Review: Best Small Fictions 2017, A View Into The Collective Subconscious
By Stefen Styrsky
While reading the exceptional stories in The Best Small Fictions 2017, the phrase “in our time” kept bouncing around my head. It’s the title of Hemingway’s first collection, the book that put him on the literary map, filled with examples of what, back then, had no name: Flash Fiction. Hemingway seemed to be on to something with that title. It struck me as the perfect phrase to encapsulate BSF 2017. The subjects of these stories run the gamut: families, death, identity, culture, race, environment. In other words, a glimpse into our current collective subconscious. (more…)
Review: Looking Back, Moving Forward: Reflecting on Life Happening in Jack C. Buck’s Deer Michigan
By Santino Prinzi
In many of the stories in Deer Michigan (Truth Serum Press, 2016), characters reflect on memories of what once was and how the world around them has changed, whether they wanted it to or not. In these moments, we find loss, anger, and regret, as well as happiness and hope.
“Hoop Dreams” is a coming-of-age story about young boys obsessed with the NBA and Baywatch. The narrator remembers his childhood in 1998 and how he and his friends were fascinated by Denis Rodman and imitated his behavior: “Purposefully missing shots in order to accumulate more rebounds on the stat sheet, diving on the concrete for loose balls, temporarily dying our hair for a day with green and red Kool-Aid you know, Rodman type of stuff.” This imitation of celebrities or icons feels innocent and playful, and we probably all did the same when we were their age. Rodman’s actions become the boys’ aspirations as he begins dating Carmen Electra because “Dennis wasn’t considered good looking, so it gave hope to all of us teenage losers that we could date one of the Baywatch babes, too,” but already Buck suggests the recollection of this memory is tainted with contempt. The boys are losers, and this imitation of Rodman makes the narrator feel foolish on reflection. Buck then explores the naivety of these boys, “We all thought we were inevitably destined for the NBA, that was a given, but Dennis dating a television supermodel was an added boost of confidence,” and this evokes a feeling of what is natural to believe at that age. That these boys were going to grow up to become NBA stars and date models “was a given” and seems so normal, as we all did when, as children, we believed we would become our heroes one day.
Review: Exploring Violence and Small Moments in Santino Prinzi’s Dots
By Eshani Surya
Imagine the things you do in a day. See those small moments in succession: walk by the preacher on the subway, bake cookies or bread in the oven, try to flirt with the cashier at a local store, watch Netflix with increasing horror as the clock ticks forward, visit the bookstore, listen in on a conversation in a café.
In his debut collection of flash fiction, Dots: and other flashes of perception, Santino Prinzi walks his readers through daily lives, giving small actions and events weight. Prinzi moves away from the autopilot mode that so many of us exist in, trying to find meaning in what is often ignored. Even the stories that depict more specific and difficult circumstances (like “Calls for Ronan,” which deals with a transgender character and her mother’s inability to call her by the correct name) do so without grandiosity. In “Calls for Ronan” the story is told through phone calls, storytelling that reads as tangible rather than philosophizing. The effect of all this is a delicate collection, with stories that breathe whispers into the subconscious mind. On the inevitable day that a reader is mimicking the actions of a character from the book, it is entirely possible that a sentence from a story will rise up out of memory, and that reader will find themselves reconsidering their bodies and motivations.
For all his interest in the mundane, Prinzi others the experience of daily motions, making them deserving of further inspection. In “Halfway to Fifty,” Prinzi takes on Netflix and the phrase that the website asks: “Are you still watching?” For most, this is a screen we have encountered. We hit “Resume,” and go on. But Prinzi situates this image into questions of age and accomplishment. The first person narrator considers Netflix, then the length of centuries, then Facebook, then suicide, before returning to watching television. In this way, Netflix becomes a gateway for showing how technology ties its users to endurance.
Often, this othering is created through explicating violence. Much of the collection deals with forms of violence, both physical and emotional. This is most evident in the stories that handle deteriorating or unmoored relationships. In “Hereditary,” Prinzi depicts a mother and daughter who both kill their abusive husbands in the kitchen. In “Shelf Life,” Lisa and Nick meet in a bookstore. They follow each other through the sections, using the genres to guide the dynamic of their relationship. They end in Crime, where Lisa hides Nick’s unconscious body. These relationships have higher stakes with this clear violence, allowing Prinzi to show how precarious human affairs can be.
But violence is evident in other stories, as well, acting as a tie between the different parts of the collection. “Little Details” is also a relationship story, but it is the violence of betrayal, as a husband paints another woman’s portrait. In “Burnt Out,” a car is engulfed in flames in the night. Here, a blatant act of destruction is embedded into the scene. But even crueler is how the first person narrator talks about Janet in the morning, with no indication of even wanting to help the car’s owner when it caught fire.
Powerfully, most of the stories in Dots: and other flashes of perception consider the inherent violence in human actions. In this thematic space, Santino Prinzi is at the height of his critical prowess, uncovering truths that most people refuse to confront about their so-called mundane lives.
Eshani Surya is a current MFA student in fiction at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she also teaches undergraduates. Her writing has appeared in Ninth Letter Online, New Delta Review, Lunch Ticket, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, and more. She was the 2016 winner of the Ryan R. Gibbs Award for Flash Fiction from New Delta Review. Eshani also serves as a reader of fiction at Sonora Review. Find her on Twitter @__eshani.
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.
Encountering the Divine and Mundane in Joy Williams’s Ninety-Nine Stories of God
By Eshani Surya
Joy Williams gives her Antigone Bookstore reading with sunglasses perched on her face, though it is evening and we are inside. Perhaps this is enough to give a sense of the confidence that Williams exudes and lends to her collection of stories. Outside, Tucson rumbles on a Friday night—I can hear the streetcar honking, music blaring from the cars that whiz by a little too fast, patrons making their way to the bars on 4th Ave. This is the land of college students back from summer break just a few weeks ago. But Williams’s voice keeps a steady, calm pace as she reads the micro-fictions that make up Ninety-Nine Stories of God.
She ends her reading with one of my favorite stories, number 98. In it, the Lord—a recurring character throughout the volume—tries to adopt a tortoise. The Lord asks, “May I have two?” He is denied for fear that the tortoises will breed. He is told to find a square of grass from Home Depot. On the way home, both the Lord and the tortoise brood about “this adoption business.” The title, “A New Arrangement,” comes at the end of the story, as all the titles in this collection do.
How ridiculous this premise sounds, and yet what Williams achieves in one succinct story is mighty. In this story and throughout the book, Williams considers human institutions/social niceties, benevolence, and control. She asks what constitutes as God’s intervention? What makes up a story of God? Where is God in stories of tragedy?
Even with the heavier questions, the stories—ranging in length from a few sentences to a few pages—are funny, even funnier when read aloud, as evidenced by the raucous laughter in the bookstore, where Williams is able to make every line a joke just by the weight she gives each word. And she likes making people laugh—I can tell, because when they laugh, she smiles a little below the sunglasses. Humor is integral to this collection; it keeps the stories fun and allows them to explore strangeness, like the Lord never being able to come up with twelve guests for His dinner parties (from number 31). Williams’s descent into peculiarity heightens some of her thematic preoccupations: loneliness, discomfort, imperfection.
This isn’t to say all the stories work. Some don’t quite come together, like 18, which includes drawing of a rolled up tarpaulin and explains that the drawing is not a maze. These are the stories that read like good beginnings or witty one-off observations. With these, the title, which often works as a punch line, doesn’t seem to add much. One might be left asking, “Well, so what?” And sometimes the perfection of each line feels too manufactured, too measured. The distance does make sense for a collection that is about looking at faith, miracles, and the relationship humans have with God and the natural world, but it can also lack energy. Generally, the best stories are the ones that include the Lord, a grounding character who is puzzled by his own creations. The detached tone—one of matter-of-fact confusion—serves these stories the best, by giving a satirical edge to anything the Lord observes.
Still, Joy Williams is a master of language and sentence construction, and for that reason alone it would be worth picking up this collection. Past that, one can enjoy the challenge of encountering the divine in the mundane and the mundane in the divine. Though the book could easily be read in one sitting, a better reading experience would likely be reading a few of the stories at a time, as a sort of amuse-bouche before sleep.
Eshani Surya is a current MFA student in fiction at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she also teaches undergraduates. A former Associate Editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, her writing has appeared in Ninth Letter Online, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, First Class Lit, and Minetta Review. Eshani also serves as a reader of fiction at Sonora Review. Find her on Twitter @__eshani.
Love and Disappointment in “Goldfish on the Roof”
By Marie Schutt
My first unwitting introduction to flash fiction, or something like it, was when I picked up Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories as a bored teenager. Though he’s best known for his novels—Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, Beauty and Sadness, among others—Kawabata wrote his “palm-of-the-hand” stories (a term he coined) over fifty-odd years. They span his writing career and are, as is written in the introduction of my edition of the collection, where the “essence of his art was to be found.”
That book changed what little I understood then about reading and writing fiction, and has continued to shape my approach to writing more than ten years later. Most importantly, it showed me how much of a story can live off of the page, even when its printed attachment to this world counts for less than 1,000 words.
Some of the stories are surreal (“Goldfish on the Roof,” haunts with its carp-invaded mirrors and mothers) some are quick “slice of life” vignettes (the autumnal “The Silverberry Thief” is a personal favorite) and others span months or years of characters’ lives (“The White Flower”). They all, in only so many words, project entire worlds of hope, curiosity, dread, regret, and nostalgia, populated by complex and familiar characters.
“Goldfish on the Roof,” written in 1926, is one story I’ve revisited, and grappled with, multiple times in the years since I first read it.
The story’s protagonist is Chiyoko, a young woman whose father is Japanese and whose mother was a “concubine in Peking.” She is haunted by her heritage and an expressive mirror hanging opposite her bed. Distressing visions appear there: apparitions of the goldfish her father raises in tubs on the roof. “Her mind was worn down like a phonograph needle because of the clarity of these visions.”
Those goldfish become a family obsession. Initially a hobby of her father’s, they eventually become Chiyoko’s responsibility. “Growing more and more melancholy by the day, she did nothing but gaze at them.” Suitors come and go, but all Chiyoko asks of them is to fetch her some water fleas to feed the fish:
“‘Where can I find them?’
“‘You might look around in a ditch.’”
When she is twenty-six, Chiyoko’s father dies and disowns her in his will. Upon hearing the news, a few things happen to her in rapid succession. She sees her mother in the mirror, and then runs to the roof to confront her.
“Where had she come from? And when? Her mother was standing by the fish tank, her face dark. Her mouth was full of lionhead fish. The tail of one of them dangled from her mouth like a tongue. Though the woman saw her daughter, she ignored her as she ate the fish.”
What happens next disturbs and disappoints me on two levels: 1. Chiyoko pushes her mother to her death, and 2. Kawabata abruptly follows that powerful passage up with a literal “and then she lived happily ever after” to end the piece:
“With this, Chiyoko was freed from her mother and father. She regained her youth and set out on a life of happiness.”
This tightly written and emotionally complex story deserves a much more effective ending than that. The reader is shunted from a potent and lingering image – “Her mother tumbled against the glazed brick and died with the goldfish in her mouth” – to this bland and unconvincing non-ending, which feels as though it was tacked on as an afterthought. As though, what the hell, maybe Chiyoko deserves a little something for all her suffering, after all.
This is why I love and hate “Goldfish on the Roof.”
I love it for its weirdness, for its tense layering of family dynamics, for its dreamlike descriptions, for allowing Chiyoko and her world to be formed out of a masterful give and take of dark and light rather than hard-drawn lines and character clichés – and for accomplishing all of this in a little over 1,000 words. The same things that I love about many of Kawabata’s stories.
I hate it for that ending. An ending, I feel, that betrays the reader, and undermines everything that the story had achieved leading up to those last few lines.
Kawabata’s stories were my first lessons in economy of language. The “palm-of-the-hand stories” occupy small spaces, but possess limitless expansive power, and that unexpected power of evocation blew open my early notions of how storytelling could—and should—be achieved. This was a precious thing for a young aspiring writer to discover.
But, no artist is perfect. Everyone misses the mark sometimes, and I think the reason that “Goldfish on the Roof” has remained important to me is that it embodies both the best and the worst of what I’ve encountered in flash fiction: captivating storytelling with the power to thoroughly immerse the reader in a small space, and an awkward, unsuccessful attempt to give closure to that story within the same space.
Compressing the space and the time in which we get to tell a story magnifies every stylistic choice, forces us to whittle the story down to its essentials. That is, ultimately, the thing that pulls me to flash fiction: it demands the essentials. Kawabata’s stories make their own demands, and sometimes they aren’t met. But I have learned to value those stories as much as any other, because their imperfection offers a glimpse into the workings of a great author’s craft that no engaged writer can afford to ignore.
Marie Schutt is a writer and editor based in Chicago. She edits Liminoid Magazine, which is launching its fifth issue in October 2016. Her fiction can be found in Sundog Lit. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories.
Lost at Sea: On Falling for Atlas of Remote Islands
This week Matt Weinkam shares his unabashed love for Judith Schalansky’s beautiful book Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will and its recent Pocket Atlas reissue.
By Matt Weinkam
I’m in love with a book. Can I say that? There is a book that I love like a person. I think it is intelligent, funny at times, independent in spirit, honest. This book delights me but also challenges me. It takes me new places, teaches me new things. I’m attracted to it, I’ll admit. It is quite beautiful. When I spy it from across the room peeking out from my bookshelf or lying seductively open on my bedside table I feel things. Maybe you have a book like this, a book that glows when you touch it, that you think about when it’s not around, the book that you’d run back into a burning building to save. For me that book is Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will written, designed, and typeset by Judith Schalansky, and translated from German by Christine Lo.
The book is exactly what it says it is: a collection of fifty remote islands from around the globe. For each island Schalansky drew a detailed map, collected information about its location and history and inhabitants, and wrote stories essays prose poems difficult-to-categorize pieces to reveal something of the island’s essence. You are likely familiar with some of the islands already: Easter Island, Iwo Jima, Christmas Island, St Helena where Napoleon was exiled, Howland Island where Amelia Earhart was set to refuel before she disappeared into the Pacific. Others will feel like a discovery. There’s Napuka, also known as Disappointment Islands, where Ferdinand Magellan and his starving crew stopped briefly while circling the globe only to find it devoid of food or fresh water. Norfold Island, site of the most feared penal colony of the British Empire. And Tikopia, where the local inhabitants enforce a strict population limit in order to survive sustainably.
It’s no accident the stories that accompany many of these islands are grim. Schalansky’s introduction is titled “Paradise is an island, but so is hell.” Anyone looking for idyllic descriptions of pristine beaches or exotic plants will be deeply disappointed by this book. “What I found,” Schalansky writes about the research process, “were not models of romantic, alternative ways of living, but islands one might wish had remained undiscovered: unsettlingly barren places whose riches lay in the multitude of terrible events that had befallen them.” A majority of the islands come with descriptions of desolation and disease, horror stories of what humans do to one another and to the earth when no one is looking. The most haunting story to me is of St Kilda, an island off the coast of the UK where two-thirds of newborn babies die within the first week of their lives due to a mysterious illness. “The islanders whisper that it is the will of the Almighty. But these are the words of pious men. The women who endure so many pregnancies and bear so few children who survive the eight-day sickness remain silent.”
Dark, I know. So why do I love it? Partly for Schalansky’s prose. In just a few hundred words she brings each island to life while also asking big questions about the history of colonialism, the future of climate change, the effects of science and religion, and the assumptions and ideologies that trap those of us on these big islands called continents. Even if the book didn’t contain any images the words alone would make it worth your time.
But the images? The design? It’s no accident Atlas of Remote Islands won a prize for the most beautiful German book—the whole thing is a work of art. The maps of each island are intricate yet clear. The typeface and page layout engage without distracting. And I love how the orange highlights in the text compliment the blue of the ocean in each image. You will spend as much time studying the map of each island as you will spend reading the text that accompanies it. Each detail contains a story. How far is it from the nearest bodies of land? How many people live on the island? What country owns it? What are the names of its mountains and coves and streams and settlements? I’m particularly fond of the miniature globe graphic that accompanies each island. Schalansky places the island in the center of the map so that we view the earth from the point of view of those who live there. Such a simple design choice provides a revolutionary perspective of the planet. It can spark your imagination.
Atlas of Remote Islands could have been just another regular coffee table book: big on pictures, small on ideas. Instead it’s a complex, evocative, insightful, and challenging work of literature and art. It is, in other words, worthy of love. In an introduction to the new paperback edition, Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands, Schalansky writes, “Now that it is possible to travel right round the globe, the real challenge lies in staying at home and discovering the world from there.” Get a copy of this book. Fall in love with it. Go on an adventure.
Matt Weinkam’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, New South, Midwestern Gothic, Sonora Review, and Covered w/ Fur. He is currently in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University where he is co-managing editor at Passages North and a founding editor of Threadcount, an online journal of hybrid prose.
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.