled Exposure aptly captures each definition within several beautifully layered stories. The collection contains ten stories of varied length, each story attempting to reveal or expose the characters, starting with the title piece that appeared in issue thirty-three of SmokeLong Quarterly.
I spoke with Katy via email to ask her about the collection, what inspires her, and the literary quality of photography.
Here’s our chat:
Tyrese: I know this may sound biased, but one of my favorite stories in the collection is “Exposure,” the one that appeared in SLQ. What I truly appreciate about this story is how seamless the transition between the characters is in such a short space. Why did you choose this story as the title piece of your collection? What does this story reveal about the collection itself?
KRG: I’m so glad you enjoyed this story. I was thrilled when SLQ published it. One reason I selected “Exposure” to frame the whole collection is because of that moment in the final paragraph, when the nurse is in the movie theater and observes the couple holding hands. She thinks: “… to hold hands in a theater is to say I am watching this movie, but I am also in this life that I share with this person; I bring this life with me wherever I go.” This idea that we contain many lives, or selves, and that we tote them around with us is one that touches nearly all the characters in the collection. Most characters in these stories are trying to reconcile past mistakes, past selves, with their current station, and with their wishes for their future. Often, this process is the heart of the story. To go through it, characters endure a variety of emotional exposures: they have to confront their whole selves– be exposed before themselves, if you will– in order to know why they behave as they do, and what they need to let go of.
Even though “Exposure” is short, it contains some detail that connects directly to all the other stories: a storm, sibling interactions, out-of-season death (and attempting to makes sense of it), making out in (semi) public places, wearing high-heels and its implications about feminine effort, marriage and the power of union, the playing-out of pathologies. There might be more! It was fun to discover those connections.
Also, the word “ exposure” draws attention to a central metaphor in the book, which involves the photographic process of capturing the accumulation of time through long film exposures.
I also think the form of the story– flash fiction but involving multiple characters and circumstances– prepares the reader for what’s coming: a mix of flash fictions and layered, lengthier stories.
Tyrese: Now that you mention it, I can see that thread of a photographic exposure weaved throughout your stories. Yet another definition of that term that is at play. The instant capture of life as we know it, so layered yet so simple is a hard concept to put down on paper, and I think you do this very well. I feel like this is the type of interpretation that only someone who knows about this type of exposure can pull off. Are you a photographer as well as a writer?
KRG: Many years ago photography was a hobby of mine. I satisfied some high school and college electives with photo classes and in college I worked in the darkroom mixing chemicals for the photo students. I loved capturing images but darkroom processes were tedious for me, though I had, and still have, romantic notions about them. I wanted to love it and I so admire photographers who get it.
Tyrese: Along this vein, another story I really enjoyed is “The Last Darkroom.” I thought the ending was particularly interesting as it left me with optimism, despite what we know about the main character’s circumstances and what lies in his immediate future. I love a short story that ends on a positive note, and I find that many writers are almost afraid to do this with contemporary short stories. Do you agree? Can you tell me about how you developed this story and what made you decide to end on such a hopeful tone?
KRG: Wow, thank you. I agree “The Last Darkroom” is especially hopeful at the end. Really, almost all of the stories are ultimately hopeful stories. I mentioned earlier that a lot of the stories show us characters’ efforts to realize a “better” self they want to become. Most of the characters make it, or the story ends with a character behaving in a new way that suggests she is on the right path. “The Last Darkroom” does this in the most clear and heartening way.
I can’t say if writers are afraid to end with optimism. I’m trying now to recall recent stories I’ve read that struck me as hopeful or optimistic and I’m struggling to come up with titles. That might say more about my tastes as a reader than it does about contemporary literary trends. Maybe writers—all people—don’t feel especially optimistic these days, or maybe people turn to the literary arts to exorcise fears or negativity to make room for optimism in their lives off the page. I’m speculating, of course. Maybe authors fear their optimistic endings would come off as saccharine? It could be a worthwhile exercise to draft two endings for a story in progress, both plausible yet surprising, but one grim and one hopeful. And see what feels most true to the characters and what the story needs to say.
“The Last Darkroom” began with the urge to write about people who were alienated and frustrated by modernity, really…people who felt a more “hands-on” approach to life was fading away. This pops up in the story with the darkroom vs. the digital lab, the narrator’s confusion about social media and his love of old cameras, and with his wife’s criticism of education being shrunken and dehumanized by standardized testing. Around the time I started toying with the story, I was thinking about what it would be like to become a parent and the story might be working through related anxieties Not only about physical health, but about new vulnerabilities and what would surely be a encompassing transition! (It has been– my daughter is now 17 months old!)
When I started the story I had no ending in mind—unusual for me. The narrative organically moved to a positive tone. I really loved writing that final scene. These characters, in their grief, had been removed from their vocations, from their marriage—they needed a break. The narrative also needed a break from the pile-up of misfortune, and it struck me as consistent with what we knew of the characters that they could find a way back to each other and their passion, at least for one evening.
Tyrese: What influenced your choice to include flash pieces along with stories of traditional lengths in one collection together? What are the advantages or disadvantages for the reader when digesting the collection as a whole?
KRG: This is a tough question! I collected these stories because they work as a unit to explore the themes I talked about earlier. I think if I tried to break apart “Exposure” and assemble two new collections– one of “traditional” length stories and one of flash fictions– I’d end up with two books investigating the same problems. As a writer and reader I love both forms. My intention was to let the flash fictions offer a more lyrical or formally experimental narrative exploration of themes presented in the lengthier works. Some readers might enjoy having these concentrated shots. But maybe some might find it jarring to go from a 7,000-word story that spans eight years to a 800-word story that covers one hour. I tried to arrange them to avoid that.
Tyrese: Are you working on any new projects?
KRG: Thanks for asking this. I am! I’m wrapping up a novel titled Lent that is about the emotionally fraught relationship of a young woman and her mentally ill mother. Part of the story takes place during the Easter season of Lent, which becomes significant as the young woman, in need of help for a number of reasons, is susceptible to charity that has bad strings attached. The other project is a story collection titled City Park that thinks about how operating out of our fears can make us dangerous.
Katy Resch George’s stories have appeared in Blackbird, West Branch, Pank, Painted Bride Quarterly, and other journal and have been recognized by the annual Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions list and by the storySouth Million Writer’s Awards. She is a recipient of artist grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and Richmond Culture Works. Katy has taught for the English Departments of Brooklyn College and VCU, and as a faculty lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at New York University. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her husband visual artist Josh George and their daughter.
Tyrese L. Coleman is an associate editor with SmokeLong Quarterly.
Interview with Rose Metal Press: Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest
Rose Metal Press is an independent publisher of hybrid genres, including flash fiction collections and novellas-in-flash. For the past 11 years, Rose Metal Press (RMP) has held their annual Short Short Chapbook Contest. SmokeLong discussed this year’s contest with founders Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney to find out what the press hopes to see in this year’s contest submissions and what titles they have in store.
SMOKELONG: Can you start by talking a bit about how the contest has (or hasn’t!) evolved since the first chapbook publication in 2007 to this year’s contest? What goals have changed? What has remained intact?
RMP: The contest has stayed essentially the same since its inception back in 2006. The process remains the same: we accept blind submissions of short short fiction and nonfiction chapbook manuscripts, screen them, send the finalists (usually between 6-8) to a flash celebrity judge, and then publish the winner the next summer in a limited edition with letterpressed covers. Our goal has always been to showcase one of our favorite forms in a format more typically used for poetry than for prose, and to make the highest quality book possible in both its content and its design. We’ve even left the reading fee ($10) the same since day 1, hoping to encourage more submissions while still offsetting some printing costs, but last year we added a $200 prize as well as publication, and we plan to continue that prize. Of course, in the 10 years we’ve been running the contest—going on 11 this year—more places have begun using the chapbook to publish prose, which we think is terrific, and of course the judges and people submitting have changed, but for the most part it’s been pretty steady-as-she goes. In a world that sometimes seems to change too quickly, this is kind of comforting to us—to have this small, dependable thing like clockwork year in, year out.
Our roots with the chapbook contest go all the way back to the start of our press and our goal right from the beginning to find more ways to highlight and promote flash forms. One of the great things about having a consistent contest format is that it’s been a great indicator of how flash has changed and grown as a genre in the last decade. We’ve watched aesthetics change in the field and various techniques and styles become popular. Around 2010-2011, we started to see a lot of linked flash manuscripts come in (we call them novellas-in-flash) and that trend has continued. We even published a book of novellas-in-flash with a study of the form, My Very End of the Universe, built around the terrific novella-in-flash submissions we were getting in the contest each year. This year’s contest winner, Lex Williford’s Superman on the Roof, is a novella-in-flash, for instance, but the majority of the submissions we receive are unlinked (but cohesive, as every collection should be) flash, like last year’s winner, Rosie Forrest’s Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan. It’s a real privilege to have this window, the contest, on what trends and styles are influencing flash writers.
SMOKELONG: What makes a submission stand out? Are there any deal-breakers in submissions?
RMP: It might seem weird to offer a negative definition, but the base level measure of a strong submission is simply that it not make any mistakes, whether that’s a logistical mistake of not following the contest instructions (page count, story length, blind submission, etc.) or an aesthetic mistake (not starting the manuscript with strong stories, having the stories in an order that doesn’t work, having a title that doesn’t feel like it fits the manuscript, etc.). Those kinds of errors are not necessarily automatic deal-breakers, but they do make a contest reader less inclined to keep something in the yes or even the maybe pile. As for what makes a submission stand out to us, we love things that are hybrid not just for hybridity’s sake, but because the piece really *has* to be that way—it’s the best form for the job. In the case of the contest, that means that the stories/essays really only work as flash pieces or connected flash pieces, rather than shortened versions of longer short stories. Many different kinds of narrative techniques and styles can be used to create terrific and effective flash, but the hallmarks of the flash form—compression, urgency—have to feel present and essential in the work. And, we also love things that operate in more than one emotional register, serious-smart, funny-sad, angry-comic, etc.
SMOKELONG: RMP is a publisher, and the goal with any chapbook or standard book is to market and sell them, so are there other considerations beyond the quality of a submission that play a factor when you begin judging? If so, what are they and how do they factor in when you review the submissions?
RMP: As a mission-driven non-profit, we have the privilege of being able to publish books without sales and marketability being our central endgame—at least not in how we choose what we publish. Part of our mission is to expand the literary landscape and to provide publishing opportunities to authors, genres, and books that more profit-driven publishers might not see as marketable enough. Of course, we do want to get the authors, books, and genres we publish the most exposure we can so that more readers get the chance to discover all the amazing writing happening in hybrid genres like flash, so after the editing process, we focus a lot on how to promote a book and how to get it to the most readers and reviewers, which means focusing on sales and marketing. But that’s not how we choose the manuscripts we publish—it’s what we feel like our responsibility to the author is once we accept a book for publication.
We read our submissions blind in order to do our best to not be biased by who an author is or how established (or not) they are. Once we send the submissions to the judge and the judge, in this case Amelia Gray, picks a winner, we work with the winner to make sure not only that their manuscript is in the best possible shape for publication by editing it, but we also help them have the platform (website, social media, readings, etc.) to get the word out about their chapbook. On average, we set up 5-7 readings per author and send out 35 to 50 reviewer copies of any given chapbook winner. We ask our authors to create author websites if they don’t already have them and help promote the book on social media. The more visible an author is when a book comes out, the more readers their book has the potential to reach, mostly because an author’s own community is the biggest initial source of sales, support, and word-of-mouth recommendations.
SMOKELONG: Tell us a little about the 2016 contest judge, Amelia Gray. How did you connect with her? What does she bring to the judging process?
RMP: Amelia got on our radar all the way back in November of 2007 when she submitted a couple of extremely strong manuscripts to our chapbook contest, actually. She didn’t end up winning, but we admired her work a great deal and have followed her career since then. We’re fans of her virtuosity as a writer—her diction, her syntax, her sense of structure and pacing—as well as her subject matter—unsettling, funny, strange, and haunting. Her unique and engaging writing style is showcased beautifully in her story collections Gutshot, Museum of the Weird, and AM/PM. We’re honored to have her be our judge this year and look forward to her decision.
SMOKELONG: Aside from the chapbook contest, what is RMP looking forward to within the next few months?
RMP: This November, concurrent to the contest reading period (November 1 though December 1), we’re launching our latest book, THE BITTER LIFE OF BOZENA NEMCOVA, a collage biography by Kelcey Parker Ervick. It’s about the Czech writer and feminist Bozena Nemcova, who is so famous in the Czech Republic that her face is on the money, but whose talents as a writer, collector of fairytales, and early Czech Nationalist are largely un-appreciated outside her home country. It’s a beautiful and compelling book, full of letters, tales, and artwork, and the innovative fragmentary form really creates a new way of approaching biography and memoir. We’re excited to get it out into the hands of readers.
Cool Stuff Writers Do: Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series
Most are familiar with the typical poetry reading scene: a dark bar, an uplit stage, maybe some jazz and finger snaps at the end of some emotionally wrought yet strange, if not cliché, poem. A familiar, yet overused scene, which is why we were so excited to hear about The Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series.
Created by writer and flash aficionado, Nancy Stohlman, the FBomb Flash Fiction Reading Series features flash writers and their stories in a rotating line-up with a rotating theme. Nancy reached out to fellow writer and flasher, Paul Beckman, who introduced the series in New York City at the KGB Bar’s Red Room. On October 22, 2016, the Fbomb NY series will host the finalists and winners from the The Best of Small Fictions 2016, published by Queen’s Ferry Press.
One of our blog editors, Tyrese Coleman, caught up with Nancy and Paul recently for an email Q&A.
Tyrese: How did the series start?
Nancy Stohlman (NS): For me, it started as filling a void. I had spent the last six years co-founding/running Fast Forward Press, which started in 2007 as a small press that put out a yearly anthology of flash fiction (back when fewer people were writing it). Every year when we would release the new anthology, we would have a big release party reading. When I stepped down from the press in 2013 to work on my own writing (insert a moment of silent appreciation here for all the small presses working tirelessly for little or no pay), I missed the camaraderie of those events and decided that I wanted to create an opportunity for the flash fiction community to congregate in a new way. I called it the Flashbomb so we could “drop some F(lash)-bombs” and designed the structure with rotating hosts and a focus on community participation. Our first Fbomb was Valentine’s Day of 2013. I was the host and my feature was Rob Geisen.
Tyrese: Paul, how did you become involved with the series?
Paul Beckman (PB): I was invited by Nancy to be a featured reader along with Robert Vaughan in Denver. The talent and the energy were life-changing and it made me want to have something all flash in New York. Luckily the people at KGB were on board with it and every writer I asked said yes. I’m fortunate at the quantity, and especially the quality, of the flash writers in the tri-state area. I either know or know of many of the writers and in turn they gave me other names.
Tyrese: Tell me about your latest reading, who attended, and how did it go?
PB: The first was September 9th with Nancy Stohlman flying in from Denver to headline the twelve writer reading to a standing room only crowd. Also featured were Bud Smith, Gessy Alvarez, Sara Lippmann, Janee Liddle, Alice Kaltman, Jan Elman Stout, Chuck Howe, Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber, Jolene McLLwain & myself. On October 21, Bud Smith will co-host a show from 6pm-8pm with Len Kuntz, Robert Vaughan, Meg Tuite, Gay Degani, Michael Gilan Maxwell and Karen Stefano.
NS: I loved being invited to kick off the premiere Fbomb NY event–it was fantastic! In Denver we’ve had events monthly for going on four years now. All our events are awesome. Last month we had Hillary Leftwich hosting and Marty McGovern featuring, and we have the best open mic in town. I have a background in community organizing, so when I designed this series I knew that if I wanted it to thrive in the long term, and if I wanted to avoid burning myself out, I needed to delegate and share the leadership. I got the idea for the structure from my obsession with Saturday Night Live: Each week on SNL they have a new guest “host” and a featured musician. Because the hosts and musical guests always change, the flavor of the event also changes. I never wanted to create the Nancy Stohlman Flash Fiction Reading Series. So I decided right from the start to empower others to take on leadership roles, assigning “hosts” from the audience and allowing the hosts to pick their own features and take ownership of their “month”. The result has been tremendous variety, from Elvis Luas to “Back To The Future” night to our upcoming October “Once Bitten” Fbomb, hosted by David Atkinson, with non-vampire costume prizes. The hosts, who I always invite from the active Fbomb community, bring in the fresh blood with their features–just as I brought Paul to Denver. It’s a way to acknowledge those who support the Fbomb but also build bridges to new communities.
Tyrese: What are your goals with the FBomb Series?
PB: To make it a must-attend series for both writers and readers–much as it is in Denver. Nancy calls it community building and I’d like to think of this the same way.
NS: So I had some goals/secret agendas when I created this series. I wanted to obviously create flash fiction community, and to community build by sharing leadership. I also wanted a place where writers could learn to be better readers: I have been to too many readings where someone’s brilliant work is lost in their poor delivery. So I wanted to create a space where people could become better readers of their work.
I also wanted a balance of open mic and featured reader(s)–almost all the readings I go to are one or the other, and I like the balance and inclusiveness of having some featured readers as well as the opportunity for community participation.
Also, in rotating the hosts and handing over control to different people each month, I intended to create opportunities for people to become better event coordinators and promoters. I got so tired of hearing everyone talk about how they were “no good” at promotion. So this way the spotlight changes each month, and we all learn how to promote one another and get over that block.
And it’s worked! We have incredibly dynamic events, our hosts all bring their own flavors, we have a welcoming community of features and open mic, and our readers are some of the best I’ve ever heard.
Tyrese: Tell me about the upcoming reading with the winners of The Best Small Fictions 2016. It sounds really exciting. Who will be reading?:
PB: This is an exciting group of readers coming in from as far away as Washington state. The book features 45 stories and will be on sale that night. We’ll have both winners and finalists reading their work. Some of the writers are: Len Kuntz, Robert Vaughan, Dawn Raffel, Paul Beckman, Tina Barry, Amir Adam, Eliel Lucero, Amy Shearn, Dianaca Potts, Ilana Masad, Nancy Ludmerer, Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber and others.
Tyrese: How did this event come about?
PB: This event came about during an email exchange I had with the editor, Tara L. Masih. She was looking for a venue and I offered to find one in NY, preferably at KGB. The manager of the Red Room, Lori Schwarz and the owner Denis Woychuk were so impressed with the first turnout that on the spot they gave me the perfect time and date for The Best Small Fictions 2016. One of the most important factors about reading at KGB is the respect the audience gives to the readers. They come to listen and the chat comes later.
Tyrese: Are there any other events coming up that we should not miss?
PB: I’m presently working with a couple of authors to have their flash collections rolled out in our Red Room and working with other authors to take on the role of hosts during the year.
NS: Every month we have an Fbomb. We’ve been having our events on the third Tuesday of the month at the amazing Mercury Cafe–which is a longstanding center of the art culture in Denver. Our schedule of past and future events is up at www.fbombdenver.com And even if you have never been to an Fbomb before, we’d love to have you. You can learn about flash fiction, hear from some of the best, and even jump on the mic yourself if you get brave.
Another cool flash fiction event coming up is FlashNano, which I started about the same time as the Fbomb as a way for flash fiction writers to suffer alongside the novel writers in November during NaNoWrimo. Our goal is 30 stories in 30 days, and I give an optional prompt every day for those who like that sort of thing. I end up hearing a lot of FlashNano pieces read at the Fbomb throughout the year. You can sign up for more info at my website.
Nancy Stohlman’s books include the flash fiction collection The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories, The Monster Opera, Searching for Suzi: a flash novel, and four anthologies including Fast Forward: The Mix Tape, a finalist for a 2011 Colorado Book Award. She is the creator and curator of the Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series in Denver, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Find out more about her at www.nancystohlman.com
Paul Beckman’s story, “Healing Time” was one of the winners in the 2016 The Best Small Fictions and his 100 word story, “Mom’s Goodbye” was chosen as the winner of the 2016 Fiction Southeast Editor’s Prize. His stories are widely published in print and online in the following magazines amongst others: Connecticut Review, Raleigh Review, Litro, Playboy, Pank, Blue Fifth Review, Flash Frontier, Matter Press, Metazen, Pure Slush, Jellyfish Magazine, Thrice Fiction and Literary Orphans. His latest collection, “Peek”, weighed in at 65 stories and 120 pages. Paul lives in Connecticut and earned his MFA from Bennington College. His published story website is www.paulbeckmanstories.com and blog is www.pincusb.com
Cool Stuff Writers Do: Aymar and Alkimist
What’s cooler than flash fiction? Reading it out loud and pairing it with music. Writer E.A. Aymar, a past guest editor here at SmokeLong, and Kimberly Venetz (DJ Alkimist) have partnered on a new project mixing flash and music for amazing effects. The two are also planning on performing live at select events. SmokeLong Editor Tara Laskowski chatted with them about the venture and what they hope to achieve.
Tara: Where did this idea come from?
EA: It’s been a complete collaboration from the start.
I run D.C.’s Noir at the Bar series and thought it would be cool if we had a musical component, so I looked up area DJs and really liked Kim’s (DJ Alkimist) work. We started trading e-mails and she mentioned she enjoyed crime fiction. I told her about my interest in working with musicians, specifically my readings where local jazz musician Sara Jones had provided accompaniment. Then Kim told me about the music she’s produced on her own, and I listened to her tracks and mixes and learned that, while Kim’s mixes could absolutely get a club bouncing, she also produces this deeply personal beautiful music, and it dug deep down into my bones.
I wanted to write to it.
So she and I kept talking about collaborations and getting excited, and I think we both started to realize this could be something unique.
DJ: I had been quietly producing my own weird little tracks as a side project from my DJing and performing and Ed suddenly fell into my world. It just took off from there. No one has ever approached me about doing something like this, so naturally, I was intrigued.
Tara: How does the process work? Do you write the story first, then add music? Or select music and then write a story that fits that mood? Does it vary? It reminds me of those call and response projects between writers and visual artists, and I’m always interested in that collaborative process.
EA: That’s a really thoughtful question and this is going to sound dickish, but I don’t like discussing process. I will say this. The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen used to get thanked by actresses for creating such wonderful characters for them to play. When I first heard Kim’s music, and when I hear her new music, I understand that reaction.
And that’s something Kim and I have discussed—why we vibe. I’m a fairly straightforward writer, especially when it comes to giving a reading. I think it’s because I suck at listening to readings, and complex oral stories confuse me. When I write for a reading, I want the story’s complexity to be almost entirely emotional, under the surface, rather than twisted into the plot. Similarly, the music Kim creates (that speaks to me the most) has an easily recognizable surface, but it’s so emotionally and musically layered that, upon repeat listenings, I keep discovering more.
DJ: Ed put it best when he talked about how we vibe. Because it’s really all about that. And a little bit magic. Our writing styles are very compatible, and as Ed said, we create a whole lot of emotional complexity under the surface. We want it to linger with you.
EA: Check out Kim’s track “Silence,” for an example of a slow, heartbreaking piece of music that’s deceptively complex. You think you’re just listening to a few notes, but other elements are slowly brought in that deepen it significantly, and it transitions so subtly and smoothly that all of a sudden you’re like, “Hey, is that a bird?” And, crazily, it works, and the somber mood of the track is maintained. I don’t know how she does what she does.
Tara: Is flash fiction the perfect form for this kind of thing? Any plans to attempt a longer piece in the future?
DJ: If we decide we don’t want a story to be a standalone piece, then it makes more sense to keep the stories relatively short and weave them all together using music or similar themes. My DJ side can easily hear how all the songs can be blended into a longer piece, like a DJ set or a mix tape, with no dead time. Also, from a musical perspective, keeping the songs short helps me edit and make sure each phrase of my piece is important and not just filler.
EA: I like to keep readings to about five minutes or less, which is probably around the average length of the song. I wouldn’t mind going longer, but Kim’s right; a longer form would be different than that idea suggests. To put it in writing terms, I think longer would work better as a series of interconnected stories or novellas, rather than one fat novel.
Tara: How long does it take to complete one pairing? How many “takes” do you need to do? And on that note, any mistakes you made or lessons you learned along the way?
EA: Probably a month. We didn’t do need to do a lot of takes for “You Would Have a Queen” because I practiced it so much. I rehearsed it over a hundred times, which is a lot more than I do for a typical reading.
One thing I’ve struggled with (and a lot of people do) is talking too fast. I try to slow down, but some of the tracks require a faster pace. So lately I’m all about enunciating. That’s kind of my new thing.
DJ: I had no idea Ed practiced it a hundred times; I just assumed he was pro.
Tara: What do you think combining these two forms does to elevate each?
DJ: OMG, I could probably talk about this idea for hours (but don’t worry, I won’t).
I think music adds life and depth to everything. Try to picture a commercial, or a scene from your favorite movie, or eating at a restaurant, or anything, and think about how you feel when there’s music accompanying that scene versus silence. But I’m not knocking silence; silence is powerful in its own right.
I think sometimes our mind wants to hear the music of a scene anyway, just as sometimes it wants to verbally express the story that seems to manifest from a piece of music. And music affects our brain in ways we are only beginning to understand. If you were to hear a story with its own soundtrack, it’s going to affect how you feel and interact with that story, even if you’re not directly paying attention to the music, and vice versa. I also believe that language is the shortened version of music. They’re just different methods of communication.
If I write a track, I’m trying to communicate something with it. But I’m not the best with words. Ed’s stories ground my songs and give them form and direction, a certain life. It’s a relationship of reciprocity. And the result is something of beauty, emotional complexity, uniqueness, and a whole lot more.
EA: Well, shit, I can’t beat Kim’s answer. But I’ll just add that I make a conscious effort to keep the written piece a short story. It intentionally lacks the cadence or style of rap or a poem, although I borrow elements from each of those forms.
We call this “short stories + music,” but that’s pretty much the same thing as a song or rap. To be different, the written element has to be identifiable only as a short story. So, although my stories follow the rhythm of Kim’s music, and the two play with each other, I’ll occasionally ignore measures just to break rhythm.
Tara: Ed, you’re a crime/noir writer primarily, but it seems to me that most any style or genre could work for this kind of project. Do you have any plans to accept submissions from or solicit other writers?
EA: No, DJ Alkimist is awesome and she’s mine. Stay away everyone. For real, fuck you.
Kidding. We have a couple of upcoming projects where we’re working with other writers in different ways. I usually don’t collaborate with writers, so it’s a little odd. Very much something I’m learning to do as I go. Writing, I’m a loner.
But if other writers wanted to work with Kim on their own, I mean, I guess that’s cool. She makes music that we don’t use for this project and performs on a regular basis. This is by no means all we do, and I expect each of us will be working on different projects in the future.
But this is something that I want to continue doing, and return to. Something about this burns.
DJ: I’m a Scorpio and therefore also fiercely loyal. I have no plans at the moment to collaborate with other writers besides Ed and the peeps we bring in on this project. But I’m also a pretty open-minded person. And I’m always open to submissions of really delicious raw food recipes.
Tara: Everyone always says they hate the sound of their own voice. Do you?
EA: Yes, it’s awful. I worked with two people: a voiceover artist and singer named Art Tiller; and the writer Kim Alexander, who has a background as a radio host. They assured me that my voice was fine. I doubt it. I’m pretty sure everyone I asked was lying to me and I sound terrible. Hopefully the music and stories are so good that no one notices.
DJ: I know this question’s not for me, but can I just say that I’ve always thought Ed had a great voice?
EA: Aw. But, for real, it needs to be, like, fifteen percent raspier. I’ll probably start smoking. You know, for art.
Cool Stuff Writers Do: The Tool Project
Writing prompts are nothing new, but they can always be helpful in sparking the imagination and generating new content. SmokeLong editor Tara Laskowski recently stumbled across a casual Facebook microfiction writing project that intrigued her—The Tool Project, started by horror writers and editors Ellen Datlow and Kaaron Warren.
The concept? Ellen sends Kaaron a photo of an old and obscure tool (she’s a collector of them) and Kaaron has to write a story about it, without doing any research about its original purpose. They’ve published seven tool stories so far.
Tara caught up with both of them recently for an email Q&A.
How did all this start?
ED: Kaaron and I started chatting on Twitter about my collection of weird tools. She volunteered to write a micro-story about each one I photographed. And so it began.
Tell me more about the tools? Where do you find them?
ED: I have been collecting them for many years. I have no idea why I began. I think I was at a flea market in London’s Covent Garden market and saw a tool that neither I nor the dealer could identify, but it was so pretty I bought it. My rules for buying tools are that they must be interesting looking, cheap, and small.
How many of these weird tools do you have? And where on Earth do you keep them?
ED: I have no idea how many tools I’ve got. They’re spread all over my apartment, displayed on cabinets, windowsills, on my kitchen wall grid (where one hangs pots and pans and other kitchen items that I use regularly). I’m always looking for new, strange (small) tools and objects. They’re not all tools—for example, the metal teeth that Kaaron wrote about.
To me, the most interesting are those that I have no idea of their purpose.
What has surprised you all most about the exercise?
ED: How inventive Kaaron is with her fictions
KW: How many fascinating items Ellen owns.
Kaaron, do you write a lot of flash fiction? Was is it that draws you to this form?
KW: I do write a bit! For my last year of high school, my major project was a series of micro stories. I love that you can be precise and very focussed in this format, and that you don’t always have to have all the answers. I love working to the restraints, as well. For the high school project, each story had to be exactly 50 words.
How many of these tools did you know or could guess their purpose? Did you find it mattered when writing the stories?
KW: Most of them I have a good, if not specific, idea of their purpose, given their design. I tried not to think too hard about their actual purpose, though. I wanted to find the story behind them.
Many of the stories seem to end on these sort of dark, hopeless moments. I especially enjoy the bleakness of the ending of Tool 5. It reminds me of a Twilight Zone episode, and is quite haunting. Do you think the bleakness of the look of the tools themselves lend themselves to bleak stories? Or is that kind of theme/feel what you’re normally drawn to when writing?
KW: I’m definitely drawn to the darker stories in my writing. And, given I’m writing these stories for (with!) Ellen, who is drawn to the same stories, they were always going to be quite bleak.
Any old object carries a certain sadness with it, I think. A reminder that things change, are lost. Each tool has a story behind it and in these stories I’m imagining the past (and, with Tool 5, the future as well). Imagining the people who owned and used these tools. So that brings a bleakness, in a way, because those people are long since dead and gone. Maybe they’ve left behind memories, family, friends. But someone, at some stage, decided the tool (and, we can assume, many of the other belongings) were no longer needed. No longer important.
How many tool stories are you planning on writing?
ED: Depends on time and energy (mostly Kaaron’s). It’s easy for me to photograph each tool, and I doubt I’ll ever run out before her time and energy does :-)
KW: I’m still enjoying doing them, and I’m finding they are helping me work on other, commissioned stories that I am on deadline for. If ever I’m stuck in a story, I’ll go for a walk, or I’ll sit down and write a bunch of tiny stories like these, because it’s a way for the subconscious to be freed. If you don’t have to worry so much about long plot lines, deep character development, back stories, all that kind of thing, then the idea itself comes to the fore.
I’ve heard people say that it’s hard to write really good funny flash fiction and really good scary flash fiction. Do you agree? What common mistakes do you think people make when trying to write horror flash?
KW: It is tricky, because you don’t have much time for the ‘set-up’, so vital in both funny and scary stories. It can be done, though. You just have to choose your words more wisely.
The most common mistake is people thinking that because they don’t have many words, all they can do is describe something. So they spend the whole 100 words or whatever in a descriptive piece that isn’t actually a story. They’ll use MORE words to describe something than they usually would! I reckon you can tell a story in a short space, but you can’t indulge in descriptive words. You need to be specific, rather.
Ellen Datlow has been editing sf/f/h short fiction for over thirty-five years. She was fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and SCIFICTION and currently acquires and edits stories for Tor.com. She has edited almost one hundred anthologies and won multiple awards for her work, including the 2012 Il Posto Nero Black Spot Award for Excellence as Best Foreign Editor. Datlow was named recipient of the 2007 Karl Edward Wagner Award, given at the British Fantasy Convention for “outstanding contribution to the genre”; has been honored with the Life Achievement Award given by the Horror Writers Association, in acknowledgment of superior achievement over an entire career, and the World Fantasy Life Achievement Award for 2014, which is presented annually to individuals who have demonstrated outstanding service to the fantasy field. She lives in New York.
Award-winning author Kaaron Warren has lived in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Fiji. She’s sold more than 200 short stories, three novels (the multi-award-winning Slights, Walking the Tree and Mistification) and six short story collections including the multi-award-winning Through Splintered Walls. Her latest novel is The Grief Hole (IFWG Publishing Australia, coming out in August) and her latest short story collection is Cemetery Dance Select: Kaaron Warren. She Tweets @KaaronWarren.
“Catch These Little Gifts”: Flash Interviews with Dan Nielsen, Robert Scotellaro, and Nancy Stohlman
by Jonathan Cardew
Like a shot of whiskey, or a plunge into cold water, or a breeze on a hot summer’s day, good flash recalibrates the senses. It does it swiftly. It knows what it’s doing.
Dan Nielsen, Robert Scotellaro, and Nancy Stohlman know what they’re doing.
I asked these fantastic flash writers a straightforward, possibly infuriating, and definitely several-barreled question: Describe, elaborate on, or riff about a recent flash story you have had published. Keep your response to around 150-ish words. Give us a link to the work.
Luckily, they said, “Ok, Jonathan, fine.”
I figured if they could write flash so well, they’d be able to get to the point.
Dan Nielsen is no stranger to keeping things simple. A Wisconsin native, his flash stories and poetry can be found in many fabulous venues. His pared prose style lulls and then startles you with its honesty and strange humor. You’ll be glad when you’ve read a Nielson story.
Dan on “Monster Truck” at Bird’s Thumb:
“I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.” ―Franz Kafka
That Kafka quote is funny because it’s true.
(in my opinion)
Stories need named characters who move about and say things aloud.
A writer is omniscient, but doesn’t brag about it.
Second person present is best left to hypnotists. “You are a chicken.”
“Monster Truck” takes place in my house so that imagined Dave can look out a real window and see an imagined panel truck pull up to a real curb. There is imagined snow on my real sidewalk. When imagined Preston says, “They say eight to twelve tonight, the worst toward morning,” imagined Dave really hears it and feels comforted that imagined Preston is a real person. The basement and dryer are real and the dryer was broken and repaired, but that was at least ten years ago and I remember nothing about it except that the real repair guy mentioned a Monster Truck.
I just reread the story. It’s real funny. I hope you agree.
Robert Scotellaro needs no introduction. What comes out of the Scotellaro Compression Machine is pure gold, finely pressed and polished, with an extra buff for good measure. “Fun House” is masterful work, filled with smoke and mirrors and “wobbly globes.”
Robert on “Fun House” at New Flash Fiction Review and reprinted in Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton):
Writing this story, I inhabited a place both familiar and unexpectedly surreal. Our daughter had not so long before left for college (the familiar). “Fun house mirrors” was something I’d jotted in a notebook years earlier. Just those words. I extrapolated, framing the idea of two “empty-nesters” cutting loose in a spare bedroom covered, wall to ceiling, with fun house mirrors acquired at an auction. And discovered I was exploring a bizarre, yet fundamental kind of safe infidelity, where my characters were having sex in a room filled with the strange strangers they became—(the unexpectedly surreal). Their experience (its oddness notwithstanding) allowed them a certain kind of adventurism in contrast to their prior, buttoned-down, predictable lives.
It was great fun writing this piece, seeing where it might lead me, how far they/I would take it. I am ever drawn to the little surprises that rise up from that deeper (sometimes darker) mind we all carry.
Nancy Stohlman is many things: performer, singer, writer, shark-petter. Her stories bound across the page in whatever outfit she chooses. She hosts a number of flash fiction events in the Denver-area, sings in the lounge metal group Kinky Mink, and dreams up stories like this one…
Nancy on “The Morning After” at nancystohlman.com and forthcoming at Woven Tales Press:
There are few scenarios more frightening than waking up next to Donald Trump. In my case I panicked, rolled over, grabbed a pen and wrote this story down almost fully formed in the notebook by my bed. Over the years I’ve probably gotten at least half my ideas from dreaming—I always tell people that the dream world is like an all-night diner of free inspiration. Sometimes I only get a wisp or an image or a setting, but sometimes the whole story just rises out of the dream ether in one piece, usually in that transition time between asleep and awake when the muse is still whispering in my ear but I’m not awake enough to sabotage her yet. I think dream material only works if you learn to speak its language and approach it on its own territory. The key is to be vigilant, to catch these little gifts and write them down before they’re gone, and don’t ask yourself “is this idea crazy?” because it probably is.
READ IT HERE: “The Morning After,” by Nancy Stohlman, March 2016
Dan Nielsen drinks bourbon and plays Ping-Pong. Old credits include Random House and University of Iowa Press anthologies. Recent work in: Jellyfish Review, Bird’s Thumb, Minor Literature[s], Storm Cellar, Random Sample, and Pidgeonholes. Dan has a website: Preponderous and you can follow him @DanNielsenFIVES
Robert Scotellaro has been published widely in national and international books, journals, and anthologies including: W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International, NANO Fiction, Gargoyle, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, The Best Small Fictions 2016 (forthcoming), and others. He is the author of seven literary chapbooks, several books for children, and two full-length flash and micro fiction collections by Blue Light Press: Measuring the Distance and What We Know So Far. The latter was the winner of The 2015 Blue Light Book Award. Bad Motel, a collection of his 100-word stories, is due out by Big Table Publishing later this year. Robert currently lives with his wife and daughter in San Francisco. Visit him at www.rsflashfiction.com
Nancy Stohlman’s books include Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities (forthcoming), The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories (2014), The Monster Opera (2013), Searching for Suzi: a flash novel (2009), and four anthologies including Fast Forward: The Mix Tape, a finalist for a 2011 Colorado Book Award. She is the creator and curator of the Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series in Denver, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Find out more about her at www.nancystohlman.com
Jonathan Cardew’s short [and very short] stories appear in Atticus Review, Blink Ink Quarterly, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Flash Frontier, KYSO Flash, Segue, and Spelk, among others. He was a finalist in The Best Small Fictions 2016. He lives in Milwaukee. https://jonathancardew.wordpress.com/
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On the Continuum of Art and Science: An Interview with the Winner of Africa’s Etisalat Prize for Flash Fiction
The Etisalat Prize for Literature is a pan-African award that strives to nurture emerging writers on the continent and support the African publishing industry. Although the prize began with a focus on books, it also now includes a flash fiction award for stories of 300 words or fewer.
Virgie Townsend recently had the pleasure of interviewing the winner of the 2015 Etisalat Prize for flash fiction, Kuti Ojuolape Modupe. Ojuola, a writer and medical student in Nigeria, shared how she wrote the winning story “Gone,” her literary influences, and how she balances creative work with a career in medicine.
Congratulations on winning the Etisalat Prize for Literature for Flash Fiction! What inspired “Gone”?
Thank you for your kind words. I wish I could say there was some epic backstory to “Gone,” but there really isn’t. “Gone” was me trying to push myself to write something I had never tried before. It was me writing from a man’s point of view. It really was my way of saying, men feel things and get heartbroken too and that’s okay.
I love that the Etisalat has a special category for flash fiction. How did you learn about it and decide to enter your piece?
I learnt about the Etisalat Flash Fiction category via Twitter methinks. That was two years ago and I found out when it was too late and entries were closed. So I tried again last year after my friends encouraged me to go for it. I remember thinking, what are the odds my story gets anywhere? I wrote a piece to send in after many days of being blank and really just hoped for the best.
You’re a medical student as well as a creative writer, which some people might find surprising. How do you balance your creative writing with your work in medicine? Do you feel like the two fields complement or conflict with each other at times?
Medical school is quite the challenge, I’ll admit. Truth is there are moments in there where I barely have time for myself but there are also freer times. So it’s really about knowing when to put in all the work and when to relax. Writing calms me, especially when I’m overwhelmed. I’ve been writing since I was about 11 so even medical school can’t separate me from it. And honestly, I see science and art as a continuum. It doesn’t end somewhere and pick up somewhere else for me. Even in the science, I see the art. And I’m grateful for that gift.
Who have been your biggest influences as a writer? Do you have any reading recommendations for us?
I’ve been heavily influenced by a wide variety of writers, starting from Mary Higgins Clark who got me interested in writing at all to Stephen King who made me realise there really are no rules to writing. I was about 16 when I started to focus more on African writers and I have a lot of respect for Teju Cole and Taiye Selasi. They made me see writing in an entirely different way. I absolutely recommend Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go and Margot Dalton’s Tangled Lives.
Tell us a little about your writing process. How do you approach writing a piece of flash?
I think writing flash comes easier to me because I like to think I’m a simple person. Haha. I feel like there’s so much more in saying less. My writing process is usually triggered by something I see or hear. And a sentence plays around in my head. So I write it down somewhere so I can come back to it when I’m not so busy. It’s a visual process for me where I see the characters in my mind and the story slowly plays out in my head as I write. I think it’s important to visualise your characters because if you can’t, how will the reader be able to as well? There’s also a lot of soul-pouring.
Now that you’ve won the Etisalat for flash, where do you want to take your writing next?
The big question. What next? I’ll keep writing, definitely. I have a blog that keeps me writing. Writing a book is definitely on my bucket list and hopefully, I’ll get around to it.
Kathy Fish Fellowship 2016: An Interview with Shasta Grant
We’re so excited for you to get to know our 2016 Kathy Fish Fellow, Shasta Grant. Recently, we took a little time to ask her about her writing habits, her life abroad, and her big reading goals for 2016.
Interview by Annie Bilancini
Your bio mentions that you split time between Indianapolis and Singapore. Can you talk about what that’s like and how that might influence your writing?
I live in Singapore during the academic year because husband teaches at an international school there. We return home to Indianapolis during the summer and winter breaks. It can be exciting living abroad—we get to travel and learn about other cultures. But I’m a homebody so I’m just as happy staying home in my sweatpants with coffee and books. It’s difficult to be away from friends and family for so much of the year. We try to make the most of our time at home – lots of good food, beer and long conversations.
Living abroad and going back and forth to the U.S. several times a year has definitely influenced my writing. A sense of place had never been of primary importance to me in my fiction and while I’ll probably never write rambling descriptions of landscapes, my stories are now firmly rooted in place and time. Maybe in the opposite way I would have expected. I’ve been writing about a town loosely based on my New Hampshire hometown. Growing up, I couldn’t wait to move away. Now that I’m literally halfway around the world, I spend a lot of time thinking about where I come from. I’m interested in writing about people who remain in their hometowns. I know what it’s like to leave, so that perspective is less interesting to me.
With that in mind, what impulse most often drives your writing? That need to explore other perspectives? A particular question? A singular image?
The impulse varies from story to story. I’ll write in search of an answer but I may not even know the question when I start. Usually a story begins from something concrete: a line of dialogue or an object or a place. If the idea takes enough shape, then I start writing. For example: yesterday I remembered my high school had a senior lounge that got shut down at some point, for a reason I can’t remember, before I became a senior. I wrote “senior lounge” in my notebook and I’ve been thinking about it for two days, wondering if there’s a story there. If there is, I don’t currently have any idea what it’s about or what the larger question is beyond that room. I wish I knew where these initial ideas or inspirations come from and how to control them – it would make writing a lot easier.
So it starts with the notebook. What comes next? Are you a longhand drafter? Or is your next step a Word document?
My notebook is where I gather ideas, keep reading and submission lists, make workshop notes, etc. Drafting usually happens in a Word document although occasionally I’ll write short sections in a notebook. Once I have a working draft, I print it and revise on the page by longhand. I go through this process several times, using different colored pens and highlighters for each draft, until it’s finished. I keep an “in progress” folder on my desk for first drafts. Once a story or essay has a revision or two, it gets its own folder. That is the point I know I’m committed to the piece—when it gets its own folder.
I love that process. Each story goes through its own private ritual. That lends so much more weight to a project. On the subject of writerly rituals: are there any touchstone texts you return to for guidance, a novel or collection that acts as your literary yardstick?
My answer to this is always changing. It depends what I’ve been writing at the time and which books speak to the work I’m trying to do. Years ago I probably would have named a collection by Lorrie Moore, or maybe an Ann Patchett novel. My current literary yardstick books are Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill, The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, and Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell. So three books—one collection of connected stories and two trim novels—about girlhood/womanhood/motherhood. These are the books guiding me in my work right now.
Ferrante is on my list. I’ve been Ferrante Fever-adjacent for a while now. I need to take the leap this year! Do you have any specific reading goals for 2016? Any books you really want to get your hands on?
I hear Ferrante Fever is going around! I read the first novel in the Neapolitan series last fall and loved it. My husband gave me the remaining three books for Christmas. As far as reading goals for 2016, my plan is to read all the un-read books in my office. Because books are so expensive in Singapore, we tend to buy a lot when we are home. We’ll check a box full of books on each trip. The problem is that, of course, I go out and buy other books in the ensuing months and then I end up with piles of books waiting to be read.
Here are some books I’m really excited to read soon:
Winesberg, Indiana edited by Michael Martone and Bryan Furuness. It’s an anthology about the mythical town of Winesburg, Indiana with stories by some great writers, including Roxane Gay and Claire Vaye Watkins.
The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship by Paul Lisicky. I was lucky to study with Paul at Sarah Lawrence and he’s one of the warmest, most generous teachers I’ve ever met. He’s also incredibly talented and I was thrilled to see that his new memoir got a wonderful review in The New York Times.
On Being Told That Her Second Husband Has Taken His First Lover by Tess Slesinger. I first read about this collection of stories in the Lost and Found section of Tin House. Katie Arnold-Ratliff wrote that she found the book at a flea market and that it is “a once-in-a-lifetime book: the sort that I knew, even then, would become a kind of mnemonic device. I would remember this time in my life as the era in which I met Tess Slesinger.” Between that recommendation and the title, I’ve been dying to get my hands on it.
Shasta Grant is the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellow. She is also the winner of the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest. Her story, “Most Likely To,” was selected by final judge, Ann Patchett. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and her stories and essays are forthcoming or have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Epiphany, Gargoyle, cream city review, Jelly Bucket, Wigleaf, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, WhiskeyPaper, and elsewhere. She is a prose editor for Storyscape Journal and has presented at several conferences including The Indiana Gathering of Writers, and Winter Wheat: The Mid-American Review Festival of Writing. Shasta Grant received her MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College in 2005 and was a 2007 Writer-in-Residence at Hedgebrook. She taught composition and creative writing for seven years for Ball State University. She has also taught creative writing at The Writers’ Center of Indiana and several women’s correctional facilities, including the Right-to-Write program in Valhalla, New York. Shasta grew up in New Hampshire. She currently lives in Singapore and Indianapolis with her husband, Chris Huntington, and their son.
“Process as Photosynthesis”: An Interview with Mary Rickert
This past month, SmokeLong‘s associate content editor, Annie Bilancini, had the pleasure of talking form and inspiration with Mary Rickert, whose newest short story collection You Have Never Been Here debuts November 24th from Small Beer Press. The stories in Rickert’s collection are hued by the uncanny, but there is never a question that the chiefest concern of Rickert’s prose is to convey and explore a deeply felt sense of humanity. These are stories that will stick with you for quite some time.
SmokeLong Quarterly is dedicated to publishing flash fiction. We’re especially attuned to form when we sit down to read submissions. To borrow a phrase from our Executive Editor, Megan Giddings: “Flash forces people to innovate and consider the different ways a story can be told.” And it’s clear in You Have Never Been Here that your stories often engage with innovation, both in form and in content. For example, in your collection there are stories within stories (“Cold Fires”) and stories are framed as memoirs (“Memoir of a Deer Woman”). How does form figure into your own writing and writing process?
I began my writing life in poetry where “form” can be as large as the shape of the poem, or as small as the words; even as infinitesimal as the relationship between the sounds of words and the sounds within words. In poetry, even space carries matter that informs the shape of the thing and the experience of its reading. While I eventually came to the conclusion that I am not a poet, I never lost my deep appreciation for the beauty inherent in a close engagement with form and its opportunities. Sometimes I will give myself an “assignment” of sorts, which is what I did with “Cold Fires,” setting out to write a story within a story. Other times, the form arrives through the content, as it did in “Memoir of a Deer Woman.”
I’d love to hear about some other assignments or constraints you’ve set up for a project.
When I was writing “The Chambered Fruit,” which is a retelling of the myth of Persephone and therefore imbued with its own constraints, I decided I wanted to write a horror story, basically, with no gore. Much later, when I wrote my novel, The Memory Garden, I decided to see how much light I could shed on darkness, therefore hiding it in plain sight, which was meant to be reflective of the way the elderly women, who populate that story, might be looked at by the general population as simple, or “cute.” “The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece” was also a similar study in bringing beauty to a form usually considered devoid of it.
I love these answers because they’re all concerned with exploring oppositions (whether explicit or implicit) in story. I’m so interested in hearing more about this. Where does that impulse come from? Can you talk about what models you’ve learned from or your own writerly origin story?
I suspect that my cross-eyed childhood, composed of a world I saw that others did not see, was an important factor in the development of my fascination with doubles. As an American, I have plenty of material for this obsession since polarity is so integral to our culture; built into our subject/predicate sentence structure, our political system, and our ideas of good and evil. My personal query, formulated in a childhood where I learned not everything that appears to exist does, is how to develop a way of being human that is not severed by division, but expanded by the possibilities that exist in that space between opposites. This, it turns out, defines the reach of the Gothic sensibilities I write within. Gothic literature, diluted, over time, into its architecture of moors and castles, is actually an exploration of the human experience as cohesion of the beast and the divine.
This idea of the cohesion of the beast and the divine makes me think of your story, “Holiday” in the collection, which deals with the dynamic between a writer who is the son of a pedophile and the ghost of a murdered child beauty queen (possibly JonBenét Ramsey). The story explores the complications of innocence and family legacy. Did you set out to write this story with those Gothic themes in mind?
I never approach writing a story with an agenda beyond trying to find the fiction there. In other words, I do have ideas, and I do approach my work with intelligence, but the story is formed from a different source — hopefully a more organic source –than what I believe, desire, know or want. Once I have a draft, I basically take notes on my own story, highlighting recurring elements or themes. Then I sort of squint at all that and try to get a sense of what that particular story is saying both consciously, and sub-consciously. Once that’s done, I delete and amend to support what I believe are the elements that create a whole I might not have known was there. Only after doing this for years did I begin to recognize the Gothic arc that exists between, and within, most of my work.
Can you talk a bit more about the organic sources you draw your work from? You’ve already mentioned your interest in polarities. I’m so fascinated with the concept of inspiration and the genesis of creative ideas. I’d love to year your take.
I’ve always thought of my creative process as photosynthesis; whatever I observe, partake and intake becomes material for production. Years ago, I regularly “walked the stacks’ of non-fiction in the library, assembling big piles of books I enjoyed and read arbitrarily; butterflies, mythology, the history of opera all became sources of inspiration for my work. While I live a fairly quiet, sedentary lifestyle, it has been important for me to cultivate a wild mind. I have never felt I needed to have a big life in order to find stories but that I did need to know how to pay attention. I find screens tedious which, yes, is probably partly reflective of my age, but even as a young woman writer, well before the computer age, I spent years living without a television because I felt it was important for me to cultivate a heightened awareness of language. Within the genre community we have the saying, “Find your weird.” Unfortunately, this is a lot more difficult than it might seem to be. Even weird has standards within which weirdness is assessed. The writing community, in general, is disappointingly elitist. I try to remember that in every culture, in every age, there were things believed as universally true that later were proven false. We are all victims of the illusion of our time. I try to look beyond the veil, and I’m sure I fail. I try to remember the veil exists. When I sit down to write, I try to see what I’ve written and not just what I think I’ve written. Everything is inspiration, even my own ignorance, which is one of the beautiful aspects of a writing life; nothing is wasted.
Mary Rickert has published numerous short stories and two collections: Map of Dreams and Holiday. Her first novel, The Memory Garden was published in 2014, and won the Locus award for best first novel, which made her very happy. Her novella, The Mothers of Voorhisville, was also published in 2014. She now lives in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, a small city of candy shops and beautiful gardens.
Review and Q&A: ‘The Family Arcana’ Deals Out a Full House
Here’s a genius idea: take a creepy gothic story about a family living in a possibly haunted house and break it up and put the pieces on playing cards. Jedediah Berry and the folks at Ninepin Press did just that with “The Family Arcana: A Story in Cards” and the results are brilliant and wonderful.
The instructions are simple: shuffle the deck however you want and start reading. You can read this story in any direction, but no matter which direction you read the cards, the different micro-flashes illuminate the odd but charming family that Berry has portrayed here.
Each card reads like it’s own micro-flash—some dark and creepy:
“A man comes around, offering to sharpen our knives. We offer to show him how it’s really done.”
And some with a lighter charming sense of humor:
“In a part of the attic that no one knows but us, we sit on the floor and on the rafters and on old broken chairs, and movements are made and seconded, and votes are cast, and in this way decisions are made. You probably want to know what we’re voting on now, but that isn’t how this goes.”
It’s hard to keep track of all the family members here—endless aunts and uncles, it seems—but after awhile it’s more about the quirky logic and rituals of these people. The true delight is getting lost in this house for a time, then being able to shuffle your deck and do it all over again.
I was so fascinated with both the story itself and its form that I had to catch up with Berry via email to ask him more about the behind-the-scenes. Here’s our chat:
I wrote “The Family Arcana” by hand on index cards, limiting myself to one side of one card for each section. For the few years that I worked on the story, I always kept a little stack of index cards handy, and I’d take them out whenever a new snippet of language occurred to me. Sometimes I’d write a few cards in a sitting, sometimes just one. Once or twice, I wrote a dozen in quick succession.
Do you have a favorite or preferred way to read the text?
I’ve heard of people getting interesting results by playing games of solitaire and reading the stacks, or playing poker and reading their hands. These days, what I most enjoy is getting to shuffle and read it in front of an audience. Not because I’m a natural performer by any means, but because I enjoy the tension of not knowing exactly what’s going to happen. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to being a magician.
How did you choose which fragments ended up on which card?
Toward the end of the revision process, I did start assigning the texts to specific suits and ranks. There’s a system to it—the hearts, for example, are all about Mother and Father, and the diamonds all have to do with the setting—but it’s a purposefully imperfect system. I wanted to achieve a certain kind of balance without making the structure too rigid.
I love how the characters have this creepiness about them but also have a really great dark sense of humor. How did they develop for you as people as you wrote this?
I think of them as both playful and wounded. The story they tell comes from a place of suffering, but they delight in the telling. They’re scoundrels and tricksters, but there’s a fierceness in their love for one another and for their home. I felt a real sense of urgency while writing of this story, and I think it has everything to do with that balance of hurt and humor.
What other alternative-text or hybrid projects are you working on now? What’s next?
I just finished work on an interactive science fiction story called “Fabricationist DeWit Remakes the World.” It’s freely available online, and it uses a branching structure to tell a story with more than one possible ending. Also, as an editor at Ninepin Press, I’m looking forward to publishing works in unusual forms by other writers. We have one new project in the works, with more on the way soon.
Tara Laskowski has been the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly since 2010.
“You can just read it. You should just read it.” An Interview with SLQ’s Former Fish Fellows
This week on the SmokeLong Blog, in honor of the 2016 Kathy Fish Fellowship, we’re catching up with former SLQ Fish Fellows Tara Laskowski, Adam Peterson, Megan Giddings, Beth Cox Thomas, and Stefanie Freele. Read on for sage advice from our former fellows and some of their top picks for the distinction of “Honorary Fish Fellow.”
SmokeLong: How did you decide what to submit for the Fellowship?
Tara: I honestly don’t remember—I think at that point, I wasn’t really writing flash all that much, so I just submitted the only stories I had of that length! One funny thing I do remember—I found out I won on the same day as Obama’s first inauguration day, and when I read the email about winning, I gasped really loud. My husband came running in, really concerned. He thought that the president had gotten shot or something terrible! He was really, really happy to hear the news after that.
Adam: I looked for commonalities and tried to think of the pieces I chose as a cohesive series. Like a pamphlet. Like a pamphlet you hopefully wouldn’t immediately drop onto the street. Like a pamphlet you would politely recycle later.
Megan: Honestly, I only had four stories that were a thousand words or less at the time that I thought I could turn into something worth reading. I knew everything else I had was either not right for SmokeLong (I’d been reading the magazine pretty regularly) or were just junk pieces that I needed to write to learn how to write flash, but shouldn’t be sent out. Having such a small amount helped to keep me focused. I also remember thinking while I was working on them that I was never going to win, but it was nice to have a purpose while revising. I was just happy at the time that there was this fellowship out there pushing me toward revision.
Beth: I mostly just tried to pick my best stories. At that point, I didn’t have a ton of stories to choose from, so it wasn’t too hard. I also tried to lean toward stories that I thought fit both the SmokeLong and the Kathy Fish kind of vibe. I had been a fan of Kathy’s for years, so it was fun to try to pick stories that might mesh well.
Stefanie: The stories I submitted for the Fellowship felt like the ones that seemed the most indicative of the style of writing I wanted to keep playing with. I searched through my stories and found a group that seemed to have in common: unpredictability and a slight sense of magical realism.
SmokeLong: What was the most unexpected result of the winning the Fellowship?
Tara: Getting to stay on staff at SLQ after the fellowship was over, and then taking the helm! I would never have dreamed of that—and it’s been so totally amazing.
Adam: Finding out how great and committed the entire SLQ community is. Not just your editors and artists and writers, but everyone who reads the site.
Megan: Winning the fellowship led to me becoming a reader for SmokeLong, which led to me becoming the Executive Editor last year.
Beth: I’d say 100% the most unexpected PART of winning was actually winning. I was completely shocked. The most unexpected result of winning was joining the SmokeLong Quarterly staff as a staff member after my year mentorship was up, then working with Tara as a senior editor for a year or so after that. Just being on the masthead of such a great publication was unexpected and wonderful.
Stefanie: I did not expect the group to help me get those stories so finely tuned. It was amazing. Randall Brown and team were forthcoming and helpful. They worked hard to get the stories tight.
SmokeLong: What was the best part of the Fellowship for you?
Tara: The best part for me was networking with so many writers and editors, and experimenting with my fiction for that year. I had so much fun focusing on flash.
Megan: About six months in, Tara started having me read for SmokeLong. I think the most helpful thing for my writing was getting to read a lot of submissions and learning how to think about writing not just in line with what I like or don’t like, but what’s a good fit for the magazine. Doing that also helped me become a stronger judge of where to submit.
Beth: The best part was working with writers I had admired for years. They gave me some wonderful advice and helped me rework stories until they were publishable. Just having a sounding board like that, people throwing out ideas and suggestions, gave me confidence to try new things.
Stefanie: Not only was it an honor to have my stories published in SLQ, but I had the opportunity to read lots of submissions and help choose some for publication. Finding stories to accept turned out to be unexpectedly fulfilling.
SmokeLong: How did your writing or your writing identity change if at all as a result of the Fellowship?
Adam: It got me back into writing short shorts. I hadn’t done many for the year or so prior while I worked on other projects, and apparently I really missed it. I made a goal to write all new stories for posting on SLQ, and I not only managed that but to write a lot more as well.
Megan: I don’t know if I would’ve been writing much flash today if it weren’t for the fellowship. It started right around the time I started my MFA. In my first workshop, I was expected to turn in a minimum of sixty pages spread across three stories. I guess I could’ve asked my workshop instructor if I could’ve turned in twenty to sixty flash fiction pieces, but I doubt that would’ve gone over well. Anyway, having the fellowship helped me continue developing and thinking about how quickly unique, clear details could establish character, stakes, and setting.
Beth: Mainly, just feeling good about myself and my writing is what changed. Until the fellowship, I felt like I was just experimenting (and failing a lot). I was struggling to complete stories and to be happy with them, and even more to get them published. I didn’t believe that I knew what I was doing. The fellowship gave me the confidence I needed to keep working and keep trying.
SmokeLong: What advice do you have for Fellowship hopefuls and other writers at this stage?
Tara: Publish your flash fiction online. I love print, I do, but I think you can build an audience and a reputation easier by publishing online. Also, like others here have said, volunteer for a journal if you can–reading the slush pile can really help you understand what’s out there and how you can set yourself apart from the pack.
Adam: Speak with your own voice. Choose pieces that prove that voice is yours and yours alone. Avoid extended pamphlet-based metaphors.
Megan: The cover letter actually does matter. One of the things Tara cited in my acceptance letter is how specific I was in what I would gain from having a year of writing workshops and publications.
Beth: As cheesy as it sounds, just be true to yourself and your own voice. It shows and is appreciated. Take chances. Most importantly (some advice I should take, also) is to just keep at it. Keep practicing and improving. Read and read. If you get a chance to be a reader/editor at a magazine, take it. You’ll learn so much by seeing what everyone else is doing – both what works and what doesn’t.
Stefanie: The same advice I always give: Read. Read. Read.
SmokeLong: Who are your favorite flash writers these days, your nominations for “Honorary Fish Fellows?”
Adam: O, man, I wish I would have just been an “Honorary Fish Fellow” instead. That’s way cooler on a business card. Did I successfully avoid the question? Because my honest answer is that my favorite thing about short-short fiction is how authorless and fleeting it is. No piece is an opus. And that’s good because opuses are dumb. You can just read it. You should just read it.
Megan: A lot of the people who’ve read for SmokeLong Weekly over the past months (and in the future). I’ve also read some great stories not on SmokeLong recently that if they were in a Fish application packet, I would be voting for them. Some of them are: “The Spread” by Jennifer Howard; “Swearing in January 20, 2009” by Meron Hadero; and “3 Fictions” by Siel Ju.
Stefanie: Well, could we resurrect Russell Edson? I admire Lydia Davis, Bruce Holland Rogers, and Kathy Fish herself. Could she be a Fish fellow? There are a bunch of talented FF writers: Sherrie Flick, Avital Gad-Cykman, Tara Laskowski, Stefani Nellen, Ray Vukcevich, Kyle Hemmings, Tania Hershman…and many, many more.
SmokeLong is accepting submissions for the 2016 Fellowship until October 15, 2015. Send us your best!
SLQ interviews editor Robert Shapard about international flash fiction
What was the goal behind Flash Fiction International? Did you have any expectations starting out?
Our publisher wanted us to do a new international book, based on a successful one we did years ago, Sudden Fiction International. We thought this time flash was the way to go. I’ve always loved seeing very short stories from around the world alongside those by U.S. writers. But it’s so rare to find them, really good ones, all together in a single book, because gathering them can be so difficult. In fact ours is the first major international anthology devoted to flash fiction. Our goal was to give readers a glimpse of the best from everywhere. The idea was to entertain, to satisfy curiosity, to be useful.
Flash Fiction International brings together flash fiction from dozens of different countries. In what ways do the stories differ based on geographic location? Have you noticed any significant differences in the way, say, someone in the Middle East writes very short fiction vs. someone in Canada? Or are the themes, styles, forms universal?
We had a panel last month in Minneapolis to celebrate Flash Fiction International and discussed these very questions. Yes, flashes do vary by geography and culture. But ways of telling—ah, that’s the most interesting. And hardest to pin down, because there are more variations between writers than countries. Tradition and experiment abound everywhere. I’ll try a broad stroke, or two—flashes in North America are more often grounded in traditional scene with realistic detail, or showing, than in Latin America, where they are more likely to be grounded in narrative, or telling. Thus North American flashes on the whole are longer, Latin American flashes shorter. Chinese stories tend to have a conversational tone. Maybe that’s a proletarian stance. Though in Hong Kong they’re more literary, experimental. It’s best to read a whole collection, from around the world (please try ours); when you do, an intriguing picture emerges. A picture of what exactly?—and how to say it? To get people thinking, we included a section called “Flash Theory” in the back of Flash Fiction International. Sometimes it’s tongue in cheek (how short can a theory be? If it’s a flash theory, only a sentence or two). But mostly it’s for serious thought—about 40 brief quotes on carefully selected aspects of flash. Basically, some ways to talk and think about flash.
Can you talk a little about your process in choosing stories?
We’re a little like Best American Short Stories, which selects from 200+ magazines and literary journals every year. But we go much farther, looking at many more journals. And we consult mountains of books—unlike Best American— individual author collections and anthologies. We search not just one year of publications, but 5 or more. We also send invitations directly to many authors and to translator organizations. Add all that together and multiply not by just one country, but worldwide. We must be crazy!
A quicker, more deductive approach would be to find a pre-approved list of world-famous authors, and dig up something very short by each. But our (long) approach has always been to look for the best stories, regardless of who wrote them, wherever they can be found, no matter how obscure. As for the breakdown of labor, James Thomas, Chris Merrill and I did all the searching and reading and made initial selections, then we asked a dozen valiant associates, people who loved to read, to select favorites, which helped us narrow down. It was like building a giant pyramid. At the very top, Chris, James, and I made final selections. We knew we couldn’t make everyone happy. But we hoped readers would agree that most of the flashes in the book are truly great.
You’ve been collecting flash fiction for more than 20 years now—does it continue to surprise you? Have you seen the form evolve or change in any way?
A good flash is always new. Yes, the form has changed. When we first started, everything seemed experimental, then for a decade flashes became mostly traditional, realistic stories (except shorter), and now, the most recent decade or more, experiment has been returning. The Internet certainly has pushed flashes to become shorter. I’ve been told readers and writers in Latin America are beginning to grow tired of, feel constrained by, extremely short stories (under 100 words, which they’ve loved). So their flashes may start to become longer now. Maybe it’s like low tide in one part of the world, high tide in another, move the opposite way and become the other.
Even within the constraints of a short word count limit, flash fiction writers experiment with all different ways of telling a story. At SmokeLong, for instance, we could read one very traditional narrative scene in the queue, but the next story might jump around in time, and the next story might be told in all dialogue. Do you have any favorite style?
No favorite style. I like them all. That’s one good thing with a “best of” type anthology like ours or a magazine like SmokeLong—the variety of style. It keeps you alert, in suspense about what’s coming next.
What about pet peeves in flash? Are there any stories that shouldn’t be told? Are there any mistakes you see over and over?
Nope, no pet peeves. I do chafe when I see dogmatic prescriptions on how to write a flash—it must be a single scene, it must cover only a short period of time, it must use terse language. Some of those may be common, but none of them are true. You asked, Are there stories that shouldn’t be told? I like what Chris Merrill says—no stories should be untold, because of course we live by stories.
You directed the MFA program at the University of Hawaii. Two questions there: one, did you teach flash fiction to students? Two, why the heck did you ever leave Hawaii?
I directed the MA with Creative Thesis Program there. Yes, I taught flash fiction, usually mixed with longer fiction, in introductory classes. I also taught a few grad courses in flash. Why did we move? We loved Hawaii, and had a wonderful long run there, but ultimately we chose to be closer to family on the mainland. We had to trade laulau for barbecue, but Austin (where we live now) is a great town.
What’s your favorite quote or definition of flash fiction?
I have so many favorites! Here’s one. Lia Purpura, from her essay “On Miniatures” (in any art) says: “Time, in miniature form, like a gas compressed, gets hotter.”
Maybe we should talk about flash fiction not in terms of length (or length alone) but heat.
In your opinion, is it harder to write a funny piece of flash or a truly scary one?
I’ve always heard writing humor takes a special talent, and so does horror. That may be true at any length. Ask Tom Hazuka, who edited Flash Fiction Funny. For me personally, writing scary would probably be harder.
Any plans for the next anthology you want to share? Or what other projects are you working on at the moment that make you happy?
I’m enjoying reading, anything and everything, short and long. Right now my writing projects are long, except for one flash I can’t get right. (I envy and admire those who write good flashes quickly.) I’m guest editing a magazine issue and planning a short flash course I’m teaching in Indiana next fall. In general what makes me happy is being with friends and family, reading a good book and writing something that’s not bad.
Interview with Rose Metal Press—Novellas-in-Flash
SmokeLong Quarterly loves short-form work, and when a new anthology that features innovative shorter work is published, talking to its editors is a priority. SLQ’s interviews editor Karen Craigo sat down with Abby Beckel and Kathleen Rooney, the editors of My Very End of the Universe, an anthology of five novellas-in-flash from Rose Metal Press. The two editors shared their thoughts about this innovative form they showcase.
Karen Craigo: Your purpose was to define the form of the novella-in-flash—a form with a long history but, until your anthology, no single, defining name. What are the traits of the form, and what makes it appealing?
Kathleen Rooney: The novella-in-flash takes the brevity and intensity of flash fiction or nonfiction and blends those qualities with the longer duration and more sustained (though still brief) arc of the novella. Its friendliness to various strategies of reading is one of the things that makes it appealing, in that you can read a novella-in-flash in a single sitting, if you’d like to, or you can make your way through one story at a time over a longer period, because each smaller component has a complete and self-contained arc all its own.
Abby Beckel: Exactly—the standalone nature of the stories that make up a novella-in-flash is what sets them apart from traditional chapters. We love the concision and snap of flash, and we also love sustained narrative, and so do many readers, so the novella-in-flash is an ideal form in many ways. It’s also a very engaging form for the reader: Since each story has to be able to stand on its own, there’s not as much filler and explanation as there might be in a novella or novel. The same characters tend to recur throughout a novella-in-flash, but depending on the particular work, there may be big leaps in time or setting. The reader jumps those gaps with the author, which makes for a fun reading experience.
KC: What were your criteria for choosing the five novellas to include in My Very End of the Universe?
KR: First and foremost, we wanted the novellas-in-flash to be the best examples of how that form works structurally: a combination of the concision of the individual pieces that connect and build into a much vaster narrative.
AB: We also wanted to showcase the form being used in different ways, to show the breadth of the novella-in-flash. Within these five novellas-in-flash, you’ll see a range of techniques: One plays with a non-linear time structure, one centers entirely on a character, one plays with the idea of who gets to tell the story, one uses the form to combine an historical setting with a fable-like premise, and one uses the form to invoke the feeling of the fraught, fractured teenage years. The form offers a lot of opportunities for writers to try out different ways of creating a narrative arc.
KC: Your mission at Rose Metal Press is to get hybrid forms into the hands of readers. Are there any other forms like the novella-in-flash that still require definition in an anthology of this type? I guess I’m asking what’s next.
KR: We’re so glad you asked—yes, there are! Next fall we’ll be publishing an anthology called Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres, edited by Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov. It’s going to provide examples of these hybrid forms, as well as essays by authors who choose to use them. The hybrid genres included will be lyric essay, epistolary, poetic memoir, prose poetry, performative, short-form nonfiction, flash fiction, and pictures made of words, and obviously all eight of them have been named and defined and discussed elsewhere, but never quite in this way: a family tree of hybridity that showcases how cross-genre works take features from multiple literary parents and mix them to create new entities.
AB: We’re always on the lookout for new hybrid genres that are emerging and need a publishing home and advocate. Over the years, we have gravitated toward the combination of succinct and linked forms like the novella-in-flash. This spring we have a novel-in-poems coming out that is also an art-and-text collaboration: In the Circus of You by poet Nicelle Davis and artist Cheryl Gross. The novel-in-poems is a similar form to the novella-in-flash in that each poem can stand alone, but they are linked and they build on one another to form a book-length narrative.
KC: I see that My Very End of the Universe is a finalist for an INDIEFAB Award for independent publishing in the category of anthologies. That’s such great news! I wonder if you consider it a reflection on the novella-in-flash form, in addition to an acknowledgement of the excellent work you do at Rose Metal Press.
AB: We’re thrilled about this recognition of My Very End of the Universe, both for Rose Metal Press and for the authors of the book. One of the downsides of branching out in one’s writing and innovating in form and genre is that most of the annual awards are pretty genre-segregated and conservative in what they consider. So we’re happy to see our authors rewarded for their work by ForeWord’s INDIEFAB judges. It seems fitting that an award for independent presses would encourage an independent spirit in the writing itself.
We also think this recognition is terrific for the novella-in-flash form itself. Response to My Very End of the Universe has been overwhelmingly positive—readers are loving the book and we’re hearing from more and more writers who are trying out the form. That the book is an INDIEFAB finalist just reinforces what we’ve known for a long time: Just because a literary work is hybrid or groundbreaking doesn’t mean it’s too weird to be a crowd-pleaser—hybrid genres are really just new ways of expressing the human experience.
KR: Exactly—what she said!