Have an idea for an essay or column related to flash fiction? Contact us here.
January 14, 2019 SmokeLong on the Road
In 2019 we’re going on the road to visit as many of our contributors and editors as possible, to say thank you and to get to know these passionate, talented people better. Our first stop is Dubai where we had lunch with Hananah Zaheer, who does interviews for SmokeLong. After lunch, I talked to Hananah about her life in Dubai and the short story collection she’s working on.
Our next stop is in the exciting city of Singapore, where we meet up with our co-ordinating editor, Shasta Grant, and contributors Elaine Chiew and Sharmini Aphrodite.
January 11, 2019 Playlists
Listen to the Issue 62 playlist on Spotify! We decided to wait until after the holidays to bring this to you. Enjoy!
Brendan Stephans, “Rascal” – “For Wanda” by Silver Mt. Zion
This is one of the few memorial songs about a dog that I know about. It also seems fitting since it is a single melody that builds and swells around it, which is kind of like my one-sentence story.
Shelli Cornelison,”Trespassers” – “Almost Lover” by A Fine Frenzy
I chose this song because the narrator in “Trespassers” is unable to fully let go of two early relationships, or more accurately, her romanticized fixation on them, to the point those memories have a negative impact on her ability to form lasting relationships so many years later. She’s cherry-picked ideals from those almosts of her youth and uses them as comparison measures in her adulthood.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt, “The Unicorn” – “Who Do You Think You Are” by Spice Girls
Of course The Unicorn’s song is “Who Do You Think You Are” from the Spice Girls. The main character isn’t just channeling their fashion sense, she’s definitely got her favourite ladies on her ears buds. There’s no better mantra than trust it, use it, prove it, groove it.
Ashton Carlile, “Earlove” – “Geyser” by Mitski
In my story, the narrator goes to see a movie where there’s yelling involved to feel the vibration/release of it without having to actually scream herself. Sometimes you need someone to do the screaming for you. I listen to Mitski, particularly this song, when I feel like screaming but I’m too tired. Her voice makes everything bubble up to the surface. She just…makes me sob!
Judy Darley, “Milk and Other Lies” – “Man of A Thousand Faces” by Regina Spektor
I love Regina Spektor’s vivid, quirky imagery – she’s an amazing storyteller through her songs.
Ashan Butt, “Moon” – “The Big Sky” by Kate Bush
The song’s perpetual lift, Kate’s lyrics and her deeply touched vocals all express what I hope awaits Raheem. I wish him to be ecstatic, at peace with his isolation, wide-eyed and blissfully watching the big sky. And then the song’s video (*please* watch the video — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sV7w5TaYjRA) is an uncanny stage of state propaganda. Whether Lajiristan’s or ours, it’s just… remarkably accurate.
Taryn Tilton, “Garden Snake” – “One More” by Yaeji
There’s an insufficient apology in my story, as there is in this quietly devastating song.
Ellen Rhudy, “Glory Days” – “Big Change” by Swearin’
This song captures so well the feeling of being young, discovering who you are, escaping something (or someone). I imagine my narrator will get along with this song if she manages to get out of her town.
Trevor Fuller, “A Short History of Those Who Came Before Us” – “The Power of Love (You Are My Lady)” by Air Supply
I’ve been somewhat taken with this song since I heard it at the end of Adam Wingard’s Death Note adaptation. It was a song I already knew and didn’t really care about, but I thought it was a weirdly appropriate choice there and imbued the song with new significance, and now it seems like an appropriate choice for this considering the content of my story, which has the beginnings and endings of several different relationships and is maybe a little sensational, like the song.
Brooke Fossey, “The Great Abide” – “Wake Up” by Arcade Fire. “Wake Up” is a perfect fit for “The Great Abide” because it’s a retrospective look from someone who’s escaped the likes of Ginger and Cassidy’s dad. If you play it after the read, it adds a whole different dimension to the story.
Christopher Drew, “Alligator” – “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M.
Maddy Raskulinecz, “What I Have Coming to Me” – “Godmother” by Holly Herndon and Jlin, featuring Spawn
Stressful and catchy. The frantic breathy noises and vocalizations remind me of my story, and there’s an exciting mother/daughter dynamic between the human artists and the computer they trained to generate the song by imitating them.
Laurinda Lind, “Itinerary” – “I’ll Fly Away” by Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss
Uses the flight metaphor, also contained in the flash piece, and the suggestion that things on the earth here aren’t terrific, and it might be so nice to get away elsewhere.
Kaitlyn Rice-Andrews, “Second Base” – “The Best of What’s Around” by Dave Matthews Band
This is a totally sincere pick, I promise. As an adult I’ve become nostalgic for the past and curious (and anxious) about the future. I’m equally fascinated and repulsed by technology, and I think the teens in “Second Base” feel this same tug-of-war, torn between wanting to be adults and wanting to be kids. It’s like when you were a kid and you thought braces were cool. Until you had braces. Not cool. “The Best of What’s Around” is one of DMB’s earliest songs, one that most exemplifies my high school years, one that I have I listened to so many times and sung at concerts so many times. Pretty sure I’m supposed to feel ashamed about this, embarrassed about my love of something that eventually became uncool, but I think that’s why I love it so. If being an adult means I have to give up this song, I don’t think I want to be an adult.
Vivien Cao, “There Weren’t Even Any Bubbles” – “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” by Doris Day
I grew up with classic American movies and songs like this one, mindlessly blaring in the background and seeping into my subconscious. Aside from a thematic connection to my story, I hadn’t realized how sad this song actually is since I had thought of it as a whimsical song from my childhood.
Elearnor Pearson, “The Riddle” – “Toussaint Grey, First in Life and Death” by Jeremy Messersmith
It captures the same feeling of regret and nostalgia that I was aiming for with my piece.
Kathryn Kulpa, “So Silent, So Still” – “Wonderful” by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks
I chose it because I love the old-fashioned, fairy-tale mood it evokes, with the little girl wandering off into the woods. It’s also a song that retains a sense of mystery. No matter how many times I listen to it, I’m still not sure exactly what’s happening here, but that’s okay. I like that not every question is answered.
January 7, 2019 Reviews
by Kelly Lynn Thomas
In Maria Romasco Moore’s debut collection of flash fiction, Ghostographs: An Album (Rose Metal Press, 2018), vintage photos serve as the jumping off point for stories that subvert and redefine our conceptions of light, time, and life—what they are, what they do, and what they mean for us and our experiences.
Ghostographs follows an artificial constraint—each story is inspired by a photograph that appears alongside the text—but it does not feel restricted or stunted. Rather, Moore’s prose enlivens and complicates each photograph, often taking the visual reality presented in an unexpected direction. Although not without flaws, Moore’s stories are delightfully unnerving without being creepy or feeling gimmicky.
For example, the photo that accompanies the story “Tess” is an over-exposed image of a young girl who looks like she is glowing, and indeed, the story is about a girl who glows so brightly it hurts to look at her. In “Lewis,” a group photograph of women standing in a field of tall grass inspires a story that transforms the women into beings that grew from the ground like any other plant. A photo of a woman holding a child atop a mailbox becomes a story about a defective mail-order baby in “Hannah.”
While the vintage photographs range in subject matter, most contain people, and many contain spots of unnatural brightness or areas of overexposure, revealing Moore’s likely inspiration for her exploration of light. She reveals in the author’s note that most of the photographs came from yard sales or flea markets.
It’s unlikely the images share anything aside from their age, but the author stitches them together into a cohesive whole by using the same narrator throughout. Presumably a child, the narrator acts as an observer of the strange town in which they live, but also as a repository for accumulated wisdom about the town’s more fantastical elements.
The narrator, who is never named, explains what her grandfather taught her about light in “Different Kinds of Light,” which is paired with a picture of a cat sunbathing. “You’ve got to be careful with light, he told me. Some of it is shadow in disguise. Some of it isn’t light at all, merely the absence of darkness. Some of it can burn you. Some of it is colder than ice. Ice casts a light, as does stone. Some light is dangerous. Some light is safe.”
Photographs, are, of course, light that is captured and held in stasis, forced into one never-changing form. And light, as the narrator points out too often, is tricky. But so, too, are these stories.
Ghostographs opens with a single line of text positioned beneath a cut-off photo: “Every story is a ghost story.” The photo, bifurcated by the book’s binding, takes up only a quarter of the two-page spread. It shows a sepia-toned image of a group of men dressed in white, faded and ghostly. The taller men’s heads are cut off by the physical ending of the page.
Two pages later, the narrator—or perhaps the author, it is unclear—explains further that “The truth of it is that every single instant, we are, all of us, obliterated and refreshed.” This means that we are all ghosts of our previous selves, and all stories are therefore ghost stories. “These are mine,” the narrator tells us, before we turn the page to the first story.
“The Woman Across the Way” feels more like a vignette than a true story, but it does serve the reader as an entrance point to this strange world of living light and shadow. The opening line, “Underneath her skin there were snakes,” shows us that while the narrator uses the word “ghost” more as a metaphor for constant change than death, she is doing so in a world where the impossible has become possible. The choice of snakes imparts a sense of danger that only grows in the second story, “The Bridge Over the Abyss.”
The photograph paired with this story is one of the darker ones in the book, almost completely consumed by shadow. A woman in a hat stands at the end of the bridge, her facial expression inscrutable. Unlike many of the stories in Ghostographs, which make characters directly from their photographs, this woman is not mentioned. She is a ghost in the sense that we see her there, but know nothing about her. For all we know, she could be the abyss.
Moore’s flash fiction stories are skillful compressions that use specific language to great effect, although “The Woman Across the Way” is far from the only one that feels more like a vignette than a complete story. Even so, the rhythm of Moore’s sentences and the precision of her descriptions carry the reader through. With the exception of the preface, each flash story takes up no more than a page, and many of them require only half a page.
The real talent, and what makes this a fun, playful exploration of image and text instead of a pretentious affectation with no real depth, is how Moore strings the collection together. Ghostographs reads like a more mysterious version of the classic novel-in-stories Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Throughout the collection, characters appear and disappear and reappear, always changed in some (often sinister) way.
“And like the flicker of a shutter, light remakes us every instant. Every bird. Every leaf. Every ripple on the surface of the river. You. Me,” the narrator observes in “Light,” the second-to-last story in the collection.
It’s this change and ultimate erasure of the town and its inhabitants that makes the collection work. Characters morph physically and emotionally, they die and are reborn, they are forgotten and swallowed by the abyss. Moore presents them as ghosts of the moment, and brings this point home as she shows us subsequent snapshots of their lives.
We are our own ghost selves, past, present, and future, these photographs and stories say. How will we be remembered?
Kelly Lynn Thomas reads, writes, and sometimes sews in Pittsburgh, PA. She lives with her partner, one dog, and a constant migraine. Her fiction has appeared in Permafrost, Sou’wester, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart. Kelly received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, is a coordinator for the VIDA Count, and can always be found with a large mug of tea.
January 2, 2019 Fridge Flash
Editor’s Note: Today’s fridge flash comes from 12-year-old Tim Morriss from the UK. Tim likes reading, writing, hiking, and staying up later than is advisable.
Hiking is a great thing to do, when you’re bored. When you haven’t got the new game everyone else has, you’ve read every book on your shelf, all your mates have gone to Spain or France or wherever it is people pretend to be when they don’t want to meet up with you…
Just buy some nice boots, pack a bag, bring your tent, and go away for a week’s walking. Over the hills and down the glens, the country is your limitless sandbox. Find a place to pitch your tent, cook hot-dog sausages over the fire… Bedtime is whenever you want! Visit the local castle ruins, or gaze down into a ravine… just don’t overbalance! Stop off in the idyllic village for a hearty meal at ye olde tea and bunne shoppe, and off you go again! There is no limit. You don’t have to avoid the puddles, either, when it’s just You and your Dad!
Up in the mountain, with all its pointy stones and peaty bogs, you can peer through the fog at the niceness of it all, with all the people with big rucksacks like yours, going to where you are, as you eat your sausage sandwiches.
And possibly best of all, as you trudge through the poo-scattered sheep fields and make that final, leg-burning slog up the road back to camp, wondering whether it was really worth it, you come back and decide that it definitely was, as you pull off your muddy boots and feel so much lighter, and you lay back later with a full belly and your legs just comfortably aching a little, satisfied in the knowledge that you just walked 12 miles.
December 23, 2018 Reviews
by AnnaLee Barclay
To a flash fiction newcomer, the task of writing such a short story may seem easy, as though length is an indicator of difficulty. In my experience, it is the opposite—having a small amount of space to tell a full story adds extra weight to every single word because there cannot be anything superfluous or unnecessary. Each detail must be working to tell the story as succinctly as possible, as well as move the plot forward. This is generally true of writing, though longer forms of narrative have a bit more wiggle room to pack a punch while the shorter forms barely have time to wind up a fist. The Bath Flash Fiction Award posed the challenge of writing flash pieces that together comprise a novella but could stand alone if read apart from one another. The three authors of this chapbook created remarkable works of fiction that carry heavy loads on the very short, but strong backs of flash writing. Taken together, this compilation invites the reader to share liminal spaces with grief-stricken and confused characters who are written with honesty and acute awareness of the human condition.
The winner of the award, Luke Whisnant, presents us with “In the Debris Field”, a fragmented look at a broken family as it is navigated by one of the three children, Dennis, who is almost exclusively referred to as “you” throughout the pieces. Utilizing second person as a consistent narrative can be hard to pull off because it risks alienating the reader if he or she does not identify with anything following the “you”. However, Whisnant’s distillation of emotions and memories into strong language and imagery draws the reader in immediately and arguably has an even stronger impact than had he written from a different point of view. The stories cover specific, disjointed memories, such as schoolchildren using various items to construct a witch to burn at the Halloween festival, a father and his two sons rummaging for loot in a debris field after a hurricane, and siblings discovering a haunted, gnarled tree root while wandering the woods. A father leaves a mother for a young woman. Later, the mother leaves for good, abandoning her children with the father and the new step-mother, who eventually leaves to go back to her first husband. A brother gets addicted to heroin and eventually dies of an overdose. A sister struggles with romantic relationships over and over. These small, quiet tragedies that mark everyday human life are navigated by Dennis, a sensitive boy whose nonlinear memories thread together seemingly random instances that come together as a whole portrait of the pains that quietly mark us throughout our lives, particularly adolescence.
The second story, “Latter Day Saints” by Jack Remiel Cottrell, jumps from saint-to-saint as a young man seems to be searching for something, anything he can learn from each one. It never becomes entirely clear what it is he’s after but through his interactions with the different saints, the reader comes to understand that he is grasping for answers to life’s questions through the various facets of the human experience. Even if you don’t know what each saint represents, Cottrell’s unique portrayal of each clearly conveys their various domains—but there is still a handy index at the end, which even works as its own powerful flash piece. We travel with the narrator from St. Oran, the (unofficial) patron saint of atheists, to St. Jude, not to be confused with Judas, with some others in between. We meet St. Francis, who lives alone in a cottage on a cliff above the ocean where people go to commit suicide, as he is the patron saint of solitary death. Cottrell pushes up against our celebrity obsession through St. Clare, the patron saint of television, who makes a striking statement: “No one on TV is a person.” Our narrator has a similar realization about these saints our society worships when he says to St. Oran, “No saint reminds me of myself. That’s what I like about them.” This highly unique novella asks us to dig into our own perceptions of the world and how it operates as we struggle with our own personal journeys.
Victoria Melekian closes the book with “A Slow Boat to Finland”, a grief-stricken novella about a mother, Kat, trying to navigate the horrendous sorrow that engulfs her after losing a toddler daughter, Molly. Melekian’s prose is strong and blunt, yet there is a dreamy lyricism to it that carries Kat through the sort of brain-fog that comes after trauma. We experience her unraveling as she develops a relationship with the young girl who received Molly’s heart in an organ transplant and the tension between the sacrifice and gift is palpable. Melekian takes advantage of the different pieces by introducing other perspectives, including Kat’s husband whose extremely human “mistake” is what led to Molly’s death, helps illuminate the insidious and subtle ways tragedy touches different people’s lives. Kat wonders, “How do you move on from a loved one you carry in the marrow of your bones?” The reader will be left wondering not so much how Kat will move on but how will she learn to carry her sorrow and live a full life again as a motherless child.
There is a constant sense of finding and then losing throughout these pieces, as though everyone is in a debris field of their own lives, searching for answers to unanswerable questions or people never to be seen again. The joy of reading flash fiction is being completely absorbed and emotionally impacted by a small window into characters’ lives. This chapbook is an incredible compilation of flash at its finest.
In the Debris Field (Bath Flash Fiction Award compilation)–by Luke Whisnant, Jack Remiel Cottrell, and Victoria Melekian–is available from Ad Hoc Fiction.
AnnaLee Barclay is a photographer and writer from Long Island. She was recently a member of The Lie Factory, a 12-week long fiction workshop taught by Lidia Yuknavitch and Chuck Palahniuk in Portland, OR. She is a reader for The Southampton Review and her work has appeared in Pretty Owl Poetry. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @annaleebarclay.
December 19, 2018 InterviewsNews Digests
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
December 17, 2018 Artist Spotlight
Chris Roberts is Dead Clown Art and has illustrated a couple stories for SmokeLong. He is a full-time freelance artist, using mixed media and found objects to create his self-described visual nonsense. Roberts has made art for Another Sky Press, Kelp Queen Press, PS Publishing and ChiZine Publications; for authors Will Elliott, Andy Duncan, Tobias Seamon, Shimon Adaf, Seb Doubinsky, Ray Bradbury, Kaaron Warren, Ellen Klages, Claire North and Helen Marshall. He was nominated for a 2013 World Fantasy Award in the Artist category.
SmokeLong art director Alexander C. Kafka asked Roberts about his work and inspirations.
Chris, would you tell me about yourself? How old are you? Where do you live? Family? Work? School?
I’m 44 years old. My brain is 24 years old. My body is 64 years old. I’m wildly conflicted. I live in Waukee, Iowa. Living the quiet life with two strong, lovely, smart, rage-filled women: wife and daughter. Currently in between jobs, so making art and taking naps. Well out of school, but I think they’re still a really good idea. What else are kids going to do during the day?
… Oh. Where did I go to school? Graduated from Grand View College in Des Moines, way back in 1996. Yes, they had colleges back then.
When did you become interested in art?
I’ve been making art for as long as I can remember.
Wow! That was a super cliché answer.
Take 2: My high school art teacher was the first direct example of somebody making art into a career. I was aware that “artist” was a profession. I grew up in small towns, but I wasn’t born in a barn. But high school art class was when it first clicked that I could be an artist when I grew up. There have always been outside influences of course–comic books, music, movies, museums–but that’s my origin story.
Found stuff. I proudly consider myself a “junk artist.” Garage sales. Estate auctions. I walk around this amazing antique mall we have in Des Moines, looking for discarded treasures. I pick up interesting stuff on sidewalks and in empty parking lots. I have drawers and containers and folders filled with all sorts of random detritus. Each piece of junk is waiting patiently for the right illustration. Old keys. Brittle scraps of paper. Faded photos. Broken bits of plastic. Jagged rusty pieces of metal. Junk.
What are your favorite kinds of works to illustrate?
I love making art for words. I’ve made a pretty decent number of book covers for various presses, especially for the incredible PS Publishing. I always manage to find a way to channel my personal work through my professional work. Two birds, one stone.
I love weird and challenging projects. Feels like I’ve become the go-to guy for oddball stuff that publishers aren’t quite sure what to do with visually. And while I understand that makes me and my work sort of niche, I have absolutely zero problem being that go-to guy. Those are the projects that sink their hooks into me. The projects that I would have chosen, but they ended up choosing me.
Your pieces often have a warped religious or totemic feel to them. What kinds of imagery are you drawn to and why?
Astute observation. I’ve been an atheist since my early teenage years. But I’ve always been interested in what attracts people to religion. There’s no atheist iconography, obviously, so I’m drawn to the vast array of religious icons. I enjoy turning monsters into worshipped objects. It’s probably my way of taking those familiar symbols and unraveling them with an opposing visual context. Whatever religion used to be about, today it’s about power, money, corruption and division. It’s definitely not what it claims to be. It’s become a wicked mask. I try to expose that in my work when I’m able.
Which artists have you been most influenced by?
Dave McKean; Bill Sienkiewicz; Ted McKeever; Henrik Drescher; Galen Dara; Andrea Sorrentino; Jason Shawn Alexander; Jean-Michel Basquiat; Fiona Staples; Ralph Steadman; Jean Dubuffet. One of my favorite paintings of all time is Dubuffet’s The Villager with Close-Cropped Hair. It’s hanging in the Des Moines Art Center and I visit it as often as I can. It’s brilliant!
First and foremost and forever, my wife and daughter. I couldn’t do what I do without them. Truth.
Comic books have always been an inspiration, as you can see by the majority of my artist influences in the previous question. No matter how pleased I am with a finished piece, I can look at any piece in Dave McKean’s staggering catalog and instantly feel like a discarded toothpick of an artist. And that’s okay. That’s part of the fuel I need to keep going. Not to ever create a piece that’s better than his, but to just keep making the art that makes me happy. Keeps me sane.
What do you like to do in your free time?
This bounces nicely from the previous question. I enjoy movies. Comic-book movies especially, because they’re something I can share with my daughter. Light horror movies with my wife. I’m sort of a chicken when it comes to some of the darker, bloodier horror movies. My imagination is way too wide open for them. They creep in and take up residence. Hereditary, for example. That movie poked around violently in my head for weeks after I saw it. Loved it, but it rattled me.
I love music. Radiohead forever!
And, of course, reading. So many books in my to-read pile! It’s towering and probably a fire hazard. Ready for the name dump? Josh Malerman; Joe Hill; Sarah Pinborough; Kaaron Warren; Sarah Langan; Stephen Graham Jones; Nick Cutter; Tom Piccirilli; Helen Marshall; Lauren Beukes; Gemma Files; Rio Youers; Gary McMahon; Daryl Gregory; Michael Marshall; Neil Gaiman; Stephen King.
If you could assemble any group in the world for a mandatory meeting, who would it be and what would you say to them?
Wouldn’t say a thing. I’d just wink and nod and we’d go on all sorts of Fraggle adventures together. We’d eat Doozer sticks. We’d masterfully elude being eaten by the Gorgs. We’d have all of our questions answered and problems solved by the ever-wise Marjory the Trash Heap. We’d swap insults with her ratty hench-creatures Philo and Gunge.
Then we’d leave the Fraggle caves, emerge in the human world and rapidly topple the evil patriarchy. Then, having worked up quite the grumbly appetite after toppling the patriarchy, we’d head to Taco Bell. Best. Day. Ever.
December 10, 2018 Reviews
by Beret Olsen
With two volumes of poetry under his belt—Figuring in the Figure (Able Muse Press, 2017) and the award-winning Strange Borderlands (Able Muse Press, 2013)—Ben Berman has turned his pen to a collection of flash fiction. Due out in November, Then Again includes forty-two triptychs strung tightly with a thread of words.
The surface structure of the book is readily visible in the table of contents, which reads like a word association game: “Breaks,” is followed by “Tears,” then “Openings.” Likewise, “Beats” follows “Switches,” then “Currents.” But dig deeper to appreciate the many layers in Berman’s linguistic tapestry. Within each story, the author proves an astonishing gymnast —semantic, geographic, philosophical, and chronological. In a single sentence, he can travel through college, love, and loss, and land in Nepal:
Sometimes you have to let something shatter just so you can see what it’s made of, and after all those months of heartbreak I needed more than a mere break from school—which is how I ended up in Kathmandu, three mangy dogs chasing me through a maze of alleyways. —from “Breaks”
Berman takes a word and tinkers, seeing how far it might stretch without snapping. In “Presents,” for example, Berman assembles a three-layer literary confection using a common ingredient: the Latin praesent-, or “being at hand.” Now wielding it to mean current, then focused, then gift, he steers the reader from inner peace to scattered peas and a dirty diaper.
Inspiration for this body of work came from his young children, who marveled that one arrangement of sounds could have such a jumble of meanings. His aim? “To write about disconnects in a form that stressed deep interconnections, to explore the contradictions of our lives by contemplating the tensions within and between words.”
Though the author calls the stories a “blend of fiction and nonfiction,” each is written in first person and crosses his personal map and history. Turning a page, we are as likely to find him as a parent, a child, or a teacher; in Zimbabwe, at a drive-thru, or in Paris, hankering for a few cubes of cheese. The slippage is not just between connotations, then, but also between cultures, between versions of the self, all while keeping the prose deceptively simple. No matter the age or location of the protagonist, he is trying to make sense of himself through the lenses of past, present, and future. The resulting stories fit snugly but vary widely: some poignant, others provocative, even humorous.
Because no one really wants to hear about that time you held a goat down as blood spurted all over your arms or what it’s like to have parasitic worms burrow into your feet then lay eggs on the walls of your bladder, we figured we’d better bring home some finely crafted masks to hang on our living room walls. —from “Figures”
In fact there is a lot of humor in this slim volume. There are spoon-armed showdowns with three-year-olds, grandfathers in wheelbarrows, and pubescent tongues working like plungers. The games Berman plays with words and ideas makes the opening line of “Balls” a comedic achievement: “Benny had the brains, says Marc, and I had the balls—which would be funnier if he were speaking metaphorically . . .” But proceed cautiously. Some of the pieces that linger longest are the ones that go beyond semantic games. These can sting. In “Sounds,” he listens to the breaths of his sleeping wife and children—hers meditative, theirs restless—while writing about the death of a boy on a bus in Africa, witnessed years before.
While each short work feels effortless and alive, en masse the stories accentuate their structural similarity. Better to read a page or two at a time, so as not to lose sight of the arc and integrity of the discrete narratives. As Berman reveals in the opening story, these “. . . shards and peaks, slivers and alleys, [are] strokes of a single landscape.” Take the time to follow the author into the alley with dogs, to Pitch ‘n’ Putt with a can of beer, or down the aisles of Bed, Bath and Beyond with a screaming toddler. Each handful of sentences reflects a raw truth about self and other—self as other. Sifting through the pieces allows the whole to take form.
Beret Olsen is a writer, a photographer, and the photo editor for 100 Word Story. Her art, essays, and fiction have appeared in publications including First Class Lit; Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine; the Masters Review; and her blog, Bad Parenting 101.
December 3, 2018 Flash in the Classroom
In the SmokeLong Flash in the Classroom series, we ask teachers to share how they use flash fiction in their classrooms. If you are a teacher and have a story about how you use flash to get your students excited about writing, please submit your work here. Today, James Claffey, a writer and teacher in California, shares a grand idea.
by James Claffey
In 2008 I took a “Forms of Fiction” class taught by Jeanne Leiby, the editor of the Southern Review. Flash fiction was unknown to me, and the first exercise we did in that class was based off Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, his linked stories about the assorted citizens of that town. The twelve students in the class (mostly in their twenties, and me several decades further down the road) created a fictional town, “Beersville,” and populated it with a variety of businesses, shopfronts, and assorted characters. Mine was the undertaker, based no doubt on my family’s long-defunct business in an Irish midland’s town, “Claffey’s pub, grocers, and undertakers.” Our brief was simple: to create a piece of fiction about our chosen character and to limit it to 250 words, no more, no less. On this, Jeanne was unwavering. The other stipulation was that we had to “write after” someone else’s story and mention their character in some way, shape, or form in our narrative (except for the first set of writers). The process of writing about the denizens of the town proved enjoyable, and it was my introduction to the art of flash fiction.
Flash forward to 2018 and my freshman classroom at Santa Barbara High School. Jeanne is almost eight years dead now, and I’ve been back in California for seven years, one child, two books, a major fire, and a disastrous mudslide. This year I’m reinventing my curriculum to generate greater buy-in from students, and to engage them more both in what they are reading and what they are writing about. This means trying on new strategies and reading more diverse authors, hopefully providing my students with a variety of mirrors in which to see their own experiences reflected back at them.
Every year I begin with great hopes of incorporating more fiction writing into the classroom, and each year I end up disappointed due to the curriculum maps to be followed, the Common Formative Assessments to be administered, the reading tests to be given, the core texts to be rushed through, and on and on and on. This year, with a supportive administration willing to let some of us experiment with a “different approach” to engaging our students I am actually able to incorporate Jeanne’s “Winesburg, Ohio” exercise into my teaching.
So far, my 9th grade honors students have chosen a town name–“Las Perditas,” West Virginia–and created character sketches for their fictional citizens of the town. The first five students have written their stories to varying degrees of success, and to varying degrees of adherence to word count. I can’t use names, but one student wrote about a transgender teen boy, another about a newly arrived junior high boy, Jimmy, who takes over the school’s Racketeering enterprise, and another wrote about a boy named July. There’s dialog, setting, color and humor in the writing, and while the stories may be “school appropriate” for language and content, they are running with the project and bringing the town of “Las Perditas” to life, and in a way, keeping Jeanne’s spirit alive, too.
James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA. His work appears in the W.W. Norton Anthology Flash Fiction International, and in Queen’s Ferry Press’s anthology The Best Small Fictions of 2015. He was also a finalist in The Best Small Fictions of 2016, and a semi-finalist in 2017. He is the author of the story collection Blood a Cold Blue, published by Press 53, and the novel The Heart Crossways, published by Thrice Publishing.
November 30, 2018 News Digests
Congratulations to the following writers whose stories we’ve nominated for a Pushcart Prize this year.
“Earlove” by Ashton Carlile
“We All Know About Margo” by Megan Pillow Davis
“History” by Maia Jenkins
“All the Other Dogs Screaming” by Devin Kelly
“Whale Fall” by Alvin Park
“Sky Like Concrete” by Mike Riess
November 26, 2018 Reviews
by Amanda Krupman
Christopher DeWan, in his debut flash fiction collection, Hoopty Time Machines (Atticus Books, September 2016), creates new “fairy tales for grownups.” Fairy tales, fables, myths, and parables: These are formative narratives, extracting magic from the sensical and then putting that magic back to work. Told and retold, the tales are palimpsests, utilizing deceptively spare structures and loosely associated archetypes. DeWan’s flash fictions are indeed grown-up stories, built on contemporary anxieties. With this collection he joins writers like Donald Barthelme, Kelly Link, Etger Keret, and Carmen Maria Machado in crafting satirical and sly postmodern fabulism that doesn’t so much aim to subvert fairy-tale tropes as much as uproot them and toss them on the compost pile.
Hoopty Time Machine is 45 stories, arriving just prior to the election of another 45—a U.S. President who doesn’t seem so far removed from the Biblical and Grimm villainy of snakes, ogres, and evil stepmothers. Escape fantasies from the age of late capitalism, a superhero’s existential crisis, a son being the only person who can see his estranged parents are trolls, a mother haunted by her murdered child’s ghost and a father disturbed by his witchy teenage daughter’s power—these are some of the 21st-century scenes animated by DeWan’s dark whimsy.
DeWan’s disillusioned female characters are particularly well conceived. In stories like “Goldilocks and the Three Boys” and “The Little Mermaid,” DeWan doesn’t just offer feminist reappraisals of their fates; he imagines them as the complex, brilliant women all of us know in real life, just trying to get along the best they know how. In “Rapunzel’s Tangles,” Rapunzel, an introverted stay-at-home mom forced to play hostess at her husband’s work parties, cuts off her hair in a bob every day only to find it wrapping around the kitchen by nightfall. She has the same problem with her eyebrows, but she finds grooming them to be a kind of meditative hobby she compares to gardening. And yet Rapunzel’s meditations may better be described as a depressive’s ruminations:
Her worries receded into the simple task: tweeze and pluck. Tweeze and pluck. So close to the glass, her face ceased to be hers, and instead became its own landscape—her own face, a faceless alien landscape of pores and follicles, and staring longer, this dissolved further into just shapes, colors, no labels, no words.
A few of the stories work more like a Stephen Wright joke or a Woody Allen anecdote. “Conestoga Wagon” and “Sacramento” are essentially paraprosdokians, ready to be inserted into a certain kind of stand-up comic’s bit. In “The Dinner Party,” guests include Anxiety, Sadness, and Futility. “Indestructible” is five lines of gallows humor in the age of craven politicians who would dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
Other stories in the collection set aside dry wit and dig deeper under the skin. In “The Wallpaper,” rose-colored glasses are too transparent for a woman who papers over her life. In “Intrusion,” a woman turns to masochism in the face of unbearable grief—leading her to, in a stranger-rape role play, ensure a “hate fuck” from her husband by offering the name of their dead child when he asks for a safe word. In “The Signal,” humanity is initially buoyant but then bereft when realizing that the signals sent to us from alien life forms were sent back in the Middle Ages and that any conversation is subject to a thousand-year time lag.
It’s a fecund period for post-apocalyptic stories; joining popular works from television, film, and genre fiction are literary novels like Emily St. Mandel’s Station Eleven and Laura Van Den Berg’s Find Me. But when reading DeWan’s “Blog of the Last Man on Earth,” I’m reminded of an elegiac short story by Tess Allard, published last year in the Black Warrior Review: “The World Holds What It Remembers Most,” which imagines a girl on a bike, riding alone in a desolated world, seeking both meaning and solace through memory. In “Blog of the Last Man on Earth,” we read the protagonist’s journal and witness a transformation through loneliness that has him imagining he is speaking fluent French with Amélie (yes, that Amélie). Blog posts at the opening of the story are labeled simply by day and time (“Monday, 3:45 pm”), but soon become vague markers like “Evening” and “Middle of the Night I Think” and, finally, “The Scurf of All Yesterdays.” Some of DeWan’s most striking imagery is found here at the end of the story, when the protagonist, musing that “[l]eft to our own devices, maybe we all become artists,” begins painting over the billboards, creating murals from his recollections of an Earth that no longer exists. The Last Man on Earth remembers all of the small, quotidian, and precious moments like “present wrapping and unwrapping” and “road trips and road trip games,” but then:
I remember the smell of my mother, the tinkling of the mobile ceramic swans over my crib, the cozy caress of the satin baby blanket. I remember, before that, sweeping forests far as the eye could see; thick, rolling oceans; endless, mind-flattening plains. I remember fields coated with mustard gas; the groans of sinking ships; piercing bullets and bayonets and the sticky warmth of my own blood; I remember rounding Cape Horn, scaling Mount Everest, building the Pyramids brick by behemoth brick; I remember Pangaea, and the terrible, explosive rending of the Moon. I remember the ignition of the Sun, and the swirling center of the galaxy, the whip of its arms screaming through the vacuum. I remember the end of infinite density, the Big Bang, a gasp of breath, a baby’s laugh, a cosmic orgasm, the same spasm of anticipation that comes at the dawn of love, the true fear of loss; and I remember, before all that, the bottomless, bottomless silence like the silence I hear now. It’s all right.
DeWan’s protagonist no longer has any use for his personhood, for what makes him an individual. He strips it all away in favor of painting pictures of scenes from an ancient, collective memory.
In a rich collection of flash, Hoopty Time Machines mines our collective memory and imaginatively spins multilayered versions of stories that have been developed and adapted over generations: stories that live in our bodies, attached to the spine, keeping us upright as we move through the obstinate moment-to-moment and often terrifying unknowns of what’s yet to come.
Amanda Krupman’s work has appeared in publications including Flapperhouse, The Forge Literary Magazine, BLOOM, The New Engagement, and Punk Planet. Amanda received an MFA in Fiction from The New School’s graduate writing program and was recently a recipient of a Jerome Foundation Emerging Artist Residency Award. She teaches writing at Pace University and “From Page to Podcast: Writing Audio Fiction” at Middlebury College. She is currently working on a collection of short fiction. Follow her on Twitter: @akrupman
November 19, 2018 Fridge Flash
“Yes! Finally! Time for the story!” I cheered with excitement, nearly ruining my new red dress my mother sewed me for the mourning. “Watch it!” Fifteen people snapped at me. How many people can get angry at you at once? That was an experiment I didn’t want to try. I settled down, bumping into more people than I could count.
I am ARETHA, a moon Crackon. I am seven and have brown hair and emerald green eyes. My favorite color is blue, because the oceans of earth are a beautiful blue. I can only wear red one day of the year, the mourning day. We separated from Earth seven generations ago, and each generation mourns the loss by wearing red. Our elder tells us all about Earth, the ocean, the corn, the animals, and most importantly, the dirt. We only have dry moon dust. The reason you have no proof that we exist is that we hover, whereas you need to step on the ground to move.
We have saved everything you have left behind, your nuts and bolts, and everything. I wish I could see Earth on the ground, with all its beauty and worth. Our oldest elder, IGGI, told us that that there was a thing that was used for drinking and swimming: water. We have extracted that too, but I don’t know how to swim, and neither do the rest of us.
IGGI stood up. “We left Earth seven generations ago because of the dreaded meteorite.” Everyone booed on cue. I slowly tried to stand up without hurting a single other person. “Oh IGGI, may take I a moving picture of your speech and send the record to the Earthlings, so that they may take us home?” IGGI was absolutely amazed. “Of course! Did you invent the taker?”
“Yes, IGGI. Three, two, one, Begin!”
“The water there is crystal clear, the ground, filled with grass and dirt. They have fish with gills, and trees. The trees sometimes have apples, oranges, pears, and even berries! The sun shines like silk, and the moon that we live on shines during their night time. And then the second great shaking came. Thankfully, everyone was safe and no one was separated.
”Oh Earth, we need to connect. Please, Earthlings, see our red moon and remember us.”
Aravah Chaiken is an eleven-year-old who loves bike riding and reading. One of her favorite books is Murder on the Orient Express. She has been asking for a telescope for three years. She dreams of travelling into space and tracking nebulae.
November 15, 2018 Fridge Flash
Editor’s Note: Today’s Fridge Flash—and good, sound advice—comes to us from 7-year-old Amelie from the U.K.
Never Taste a Rainbow
Never taste a rainbow. Especially the red. All of the rainbow is spicy and hot, but the red is the hottest of chilies, and it will burn you.
Tears taste nice, when you catch them on your tongue like raindrops. Trust me. They do.
About the Author
Amelie likes climbing trees and going like really high, and Parkour, where she also climbs and runs up walls and jumps into the foam pit. She likes playing with people and making new friends, and that’s all the information she’s giving.
November 12, 2018 Reviews
Stephanie Hutton’s Three Sisters of Stone (Ellipsis Zine, May 2018) is a novella-in-flash that follows three sisters from childhood through adulthood in Australia, spanning about thirty-five years. Hutton is a clinical psychologist living in the UK who rewards her readers with a psychological precision and an economy of language that deepen the reader’s understanding of these characters and their relationships to each other as she moves through slices of their lives. Details are specific and carefully chosen and result in a depth of character and humanity that has stuck with me long after finishing the compact stories.
The novella is told in fifteen flash stories, each designated with the year of their occurrence, from 1981 to 2013, flanked on either side by a prologue and an epilogue. The middle sister, Bella, narrates the stories. Hutton’s decision lends the novella a sense of wholeness it wouldn’t have if each sister had varyingly told part of the story, and provides a sort of symmetry, a narrative choice that makes it feel like looking forward and backward simultaneously.
The prologue begins the novella with a fantastical look at the adult lives of the sisters we don’t yet know. Drawing on the fable of the “Three Little Pigs,” each sister builds a house of a different material—Agnes an “anti-wolf” home of metal without windows, Bella a home of glass bricks from which she can keep vigil for the wolf, and Chloe a door-less, window-less home allowing anyone—any wolf—access. The choice to literalize each personality makes the reader quickly form a distinct idea about each sister, and the references to a wolf establish a sense of danger and foreboding. This opening also provides a blueprint for how the sisters deal very differently with the abuse and neglect visited on them by their parents.
“Fortune Teller” is one of the best examples of this. The sisters make and play with a paper fortune teller, which ingeniously allows for present character development and also shows the sisters imagining future lives away from their abusive childhood. Agnes, the eldest, folds the fortune teller, and Bella writes the fortunes. “There was no point,” Bella says, “in trying to cheat and choose which fortune would be mine, as Chloe would add the colours on the top of each section last.” Agnes gets lost “in the rhythm of moving the paper machine forwards and backwards,” just as she will later get lost in her accounting job, and chooses a fortune that tells her, “You will find your heart’s desire.” Her reaction is subdued as Bella explains that Agnes’s desires are small and obtainable. I get the sense that perhaps her future dreams have already been reduced to the simple need to not be traumatized and abused.
Chloe chooses next and shows her impatience by only having the paper flower move one time. “You will shine bright,” Bella reads to her. Chloe wriggles her fingers in delight and Bella muses about how stars die, and I began to wonder when Chloe will burn out. Bella, having chosen to let both of her sisters go first, ignores her instincts to pick green and instead chooses blue. Agnes reads to her, “Hmm, blue. What will be will be,” and Bella, disappointed with the results, wonders what would have happened had she chosen green like she wanted. In addition to revealing more about the sisters’ personalities, there’s evidence of the punishing psychological effects abuse has on young girls—the sisters’ hopes for the future diminish from youngest to oldest. This is another way Hutton utilizes the middle sister as narrator—Bella is showing us how abuse is cumulative, with Chloe being least affected because she’s been, by virtue of her age, abused for the shortest amount of time.
The abusive father’s presence is felt throughout the girls’ lives, whether psychologically or physically. Details about him become sparse, which works in a surprising way, giving space to the idea that the sisters are unconcerned with what happens to him. Hutton is adept at working in a kind of relief, making certain things clear by their absence and letting the reader’s imagination do just the right amount of work. The tone is dark and it rarely lets up, an ominousness lurking over the sisters wherever they go and whatever happens to them. Hutton seems fascinated with how darkness envelops this family, with Bella wondering after the disappearance of their father, “[W]hat kind of God takes your angry father away but forgets to cure your mother of her sadness?” Hutton is clearly interested in trauma and how it can ricochet through a family, harm being passed around from one member to others.
Another standout, “What Mother Never Did,” is the first glimpse of all three sisters as adults. The effect is like holding a mirror up to their childhood selves. Who we are as adults is so often who we were as children. Chloe is still wild and boy crazy. Agnes is still socially out of touch and overly responsible, her large, shiny car seeming “too big for a woman who usually drove alone, but it had the highest safety rating.” Bella, as always, is sandwiched in the middle, the peacemaker, and it’s no surprise that she weathers the only alone time any of the women spend with their mother. But this gives “What Mother Never Did” one of the most satisfying endings in the book.
In the epilogue, Bella imagines a trip to the mountains with her sisters to visit “the rocks they called the Three Sisters.” Breaking from the past tense of the rest of the stories, it imagines an impossible day, perfect in its distillation of what each of the sisters would do if they could make the trip and ends, predictably, in darkness. Everything in this novella is dense and rendered in miniature, a generation’s life explored in poignant flashes of childhood and character detail that both satisfy and leave the reader wanting more of these girls. As Bella says in the epilogue, “With our view reduced from miles to metres, we’d feel each other’s breaths and heartbeats, the world shrunk down as if there was only us in it.”
Natalie C. Brown is a writer and editor currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at Texas State University in San Marcos. She loves all things bookish and literary and is a lifelong Astros fan. She lives with her (almost) husband and two dogs in Austin, TX. You can follow her on Twitter at @nataliekins.
November 5, 2018 Artist Spotlight
Cindy Fan is the cover artist for SmokeLong Issue 61. Fan is a Toronto-based artist who studied Illustration at OCAD University. Her work takes inspiration from poetry, mythology, urban legends, folklore, flash fiction, and other forms of creative storytelling. She uses elements from her stream of consciousness to create ambiguous, dreamlike realities, painting her work digitally while incorporating a diverse array of textures to achieve a rich, atmospheric quality. She discussed her background and visual imagination with SmokeLong’s art director, Alexander C. Kafka.
How old are you and where did you grow up?
I am 23 years old. I was born in Szechuan, China but immigrated to Canada when I was 6 years old. I grew up in and around Ontario. I currently live in the greater Toronto area.
Can you tell me about your family?
Both my parents left a comfortable life and well-paying careers in China to come to Canada in the early 2000s when they found out their immigration application had been accepted. I never really figured out exactly why they chose to leave, but I think it was out of a mixture of thrill seeking and wanting a different experience as well as possibly a better life for me. They faced various struggles and regrets at first but eventually found their footing. No matter what, they have always been very loving and supportive of my dreams.
When did you first become interested in art?
Before I can even remember. I was extremely young. But I began seriously pursuing art during high school.
Do you primarily work in digital media?
Yes, I enjoy the versatility and convenience of working digitally. That said, I usually start illustrations off through analog either in graphite or watercolor and try to retain some of those lines and textures in the finalized versions. I also enjoy acrylic. I’ve been told that I have a very distinct way of using brushstrokes and a lot of my analog paintings resemble my digital ones. I like doing analog when pursuing pieces that are more gestural and expressive while working digitally for pieces that require more detail.
What are your favorite themes and subjects?
My favorite themes are anything to do with the idea of adventure and mystery. I love stories that explore places and worlds that are unique, unknown, and full of weird things. I also love looking into the different ways people interact with the world and creating illustrations inspired by that.
Who are your biggest influences?
There is a lot of interplay in your work between people and nature and machines—whimsical combinations of fairy-tale type images, cyborg, steampunk, and erotic fantasy. How did that aesthetic develop for you?
Hmm, it’s hard to pinpoint. I guess I am very much drawn to the human figure as well as the beauty of decay and abandonment. A visual that I always seem to gravitate to is that of architecture and technology being overtaken by nature. I love images of abandoned buildings, statues and objects being enveloped by vines, dirt and flora. Additionally, throughout my teenage years, I consumed a lot of sci-fi and fantasy content because I loved being transported to unusual, extraordinary worlds and some of that aesthetic is also incorporated into my work.
Are your dreams like your images?
I have very vivid and sometimes frightening dreams and will draw influences from them for specific objects in my work or as a base mood or setting that I want to work from. However, my compositions mostly come from trial and error and just creating a lot of preliminary sketches. I’ve never really tried creating an illustration based purely on my dreams.
Which do you like better—single illustration images or GIFs and narrative graphic stories?
Although I mainly produce single illustration images, I like to dabble in all three types because I enjoy the variation in approaches. I usually like to work on two different projects at once. For this reason, there isn’t a concrete preference for a single format and it ultimately depends on how I am feeling at the time.
What are your current projects?
I am working on preparing some of my pieces for an upcoming local exhibition in addition to creating some new illustrations and possibly working on an upcoming zine.
If someone gave you $10 million, how would you spend it?
Well, first I would convert it all into dollar bills and make a money fort or at least some sort of money pile and just throw it all around. And then I’d probably spend it on housing, traveling, events, and helping support content and art that I enjoy.
Do you have other creative pursuits besides art?
Yes, I enjoy writing free-form poetry. I don’t think it’s very good by any means but it’s a nice way for me to lay out my thoughts and relax if I’m having a stressful day.
What do you do in your free time?
I enjoy hiking, reading, and watching a diverse assortment of movies and TV as well as playing video games (though I have significantly less time for that now than I used to).
The artwork included in this interview is the property of Cindy Fan and may not be used without permission of the artist.
November 4, 2018 News Digests
For the month of October, SmokeLong Quarterly received $318 in tip jar donations. We’ve decided, in the spirit of giving, to send it to another journal. Nominate your favorite flash fiction journal and tell us why you love them, and we’ll pick one publication and give them $318 to do with what they wish!
Nominate a journal you had a great experience with or who you think treats writers particularly well. Or maybe you know of a journal who you think could do good things with a little boost of cash. If you are a journal editor, tell us what you would do with the money to make writers’ lives a little better. (Note: Publications that are nominated do not have to publish exclusively flash fiction or even publish flash at all, though we admit we are a little biased toward flash journals.)
To enter, fill out the Google form on or before Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2018.
The winner will be announced in early December.
November 4, 2018 News Digests
For the month of October, SmokeLong Quarterly received $318 in tip jar donations. We’ve decided, in the spirit of giving, to send it to another journal. Nominate your favorite flash fiction journal and tell us why you love them, and we’ll pick one publication and give them $318 to do with what they wish!
Nominate a journal that you had a great experience with or who you think particularly treats writers well or does great things. Or maybe you know of a journal that you think could do good work with a little boost of cash. If you are a journal editor, tell us what you would do with the money to make writers’ lives a little better. We’re open to whatever stories of goodwill you’d like to tell–and we look forward to hearing all the wonderful things that other publications are doing. (Note: Publications that are nominated do not have to exclusively publish flash fiction or even publish flash at all. But we admit we are a little biased toward flash.)
To nominate a journal, fill out this Google Form on or before Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2018.
We will announce the winner in early December. Thank you!
October 29, 2018 Reviews
Each year since 2007, Rose Metal Press holds its Short Short Chapbook Contest, which the press’s founders describe as a way “to showcase one of our favorite forms in a format more typically used for poetry than for prose.” The winning 2018 entry is A Bright and Pleading Dagger by Nicole Rivas, an L.A.-based writer whose work has appeared in such publications as Passages North, The Adroit Journal, and Paste Magazine.
In his thoughtful introduction, poet Rigoberto González lauds Rivas for her “skillful use of compression,” noting how this collection places a “finger on the pressure point” of “‘what girls’ lives do or do not depend on’” (a quote from the book’s title piece).
While what women’s lives depend on can readily be seen as an underlying theme, one might argue that Rivas’s tense, clipped pieces don’t so much place a finger on pressure points, as they do create the impression of a battle-scarred warrior, pointing out each of her wounds with a dispassionate finger, sharing her “war” experiences with other, equally-scarred veterans of life as a woman today.
It is to González’s credit that he recognized Rivas’s theme and the emotional impact of her intense pieces, but it is, perhaps, a different experience for a woman to read them. Each piece, in Rivas’s blunt, matter-of-fact, almost terse style, focuses on experiences many women will recognize all too well:
There is, for example, the ever-present sense of danger inherent in a woman’s vulnerability that permeates the title piece, “A Bright and Pleading Dagger,” in which a teenaged narrator and her friend hitch a ride with two older men. When her friend disappears into a cornfield with one of them, the narrator is left alone with the other: “The belt buckle moved faster. I could hear it tapping against the steering wheel, just like his knuckles had done before. While I knew knuckles belonged to a hand, the penis to a pelvis, it didn’t matter. In the truck, the penis had the presence of a closed fist.”
Rivas reminds the reader that it is not only men who take advantage of that vulnerability; sometimes, it’s other women, as in the startling “Death of an Ortolan,” which originally appeared in Passages North: “On my first date with Penny, I was very nervous because I was only nineteen and Penny was fifty-two.” Penny is the narrator’s gynecologist, too—is there any more vulnerable position for a woman to be in, than in those stirrups? Still, their relationship continues: “I was so nervous, because this was only the third date with a woman I’d ever been on, let alone a gynecologist, my gynecologist, and it was a good thing those napkins were cloth, or else I would’ve ripped them to shreds all over again.” And yet, younger, inexperienced, and vulnerable, the narrator falls under the older woman’s sway.
Few experiences of modern womanhood escape inclusion here. There is the young girl with the heart of a lion in “Bulldog,” who dreams of being strong and fierce, but whose mother—her mother—only laughs at her dreams: “She apologized for laughing, but I had already started the water and didn’t answer. In the shower I made some promises to myself about who I was and who I would always be.”
There is the richly satisfying title character in “The Butcher”: “When no one is watching, she works with bare hands, cleaning chicken carcasses and extracting lolling tongues from cow heads…To the butcher, the inside of a hog’s rib cage is much like the beauty of a vacant skyscraper stairwell. She drums her fingers against each rib like a child running up the steps two at a time.” Her work, her joy, and her passion, are full of blood and warmth and offal, she’s up to her elbows in life and death itself, yet she hides that part away; it’s hard not to draw a parallel here, given how much discomfort any talk of women and bleeding in general can generate for some people.
There is Gretel, dreaming of escaping her life with Hansel in the poignant re-imagining of “Gretel’s Escape”: “She watched Hansel poking into the can with his pinky finger. She was tired of being simultaneously lost and bound to fate. Gretel wanted to do something before she was forced to wit her way out of death by cannibalism, something just for her. Only Gretel knew what that was.”
There is also the entertaining heroine in “The Woman on the Bus,” sharing her painfully familiar experience of being the captive audience of a self-important man: “You become silently infuriated, a simmer bordering on boil. He’s grabbed your attention with his remark about the woman he met on the bus…and now that he has your attention, he forces you—either intentionally or unintentionally—to endure the spectacle of his mastication.”
It may sound to this point that perhaps Rivas has it in for men in general, but that would not be a fair assessment at all. Rather, this sharp, chest-tightening collection draws on what are, sadly, familiar and heart-breakingly common experiences for many women. Rivas shares those in the tight, gristly, almost detached prose of a warrior pointing to each scar as proof of having survived that particular battle. Those who would avert their eyes from those scars, who would prefer to remain oblivious to the battles fought and the pain experienced, probably will not find what they’re looking for in this steely little book. For others, it’s a chance to find a bit of solidarity, and perhaps a bit of enlightenment, too.
Julia Tagliere is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Writer, The Bookends Review, Potomac Review, numerous anthologies, and the juried photography and prose collection Love + Lust. Winner of the 2015 William Faulkner Literary Competition for Best Short Story and the 2017 Writers Center Undiscovered Voices Fellowship, Julia currently resides in Maryland with her family, where she recently completed her M.A. in Writing at John Hopkins University. She serves as an editor with The Baltimore Review and is currently working on her next novel, The Day the Music Didn’t Die.
October 22, 2018 Interviews
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.
October 15, 2018 Reviews
by Frannie McMillan
The 15 stories in Sarah Layden’s new collection of flash fiction, The Story I Tell Myself About Myself (Sonder Press, August 2018), offer readers failed couplings, bad medical news (or anticipated bad news), infertility, death, unexplained physical anomalies, attempted recovery, and a mad libs style fill-in-the-blank story. The Story I Tell Myself About Myself is the 2017 winner of the Sonder Press chapbook competition. A recipient of the Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize for fiction and an Association of Writers & Writing Programs Intro Award, Layden is the author of the novel Trip Through Your Wires, and her short fiction and non-fiction appear in a range of publications.
Described by NUVO writers Dan Grossman and Laura MacPhee as “Slippery, secretive, and sensual, Layden’s short fiction is simply magical,” The Story I Tell Myself About Myself brims with secrets and words left unsaid. There is a Bradbury-esque feeling to these quirky, sometimes otherworldly stories. Reading them is like that moment of realization, hours later, that you said something insensitive, or forgot something that you needed to say.
The first piece, “Hang Up,” introduces readers to a man who has been calling the same woman for fifteen years. He never speaks when he calls, and she tells him stories over the phone. “Hang Up” is such a fitting introduction to this collection because, like the female character in this story, Layden’s voice beckons the reader onward through an array of stories that range from the mundane to the fantastic. The last few lines plead, “You are the story I tell myself, about myself. Stay with me. Stay.”
“Decoy,” a tense, tightly woven story about a woman named Alice, manages to be lightly humorous and gut-wrenching at the same time. I’m left not knowing what happens to Alice’s daughter, Sylvie, by the end. From the ducks on the pond to the “mostly harmless lies” that Alice remembers using as a kid, “camouflaging her whereabouts,” Layden explores the many meanings of the word “decoy.” Even the color of ice on the pond is “a trick of the orange and purple sunset.” Sylvie hopes to “attract the real thing” with her ducks on the windowsill; Alice wonders why people ruin brand-new furniture by making it look shabby, hiding its newness under a beaten façade while also thinking, “the face ought to map your life,” explaining why she declined the Botox proffered by her dentist-turned-date.
“He Waits, Wants” was so perfect that I, having experienced infertility, could hardly stand it. In a delightful twist, Layden creates a world where the male is physically responsible for carrying a child. He charts his cycles, takes his temperature, and pees on the ovulation stick, while his female spouse just wants to go to the bar after they finish having sex. She is annoyed with his constant worrying, but admits to feeling jealousy when the neighbor’s kid “got knocked up at sixteen.” While there is a humorous element to this piece, Layden skillfully illustrates a role reversal that gives both sides a chance to wear the other’s shoes.
“The Woman Who Was a House” features a woman whose body was an actual house, vacant after her family moved to the Caribbean to pursue a life as underwater Civil War reenactors. “The Woman with No Skin” deals with a character whose protective suit became covered in the words of others. Both pieces explore some of the ways women adapt to being taken advantage of or hurt by the world. In “Arrested Development” readers meet Vera, a woman who never grew and still looks like a child. Like the female character in “New Thing,” Vera is “waiting for the knock at the door that would change her life, but it was usually the mailman with a package she had specifically ordered.” Layden portrays women who are making the best of their circumstances, surviving life at a day-to-day pace. While women take center stage in this collection, “Comet’s Return,” “Marv’s 11 Steps,” and “Two Hearts,” showcase Layden’s ability to write a believable and compelling male perspective.
Male or female, Layden’s characters are faithful to their routines. The characters in each story are connected to various daily rituals or lifestyles. Some seem to question these practices, and some seem oblivious to them. For example, the man in “Hang Up” always calls the woman, and she always tells him a story. The woman in “The Rest of Your Life” always takes a moment to wink at her reflection in the elevator. “Sex in Secret” considers the old habits of sexual encounters before the digital age created new ones. The couple in “He Waits, Wants” is tied to the schedule dictated by infertility. Davey considers his own habits in the context of his father’s lifelong pattern of alcoholism and womanizing in “Comet’s Return.” “The Woman Who Was a House” replays old family films through the projector in her lungs. Vera is tied to her routine of watching television and eating junk food while she waits for her life to change in “Arrested Development.” Marv, the title character in “Marv’s 11 Steps,” is so loyal to his daily routine of visiting the newsstand that the narrator observes “daily he paced this sidewalk, a short Marv-sized path worn into the cement.” Marv visits the same bar, makes the same joke as the same song plays on the jukebox every night, his feet “stepping in the same cracked pattern” on the dance floor. “Collision Physics for the Math-Averse” considers how these patterns and routines can shift and alter lives. The Story I Tell Myself About Myself gives you no choice but this: stay. Stay with these characters and listen to what they have to tell you.
The Story I Tell Myself About Myself is available from Sonder Press and elsewhere online.
Frannie McMillan’s poetry has appeared in The Coachella Review, K’in Literary Journal, The Indianapolis Review, and others. She is currently at work on her first chapbook, You Ain’t By Yourself. By day, she connects young people with books as a secondary librarian in Richmond, Virginia. You can find her on Twitter @franniemaq.
October 8, 2018 Flash in the Classroom
The Flash in the Classroom series on the SmokeLong blog explores creative writing teachers’ various approaches to teaching flash fiction to their students. We–and the entire flash fiction community–are interested in hearing from anyone who uses flash fiction in a classroom setting. Please submit your essays HERE. We’re thrilled and grateful to have Steve Edwards as our first teacher in this series. What lucky students he has.
by Steve Edwards
Back in the 90s, my first creative writing teacher in college started every class by reading flash fiction. We called them “short-shorts” then. I’ll never forget the anticipation I felt as he cleared his throat and began: Something wild was about to happen. My life was about to change. Being read to was enough to make me feel like a kid again, experiencing the magic of stories for the first time. But it was the stories themselves—their pacing, their daring, the way so few words suggested so much world—that brought the wonder.
I had to learn to do that.
Until a student feels that desire, I’m not sure our teaching ever accomplishes much. The mere transmission of information isn’t learning. I’d trade all the craft talk in the world for the simple pleasure of getting high on words.
In working to build that kind of pleasure into the creative writing classes I teach, I’ve begun filling my syllabus with flash fiction. What I like about flash for this purpose, as opposed to, say, longer and more conventional works, is that its brevity allows for us to pinpoint the exact moment something explodes off the page. We can zoom in and attune to the micro concerns of language without losing the larger thread of the story. I also feel less compelled with flash to overexplain, to contextualize, to lecture…in other words, to do the work for them. Maybe it’s psychological but I think students approach texts of 1000-words or fewer with less fear and skepticism. And maybe less cynicism. What’s the point of reading a 20-page story if the teacher’s just going to choke the life out of it with explanations? A flash fiction is an experience at once dissectible and inscrutable. It’s right there. The students’ gut reactions are right there, too, and from them I can elicit further reflection that helps us all reimagine how we approach storytelling.
In addition to being dazzled by the intensity and immediacy of flash fiction, I have another learning goal in mind for my students. I want to get them in the habit of taking risks, striking out for new territory, failing hard and trying again. The cost-benefit ratio as I imagine it is something like this: If what I’m writing is only a few pages long, how much do I stand to lose if it doesn’t work out? And the same is true for reading flash fiction. If what I’m reading is only a few pages long, how much do I stand to lose if I don’t like it?
I think we’re all secret geniuses. But I think what often holds us back is that we want to write something “good,” and that the pursuit of “good” forces us to return to what has worked for us in the past. A semester of flash fiction sends a different message to students: Try this. Try this. Try this. Try this. Try this. Try this.
If you don’t like something, or if it just doesn’t work for you, you can abandon it guilt free. If you find something you love—something weird or diabolical or heart-wrenchingly beautiful—it’s yours forever now.
I think what beginning fiction writers need about as much as anything is to get into the habit of looking for moments. You walk through your day and think: There’s a story. A detail catches your attention: There’s a story. Something someone says or does. Something you remember from when you were a kid. There’s a story. Immersion in flash fiction is a study in how to train your mind to pay attention to what will light up someone else’s mind. What fires together wires together. What you see on the page, you see in the world. And like a figure-eight curving back on itself, you fill up your own pages with the worlds you discover. Flash fiction is risk-taking made manifest, and who wouldn’t want to get in on the action? It’s like being at a public pool and watching kids jump off the diving board, wriggling and contorting their bodies. It’s fun. Always something new to try. Even after a belly-flop they’re back climbing that ladder.
The other change I’ve incorporated as a teacher over the years—and this is made possible by the proliferation of great flash fiction sites like SmokeLong—is that I task the students with finding flash fiction online to share with the class. One of the fun facts I like to ruin their lives with is that no one really cares if they don’t write. They have to make people care. And they can. By asking students to search out work to share with the class, I’m offering them the chance to reflect upon what it is about a given work that makes it matter. In essence, I want to hold them accountable—not just to me but to themselves and each other.
It occurs to me I’m describing a kind of classroom economy whose currency is pleasure, risk-taking, care, and accountability. In flash fictions of 1000 words or fewer, or in novels of 100,000 words or more, it’s where we begin.
And beginnings matter.
When I was a little kid, somebody opened a book and blew my mind. It happened again when I went to college and my teacher read “Girl,” “The School,” “No One’s a Mystery.” And it still happens when a student comes to class with a story they are dying to read out loud because, as the kids say, “They can’t even.” We listen and are transported, transformed, transmogrified. We’re children again—with very old souls.
Steve Edwards is author of the memoir Breaking into the Backcountry, the story of his seven months of solitude in the Oregon wilderness as caretaker of a 95-acre homestead. His writing appears in Longreads, Orion Magazine, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives in Massachusetts.
October 1, 2018 Reviews
by Tiffany Sciacca
Sophie Van Llewyn’s debut flash novella, Bottled Goods, (Fairlight Books, July 2018) is the perfect place to start whether you are a longtime fan of flash fiction or new to this still evolving and exciting genre.
Bottled Goods, a collection of 51 stories, some as brief as a thought, others going for several pages, follows the life of Alina, native of communist Romania in the 1970s. Alina weds Liviu, yet their promising future is soon upended when Alina’s brother in law decides to defect to the West. Bottled Goods not only describes the toll taken on Alina and Liviu’s relationship but also other members of her family. It’s a fascinating watch, a slow descent like a series of coins going down a spiral wishing well.
From the title of the first story, “The Low People in Our Family,” I knew I was in for an interesting tale. In this story, we meet members of Alina’s family, one in passing. The opening is normal enough—the characters are on their way to a loved one’s funeral—and it is easy to get lulled into the banality of the journey; yet by the end, when her aunt tells her about her grandfather, who the communists were after and whose friends, were “killed, beaten, tortured,” I was left feeling uneasy but wanting more.
A better glimpse of Alina is revealed in the second piece, “Glazed Apples,” where she works in the midst of luxury at a Romanian resort but is confined to its underbelly. A clear line divides the haves and have-nots, with Alina firmly placed in the latter category. Although under communist rule, her job as a tourist guide allows her experiences she’d never have had otherwise, like setting eyes on the sea. And she must not only sell her country to visiting foreigners, but also her happiness as a citizen. It is at the resort where she meets Liviu and we witness the beginning of their relationship.
In “Prima Noctis,” we are uninvited guests at Alina’s wedding. This should be the happiest moment in her life but already we see what makes them different: the all-important fault line. Alina, who herself feels like an outsider “trapped in the bride’s body,” has come from money. Liviu’s family—rough, mountain people without airs—and the distinction Alina makes in her mind is startling as she feels “as dirty as any of them, a princess dragged through the mud.”
Bottled Goods is full of unique forms. From wish lists, as in “Dear Father Frost,” where we get a peek into Alina’s heart. Yearnings from the material, like a pair of Levi’s, to the practical needs, a portable electric stove. There are also entries in a diary, her handheld confessional, How-To lists, used to account meticulously for her missteps. And in “Quotes From My Mother (Commented) – Part I” we learn of Alina’s mother’s disapproval of her daughter’s marriage from the very first line. It is a point that she makes more than once, planting a seed that doesn’t take too long to take root. Postcards written to this same difficult and overbearing mother are another medium that allows the reader to follow the unraveling of Alina and Liviu’s story, though strictly from her perspective. I also appreciated the shift in voice throughout. Delivery is everything here and Van Llewyn displays the depth of her craft.
There are harbingers of ill-fated love and betrayal that go unnoticed, some more blatant including that elusive pair of Levi’s from “Dear Father Frost” and some that even the reader might miss on the first read. And as a marriage weakens, a country tightens its grip around the couple—love, trust, and loyalties tested throughout.
The defection of Alina’s brother-in-law does bring trouble, yes, but it is someone else’s misstep that proves detrimental. In the end, you may wonder if it was bad luck or a bad choice that seals everyone’s fate. Pay close attention and you will find the answer along with healthy doses of irony and karma.
Van Llewyn’s use of language is hypnotic and the worlds she creates stark and grotesque, calling to mind Shirley Jackson or Muriel Spark. With just the right details, whether it is the curve of a black Volga, sounds of bracelets around a wrist or faces “like cassettes with their tape pulled out,” your eyes will devour the pages as you are led through stories that turn from the supernatural to the hyper-real. Sophie Van Llewyn knows her Romanian history and lore but nothing feels forced or unnatural and you will find yourself hitting the last page of Bottled Goods quicker than you wanted.
Bottled Goods is available from Fairlight Books and elsewhere online.
September 18, 2018 Playlists
Listen along to Issue 61’s playlist on Spotify!
Svetlana Beggs ,“The Photo” – “Звезда по имени Солнце” by Viktor Tsoi
Victor Tsoi was a necessary force of nature for USSR high school kids in the late 80s. The two main characters in my story love this song, and indeed know by heart every song by Victor Tsoi.
Janika A Oza, “Gathered Family” – “Garden Prayer” by Anju
Lindsey Baker, “Ourself, Ourself” – “Black Sands” by Bonobo
I like this song because it’s seemingly dramatic, but has swells of something that feels like humor. Or if not humor, whimsy. I think the narrators would enjoy playing it while riding with Jack in his car.
Michael Riess, “Sky Like Concrete” – “Colorblind” by Counting Crows
I chose this song because my story—like the lyrics in the song—describes a colorless landscape and a narrator unable to properly express his feelings.
Megan Pillow Davis, “We All Know About Margo” – “DNA” by Kendrick Lamar
“DNA” is the song that’s playing in the background of my story’s moment. Although Lamar is clearly speaking to the particulars of black cultural appropriation, the song still aligns well with Margo’s character because both hip-hop and the female body are often stereotyped and objectified by white culture; while certainly not identical experiences, the pain and anger that both groups feel has some small kinship. When I wrote this story, I imagined “DNA” as the kind of song my white suburban teen male narrators would play while driving around in their parents’ BMWs, listening only to its beat and completely missing its adept celebration of black history and culture and skewering of whiteness.
Tiffany Quay Tyson, “Now You See Me” – “Someday” by Steve Earle
This song really captures the feeling of being stuck in a particular place through no fault of your own. The narrator in “Now You See Me” is stuck. She hasn’t done anything wrong, but nothing goes right for her.
Steven Grassel, “Weather Person” – “Hopefulessness” by Courtney Barnett
Caroline Bock, “Government-Issued Bunnies” – “Is This the World We Created” by Queen
This song asks is this what we have created? All the hungry mouths we have to feed and all the suffering we breed, where does it lead us? It led me to “Government-issued Bunnies.”
John Mancini, “Swans” – “Poor Joan” by John Mancini Band
Like “Swans,” this song is a story about people confronting change and loss. Joan and Billy live on Back River, which is not too far from where Sherry lives on Stoney Creek.
James Amata, “Shopping ya Shilingi Elfu Tano” – “Ka Nameka” by Tabu Ley Rochereau & L’Afrisa International
Translated from Lingala as WACHA NIJARIBU, (Let Me Try). It was a competition entry at a concert. His band won!
This song so soothes me as it so encourages me to always try.
Lynn Mundell, “Sister Wives at the County Fair” – “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” by Aretha Franklin
We never see more than a flash of Husband, so a love song won’t do. Instead, in honor of the legendary Aretha Franklin, here’s an anthem perfect for sing-alongs.
Rebecca Dashiell, “If the Light, Then the Light” – “Lioness” by Songs: Ohia
I feel like this is the kind of song the filmmaker’s wife would listen to and think this is what love should look like: desperate longing and vulnerability.
Jeff Landon, “Ringo Starr” – “I Don’t Want To Control You” by Teenage Fanclub
Because I love Teenage Fanclub, and I don’t really love Ringo Starr’s music… except
“Photograph… and this song is about the exact opposite type of man as the dildo in my story.
September 17, 2018 News Digests
The SmokeLong Quarterly team are thrilled to have more and more opportunities for celebrating flash fiction writers. A couple of new Best-anthologies are accepting nominations, and of course we’re nominating SLQ stories.
Best Microfiction is considering submissions under 400 words–eight micros per journal!–until the end of the year. We have nominated the stories below but still have two nominations open (and a December issue of SmokeLong yet to be filled).
“Satellite” by Elaine Edwards
“Blemish” by Jessica Cavero
“It’s Over” by Molly Giles
“Taking Notes” by Kerry Cullen
“Safe” by David Lerner Schwartz
“Crossing” by Alice Mercier
Best British and Irish Flash Fiction will be taking nominations from editors until May 31, 2019. We have nominated one story so far but remain hopeful that we’ll publish gobs of British and Irish writers before the deadline.
“I’m Ron McRain said Ron McRain” by Jonathan Cardew
Congratulations to these nominees from the SmokeLong team!
September 10, 2018 Reviews
by Kelly Lynn Thomas
Dana Diehl’s new chapbook, TV Girls (New Delta Review, August 2018), is a collection of short stories based on reality TV shows and celebrities. You don’t need to be familiar with The Bachelor or Sister Wives to enjoy the characters or their struggles, though. Whatever you’ve gleaned from reading People headlines in the grocery store checkout line and from your friends’ Facebook feeds is enough of an entry point. The six stories in the collection aren’t exactly satire, but they aren’t exactly homages to reality TV either. They’re something in between, a chimaera of expectation-skewering, healthy cynicism, fascination with human behavior, voyeurism, and feminist commentary.
The poet Chen Chen, who selected Diehl’s manuscript as the 2017-2018 New Delta Review Chapbook Series winner, says of it, “Story after story, Diehl discovers fraught vulnerabilities and startling truths in the lives of girls and women confronting the expectations of TV, lovers, family, and one another.” An apt description, as reading TV Girls felt like being an archaeologist from the future, excavating 21st-century life, uncovering its dirty laundry and hidden secrets one by one.
The collection’s eponymous story, presumably based on The Bachelor, explores a group of 25 women “looking for love.” None of the women are named, only referred to with letters, and they drop out of the story one by one as they leave the set, seemingly having failed their quest. But of course, the quest was artificial from the beginning, and the story reminds the reader of this harsh fact over and over again. “The TV girls believe they can find love on national television,” the unnamed narrator states at the beginning. Right from the start, we know it’s a lost cause. What’s more, we as readers and watchers know that the TV girls themselves know it’s a lost cause. “Each TV girl says, he’s really, really the one.”
We know he’s not, but that’s part of reality TV’s charm—we get to watch other people make a mess of their lives from the comfort of our living rooms. The tension in this story comes not from which girl will wind up with the “Potential Husband,” but from the narrator’s increasingly naked desire to see things go wrong, and the more explosive, the more dramatic, the better. That theme comes up again in the collection’s final story, “Conjoined,” a story about conjoined twins Jenna and Lily, who also happen to be the last girls on earth. Before the world ended, they had their own reality show, and now they live in abandoned TV sets in Los Angeles. Their lives were always scripted, and even with no audience left, it’s as if they are performing, struggling to maintain appearances. “When everyone was already looking, there was no point in trying to hide,” the girls muse.
Because of course, Diehl’s stories are as much about the people who watch reality television as the shows and celebrities themselves. They push and pull against that base desire we all feel to watch the train wreck, mouths agape at the rubble, the blood, the fire. As a culture, we’re obsessed with reality TV because it allows us to indulge in fantasy and drama, not in spite of it.
Even the stories that aren’t directly based on specific reality TV shows have a reality TV show feel. In “Must-Haves,” a couple goes house shopping, and the story is told through a list of the things their new house has to possess. No fewer than three bedrooms to accommodate future children. A finished basement to shelter the family in case of tornado or hurricane. A claw-foot tub in which the narrator can escape an affair she imagines her spouse will have in the future.
This narrator imagines all the worst-case scenarios: fire, famine, the end of the world. The couple is young, and it’s easy to picture them, though Diehl never actually describes them physically. He’s a smartly dressed professional with a high salary and an eye on the corporate ladder. She’s the artsy type working on her first book. Both of them are fit and attractive with straight, white teeth.
It’s no leap to imagine them on a show like House Hunters, searching and searching for the right home, never finding it because of some minuscule flaw, like the “wrong” paint color or the lack of that claw-foot tub. Happiness knocks on their door, but they are too afraid to answer it, too afraid to face the possibility of failure, so their potential remains unfulfilled. The viewer remains on the couch, safely watching the drama of strangers’ lives, never venturing out to live her own life.
Regardless of the source material, Dana Diehl has a knack for the poignant detail. One of my favorites is from “Buddy,” a story about Cake Boss star Buddy Valastro. When he gets his family lost at sea, the narrator notes that “Most of the cakes he makes for his show are beautiful but flavorless, made of refrigerated sheet cake and covered with fondant.” It’s the artifice again, the beautiful lie. Appearances aren’t everything, though we all pretend they are.
Ultimately, TV Girls left me acutely aware of the way our culture has found innumerable ways to commodify the very act of living. We consume these stories, gobble them up, and we can’t get enough of them. The viewer is just as culpable for this spectacle as the people who are directly involved—and perhaps even more so. In a way, these six stories feel like cautionary tales. Instead of warning against vanity and vice, they remind us that happiness and fulfillment only come if we are willing to get down in the dirt, wrestle with our desires and shortcomings, failing, but in our failure finding truth.
Kelly Lynn Thomas reads, writes, and sometimes sews in Pittsburgh, PA. She lives with her partner, one dog, and a constant migraine. Her fiction has appeared in Permafrost, Sou’wester, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart. Kelly received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, is a coordinator for the VIDA Count, and can always be found with a large mug of tea.
September 3, 2018 Reviews
by C.A. Schaefer
The title of Mandy Huggins’ collection, Brightly Coloured Horses (Chapeltown Books, 2018), evokes images of a childhood toy box. The stories inside this treasure chest are beautifully jumbled into an assortment that echo, overlap, and subvert each other. The epigraph, a quotation from Willa Cather that argues that “there are only two or three human stories,” serves not only as philosophical guide to the collection, but as a reminder that familiarity between stories is not a trap to avoid, but a strategy to be embraced.
Every story invites us to peer into the lives of its characters, returning to familiar narratives of loss and betrayal, or else healing and reparation. The collection circles the question of what it means to be with another person. Characters converge and then separate, or join together in astonishing love. In the title story, the narrator feels a profound and terrible isolation from her lover, realizing that even in the middle of a Parisian idyll, only she will recall these images and sensations as vividly as she does; her lover will return to his marriage, dismissing this experience and allowing it to fade. “She had felt sure that this moment would save them, but it was too busy, too impersonal.” Some relationships refuse redemption; in “Shooting Stars,” a wife imagines adultery a thousand times before she commits it. This wife, like so many of Huggins’ narrators, has moments of keenly devastating insight. “No one can protect her from what she wanted,” she says in a moment of realization. In “Fatal Flaw,” the narrator echoes her, declaring life as “the possibility of damage from which there can be no recovery.”
It is frequently Huggins’ vivid and precise descriptions of objects that speak to the connections between her characters. Some objects offer an elusive hope of redemption: a pair of yellow shoes serve as a harbinger of hope for a desperate young woman in “Twenty Dollar Shoes;” a jar of bean paste that sustains a memory of a lost beloved from “The Last of Michiko;” in “Kisses,” a biscuit dipped in tea acts as a substitute for a kiss. Other objects portend disaster. A small red ball, carelessly tossed out a window, catalyzes a horrifying accident in “Blood Red.” In “Car by Car,” a shining “curvaceous coupe” is witness to the end of a relationship and the fragments of the self that are inevitably lost during a separation.
But Brightly Coloured Horses sometimes warns us against believing too much in the redemptive power of these objects. In “The Turquoise Silk,” a child enamored with her mother’s “glittering tangle of diamante bracelets, necklaces of tiny iridescent shells, and cocktail rings set with rubies, amethysts, topaz, and amber” is devastated to realize that her mother values order and beauty over her child’s chaotic desires. “The Right Castanets” offers a story steeped in yearning, a child who tries to erase her father’s adulterous transgressions by searching for a perfect gift that he can offer her. But these objects fail to redeem and transfigure. In the end, they remain simply things, as they do in “Perfect Word,” which muses on the failure of these transformations. “The body of Christ can’t save me,” the mourning narrator muses, “only the blood of Christ: the wine that I drink to lessen the unexpected weight of grief.” In “Only the Best,” a wryly tragic variation on “Gift of the Magi,” an impractical object illuminates how profound the disconnection between a husband and wife can be.
Huggins turns away from the inanimate and towards the animal world throughout her collection. The sweetness and horror of animal behavior highlights some of the absurdities of human relationships. In “Nelson,” a small and beloved cat is discovered swirling limply in a washing machine. Although it miraculously survives, the cat and the narrator’s lover flee the next day, leaving the narrator bereft and waiting. The united actions of a pair of dung beetles, staggering together towards a blade of grass in “The Dung Beetle Race” is far more faithful than a human’s promise to return. Throughout the collection, dead rabbits, swooping seagulls, tiny crabs, and beautifully free dogs offer glimpses of a life deeper and richer than the tragicomedy of broken human relationships.
Huggins’ work is perhaps most piercing and revelatory in her moments of ambivalence. In “Whatever Speed She Dared,” a woman contemplates free and wild driving but hesitates because of a shadowy memory of bodies buried in peat. The narration only offers this incomplete reason, and refuses any further questions. Huggins allows us glimpses of understanding in these stories: the memory of a body, a trapped goose, or a moment of grace offered by the rain.
In a few of the pieces, however, these revelations don’t resonate as deeply as others do. Sometimes the pieces incorporate more thorough exposition, and their mysteries are resolved too quickly and completely. Sometimes, too, the language slips away from beautiful strangeness, and instead offers the occasional cliché. These are rare occasions in the collection, though; most of the stories linger beautifully, and their familiar chords begin to overlap in my memory, so that I am not always able to separate one story from another. These stories speak to each other, celebrating nuance, contradiction, and confusion. There may be, as Brightly Coloured Horses reminds us, only two or three stories, but their variations are both imaginative and tender.
C.A. Schaefer’s stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, Phantom Drift, Passages North, and other journals. A former editor of Quarterly West, she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Utah. She currently teaches writing and other humanities courses in Salt Lake City.
August 27, 2018 News Digests
It’s that time of year again, when editors put on their Santa hats and make writers’ days and weeks and years. This nomination season is going to be particularly brilliant for Alvin Park, the grand prize winner of The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction (The Smokey). We’ve promised to nominate the story for every award, and we’re starting with Best of the Net.
2018 Best of the Net Nominations from SLQ
Whale Fall by Alvin Park
Boy by Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor
Congratulations to Alvin and Tochukwu from the SLQ team!
Christopher and Tara
August 20, 2018 Reviews
by Julia Tagliere
Brad Watson (author of Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives) dubbed Pokrass the “new monarch of the delightful and enigmatic tiny kingdom of micro- and flash fiction.” Incredibly prolific, Pokrass has written four previous collections and a book of prose poetry. Her stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in more than 300 publications.
Alligators at Night, published in July 2018, is Pokrass’ fifth collection. Comprising 72 pieces, many of which first appeared in publications such as Atticus Review, Necessary Fiction, and Jellyfish Review, this fascinating collection does not present an easily discernible underlying thread, at least in terms of subject matter. There are dead or dying pets (“You and Your Middle-Aged Cat”; “Being Sheila”); aging women (“Invisible”); old divorces and new beginnings (“Therapy Cat”; “Why Not Now”; “Starting Over”). Many of the pieces do, however, share a unique emotional theme: loss—not past loss or current, but rather, anticipated.
In the title piece, for example, the narrator and her husband are walking at night, listening to the “sound of alligators crooning like deranged, nocturnal cows” when she observes, “…what you sometimes want is to never actually get there. He has not yet had his dose of whiskey…You have not yet said you have a migraine, and that you don’t really feel like snuggling…You have not yet cried or threatened to leave…” Or in “The Benefits of Krill,” when the narrator tells her favorite cashier at the market by her pharmacy job that “Duncan has lung cancer and that soon the pharmacy will be gone. I need to become more memorable to him, and soon…” Four words is all it takes in “Separation”: “After packing, I find myself staring at his penis…It is friendly-looking. I will miss it.” These are all futures that have not yet come to pass within Pokrass’ narratives, but that wound nonetheless with their very inevitability.
Just as David Gaffney writes in “Stories in Your Pocket: How to Write Flash Fiction,” reading Alligators at Night feels like you’ve “been run over by a lorry full of fridges,” but in the very best of ways. Each precision-crafted story strikes an emotional chord and hits it hard, hammering away at different feelings so that it is difficult to read more than a handful at a time. I found myself needing to take frequent breaks to reflect on and process what a particular piece made me feel—and feel, I did.
Take, for example, “Dismount,” where a little girl beams a smile at her father, visiting her unexpectedly outside of his arranged time, a smile so enthusiastic she dribbles saliva: “…she walked out into the sunlight holding his big-fingers with no fear.” There is, of course, a subtle darkness mingling with the girl’s joy at his appearance—his displeasure at her dribbling, the “darkish stairwell,” her freckles “landing like buzzards around her nose”—but as I read it, all I can feel is her joy: “She was his princess on Sundays.”
Pokrass swings deftly between swells of joy like this to floods of darker emotion, as in her poignant “Man Against Nature.” She sets the reader up with a cozy scene of a couple watching a nature-survival show on TV, fragrant soup cooking in the background, only to slo-mo gut punch the reader with her last few lines, revealing the stark, painful contrast between the couple’s reality and the reality they’re watching on TV.
It’s not all darkness, however—far from it. Pokrass certainly excels at emotional wallops, but she also possesses terrific humor. She reveals this mainly through her characters, who make me snort out loud at something one or the other of them says. From “Albino”: “We went to a thrift store and joked about trying on hats and getting lice. ‘Miami Lice,’ he said.” Or the little girl idolizing her older sister, in “Playing the Chicken”: “I love it when she says fuck. She says it often and I like to sing it in my head. Last year, I was kicked out of girl scouts for saying that perfect word.”
Part of Pokrass’ talent in wrenching such intense emotions from her reader comes from the vividness of her descriptions. She has a brutally clear, unsparing way of forcing readers’ eyes wide open, insisting they see what she wants them to see. A few of my favorite examples: “I’d gotten so used to Mike’s nudity that I’d stopped noticing his penis crouched like a worried squirrel.” (“Wouldn’t You Like Some Sun?”) Or the woman friend “of a certain age” at lunch in “Invisible,” of whom Pokrass writes this: “Looking at her meaty arms, I thought of pie-crust dough.” From “You Are Better Than This”: “Like a drunk car on the highway, her lips followed the road of his hair. She could taste the salt of a tidal basin.” Pokrass hits all the senses with her descriptions—which only deepens the reader’s visceral emotional responses.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess I’m a recent convert to reading flash fiction, but this potent collection has completely won me over with its complexity, intensity, and gratification. Veteran flash readers and fans of Pokrass will certainly not be disappointed by Alligators at Night; newcomers to the genre, like me, will find an outstanding way to get acquainted.
Alligators at Night is available from Ad Hoc Fiction.
Julia Tagliere is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Writer, The Bookends Review, Potomac Review, numerous anthologies, and the juried photography and prose collection Love + Lust. Winner of the 2015 William Faulkner Literary Competition for Best Short Story and the 2017 Writers Center Undiscovered Voices Fellowship, Julia currently resides in Maryland with her family, where she recently completed her M.A. in Writing at John Hopkins University. She serves as an editor with The Baltimore Review and is currently working on her next novel, The Day the Music Didn’t Die.
August 13, 2018 Reviews
by Ashley McGreary
Opening any collection of short fiction is like losing your senses to a curio cabinet of wonder, but Karen Donovan’s Aard-vark to Axolotl (Etruscan Press, April 2018) takes this precept to an almost literal interpretation. Based on a set of illustrations from the pages of her grandfather’s 1925 Webster’s New International Dictionary, this series of seventy-eight micro stories and prose poems represents an eclectic, lyrical, razor-sharp foray into the sphere of alternative definition, with its true allegiance laying somewhere between a lexicon and a bestiary. Like any cabinet of curiosity, each piece can be taken out, examined separately, and weighed in the humid cup of your hand, yet despite this microcosmic intimacy, its sheer breathless scope means that its fascination can never truly be exhausted. Karan Donovan is also the author of two collections of poetry: Fugitive Red, which won the Juniper Prize, and Your Enzymes Are Calling the Ancients, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award. Her recognizant contribution to literature is summed up in Ander Manson’s words: “This blurb won’t help save you, but Aard-vark to Axolotl just might.”
Logically, for a work whose title celebrates the kingdom Animalia, this series begins by examining the complex interrelationships between humans and animals, with its opening gambit: “Earth Pig” rendering our hypocrisies in blood across the page, while equally evoking a psychological proximity that makes the rationalized violence of the piece truly jarring. In a wonderfully postmodern inscription, the titular Aard-vark greet the possibilities of a new day, which include the chance of its own individual extinction, a fact that resonates across all life. This state of interconnection is further advanced in “A Lustrous, Pearly Interior,” which uses the backdrop of a beach, and its calcium carbonate substrate of history, to evince a deep sense of isolation and meaninglessness, against which even language itself is impuissant. The animal and human condition run together like an agate seam through this chapbook, creating a sense of lineage and inheritance that is echoed in the distant-but-still-touching experiences of grandfather and granddaughter. At its heart, this work attempts to define not just the physicality of an object: “Achene of Buttercup in vertical section, showing solitary seed,” but its abstract, metaphysical properties: “When she left, she folded her wasted body through a crack in space-time and bloomed out on the other side, pulling the long bright skein of my brain’s neural pathways with her.” It is a tour de force, which transcribes the dictionary into emotion.
Each micro-piece is accompanied by an original illustration, which acts like a holdfast in the oceanic possibility of language. Beside it, Donovan’s hyper-condensed prose spans a universe in form and tone, rendering each piece with a unique, imperishable signature. From the numbered diagram of “View From Southwest Airliner on Final Approach to Province,” to the jazz-like call and response of “Constraints Are Better Than Freedom,” and the self-depreciating, staccato sentences of “Makeover,” to the nested involvement of “Dinner Date’s” twenty-seven words, Aard-vark to Axolotl explores ideas of perspective, interpretation, pleasure and disappointment, creativity, ineffability, and the condition of being untethered from ones culture: in short, everything it means to be human.
The collection also focuses its lens on the darker side of the human experience too, with sequences such as “Burn Notice” depicting a spiralling lack of control, which unwinds from a superficial sunburn to “The towers and with them my psyche. My bridges ever since,” articulating an irretrievable state of entropy; and “Sales Job,” whose jaunty tone hides a tenebrous scepticism concerning our inability to escape the corporate order and its false-benign smile.
Parallel to the natural world in Aard-vark to Axolotl is the urban environment, and the efficiency or redundancy of technology, with “No Signal Detected” and “The Accident” offering rival perspectives. In the first micro-piece, a couple resist the tide of progress by persevering with their old “rabbit ears” aerial and its temperamental reception; after far too long of this, they finally buy a smart, new antennae, which, like their old one only works when it is “propped up at exactly the right angle over in the corner of the room on top of the CD player,” showing the cynical failure of technology to improve anything other than material aesthetics. The second micro-piece, comparatively, advocates the propensity of technology to remake life as secure and perfectible through the illusion of depth. Following a jarring cycling accident, the speaker trades the risk of reality for “the stationary bike at the Y, the one that’s like a videogame” and is satisfied with the substitution, a stance which challenges our own perspectives on modernity. Donovan’s collection is, indisputably, a work of and for our time, but it also represents a pantheon across all times, with its tendrils trailing between past, present, and future. The existential resonance in “Mesozoic’s” line: “Ask the experts where my bones lie: there, on the other side of catastrophe,” implicates both the fragility and endurance of life, and the ease with which all animation passes into history; while “Other Floral Borders I Have Known” paints a cradle to grave montage through the adornment of flowers, capturing the essence of existence as beautiful, fading, and brief.
To return, punctually, to the curio cabinet metaphor, it is impossible to appreciate everything in Donovan’s work through a single encounter, Aard-vark to Axolotl is a collection that not only stands up to a third, fourth, fifth reading, but actively encourages it. With a tone that shifts from lyrical, to scathing, deprecating, eccentric, empowering and introspective, this collection provides, at its core, a rumination on how we use language to construct and define the world around us, as well as the place of writing within that structure. “It was then I understood,” Donovan records, in conjunction to the etching of an Archer Fish, “I had a razor-tipped device inside me that could spear any prey I desired.” The rest, they say, is history, because the power of good writing has been hooking people ever since. Though most readers don’t prefer a comparison to fish.
Ashley McGreary is a fledgling writer with a degree in English and Creative Writing, currently working towards an MA in English Literature. She is at the extreme end of starting out, but hopes eventually to shape a career out of the two things that set her soul on fire: literature and writing.
August 6, 2018 Reviews
New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories (Norton, 2018)
Edited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro
Reviewed by Kara Oakleaf
The challenge of flash fiction is often what to leave out – limiting yourself to 1,000 words leaves little room for anything other than the absolute essentials of a story. Microfiction strips things down even further, fitting a full narrative into fewer than 300 words.
In New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories, editors James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro have assembled an impressive collection of these stories, pulling the best micros from online and print journals, story collections and anthologies. The collection features some of the most recognizable names of short fiction and flash, including Amy Hempel, Stuart Dybek, Joyce Carol Oates, John Edgar Wideman, Joy Williams, and Kathy Fish, alongside newer writers. Most of the stories – 140 total, from 90 different writers – are from more recent publications, but a few are from writers who have been experimenting with this extremely short form since the 1970s.
In his foreword, Robert Shapard says microfiction can be “as intense as poetry,” and this feels especially true of the stories in New Micro. I found myself reading this book the same way I often read a poetry collection, getting through only one or two stories at a time before I wanted to pause, let those stories swim around in my head for a while before coming back for more. These stories look small on the page, but each of them demands that readers give it room to expand long after they’ve set down the book.
The opening story, “Letting Go” by Pamela Painter, establishes a high bar for that intensity Shapard mentions in the foreword. It starts out as a contemplative piece – a woman alone on vacation encounters a young, happy couple as she thinks about her ex – but the events turn quickly when the narrator witnesses something shocking that haunts her, and the reader, long after the end of the story.
Other pieces in the collection also play with the idea of witness, exploring moments when a character brushes up against a scene they aren’t fully a part of, but are nonetheless changed by. Molly Giles’ “Protest” features two thirteen-year-old girls lying in the middle of the road, stopping traffic and creating chaos. The girls are the catalyst for the narrative, but what makes the story is the image of young boys watching them, fascinated with this strange glimpse of what might wait for them in adolescence. John Edgar Wideman’s “Witness” shows us a fifteen-year-old boy murdered, the police on the scene, and finally, the boy’s family mourning at the spot where he died, all from the vantage point of the narrator’s balcony. In “New Rollerskates” by Erin Dionne, a young girl sits outside an apartment building, keeping the secret of what she knows is happening inside – until she doesn’t. And Kathleen McGookey’s “Another Drowning, Miner Lake,” has another take on this kind of story: a narrator swimming in a lake, disturbingly unaffected by the knowledge that a woman drowned there the night before.
Micros lend themselves well to the extraordinary, and several pieces in the collection experiment with unexpected or fantastic premises. The narrator of Thaisa Frank’s The New Thieves replaces herself with a camouflaged woman, testing to see if her lover will notice. A repairman gets stuck in a furnace duct for days in Kevin Griffith’s “Furnace,” and chats with the family through one of the grates in the floor. Nin Andrews’ two stories are written from the perspective of an orgasm. A surgeon cuts a patient’s flesh in the shape of his home country in James Claffey’s Kingmaker. Whole populations abandon their homes to become hermits in Ana María Shua’s Hermit. Stories that might fall apart in longer form are expertly held together by these writers who ground their characters so firmly in unbelievable premises that you’re drawn in before you have a chance to question it.
Some stories use this miniature form to tackle big subjects. Brian Cooper’s “Hurricane Ride” and Francine Witte’s “Jetty Explains the Universe” bring together everyday scenes – carnival rides and the lives of housecats – with expansive questions about the nature of the universe. Michael Czyzniejewski’s “Intrigued by Reincarnation, Skip Dillard Embraces Buddhism” begins with a light, humorous tone before focusing on the allure of starting over, of slipping out of your own life and into another anonymous one.
Other stories tackle more familiar and realistic territory – marriages, affairs, and the birth and death of loved ones – but create an unexpected impact. In Josh Russell’s “Our Boys,” the simple experience of a parent mixing up his two sons’ baby pictures leads to the unsettling question of how well we really know the ones we’re closest to. Zachery Schomberg’s “Death Letter” gives a powerful twist to a break-up story. In Tom Hazuka’s “Utilitarianism,” the narrator sees a change in his parents’ relationship, and we suddenly feel that we understand the entirety of this decades-long marriage. And in Gay Degani’s “An Abbreviated Glossary” and Damian Dressick’s “Four Hard Facts About Water,” the authors use lists to narrate the worst kinds of grief, and hit the reader hard in the moment when their characters’ pain cuts sharply through the story’s structure.
The stories collected here are broad and diverse, difficult to narrow down, but if any single thing unifies them, it’s the language. Stories like Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “Sleepover”and Tara Laskowski’s “Dendrochronology” end on vivid, resonant images that bring every other detail into sharper focus. The rhythm and repetition in the single-paragraph stories “Flying” by Jeff Landon and “Black Cat” by Josh Russell are almost spell-like and completely transport you into the narrators’ memories. Every word carries extra weight in these stories, and it’s this attention to language, as much as their length, that makes the stories in in New Micro comparable to poetry.
And yet, these stories are clearly in their own genre. If what poetry does is crystalize a particular moment and invite the reader to linger there, microfiction crystalizes moments that immediately demand the reader imagine what lies beyond the story. Because there is a full world created by each of these stories. Micros may have the intensity and the economy of language of poetry, but this collection shows that they are distinctly narrative. As short as they are, the stories in New Micro are fully formed works of fiction, encapsulating nuanced characters, the scope of a long marriage, or the way small moments shape a day, or a year, or a lifetime. In every case, they outlive their size.
Kara Oakleaf‘s work appears or is forthcoming in journals including Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Jellyfish Review, Nimrod, Seven Hills Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Postcard Poems and Prose. She is a graduate of the M.F.A. program at George Mason University, where she now teaches and directs the Fall for the Book literary festival.
July 30, 2018 Reviews
by Pilar DiPietro
Often we think of life in the 1950s as one of wistful innocence and familial ease. We may even term it “the Good Old Days.” Barry Gifford’s The Cuban Club (Seven Stories Press, October 2017), a collection of sixty-seven related stories, pushes back on these notions of nostalgia with the remembrances of Roy. Roy is a first-generation American, Chicagoan by way of Miami in his youth. Trying to make his way through the snarls of puberty, Roy unties the knots of race, marriage and fidelity, death, sex and love, violence, grief, loss, and parent-child relationships.
In the snippets that make up Roy’s memories, the reader gains an understanding of the changing parental, domestic, family and moral roles that were sweeping through America in the 1950s and early 1960s and the effects these changes were having on the next generation. Through Roy’s eyes the reader is given insight: not only the fascinations of youth but the reflections of a changing time. Throughout the stories Gifford maintains Roy’s delightful innocence in the foreground, his youthful misunderstandings often tumbling out of his mouth, though alluding to the real situation that runs deeper, and often darker, behind.
Uniquely, and indeed digitally friendly, Gifford allows the reader to open to any of his stories and feel like it may have been exactly where you left off. There is no need to read this collection in any particular order. Roy’s stories, each approximately three pages long, identify the age at which Roy is recording them. This grounding is helpful in seeing Roy’s progression, his bildungsroman, as he grapples with situations that, perhaps, no boy should be aware of. I recommend mixing up your reading order and enjoying the stories outside linear time.
The book does contain some violence. While uncomfortable at times, it is palatable. Roy’s father, a mid-level racketeer with mob affiliations, is on one hand protective of his son, and yet his fatherly advice frequently verges on the morally hypocritical. For example, after Roy learns that Mean Well Benny’s cut-throated corpse was found in an alley garbage can, Roy’s father says, “Some men’s lives don’t amount to much, son. They get on the wrong road and don’t ever get back on the straight and narrow.” Luckily, Roy’s pops gives more solid lessons: “I’m sorry to say, Roy, I believe in the existence of evil. Hitler, for example, was an evil man who had the ability to inspire and manipulate people into committing the most gruesome acts of villainy.” Although Roy’s father is ambiguously depicted as being involved with illegal enterprises, his pronouncements, along with Pops’, are sound enough to aid in the formation of Roy’s ethical balance. Gifford writes in a manner allowing for reader understanding without author subjectivity.
Roy’s mother, an aging ex-model, ricochets from one boyfriend to another and often leaves Roy in the care of others while she jet-sets in search of love and adventure. By thirty-four she is quite jaded and has been married three times. The conversations between her and her equally disenchanted friend, Kay, are often overheard by Roy who is left to make his own conclusions and seldom have little to do with the actual meaning of the quips. For example, after Kay, speaking of orgasms, tells Roy that his mom has had an epiphany, Roy asks, “Do you have to be a Catholic to have one?” to which Kay answers, “No, Roy, but it probably helps.”
Johnny Murphy, Roy’s friend, teaches Roy about the underside of life, a seedy underbelly seems taken for granted by the characters. When Roy and Johnny decide to play detective after the grisly murder of a young woman is discovered, Johnny off-handedly states, “He raped the girl, strangled her—or maybe, if he was a real pervert, strangled her before raping her.” The eleven-year-old boys go to the crime scene to search for clues and Johnny deduces: “The killer’s a rich guy who lives in a fancy apartment around here, on Lake Shore or Marine Drive.” Indeed, the killer was found to be “a 42-year-old bachelor named Leonard Danzig, an architect,” who had determined the girl was the sister of Jesus Christ and “felt it was his duty to abort what he described as an immoral lineage.” After the killer was captured and committed, Roy asks his mother what she thinks. She tells her son, “You can’t execute all of the sick people in the world, Roy. There are too many. Once you start doing that it would never stop.” Roy then asks if she thinks the world would be better without the killer in it. Gifford’s next lines are typical of his style: “Roy’s mother, who had already been divorced twice and had a third marriage annulled, said, ‘Him and a few other men I can name.’”
Readers will enjoy Roy’s adventures, if not contemplate Gifford’s true intentions. The tales, often having many meanings, are a wonderful mix of ingredients that enfold a boy’s journey of adolescence in urban 1950s America. The result of the collection is a layered spiced cake with each of Roy’s episodes demanding the reader’s introspection of their own identity and values.
July 20, 2018 Flashback Series
by Michael Loveday
The novel-/novella-in-flash is a curious form. Not a straightforward novel/novella, nor simply a story collection, it functions as a hybrid. Its enthusiasts, myself included, resemble TV evangelists on obscure late-night channels, full of zeal as to why this of all literary forms is the most satisfying, and the closest equivalent to real life – that fusion of ‘story’ and the individual, numinous moment.
What follows is a list of twelve examples of the novel-/novella-in-flash, with some commentary that tries to approach a definition of what the form is, and what it isn’t. I’ve included some examples that stretch the category a little, so we can get to know its edges.
Broadly speaking, the novel-/novella-in-flash consists of a sequence of individual but related short-short stories that somehow build momentum towards a bigger whole. The craft essays in My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form describe how the form “mixes the quick and the sustained” and blends “the extreme brevity of the flash with the longer – albeit still brief – arc of the novella.” Despite the requirement for a coherent whole, because any overarching story is broken into distinct mini-stories or fragments, the novel-/novella-in-flash “is a form of omission and lacuna.”
The Bath Flash Fiction Award now has an annual international competition dedicated to the Novella-in-Flash and publishes an anthology of the three winning entries each year. The sensationally good How to Make a Window Snake by Charmaine Wilkerson was its inaugural winner in 2017. This competition asks for each chapter or flash to be not more than 1,000 words long, with the whole (for the novella-in-flash) between 6,000 and 18,000 words long. However, some of the twelve books in my list below are more like novels, and so run to several thousand more words than this.
Inevitably, in a list of only twelve books, there are significant exclusions, and I acknowledge that the list is a very subjective one. Still, I hope it serves as a useful way forward for readers wanting to discover more about the form. (As the list is limited to examples of fiction, I’ve not included memoir-in-flash.)
- Candide, or Optimism (Voltaire, 1759)
Cannibalism, murder, STDs, flogging, hanging, shipwreck, El Dorado, earthquake – in a mere 86 pages this eighteenth-century proto-novella-in-flash has all the drama you could want. Nevertheless, a philosophical tale at heart, Voltaire’s book satirises the mode of the chivalric romance through its story of a young man beset by bad luck who travels the world to find (and lose) his fortune. It possesses many characteristics that would later become defining features of the novella-in-flash: it’s short; each chapter (with one exception) is less than 1,000 words; and, because of its varied locations and ensemble cast of secondary characters, each chapter has its own distinct mood and material, that necessary sense of being a ‘world of its own.’ If it falls short of the novella-in-flash as we now know the form in its purest sense, it’s because (as with many novels from the 18th century to the present day) many chapters close by preparing us for the next or depend directly on the previous one in narrative terms. What came later to the form was a stronger sense of a pause or ‘resonating space’ at the end of each chapter, and the feeling that the overall text offers, rather than one continuous narrative thread, an interwoven patchwork of self-contained moments. Nevertheless, the roots of the novella-in-flash can be seen in Voltaire’s writing.
- Mrs. Bridge (Evan S. Connell, 1959)
A magnificent portrait of a middle-class woman, and her family, in mid-twentieth-century suburban America. Its 117 short chapters are written with a relentless, quiet conviction that insists: these characters really do exist. Mrs. Bridge, whose story we follow from youth to old age, is alienated from her life and her feelings, as she raises a family and builds a life for herself in the absence of any romantic attentions from her husband. Readers glimpse an existential dread running through her observations and interactions, and yet she potters on distractedly, somewhat bewildered by the changes in her world, and keeping up appearances in that very middle-class, mid-twentieth-century way. Subsequently overshadowed by the careers of Updike, Roth and Yates, whose debut books appeared at around the same time, Connell’s tragicomic first novel is a classic of social realism – a brilliant portrait of the inter-war dissatisfactions of American women – and should be read in conjunction with its sequel Mr. Bridge (1969), dealing with the same family life from the husband’s point of view.
- Play It as It Lays (Joan Didion, 1970)
An appealing cocktail of ennui, glamour, tragedy and spiky dialogue, this book’s whip-smart sentences convincingly depict life on the margins of the Hollywood movie industry, as a minor actress heads on a path of self-destruction prompted by a growing indifference to her milieu and the realities of the choices she has made. Most of the unnumbered chapters are story-fragments – from one paragraph to five pages. Some are impressionistic moments; others run in sequence, picking up where the previous one left off. Thus, not all the chapters are fully developed to become self-standing stories, and a narrative momentum builds that makes it feel close to being a continuous novel. But the choppy, short chapters beautifully evoke the central character’s discontent and disconnection, and Didion’s writing is both nonchalant and sharp – like a drunk with a knife in her hand.
- Palomar (Italo Calvino, 1983)
In these 27 short-short stories about an elderly man studying the world around him – waves, birds, the stars, a cheese shop, etc. – there is little action described, let alone event or even (god forbid!) plot. But as a set of meditations, it rewards readers who enjoy grappling with complexity in their fiction, as Calvino trawls through verbose philosophical conundrums about perception, identity, and the cosmos. Mr. Palomar is as close to being a story collection as it is to being a novella-in-flash: what little forward movement there is comes from a kind of ‘mathematical’ scheme – a sequence of claimed shifts among the stories – cycling through precise proportions of ‘description’, ‘narrative’ and ‘meditation’. The scheme is so intricate that the appendix announcing it appears to be part of a literary game on Calvino’s part, entirely in sympathy with the over-meticulous Mr. Palomar himself.
- The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros, 1984)
A stone-cold classic. Esperanza Cordero is growing up in a run-down tenement building in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago, negotiating family, quirky neighbours, boys, new friendships, and hoping one day for a home of her own. The language is lyrical without being sentimental, and there is a Technicolour sharpness to Esperanza’s passionate observations of the world around her, which are riddled with hopes and fears in a typically adolescent way. Stories range from 7 lines to 3 or 4 pages long and don’t progress in an explicitly chronological way. Not without moments of darkness, The House on Mango Street is a haunting yet uplifting portrait of Hispanic American life.
- Why Did I Ever? (Mary Robison, 2001)
Throughout its two hundred pages – over 500 microfictions and fragments – Robison’s novel-in-flash emphasises character and voice: there is no real overarching narrative arc to glean from this stream of jump-cut mini-scenes, many of which extend for a few sentences only. As a character-study, the book is concentrated, sassy, and inventively-phrased. The narrator, Money Breton, a Hollywood script-doctor, works on a terrible-sounding movie about Bigfoot, dealing out barbed comments to various figures in her life – her cat, her friend Hollis, her methadone-addicted daughter Mev, her son Paulie (now in police care after falling victim to violent crime). The fragments offer glimpses of her life and relationships (work, family, lovers, friends), and although these separate strands don’t integrate we do get an impression of forward movement within each strand. There’s such relentless verbal and psychological energy it’s as if each fragment has been formed under intense geological pressure – like brilliant jewels.
- We the Animals (Justin Torres, 2011)
The novella-in-flash as Bildungsroman: Torres charts the growth of a boy into sexual maturity, in the midst of a madcap, chaotic, and harsh domestic life: three brothers jostling for priority (the stories are often narrated as a third-person plural “we”); an often absent, and at times abusive, father; a mother struggling to take charge. The family environment at first feels implausibly zany; yet the reader’s fondness for it grows, until one is charmed and captivated; then the novella shifts into darker territory as it concludes. Apart from a final one-paragraph story that’s more like a prose poem, most of the chapters here (ranging from 3-12 pages) are fully developed into self-contained stories, building to their own individual climaxes, yet cumulatively they describe a central protagonist gradually uncovering his own identity. In this debut work, Torres’s control of sentence-rhythms combines with a gift for narrative structure to create a stunning tour de force.
- Paperboy (Bob Thurber, 2011)
At 230 pages, this is one of the longer books in this list, and it’s remarkable how Thurber sustains the narrative feat of creating an impression of linear, continuous story (occasional flashbacks aside) from over 150 individual segments, each with its own resonant ending. The narrative isn’t for the fainthearted: in 1969, an astronaut-obsessed teenage boy in a dysfunctional family is drawn into incest, and the rest of the novel depicts how the ongoing transgressions are kept secret, as well as telling the story of his failures and frustrations working as a local paperboy. There are a host of reasons why the material ought to fail, but the book is a raw triumph, almost claustrophobic in intensity – equally funny and tragic.
- Petrol (Martina Evans, 2012)
Irish poet and novelist Martina Evans published Petrol as a “prose poem disguised as a novella”. These thirty-nine one- or two-page prose pieces certainly have a poetic, crystalline brilliance. They might also be stream-of-consciousness dramatic monologues confided to the reader with a kind of controlled anarchy, so vivid is the voice of a persecuted thirteen-year-old in rural County Cork. Working at the family petrol station, three sisters deal with the reality of a new mother-in-law, while the narrator is terrorised by her father and drawn inexorably towards the forbidden attentions of a local nineteen-year-old.
- The Dept. of Speculation (Jenny Offill, 2014)
An old theme of marital infidelity is given remarkable new life in Jenny Offill’s broken-hearted novel, in which the rupture caused by the adultery is palpable, but the narrator is too pragmatic to watch herself slip under. The narrator leaps from thought to thought, through streams of observations, incidents, quotations, aphorisms and scientific facts that are sequenced into separate chapters. The wife is a creative writing tutor, the husband a sound archivist; other characters include a philosopher and an almost-astronaut, and all these roles feed into the rich themes of the text. A classic novel-/novella-in-flash might more obviously be a sequence of self-standing stories, but it’s becoming increasingly popular to publish mainstream novels like this one [witness also Megan Hunter’s recent The End We Start From (2017)], where the writing is a patchwork of fragmented paragraphs, sometimes as short as one sentence long. And all that divides its form from Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever? (more widely accepted as a novel-in-flash) is the absence of numerical separators between fragments, which makes Offill’s book feel more like a fluid and continuous stream of material.
- My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form (2014)
Maybe I’m cheating the numbers to include it, but a list of twelve great novels-/novellas-in-flash would be incomplete without acknowledging this anthology from Rose Metal Press: it’s a crucial text in the history of the form, presenting novellas-in-flash by five different writers, supplemented by craft essays about the creation of each work, and an informative introduction by editors Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney. These essays are a wonderful welcome into what exactly the novella-in-flash is (or can be). The five novellas (by Tiff Holland, Meg Pokrass, Aaron Teel, Margaret Patton Chapman and Chris Bower) offer two coming-of-age stories, a portrait by a middle-aged daughter of her mother’s crankiness and frailty, a story about a child prodigy born to a nineteenth-century family, and an absurdist portrait of a contemporary family. This anthology will get you thinking about the potential forms of the flash fiction novella.
- Superman on the Roof (Lex Williford, 2015)
One of the shorter novellas in this list, this pamphlet offers ten 3-4-page stories that roam expansively through memories of a 1960s childhood. Williford ambitiously moves back and forward, covering the 1960s and the early 21st century, subtly placing the narrative in historical context through occasional passing references to contemporary politics. These elegiac stories circle, at their centre, a single, significant and haunting loss; in the process, they build a portrait of a harsh family environment and convent school education, in which adults seem hell-bent on punishing children’s petty transgressions. Apparently semi-autobiographical, the beautifully elegant sentences are written in a past tense that’s suffused with nostalgia – and guilt over the narrator’s involvement in family tragedy. In 38 pages, Williford weaves a tapestry that is more moving, memorable and skilfully crafted than many novels. Its form expresses all that is remarkable about the novella-in-flash.
Michael Loveday’s novella-in-flash Three Men on the Edge was published by V. Press in June 2018. He helps to organise the UK’s annual Flash Fiction Festival and is judge of the 2019 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award.
July 16, 2018 Guest BloggerReviews
by Cheryl Pappas
Lucky for us, Sherrie Flick has a new collection of stories. Thank Your Lucky Stars (Autumn House Press) comes out in September. If you read flash, you know her name. Flick’s stories have appeared in several anthologies dedicated to flash. She has published a chapbook (I Call This Flirting; Flume Press, 2004), a novel (Reconsidering Happiness; Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2009), and a collection of short stories titled Whiskey, Etc. (Autumn House Press, 2016), which Kathy Fish deemed “a sharp-edged, intelligent, brilliantly written collection of short shorts by a writer at the top of her game.”
In Thank Your Lucky Stars, Flick has arranged 50 stories of varying length—the shortest a paragraph, the longest 21 pages—into four numbered sections. The settings are often suburban towns in the West or Midwest, and Flick uses crickets, birdbaths with calm water, and deer heads as recurrent images throughout to underscore the agonizing quiet of such towns. Most of the stories are about love, but more specifically, finding someone to make a home with. Domestic spaces are the stage, and everyday objects, like two tin coffee cups, resonate with meaning.
Earlier sections contain stories of characters going through that very messy, fumbling search for the right person, moving from house to house, town to town, in the hopes of finally staying put, as exemplified in “Open and Shut.” By the third section, with “Garden Inside,” we see a shift: after leaving one house and its treasured garden, a woman and her husband move into a house with a neglected one and willingly start from scratch. The theme of starting over, already present in the earlier sections, now morphs into transformation. By the fourth section, we see stories about babies, kids, teenagers, a widower. With some exceptions, the book takes us through the stages of growing up, as it were, and finding not a house but a home.
The stories about relationships, on the whole, are about the illusions we wrestle with. “Bottle” begins with a woman cracking open a wine bottle over the edge of the dinner table to get her husband’s attention; she finds breaking things satisfying because he “looked at her then like the first time he’d laid eyes on her.” We see the couple in “Dance” actively trying to avoid pulling away the curtain of a horrific night from their past: Viv spends her day sipping whiskey and martinis on the patio (her drinking companion a deer head she pulls off the den wall), while her husband Matty dutifully serves her and obsessively bakes away his repressions. The “dance” in the title refers to the back and forth of their acquired roles, which they perform unconvincingly, like bad actors in a play. When Matty chastises Viv for her drinking, “You know, y’all shouldn’t be day drinking like losers in here,” Viv snaps back, “There’s just one of me, Matty. Who, may I ask, are you talking about with ‘y’all’?” But they also dance around the truth—one scene tracks the tense moments when they remember the night that a girl was killed and then how they quickly fall back into their agreed-upon forgetfulness.
Other stories in the collection defy a theme at all, like “Caravan, Suburbia,” a three-paragraph tale about a woman spying a mysterious rickety wagon crossing her front yard, and afterwards sensing the “smell of wood smoke, raw upturned earth, the quick scent of passion, and one low, unsung note abandoned in the stray leaves.”
Indeed, there is a range not just in theme. The opening story, “How I Left Ned,” in which a woman stops for corn on the side of the road and makes a dramatic life decision, takes bold leaps in narrative; “House,” however, about a woman who lives alone and peers out the window “like a suspicious widow expecting the worst,” has a slow, meditative pace. I admit, I am drawn to the strangeness and poetry of Flick’s shorter works. The sentences seem to come up from the deep, slowly and patiently, like they’ve been gathered from a Quaker meeting. Her story “Crickets” is just but one example: “They sing like pleasant car alarms again and again. Again and again. In their little black jumpsuits, they take to the crooked sidewalks in droves, not hesitating to leave the flowers and grasses.” Flick marries patience, resonanance, and quality in her flash pieces.
The longer “Still Life,” about a man who plans to end his life, achieves Hemingway-level compression, spanning only one night and the next morning. The story begins mysteriously, with Harry undressing and folding his clothes carefully, tenderly placing them on his bureau. He drinks half a bottle of whiskey. I love that Flick doesn’t reveal what he is up to, not even when she has him walk out the door, at three in the morning, completely naked. We get the middle-of-the-night sights and sounds in poetic prose: “The trees’ silhouetted arms sang hallelujah. The leaves clapped. Harry walked down Maple Street. Dark houses, the faint muffled dog bark, a settling tick tick of a foundation.” I won’t tell you how it ends, but the story continues to offer surprising turns, poetic language, eerie atmosphere, and even humor.
Cheryl Pappas is a writer from Boston. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The Bitter Oleander, Cleaver Magazine, Ploughshares blog, SmokeLong Quarterly, Tin House online, and Essay Daily. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars. She is currently working on a collection of fables. Her website is cherylpappas.net and you can follow her on Twitter at @fabulistpappas.
July 12, 2018 Fridge Flash
Editor’s Note: Today’s fridge flash comes from 8-year-old Shifa Asif, from Lahore, Pakistan.
Shifa Asif is eight years old and attends Beaconhouse Canal side campus, Lahore, Pakistan. Amongst her notable achievements, Shifa has won the post card art competition at the Broomhill Festival in Sheffield, Children University Bronze award, and swimming kingfisher award in UK 2014-2016. She also won best dress up for World book favourite character day certificate and WWF-Pakistan’s spellathon 2016-2017 certificate at LGS-JT, Lahore, Pakistan and was recently a runner-up in a poetry competition on poetry zone UK. She has published her work at ‘SmokeLong Quarterly Fridge Flash’, ‘poetry zone’, ‘scholastic’, ‘story jumper’, ‘Dawn Young World newspaper’, ‘Short-Stories-Help-Children.com and contributors.’ Shifa is an honorary President of Child Scholar’s Institute at Khan Bahadur Visionaries Welfare, where she encourages inclusive education. Shifa appeared amongst the top 100 students in the Kangroo spelling contest in Pakistan. Shifa has also taken part in sponsored bounce at Nether Green Infant School, Sheffield, UK.
July 5, 2018 Artist Spotlight
A work by painter Josh George illustrates this issue’s story from Jonathan Nixon, “Anywhere We’ve Ever Wanted.” Smokelong art director Alexander C. Kafka asked George about his experiences and inspirations, then invited him to play word association.
First off, thanks so much for contributing to SmokeLong Quarterly. Tell me about yourself. How old are you? What kind of family do you come from? Where do you live? Where are you from? When did you figure out you wanted to be an artist?
I keep thinking I’m 35 but my blotchy skin, bald spot, and creaky joints remind me that I’m 45. I come from a totally normal middle-class suburban family. We were all creative. My mom painted, my dad plays guitar and sings, my brother makes a living as a musician, and my sister is a great dresser, has nice hair, and plays a mean tambourine. I was always supported in my creative pursuits and always encouraged to make a professional go at them. I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. I went to art school there, got tired of seeing the same sights every day and was craving a more urban adventure, so I set off for New York City 18 years ago to wander the streets and paint city dwellers like my Ash Can heroes did. I knew I needed to make pictures at a young age when I drew demons and devils for my religious grandmother. She told me god gave me talent to draw fucked up stuff.
Much of your work is focused on the city and its dwellers. How did that come about?
I was never really interested in big, conceptual subject matter in my work. I am more interested in process, the narrative is not so important, though the city has so many stories and situations happening on every street corner and apartment. I like the textures and the never-ending nature of my surrounding city and I try to record the patterns and surfaces with an aggressive mixed-media approach. I like a sense of mystery in my mark making. I want to viewers to wonder, “How the hell did he do that?”
There’s such a feeling of bustle and busyness in your cityscapes. Is your mind like that? Always churning and zipping around? Or do you feel removed from your surroundings, more an observer, fascinated and distanced from the mayhem?
My mind is always jumping around and it gets frustrated because I can’t participate the way I used to in searching for an ideal life. Lately I have been doing urban aerial views that disappear into the horizon. I want to fly away from the city to the south of France and paint Hallmark Card landscapes of precious villages. So I guess I want both urban hustle and bustle and idealistic rural socialist living at the same time, including a two-hour nap each day.
You describe yourself as an urban realist. But you also have this whimsical side that comes out, especially, in your figure work. I’m thinking of paintings like Buddy Patrol, Giddyup Up Buttercup!, and The Wind Carried It in Its Belly, the City Nursed It. Those images still incorporate the city, but in a more mythical, ethereal vein. Can you explain to me the dichotomy between those two modes of work?
I say my work is not concept driven and is just a way to record my surroundings, but I do like storytelling even if there is no specific story. Holdovers for wanting to do comic books when I was younger maybe? But more likely I never get tired of painting my beautiful wife naked.
You paint in layers and include collage elements. For instance, in Giddy Up Buttercup!, it looks like we’re seeing some wallpaper or wrapping paper or some such integrated into the figure of the woman on the horse. What’s in there? How many layers? Do you make sketches, or under-paint, starting a work envisioning that kind of mix, or do you just kind of go with the creative flow of it as you work? Can you describe your process in a little more detail?
I plan out every image with some rough prototypes. I carry a sketchbook and draw for inspiration in planning works, I take a lot of photos and I invent a lot of imagery, since buildings are just shapes in perspective with a little bit of a light source. I do an under painting on wood panel then I collage over the entire surface with labels, wallpaper, ticket stubs, fabric, building up general forms in a controlled mess. I then paint over the collage elements with knifes, dragging and scrapping. Then I finish it all off with delicate brush work before a protective layer of varnish.
You’ve had a lot of gallery shows. Have you been able to make a living as an artist or have you worked simultaneous jobs?
So far so good. I’m in five different galleries around the country. I do a few solo shows a year and am involved in several group shows and a handful of art fairs. I have been teaching art now for 12 years.
What are your greatest inspirations?
Wine, death metal.
Who are your favorite artists?
Different each day but I always come back to Degas. I’m on a Ferenc Pinter and Henri Jean Guillaume Martin kick right now.
What’s your greatest fear?
Cancer, house burning down, alligators (or crocodiles).
What’s the dumbest thing you ever tried to do?
Become an artist and not a rock star.
Quick word association exercise. Don’t think—just write!
Shitty Marvel comics character
Nostradamus was full of shit and the people who believe him are idiots.
Basil is my favorite scent perhaps of all time. Thyme is too.
June 18, 2018 Playlists
Listen along to Issue 60’s playlist on Spotify!
K.C. Mead-Brewer, “The Cover-up” – “Maneater” by Lower Dens
Lower Dens is a bright star in Baltimore’s dream pop sky. I like their cover of “Maneater” as a complement to “The Cover-up” not only for the sexual humor and cover/cover-up connection, but because it’s such a strong reinterpretation of the original song’s intention: It isn’t about a super confident, super sexy woman anymore. Now it has an almost melancholy irony to it, the titular maneater lacking the self-confidence that the lyrics imply, never letting anyone get too close.
Joy Baglio, “A Boy Who Does Not Remember His Father” – “Fantaisie for Violin and Harp in A Major, Op. 124: V. Andante con moto” Camille Saint-Saëns, Ruggiero Ricci, Susanna Mildonian
The violin in this piece creates a mood that feels akin to both the boy’s flights of imagination, as well as the loneliness, the sadness, the absence he feels. There is both a playful sense of vibrancy as well as a constant yearning, which reflects the mood of the story and seems like an apt parallel to the boy’s dreamlike visions of his father.
Alvin Park, “Whale Fall” (Grand Prize Winner) – “Switzerland” by Soccer Mommy
I feel like this is a song that the narrator and She would hold in their hearts at some point. The wistfulness of hanging onto love, of wanting to get away from things and start over again.
Samantha Burns, “Dark Little Spaces” – “Trust” by Flume
I found this song when I started this piece, and while I don’t usually listen to music with lyrics when I’m writing, the strangeness of it matched the tone of the piece and helped me get in the right headspace to work on it.
Kerry Cullen, “Taking Notes” – “Amie” by Damien Rice
To me, the narrator’s journey in this story is very much a coming of age. The world around her has suddenly become unsafe, and she responds by trying to learn how to keep not only her, but her own guardian safe, by herself. She knows this progression is a part of life (“Nothing unusual, nothing strange”) but at the same time, she still feels it very deeply, and she feels the existential malaise of going through something that everyone goes through, eventually, but that is still very difficult for her. (“But I’m not a miracle/And you’re not a saint/Just another soldier/On the road to nowhere”)
Jonathan Nixon, “Anywhere We’ve Ever Wanted” – “Brand New Sun” by Jason Lytle
I think this song really captures the yearning for something new. If Lydia and Viv were ever to take their road trip, I imagine “Brand New Sun” playing loudly on the radio while wind whips through the car’s open windows.
Elaine Edwards, “Satellite” (Third Place Winner) – “Arctic” by Sleeping at Last
For an instrumental, it more than hits every beat that I try to here, the melancholy and the depth and a vital, generous wonder.
Kathryn McMahon, “The Color of the Sea at Noon” – “Sadness Don’t Own Me” by the Staves
“Sadness Don’t Own Me” by the Staves and my story are both about someone not recognizing themselves because of how pain has shaped who they’ve become. This person needs to face their fears in order to make their way back to themselves, though they doubt they’ll do it.
Theresa Hottel, “Haunt” – “Phantasmagoria in Two” by Tim Buckley
I listen to this song a lot while writing. It makes me feel restless and haunted.
Jonathan Cardew, “’I’m Ron McRain,’ said Ron McRain,” – “The Whitby Lad” by The Watersons
The lad in this song could easily be Ron McRain; Whitby is obviously Whitby; and the refrain, “Oh son oh son, what have you done?” has a repetitive circularity to it, much like the title. Also, it’s a teeny-bit a love story, I think, so this verse:
“Oh, there is a lass in Whitby town, a girl that I love full well/ And it’s if I had me liberty, along with her I’d dwell.”
Jennifer Wortman, “A Matter Between Neighbors” – “I Need You” by Nick Cave
Like many great love songs, “I Need You” is also a dirge; its tender nihilism captures something of the mood I hope to evoke with my story.
Sara Allen, “The Reader in the Square” – “Nice For What” by Drake
It’s a flipped kind of girl power anthem. To me it’s a song about women being “real” and ignoring the scrutiny of social media, which could also be seen as an extension of the male gaze. I think it’s also about the fierceness of women despite their vulnerability when they love. . . that Lauryn Hill hook is killer. Also this song contains a big stylistic nod to New Orleans where my story is set.
Lyndsie Manusos, “Everything There is to Love on Earth” – “Under Stars” by AURORA
I imagined the character Zoe listening to this song to as she contemplates and processes her parents’ absence. It has a seemingly uplifting beat, but when you listen to the lyrics, it strikes me as a song about being alone in the universe.
Jessica Cavero, “Blemish” – “I Will Never” by Sóley
I think about these girls staying together over the years and how tenuous the narrator’s sense of self might become. She might say to herself: “I love you, but it’s time to go. I will never ever be your woman.”
Josh Weston, “The Good Old Days” – “Weed Wacker” by Mark Kozelek
According to my wife, I’m not doing myself or anyone else any favors by contributing a Mark Kozelek song, but this is my current summer jam. It features a guy having an interaction with a stranger in a public place and having an existential crisis about it. Think of it as a flash lyric memoir set to a looped acoustic riff and enjoy.
Molia Dumbleton, “How Leopards Sleep” – “Father Kolbe’s Preaching” by Wojciech Kilar
June 7, 2018 Guest BloggerReviews
by Kim Kankiewicz
It takes audacity to write flash fiction, to assert that a few hundred words can carry the weight of a story. Memorable flash fiction offsets brevity with boldness, transgressing boundaries and embracing risk. Boldness and risk prevail in Tiny Crimes: Very Short Tales of Mystery & Murder (Black Balloon, June 2018), an anthology of flash fiction edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto. Bringing together forty established and emerging writers, Tiny Crimes features audacious writing about audacious deeds.
May 29, 2018 News Digests
Well, our first flash fiction contest was an overwhelming success! Thank you to the writers who participated. Nearly 1,200 of you submitted around 2,000 stories to our 15th-anniversary competition. That’s a massive party. As many fifteen-year-olds will tell you, feeling popular rules. Each time we opened one–or two–of your stories, we hoped we’d find something that would rip us apart, and the stories on the following lists did just that.
While only the finalists will be published in issue 60 of SmokeLong Quarterly, we found something gut-wrenching, innovative, disturbing, hilarious or challenging–something really great–in each of the stories on the long list as well. We’re sure these stories will find their way. Some will go on to win other competitions; some will end up in journals that we all love. They are all memorable.
Congratulations to our finalists and long-listers!
Look for Issue 60 on June 18, 2018, at which time we’ll announce our grand prize winner.
The Smokey Finalists
“The Reader in the Square” by Sara Johnson Allen
“A Boy Who Does Not Remember His Father” by Joy Baglio
“The Cover-up” by KC Mead-Brewer
“Dark Little Spaces” by Samantha Burns
“‘I’m Ron McRain,’ said Ron McRain” by Jonathan Cardew
“Blemish” by Jessica Cavero
“Taking Notes” by Kerry Cullen
“How Leopards Sleep” by Molia Dumbleton
“Satellite” by Elaine Edwards
“It’s Over” by Molly Giles
“Haunt” by Theresa Hottel
“The Groundskeeper” by Devin Kelly
“All the Other Dogs Screaming” by Devin Kelly
“Everything There is to Love on Earth” by Lyndsie Manusos
“The Color of the Sea at Noon” by Kathryn McMahon
“Anywhere We’ve Ever Wanted” by Jonathan D. Nixon
“The Loneliness of the Siberian Chipmunk” by Michelle Orabona
“Whale Fall” by Alvin Park
“Mother of God” by Ulf Pike
“I Went to the Tardigrade” by Eliezra Schaffzin
“The Good Old Days” by Josh Weston
“A Matter Between Neighbors” by Jennifer Wortman
The Smokey Long List
“Sow Season” by Michael Alessi
“Burnt Toast” by Patricia Anderson
“Inheritance” by Madeline Anthes
“The Hog Drive” by Gregory Ariail
“Walks Like a Lion” by Nancy Au
“Weight” by Mandy Beaumont
“Daughter Language, Footnotes” by April Bradley
“Marmalade” by Jacqueline Carter
“Sporks, Knorks, and A Little Splayd” by Elaine Chiew
“Palm Line Constellation” by Chloe Clark
“Out of the Fields” by Bryna Cofrin-Shaw
“The London Underground has 270 stations, alphabetically ‘Angel’ is number 6.” by Laura Danks
“Flotsam” by Leonora Desar
“In this fantasy I went to live with my therapist–” by Leonora Desar
“Alien Love” by Daniel DiFranco
“Pandora” by Paola Ferrante
“The Balloon Animal Artist Goes to a Funeral” by Jennifer Fliss
“Wrong Half” by Lindsay Fowler
“Playground” by Magda Gala
“Life After” by Frances Gapper
“Dutch” by Amina Gautier
“The Tainting of the Nook” by Sean Gill
“Yoga Binge” by Melissa Gutierrez
“Linger” by Matt Hall
“The Moths Came” by Elin Hawkinson
“Red Shoe Twitch” by Dustin M. Hoffman
“Comet” by Carlea Holl-Jensen
“Stray” by Jess Jelsma
“Magpies” by Ingrid Jendrzejewski
“A Sky Full of Sheep” by Len Kuntz
“A Purse on my Head” by Lita Kurth
“Under the Biggest Drop” by Ruth LeFaive
“Teeth” by Marysa LaRowe
“Honeymoon” by Robert Maynor
“Orchestration” by Ciera McElroy
“Embers” by Michael Minchin
“let’s throw a party” by Jono Naito
“Here Devils” by L.W. Nicholson
“Piddocks” by Nuala O’Connor
“A Tether, a Cord” by Wendy Oleson
“First Apartment in the City” by Jeanne Panfely
“good is all that is left of us” by Jesus Pena
“The Guillotine Reimagined” by Claire Polders
“Lessons” by Brian Randall
“The Electricity” by David Rhymes
“Adaptation” by James Smart
“The Venom Is the Juice” by Pete Stevens
“Pretty Things” by Jennifer Todhunter
“Turning Ash to Bone” by Emily Webber
“Blood Bag” by Chloe Wilson
“I’m Exaggerating” by Kate Wisel
“Shedding” by Tara Isabel Zambrano
May 23, 2018 Guest BloggerReviews
By Cheryl Pappas
In what other form can you find a story about old men floating up in the air, or a narrator’s deep dive into the word “glyph” as a way of coming to grips with the end of a love affair? I found myself ever grateful for the flexibility of the flash form when reading the new anthology Nothing Short of 100 (Outpost19, April 2018). Editors Grant Faulkner, Lynn Mundell, and Beret Olsen have compiled 117 little stories in this slim volume. The “tales,” as the editors call them, have been selected from six years (2012–17) of works published in the online journal 100 Word Story. (more…)
May 21, 2018 News Digests
Since I took over as editor in 2010, I hoped that one day we might be able to pay our contributors for their work. Today, I am thrilled to announce that we’ve finally made that a reality.
Thanks to the overwhelming success of our first-ever flash fiction contest, we’ve been able to raise enough funds to award our grand prize and to pay our finalists each $25 (up from the $15 we’d previously advertised).
In addition, we are excited to announce that moving forward, we can offer payment of $25 per story for contributors to our quarterly issues.
Now, while our staff is super excited about this development, we also recognize that $25 is nowhere near the value that should be placed on our amazing writers’ words. It’s a beginning—and one that we hope to grow on as we move forward in making SLQ the best publisher of flash fiction out there. However, being able to value artists’ work in some small way is, for us, an immense step forward and one that was a long time coming for us.
Our contest closed yesterday, and we are still working our way through all the wonderful entries to find our winners. Look for an announcement over the next week or so of all our long list honorees and our finalists! Our grand prize winner will be announced on June 18, which is when we will publish our 15th anniversary contest issue as well.
Thank you to the wonderful SLQ editors for their hard work and dedication to our magazine. Thank you to all the writers who made this contest an overwhelming success. I am continuously grateful to be part of such an amazing publication and community.
Editor, SmokeLong Quarterly
May 18, 2018 Interviews
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…)
May 8, 2018 Fridge Flash
Editor’s Note: Today’s story is by 4-year-old Sam, who is clearly channeling Kafka. His dad Marcus says that Sam told him the following story after building this awesome LEGO jail gate.
Before the Law, 2018
To get inside, you need the password. No one knows the password, so you have to press the button. There is no button. You need powers, but you don’t have any. Sorry.
Sam is four-and-a-half years old. He enjoys building with blocks and LEGOs, baking treats, and riding his bike. He cannot write words yet, but he can tell short, amazing stories.
May 2, 2018 Fridge Flash
Today’s Fridge Flash is from Nikhil Sampath, a young writer and cleaning warrior who strikes fear in the hearts of dust bunnies everywhere.
by Nikhil Sampath
Constellations on a carpet. They glimmer dark and gray. Use the vacuum with tough brushstrokes, deprive it of its liberation, from its viewpoint, you are an enemy. But you are just establishing your fortitude. You must not become Laissez-Faire with this enemy. You must defeat it. Down with carpet lint!
March 27, 2018 Playlists
Nine of our writers in Issue 59 contributed to our issue playlist. Their songs, stories, and the reasons they chose the tune follow. Listen below or on SmokeLong’s Spotify Channel!
“Reynardine” by Anne Briggs – Maia Jenkins, “History”
This Victorian English ballad has appeared in countless guises, but Anne Briggs’ a capella version matches the bare-bones dread I hope is evoked in “History.” The gruesome contrast between Briggs’ angelic soprano with the lyrics,”She followed him, his teeth so bright did shine. And he led her over the mountain, did the sly bold Reynardine,” is something I was trying to get at as I was writing. Really, the story–an enticing creature leads a young girl away to an ambiguously horrible fate–is the same as mine, and so many others, sadly.
“Caribbean Blue” by Enya – Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor, “Watch, Watching”
Enya’s songs help me meditate, fill me with so much joy and inner peace. I listened mostly to Caribbean Blue while writing “Watch, Watching.” The main character of the story loved the song on repeat, and I could happily live with that for the period that I worked on his story. Enya’s music (alone) inspires my art.
“No Witness” by LP – Daniel Myers, “Body Snatcher”
I don’t really know if the lyrics connect with my story at all, but I listened to this song a lot while I was working on this story. The pace of the song constantly shifts, and I think this influenced my story’s tone.
“The Neighbors” by Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers – Amber Sparks, “The Noises from the Neighbors Upstairs: A Nightly Log”
So perfectly apartment living.
“A Long Time Ago” by First Aid Kit – Dana Heifetz, “Drowned”
I selected this song for a very simple reason–my netmaker said that she loves it; if she weren’t who she is, she even might have sung it to her beloved drowned.
“Pilgrim” by Balmorhea – Zach Yontz, “Winter Light”
This song reminds me of flat, quiet Midwestern nights and the silence of two people together in a car.
“This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” by Talking Heads – Lori Sambol Brody, “The Sky is Just Another Neighborhood”
The song starts with a one minute musical sequence that sounds equally innocent and uneasy; then David Byrne sings of longing, resignation, love, and hope, a rumination on what is “home.” This theme and emotions reflect how I feel when I reread “The Sky Is Just Another Neighborhood.”
“Eat Your Heart Up” by The Blow – Emily Jane Young, “Parasomnia”
Maybe a little too on the nose? In choosing a song, I thought first of The Blow, because so many of their songs offer a unique take on heartbreak, and there is often a heavy beat, which you’d want for a song with a heart as the main character. I listened to this album a lot in college, and while I didn’t specifically have it in mind when I wrote “Parasomnia,” this song must have been at least a subconscious seed for the story, as it includes both images of wanting to eat “your” heart and also a heart walking around in the world.
“Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” (“Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”) by Claude Debussy – Sumita Mukherji, “Lifeline”
This tone poem from Debussy is a musical evocation of the poem “Afternoon of a Faun,” in which a half-man, half-goat creature delights in memories of forest nymphs. I love it for its impressionistic nature, as I thought of my piece in a series of images, beginning with the ending image.
February 5, 2018 News Digests
Do you have what it takes to write the best flash fiction we’ve ever seen? There’s $1500 on the line–both to celebrate SmokeLong Quarterly‘s 15th anniversary (yay!) and our first-ever flash fiction competition.
Starting February 5, 2018, our general submission queue will be transformed into a contest submission portal. For 15 weeks, we will be accepting only submissions for the inaugural SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction (the Smokey, if you will).
The winner will receive $1500, automatic nomination for The Best Small Fictions series, the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and other awards, publication in our 15th-anniversary Issue in June, and our undying love and devotion. At least 14 runners-up will also be published in the June 2018 contest issue–and each of the finalists will receive $15.
February 5 – April 29 $10, up to 2 stories
April 30 – May 20 $13, up to 2 stories
Money tight? Watch SmokeLong social media accounts for special days when entry will be free!
Entries will be read blind by members of the SmokeLong Quarterly staff.
Finalists will be accepted on a rolling basis throughout the contest period. A long list will be announced one week after the competition closes on May 20. The winner of the competition and at least 14 finalists will be announced on June 18, when all of the contest stories will be published in SmokeLong Quarterly’s 15th-anniversary Issue.
Stories must be original works and not have been previously published anywhere online or in print, including personal blogs.
Word count: Under 1000 words, excluding the title, per story. If you are submitting two stories, they must be submitted in the same document.
Anyone over 18 is eligible to enter, excluding SLQ staff and their families as well as former SLQ editors/staff. Former guest editors are welcome to enter.
All identifying information must be removed from the story and file name. The writer’s bio must appear ONLY in the cover letter, which is blind to the judges. If the author’s name appears anywhere in the story document, including the file name, the story will be disqualified and the submission fee will not be refunded.
You may submit as many times as you’d like during the contest period. All entries must be accompanied by the corresponding fee.
Simultaneous submissions are allowed, but we ask that you withdraw the entry immediately if the story is accepted elsewhere. If the entry is one of two stories submitted in the same document, withdraw the individual story by adding a note to the entry in Submittable. The submission fee will not be refunded.
February 1, 2018 News Digests
Submissions are live for The Smokey, so we’re already anticipating that some folks might have a few questions about the award and why the heck we’re doing it. Here is a handy guide (which may be updated as actual questions come our way) of all you’ve ever wanted to know about The Smokey. Enter through Submittable.
Why are you doing this?
Because we’re 15 now and we do what we want, regardless of what our parents tell us. And in celebration of those sweet 15 years, we decided it was time to hold a flash fiction contest. And give someone some money.
When will submissions open?
February 5, 2018. They will close May 20, 2018. Once submissions go live, we’ll post a link here.
Will I be able to submit to the general submission queue?
Not during the contest period. We are temporarily closing our general submission category during the contest so you don’t have to make a choice—and so we don’t get confused. Some of us on staff are old with bad knees and kind of scatterbrained and we like to streamline things to make it easier. Don’t worry, though—if you don’t want to pay the contest submission fees, we get it, and we’ll happily take your story submission on May 21 or beyond for free once the contest has concluded. We’ll also be offering free submission to the contest a day or two, here and there, but you have to follow us on Twitter @smokelong to find out when!
I have a story in your queue right now. Will it be considered for the contest?
No. All stories submitted before Feb. 5 will be considered as regular submissions to SmokeLong Quarterly. If you wish us to consider your story for the contest, you must withdraw it and resubmit the story in the contest submission category.
What’s the long list all about?
During regular submission periods, we sometimes find stories in our queue that we really like, but that just don’t quite make the cut for publication. We’ll often write to the authors of those stories letting them know that we really liked certain aspects of the piece and hope they submit again. We’ll do that again during the contest, but we also thought it would be nice to honor those folks in a bit more public way as well, hence the long list.
I’m a finalist. When will I know if I’ve won?
Congrats! If your story is accepted at all during the contest period, that means you’re automatically a finalist in the running for the grand prize of $1500. It also means that you’ll be published in our contest issue, quarterly #60, in June 2018. We will choose a winner from all our finalists and announce that winner publicly when the quarterly issue is published on June 18. We will probably let all the finalists know if they’ve won or not a few days before pub date.
I submitted once, but now I’ve written another awesome story. Can I submit again?
Yes. You may submit as many times as you’d like throughout the duration of the contest period, and include up to 2 stories in each submission packet. The appropriate fee must accompany each entry.
I was a guest editor for SmokeLong before. Am I eligible for the contest?
Absolutely! We welcome former guest editors and former contributors to apply, as well as newbies to SLQ. Former staff/editors at SLQ are not eligible. (They know too many of our secrets.)
January 24, 2018
We are beyond excited to introduce our 2018 Kathy Fish Fellow, Tochukwu Okafor. Recently, we asked him about his influences, his voice, and why he’s interested in flash fiction.
Interview by Allison Pinkerton
Welcome to SmokeLong! One of the things I learned as the 2017 Kathy Fish Fellow was to harness my voice, and to speak its truth loudly. Why does the writing world need your voice? (more…)
December 31, 2017 News Digests
As we close out an amazing year of flash fiction, I wanted to take a moment to thank all of our contributors—the writers who sent us their beautiful words, the artists who contributed their amazing work, the interviewers who brought the stories behind the stories to life, and most of all our guest editors, who read thousands and thousands of stories, helping us select the very best for our weekly publication.
I also want to thank the SmokeLong staff editors, who I’m grateful for every single day. Our staff is a kind of magic, and I feel very lucky to be among a group of smart, talented, thoughtful, kind, savvy writers and editors. Thank you for all you do.
And one final special shout-out to our 2017 Kathy Fish Fellow, Allison Pinkerton. We so enjoyed working with Allison this year and seeing the great stories come to life in both SLQ and other publications, and we are thrilled that she’ll be staying on to work with us in 2018.
And now, one final look-back before we set our sights on the new year. Here are the 10 most popular stories we published in 2017—and your chance to read them if you missed them the first time around.
- Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at that Point Fuck Them Anyway by Gwen Kirby
This was by far the most popular story of the year—getting more than triple the number of hits of any other story or blog we posted. Gwen’s story hit a nerve with a lot of folks, who shared and tweeted the link all throughout the year. We are not surprised. It’s a delight.
- I’m Such a Slut and I Don’t Give a Fuck by Jen Michalski
Is the secret sauce for popular stories having the ‘f’ word in the title? Nope. The secret sauce is writing a story that lingers and stirs—and this gem by Jen about an aging rock star does both.
- Wolves by Bud Smith
From guest editor Daniel DiFranco, who selected this story, “I picked ‘Wolves’ because of its strong lyrical voice, sense of whimsy, and command of storytelling. It’s an Aesop’s fable for the modern day.”
- All of Us Are in Pieces by Melissa Goode
“‘All of us are in pieces’ is outstanding,” said guest editor Mel Bosworth. “It’s quiet and precise and has great movement. Big things happen but the tone remains the same. It’s got a great hum to it.”
- Manatees by William Todd Seabrook
Guest editor Kim Winternheimer said, “‘Manatees’ does everything a good piece of flash should do: it tells a great story in an economical way. ‘Manatees’ explores a passive attitude about death. How easily a group can move on from losing a member and what that means for the individual who is lost. A great question. All of this in just under 300 words. Wow.”
- How to Be Another Person in Five Days by Rebecca Bernard
“This story struck me immediately, with its odd, imperative voice of instruction,” said guest editor Leslie Pietrzyk. “We’re offered an immediate narrative drive—what will happen in five days?—and writerly authority, as we never question why we might want to be another person in five days. I’m still not done with this story; I find something new to admire each time I read these words.”
- Missed Connections by Kevin Hatch
“I love how the character’s fantasy spirals in such weird, surprising ways that feel very true to the voice,” says Tia Clark, the guest editor who chose this story.
- Dream Barbie by Mamie Pound
Our staff editor Brandon Wicks fell in love with this whimsical piece, calling it “economical and punchy” and a “a humanizing and disturbing reflection of our current moment.”
- I Utide by Lone Vitus
From our Global Flash series, this Danish story was chosen by guest editor and translator Sinéad Quirke Køngerskov, who said, “This story captured my curiosity – we are a society obsessed with linear time. We are supposed to take advantage of every second, move forward like the clock and be “busy” all the time. When do we ever just ‘feel’ time like the author describes? The story offers the reader to pause and reflect like a little meditation. That resonated with me.”
- Good Boys by Tamara Schuyler
Staff editor Shasta Grant selected this story. “If a story could punch me in the gut, this one did. Somehow the writer managed to make my heart break for these two boys, even though they are doing such a terrible thing. Every sentence crackles with energy and heart.”
This coming year is shaping up to be a memorable one, with our 15th anniversary rapidly approaching, our new Kathy Fish Fellow Tochukwu Okafor, and more fabulous flash fiction. We’ll see you all at AWP and elsewhere. Keep up to date with all our news by signing up for our mailing list serv at http://eepurl.com/bkyV_D
December 18, 2017 Playlists
We’ve got an amazing issue for you this time–and a Spotify playlist to go along with it. After you’ve read the stories (or while you’re reading them!) check out the playlist hand-picked by our authors of songs that accompany their stories. (Note: Not all authors participated, so only select stories in the issue are represented by the playlist.)
Issue 58 Playlist Selections
Listen along here: open.spotify.com/user/smokelongquarterly/playlist/6N245OExhaXIMYSFZWpne0
“Shout” by Tears for Fears
(Caitlin Pryor, “Epistle from the Hospital of Strong Opinions” )
In my SLQ interview, Karen Craigo asked me what I would “shout in the courtyard,” as my character does, and the first thing that came to mind was Tears for Fears’ 1985 mega-hit, “Shout.” Tears for Fears co-founder Roland Orzabal has said that the song was not only a response to the writings of Arthur Janov, creator of primal scream theory (a popular 1970s psychotherapeutic approach that attempted to resolve trauma through catharsis or, in some cases, actual screaming) but also a Cold War-era incitement to protest politically and “Let it all out.”
“Gnossienne No. 1” by Erik Satie
(Charlotte Pattinson, “Brussels, 2004”)
Because I mention a piece of music in my story, I think it probably makes sense to have that be the song to accompany the story.
“Bad News from Home” by Randy Newman
(Geoff Kronik, “The Jumper”)
I think the song’s 1st-person singer and my story’s protagonist would relate to each other.
“All Kinds of Time” by Fountains of Wayne
(Jeff Ewing, “Parliament of Owls”)
I’ve always liked the multiple ways the football cliche “all kinds of time” can be read, and the suspension of time the song itself achieves. The moment captured is a glory days moment that automatically implies an unconstructive nostalgia. Tim’s disillusioned epiphany is hidden in there somewhere.
“You Are Never Alone” by Vic Chestnutt
(Steve Edwards, “Starlings”)
There’s a brokenness and humor and hope in Vic Chesnutt. What I love about this song in relation to “Starlings” is the litany of things—like taking pain meds or having an abortion—that are all, well, okay. You can keep on keeping on because you’re never alone. I imagine that’s part of what the narrator of my story is realizing about wanting to hang himself.
“The Evening Descends” by Evangelicals
(Pete Segall, “I Thought I Knew the Answer for a Minute”)
Here’s a track that’s barely three minutes long and feels like three or four different songs. Each one seems like it should be goofy, lite punk – but every time it’s on the verge of tipping into frivolity… it just doesn’t.
“I’ll Fly Away” by Gillian Welch & Alison Krauss
(Lee Reilly, “Pastor Bob’s Picnic”)
“Teenage Dreams” by Moniker
(Jeremy Packert Burke, “Miller Time”)
At the heart of my story is this desire to grow up faster, to skip the pain of teenage years and revel in adulthood before that innocence is lost. In Moniker’s song, there are some wonderful reflections on the pain of this, the interplay between having too much fun to worry much and worrying too much to have much fun; a lot of the same concern of my story is caught in the lines ‘These days I think I know who I am/I wish I knew who I was going to be’
“Saltbreakers” by Laura Veirs
(Josh Jones, “The Cartographers”)
I love its oceanic imagery and upbeat, celebratory tone that complements the sense of mystery and hope in my piece.
“An Ending, A Beginning” by Dustin O’Halloran
(Cheryl Pappas, “Nature.”)
Besides the aptness of the title, this song seemed perfect to me because it’s plaintive and simple, which captures the essence of my story.
“For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” by Sufjan Stevens
(Carolyn Nims, “New Yorker Story About Michigan”)
This was an obvious choice. But also, its loveliness undercuts the story’s darkness, and its rawness echoes some of the more ragged emotions in the story.
“That’s the Spirit” by Judee Sill
(Julian K. Jarboe, “The Heavy Things”)
“How We Quit the Forest” by Rasputina
(Tessa Yang, “Princess Shipwreck”)
To me this song sounds like a spooky fable. It’s about choosing to turn away from the familiar, because the familiar isn’t actually what it seems.
“Hard Times (No One Knows Better Than I)” by Ray Charles
(Jonathan Nixon, “Our Father”)
In my story, a Ray Charles record can be heard playing throughout the house. I feel the song “Hard Times” not only fits the mood of the piece, but also takes on the role of the father’s voice.
“The Last of the Famous International Playboys” by Morrissey
(John Meyers, “1922 Roma Airship Disaster Tattoo”)
I was listening to Bona Drag quite a bit when I wrote the story and imagined that the hero would likely have been a big fan of this song. I’ll leave it to readers to interpret the connection.
“Night Ferry” by Anna Cline
(Allison Pinkerton, “Zelberg”)
Anna Clyne’s orchestral composition “Night Ferry” (2012) pairs well with my story “Zelberg,” which focuses on a cellist who has sprinkled his wife’s ashes all over the orchestra pit. When I listened to “Night Ferry,” I got an ominous feeling, and the strings sounded like swarming bees. “Zelberg” is told in the first-person plural. The collective voice details the orchestra’s attempts to protect Zelberg from the police, who’ve been summoned after an audience member notices the ashes and mistakenly assumes Zelberg’s a terrorist.
December 18, 2017 News Digests
Congratulations to Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor, our 2018 Kathy Fish Fellow and virtual writer-in-residence! We are so excited to bring his work to SmokeLong Quarterly and are thrilled to work with him in the upcoming year.
This year we also would like to name Latifa Ayad as an honorable mention, as we were particularly impressed by her application packet.
Tochukwu is a Nigerian writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Litro Magazine, and is forthcoming in Harvard University’s Transition Magazine. His No Tokens story, “Some Days,” has been nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize. He has been nominated twice for the Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction, with his stories, “Leaving,” appearing in Short Story Day Africa’s anthology, Migrations: New Short Fiction from Africa, and “All Our Lives” forthcoming in the anthology, ID: New Short Fiction from Africa. His Warscapes story, “Colour Lessons,” featured in Columbia Journal, The Cantabrigian, and Volume 1 Brooklyn, has been shortlisted for the Problem House Press Short Story Prize (2016) and nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize. His Open Road Review story, “Spirit,” featured in Juked, has been shortlisted for the 2016 Southern Pacific Review Short Story Prize. In 2014 he was awarded the Comptroller Charles Edike Prize for Outstanding Essays. He is an alumnus of the 2015 Association of Nigerian Authors Creative Writing Workshop and the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Writing Workshop, and a two-time recipient of the Festus Iyayi Award for Excellence for Prose and Playwriting (2015/2016).
Tochukwu is also a 2018 Rhodes Scholar finalist. He graduated with a cumulative grade point of 4.95 (out of 5.0) as the best graduating student in the Department of Electrical/Electronic Engineering and the whole of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Benin, Benin city. He is a programmer, an android developer, and has delivered talks at the TEDx and World Speech Day events.
You can read Tochukwu’s SLQ stories starting in our March 2018 issue.
We received more than 200 applications this year, and once again we were blown away by the quality of the stories.
Thanks again to our finalists Rebekah Bergman, Megha Krishnan, Lyndsie Manusos, Kathryn McMahon, Alice Mercier, Rachel Richardson, Michael Sarinsky, and Elisabeth Ingram Wallace.
December 11, 2017 News Digests
Good news! We have 10 finalists for our 2018 Kathy Fish Fellowship. Out of more than 200 applications, these 10 writers really stood out for their originality and talent. Which makes our job very difficult in choosing a winner. We’d like to congratulate and honor these 10 writers for their accomplishment.
The finalists are:
Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor
Elisabeth Ingram Wallace
We hope to make a final decision about the winner of the fellowship in the next week. Congratulations to all our finalists, and thank you to all the writers who submitted to the contest this year. We’ve been truly stunned by the talent in the queue.
November 18, 2017 News Digests
The holidays seem to begin earlier and earlier every year. This year, for us, they’re starting right now. SmokeLong Quarterly is thankful for the opportunity to have published these stories (two are coming out in December actually, so you’ll have to wait a while on those). They all in some way add to and further the art of flash fiction, which is a gift to the entire literary community.
Thank you to everyone who sends work to us. We’re always excited to read your best flash fiction, and we love this time of year when we can spread some love. We wish we could nominate every single story we publish, and we’re always looking for more ways to promote the writers who trust us with their work. Congratulations to everyone on the lists below.
“I’m Such a Slut and I Don’t Give a Fuck” by Jen Michalski
“Good Boys” by Tamara Schuyler
“Filthy, Polluted” by Raul Palma (forthcoming in December 2017)
“Popcorn” by Andrew Mitchell
“The Jumper” by Geoff Kronik (forthcoming in December 2017)
“Filthy, Polluted” by Raul Palma (forthcoming in December 2017)
“Sour Toe” by Justin Herrmann
“Gravity, Reduced” by Kara Oakleaf
“Manatees” by William Todd Seabrook
We wish you all tons of success. You are all stars!
October 31, 2017 News Digests
Here are some spooky tales from our archives to get you in the Halloween holiday spirit.
- The Dead Are Not Hungry by Justin Lawrence Daugherty
Zombies like you’ve never seen zombies before. Also paired with possibly the best piece of artwork we’ve ever run at SmokeLong.
2. Working Halloween for Christmas Money by John Minichillo
The insiders guide to those cheesy haunted hayrides and houses and corn mazes you scared yourself silly at when you were a teen.
3. Laura Palmer’s Bar and Grill by Andrew F. Sullivan
Especially fitting to re-read this one after the new season of Twin Peaks this year. A trippy, Lynch-like fan tribute to the mysterious Laura Palmer.
4. The Sadness of Spirits by Aimee Pogson
A Ouija board. Some lonely ghosts. A little boy. What could go wrong?
5. The Horrors by Joseph Lucido
Is it bad luck or something more sinister at work? The voice in this piece is so compelling it pulls you along, even as you dread what’s coming next.
6. Last Seen Leaving by Laura Ellen Scott
When Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington went missing after a Metallica concert, Laura Ellen Scott decided to explore what might’ve happened to her. Now that her killer has been convicted, this story has an even more chilling facet to it.
7. The Eleventh Floor Ghost by Megan Giddings
A haunted hotel with all sorts of ghosts trying to find their identities. This is a whimsical, fun piece from our former Kathy Fish Fellow.
8. The Rise of the Witch–A Fridge Flash by Stella Urbanski
This Fridge Flash by kindergartener Stella fits our theme and has original art to boot!
9. An Old Woman with Silver Hands by A.A. Baliskovits
A.A. Baliskovits is a master of retelling and reinventing classic fairy tales, and this is no exception.
10. Monarchs by Andrew Wehmann
Here’s a world where in order to survive, you must keep killing.
11. Bait by Amy Sayre Baptista
That creepy man on the side of road? Just what are his intentions?
12. Under the Dark by Dawn Bailey
Daddy tells you to go crawl under the porch. Do you go?
13. The Woodcutter’s Wife by Ben Black
A creepy retelling of Hansel and Gretel.
October 3, 2017 Fridge Flash
Today’s Fridge Flash is from Evie McClinch, who narrated this piece during one of her many imaginative play sessions. Her mom transcribed it as originally told, read it back to her, and solicited her edits. Evie is a true editor in the making! (more…)
September 29, 2017 Reviews
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…)
September 18, 2017 News Digests
Issue 57 of SmokeLong Quarterly comes with a whole new sensory experience. We’ve created a Spotify playlist for Issue 57, so you can listen to music that’s been paired with each story in the issue.
The songs were chosen by each author, and our associate editor Meghan Phillips curated the playlist order for your listening pleasure. If you do listen and read, let us know about your experiences!
Here’s the playlist:
“Cool Slut” by Chasity Belt (Jen Michalski, “I’m Such a Slut and I Don’t Give a Fuck”)
“Catch a Wave” by The Beach Boys (Todd Seabrook, “Manatees”)
“Blood in the Cut” by K.Flay (Didi Wood, “Husking”)
“Texas Never Whispers” by Pavement (John Jodzio, “Floodplain”)
“I Want You to Want Me” by Cheap Trick (James Claffey, “Sins of Omission”)
“Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills & Nash (Tim Fitts, “Belly”)
“Otherside” by Red Hot Chili Peppers (Jane Blunschi, “San Miguel”)
“Levitation” by Beach House (Nikalus Rupert, “Fragore”)
“Every Breath You Take” by The Police (Cheyenne Autry, “Sexting”)
“Jackrabbit” by San Fermin (Kaely Horton, “”Apology Note To My Roommate Irene After My Chimaera Destroyed Her Blue Suede Heels”)
“I’m Done” by The Julie Ruin (Caitlyn GD, “What We Do For Work”)
“September Fields” by Frazey Ford (Tina Hall, “The Extinction Museum…”)
“Getting Ready to Get Down” by Josh Ritter (Allison Pinkerton, “St. Zelda’s”)
“Time Forgot” by Connor Oberst (Melissa Goode, “All of Us Are In Pieces”)
“Ode to Divorce” by Regina Spektor (Robyn Groth, “Still Life with Hairball”)
“Every Single Night” by Fiona Apple (Monica Lewis, “Night Run”)
“There Is a Light the Never Goes Out” by The Smiths (Skylar Alexander, “The Unicorn”)
September 6, 2017 Guest BloggerNews Digests
Editor’s note: We are fortunate to have Tara L. Masih, founding series editor for the Best Small Fictions anthology, guest blog for us this week. Tara takes a look at some of her favorite endings from flash fictions included in the BSF series.
Anyone who studies or participates in writing sudden, flash, or micro fiction knows the importance of a great ending. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow so accurately said: “Great is the art of the beginning, but greater is the art of the ending.” Longfellow, who mostly published poetry and translated some of the world’s greatest writers, understood that leaving the reader with an indelible image or deep new understanding makes for a more powerful and resonant reading experience. In other words, exiting a story well is more important than how we enter. And it may be more difficult to achieve. With that in mind, here are my top choices for perfect endings from the Best Small Fictions series. Needless to say, choosing was a hard task. I believe every story in each volume accomplishes what Longfellow emphasizes, but these six have something extra special.
2015, guest edited by Robert Olen Butler:
This flash is a one-paragraph tour de force that hits the reader hard with a strong opening, then takes the reader on a journey that’s both internal and external. Strayer avoids the expected narrative direction that a victim story might normally take and moves us toward a conclusion that reaches above the victim’s, and our, basic instincts. “Let’s Say” was mentioned in many reviews and I think that’s a testament, of course, to the story as a whole but also to its powerful ending.
2. “The Garden Sky,” by Dave Petraglia, originally published in Necessary Fiction (Nov. 26, 2014)
One of the hardest things to do in any genre, but especially within the confines of flash, is to tackle subjects as large and complex as race relations, bias, and guilt of the conqueror/invader. Petraglia manages to cover all of these heavy themes in two pages. His narrator is a white businesswoman admiring a young female Vietnamese civil engineer during a work lunch. A lunch discussing apps that recognize bombs, which are unearthed and cleaned and sold in markets. Bomb is a heavy word in this story, with multiple layers of meaning for both parties. The ending is a masterful, poetic rewind of the bombs that fell on the engineer’s country, injuring her father. It’s tortuous because we cannot do rewinds on dropped bombs, and I think the ending helped put this story on many readers’ lists of favorites.
2016, guest edited by Stuart Dybek:
3. “Bug Porn,” by Robert Scotellaro, originally appeared in What We Know So Far (Blue Light Press)
Leaving readers with a strong visual image is one way to ensure they will remember your story. In this humorous Micro, Scotellaro uses visual interplay between a husband and wife to set up a strong statement. A daddy longlegs, squished on the ceiling, is not just a dead bug. Scotellaro narrows the focus of vision to a single insect leg, which angled just so, looks like a “forward slash. With all of the surrounding grammar missing.” The power is in the image, and in the space around the image, as it relates to the couple’s marriage.
4. “The Story, Victorious,” by Etgar Keret, originally appeared in Flash Fiction International (W. W. Norton)
Another humorous ending. Or is it an ending? Keret fools the reader into thinking he or she has reached one ending, but then produces another. Masterful and original, and got him recognition in the venerable Flash series.
2017, guest edited by Amy Hempel:
- “Sea Air,” by Matt Sailor, originally appeared in Five Points, Vol. 17, No. 3
Sailor’s brief almost post-apocalyptic story proves that an ending can be very simple, yet still be powerful. His final line is a fragment of just five words: “A tangle of disturbed sheets.” It’s both visual and metaphorical. Each word chosen carefully. This editor appreciated every word and nuance. The reader will, too.
- “In Our Circle,” by Kimberly King Parsons, originally from NANO Fiction, Vol. 10
Parsons’ ending is not only visual, but tactile. She manages to literally mold an ending that invests lumps of clay with Freudian symbolism and her narrator’s deepest thoughts and flaws. This little story is already getting attention in reviews. She has a great beginning, but an even greater ending.
For other great endings, see the individual stories recommended by the Flash Field Guide authors and editors in the downloadable PDF at Rose Metal Press’s website. The PDF will be available later this fall.
Tara Lynn Masih is editor of two ForeWord Books of the Year, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays, and is author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows. Her flash appears in many anthologies, including Flash Fiction Funny, Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comic and Prose, and W. W. Norton’s forthcoming New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, and was featured in Fiction Writer’s Review for National Short Story Month. Additional awards include The Ledge Magazine’s Fiction Award, the Lou P. Bunce Creative Writing Award, a Wigleaf Top 50 and a Neville Award citation, and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web nominations. She is Founding Series Editor for The Best Small Fictions annual anthology and received a finalist fiction grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
August 1, 2017 Fridge Flash
The kids in Oliver Jones’ first grade class were instructed to imagine a story that took place outside of their school. They were to include at least one real element they have observed outside. Oliver chose to include squirrels in his story. He hasn’t observed any robots on the school grounds but he hasn’t given up hope.
June 29, 2017 Fridge Flash
Today’s Fridge Flash is from nine-year-old Ethan. Ethan shares a poignant story about love, loss, and childhood friendships that last a lifetime.
By Ethan Hampel
Jone was standing outside his house with the pointy roof. Up in the pointy roof was nothing. But he, he didn’t think that was right. His whole house was empty but it was so full. But his heart was empty. His house only had him to live in it. He remember 20 years ago when he was 30. Back then he was married. The girl was Sharlet Amy Shewats. He thought back to when they were good friends when he was 11 and she was 10. They were on the playground.
“Umm… so how many times have you been on the slide” She would say.
He would say “ 9 19 29 39 49 59 69 79 89 I don’t know should I have been keeping track. Mabey 99.” He said every time she would ask.
One day she wasn’t there to ask him how many times he had gone down the slide. He got off the slide and looked around. The last place he looked was behind the school. There he saw her being bullied by a bunch of idiots.
He said “ Hey back of you…you…Idiots you shouldn’t be bullying anybody.” “Who you callin a-” The main one started. But before he could say anything else, he hit him. Square in the nose. Then he looked at him. You could tell he got teary eyes. He left. He was so proud of that one time. But Sharlet died of a heart attack. He had blamed himself for that every day. He thought he could do something but the truth was nobody could have done anything. But he thought of not going back.
Ethan Hampel was 8 when he wrote this and is currently 9. He lives with his parents and big sister Madelyn and attends school with his big sister all in Wichita, Kansas.
June 27, 2017 Guest Blogger
June 24 was National Flash Fiction Day in the U.K. Although the festival is over, we at SmokeLong Quarterly would like to party one more day. In celebration, we asked several amazing writers of flash fiction to share a top ten list of flash favorites on a topic of their choice. On our final day of celebration, SmokeLong’s Kathy Fish Fellow, Allison Pinkerton, shares her top ten flashes exploring the distance between children and adults.
June 26, 2017 Guest Blogger
June 24 was National Flash Fiction Day in the U.K. Although the festival across the pond is over, we at SmokeLong Quarterly would like to keep the party going for a few more days.
In celebration, we asked several amazing writers of flash fiction to share a top ten list of flash favorites on a topic of their choice. SmokeLong contributor, Claire Polders, has a story featured in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology, Sleep Is A Beautiful Colour. Today, she shares her favorite flash stories featuring (dead) fathers.
by Claire Polders
This year’s theme for the National Flash Fiction Day anthology was “Life as you know it.” I interpreted that as autobiographical writing, and whenever I turn toward my own life for inspiration, I often end up writing about my father, who died way too young. The small piece I submitted to the anthology, “Swing State,” was accepted (thank you Tino, Meg, and Calum!) and reading it back in the proofs, I wondered what other flashes were out there dealing with fathers, dead or alive. Here are some of my favorites:
“My Father Took Me To Watch” by Mai Nardone (published by Tin House, the Open Bar).
Mai Nardone’s story startled me with its first sentence in which the callousness of a father is portrayed. And there was a lot more to discover as I read on. About the responsibility of being a first-born. About what it means to keep secrets from your “noosed mother.” A cruel but beautiful read.
“Letter to a Funeral Parlor” by Lydia Davis (published in The Collected Stories Of Lydia Davis, excerpt made available by NPR).
Lydia Davis is a huge inspiration for me, so a list without one of her stories would seem incomplete. In this flash, she expresses the anguish of grief by focusing on the absurdity of the way we deal with death in our society. Who can disagree with her when she writes: “Cremains sounds like something invented as a milk substitute in coffee, like Cremora, or Coffee-mate.”
“Sometimes My Father Comes Back from the Dead” by Steve Edwards (published in SmokeLong Quarterly)
It’s hard not to love a good ghost story. What I admired in Steve Edward’s flash was the optimism in the narrator’s voice and the perceived innocence of his father’s presence. It made me wish my own father would drop by sometimes so I could love him without reserve for the man he was.
“Relic” by Aubrey Hirsch (published in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts)
I selected this story by Aubrey Hirsch because of its seducing reticence. By focusing on a dining room table, the narrator tells us about her father’s tragedy and her response to it. It’s a talent to let something as hard as wood reveal so much emotion.
“Father’s Return from War. Topics” by Horia Gârbea (published by Words Without Borders)
What can you know about a father who goes to war when you stay behind as a child? What can you imagine? In this ingenious story by Horia Gârbea, I was treated to nine versions of a history that left me wondering how many of them were mutually exclusive.
“Timbre and Tone” by Sudha Balagopal (published by Jellyfish Review)
In Sudha Balagopal’s flash about a father’s funeral she brilliantly shows the mystery our parents are to us. Here’s a daughter who tries to figure them out, pin them down, so that by her understanding their actions might hurt her less. But in the end, they keep surprising her, which, surprisingly, comes as a relief.
“Empire State Building” by James Yates (published by matchbook)
Should we hate or love our fathers for their lies, their exaggerations, their obsessions? In this touching story by James Yates, in which more is said than written, I was left pondering that interesting question.
“The Hand That Wields The Priest” by Emily Devane (published by Bath Flash Fiction Award)
In Emily Devane’s story an entire relationship between a father and his daughter is transformed by one well-chosen scene. “That night, his hand felt different on my head.” I felt it, too.
“Candles” by Paul Maliszewski (published by Gulf Coast)
Stories about fathers are often about authority. Paul Maliszewski strikingly shows how a son deals with the authority of both church and father and finds invisible ways to be defiant.
“Reunion” by John Cheever (published in The Stories of John Cheever and anthologized in Sudden Fiction)
I’m not a son and my father was the opposite of the man in John Cheever’s story, but when reading this flash I am that young man, so excited to meet with my father and in the end so… oh, just read it.
Plus One. Are they flashes or chapters of a novel? Whatever they are, Justin Torres writes beautifully about fathers in We the Animals. An excerpt, “Heritage,” was published by Granta.
Claire Polders is a Dutch author of four novels with a debut in English on the way. Her short prose most recently appeared in TriQuarterly, The Offing, Connotation Press, New World Writing, Necessary Fiction, Cheap Pop, and elsewhere. You can find her at @clairepolders or www.clairepolders.com.
June 23, 2017 Guest Blogger
June 24 is (Inter)National Flash Fiction Day. In celebration, SmokeLong Quarterly asked several amazing writers of flash fiction to share a top ten list of flash favorites on a topic of their choice. SmokeLong contributor, Gay Degani, has a story featured in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology, Sleep Is A Beautiful Colour. Today, she shares her favorite flash stories featuring cars.
June 22, 2017 Guest Blogger
June 24 is National Flash Fiction Day in the United Kingdom. When we learned that flash fiction has its own day of celebration in the U.K., we at SmokeLong Quarterly wanted to participate in the festivities, especially since many of our beloved contributors are included in the National Flash Fiction anthology, Sleep Is A Beautiful Colour.
One of those contributors, Santino Prinzi, is a co-director and editor for the anthology. In celebration of (Inter)National Flash Fiction Day, we asked Santino and a few other amazing flash writers to give a list of their top ten favorite flash fiction stories on a topic of their choosing. Over the next few days we will be posting those lists in celebration. Enjoy and Happy Flash Fiction Day!
June 19, 2017 Artist Spotlight
Ashley Inguanta, a SmokeLong Quarterly contributing artist for seven years and its art director for six, will be stepping down from the art director role after this issue to concentrate on her art, writing, teaching, and yoga practice in Florida. Her latest poetry book, Bomb, was published last year. You can see her photographs here. Our current art director, Alexander C. Kafka, asked her about her experiences with SmokeLong and her plans. (more…)
May 2, 2017 Fridge Flash
Today’s Fridge Flash comes from seven-year-old Shifa Asif, who extols the beauties of nature.
By Shifa Asif
You give us cool air and oxygen,
And they are very beautiful, (more…)
April 27, 2017 Why Flash Fiction Series
By Dana Diehl
As a kid, one of my favorite pastimes was looking at old photographs of my family. My parents had five photo albums stored at the top of the hallway closet, too heavy for me to get down by myself, with dark covers and no labels. Five albums filled with pictures of me, pictures of my brother, pictures of my parents’ childhoods and their lives together before my brother and I were born. I would sit cross-legged in the hallway, my feet going numb against the hardwood floor, turning the thick pages, satisfied by the flop they made in my lap. (more…)
April 19, 2017 Interviews
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.
April 5, 2017 Fridge Flash
Today’s Fridge Flash comes from four-year-old Sherdil Asif, who shares his tale of a spider taking a ride!
by Sherdil Asif
The spiderman was going in a Volkswagon. He was happy happy.
March 29, 2017 Fridge Flash
Today’s Fridge Flash comes from six-year-old, Esben Møller Semmel. This cautionary tale is full of phonetic fun and is poetic in structure. Be careful of duks!
by Esben Møller Semmel
a duk swam in the water
the duk landed in the water
the duk splashed water on me
the duk saw me
the duk floo too me
the duk was mad at me.
Esben Møller Semmel is a six-year-old kindergartner. He likes to draw and write stories and play baseball. When he grows up he wants to play professional baseball for one of these teams: St. Louis Cardinals, Toronto Blue Jays, Minnesota Twins, Baltimore Orioles, and Detroit Tigers. Those are the only teams he will play for.
March 20, 2017 News Digests
Congratulations to Bath Flash Fiction on their first anthology: To Carry Her Home: Bath Flash Fiction, Volume One! To celebrate flash from the UK and around the world, SmokeLong Quarterly is giving away 5 copies of the Bath Flash Fiction anthology. Details on how to win below.
March 2, 2017 Why Flash Fiction Series
For Raymond Carver
By Len Kuntz
He was already dead when I found him. There was no one to call. My stomach filled with acid, my head spun. So I sat down, right there in the bookstore row, and read—This Is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love—until my eyes bled.
I was spellbound.
This was before flash fiction even had a name.
Others had known him before me, and I found this disappointing. Couldn’t someone have introduced us? How is any fair writer supposed to make their way without Ray?
February 22, 2017 Fridge Flash
In this week’s Fridge Flash, eleven-year-old Irene Meklin shares a story about the end of school days, jelly donuts, sleepovers, throwing rubber lizards, and the exhilarating exhaustion of childhood. We are excited to share this story from this talented young writer whose name we are certain to see again in the decades to come.
By Irene Meklin
Time is something that will not do your bidding. When you are waiting for something, it goes unbearably slow, and if you don’t want to go somewhere or do something it smiles and runs away from you at a mile a minute, grinning. I thought as I watched the clock. It seemed to slow down and dwell on one minute, one second even. Tick-tock, it went, as if it knew that I was waiting for it. Move! Move! I told it. Don’t you ever get tired of standing in one place? Move! Move, move, move! Finally, it struck two fifty. Only ten minutes left! Those ten minutes felt like ten hours. I zoomed out of what the teacher was saying, daydreaming about what was sure to happen that night. Then I noticed that everyone was packing up.
I stood up and got my stuff. I met Kesenia, my classmate, outside. We waited for her mother and when her mother arrived, we picked up Kes’s sister, Eliana. We drove to Krispy Kreme’s to get jelly donuts, since it was one of the nights of Hanukkah, also the last day of school before winter break in case you want to know. I remember clearly what flavors the donuts were. Some were maple, some chocolate with sprinkles, some glazed with jam, and some custard-filled. After that, we drove to Kesenia’s house. I remember that ride: Kes’s mother tried to make conversation as we drove on to her house in the rain.
February 16, 2017 Why Flash Fiction Series
By Kara Vernor
Not all of us drop from the womb writers. In 1991, when I was seventeen, none of the books I read—Vonnegut, Kerouac, Nin—made me feel as connected to the world as the music I listened to, as Courtney Love in a slip dress screaming: “Is she pretty from the inside/Is she pretty from the back.” That was all I needed, really, that emotional quick fix, those urgent jabs on the electric guitar. Plus, unlike reading and writing, which I did alone in my room, music brought me into contact with Real Live People—in gushing talk of mutual fandom, through traded mix tapes, at live shows in boiling pits of longhaired boys. So it was with modest expectations that I went with my overage boyfriend one winter night to see some old musician named Jim Carroll perform “spoken word.” Not written? Not sung?
January 31, 2017 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Mike Minchin discusses Edward Falco’s story “Koi” and how this introduction to flash changed his writing. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Mike Minchin
I knew very little of flash fiction until about six years ago, when I happened to be reading The Southern Review and came across Edward Falco’s “Koi.” I was struck first by the brevity of the piece, barely more than a page, and I thought, Oh, how short. Such was my ignorance of the form and its possibilities. I had loved poetry for years, but I thought of fiction as mostly a long-winded creature. I was, at the time, attempting to compress my sprawling, almost novella-length stories into something remotely publishable, which is to say I needed to chop off ten or twenty thousand words from most of my stories. And so, I was overdue for a lesson in concision.
January 30, 2017 News Digests
You may have noticed in the last two issues of SmokeLong Quarterly that things were a bit less Anglo than usual. In September 2016 we published Rupprecht Mayer’s “Aufgaben: ein Triptychon,” translated from German by Christopher Allen (that’s me), and in December Timba Bema’s “Accident,” translated from French by Michelle Bailat-Jones. And we’re just getting started.
In the March issue of SmokeLong we’ll be running a story in Danish translated by guest editor Sinéad Quirke Køngerskov, in summer a Spanish story translated by guest editor Cecilia Llompart. You can read all of this on the Global Flash Series page.
Writers and readers in French will be thrilled–and we are also thrilled–that Michelle Bailat-Jones is remaining with SmokeLong to become our French editor. Submissions have now reopened and will remain open on a rolling basis. Michelle Bailat-Jones is looking forward to your best work in French. Welcome, Michelle! We are excited to have you on board.
We have also decided to reopen German submissions—also los! Schick mir etwas! This means that now SmokeLong is always open to submissions in English, French and German.
I would also like to welcome our newest Global Flash Series guest editor. John Obwavo is co-founding editor of Kikwetu: A Journal of East African Literature and has published fiction and 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.
John will be reading submissions in Swahili starting June 1, 2017. He will consider submissions for the September 2017 issue of SmokeLong. If you know someone who writes in Swahili, please make sure they know about this opportunity.
Translators, if you are interested in guest editing for SmokeLong, please contact us. Ideally, you’ll have translation experience. You should also be well connected to your literary community in the target language, and you should be familiar with the kind of work SmokeLong publishes. If you’re not familiar with SmokeLong, just have a look at our archives.
January 26, 2017 Why Flash Fiction Series
This “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from Michelle Elvy shares what Debussy, beasts, birds, and the sea reveal about flash fiction. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
When I was a kid, I studied classical piano. I played the requisite Bach and Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms, sure. But my favourite works, hands down, were Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Russian Easter (Suite No.1 for Two Pianos, op.5 mov.4) and Claude Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair, also known as Prélude No 8). I played Russian Easter with my two-piano partner; the relentless ringing of those bells rumbled my soul. The composer said he had written the suite to paint a picture – and I believed it. At around three minutes, it was demanding and challenging. It required control and focused energy. It told a story in a short interval with a bang – that piece, more than any other we played, was the very embodiment of intensity and precision.
January 11, 2017 Reviews
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.
January 4, 2017 Reviews
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.
December 20, 2016 Fridge Flash
In this week’s Fridge Flash, ten-year-old Nikhil Sampath shares an homage to our most important writing utensil, the pencil.
By Nikhil Sampath
In every pencil there is a story waiting to unfold. I as a writer have to let it unfold. When I write I let it come through without any thought. All hail—the Great Pencil.
December 19, 2016 News Digests
Congratulations to Allison Pinkerton, our 2017 Kathy Fish Fellow and writer-in-residence at SmokeLong Quarterly. Allison’s application packet blew us away with its originality and sense of play. We are thrilled to get to work with her over the next year.
Allison has an MFA from the University of Central Florida. Her work is forthcoming from Image, received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train, and has appeared online at The Pinch, the Ploughshares blog, and elsewhere. She teaches at the University of Central Florida, loves to travel, and is currently listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat.
You can read Allison’s SLQ stories starting in our March issue.
We received a record number of submissions this year—396—and were truly stunned by the talent within. In addition, thanks to the generosity of those applicants that added a $5 donation to their submission packet, we are thrilled to say that we’ve raised enough funds to host the 2018 Kathy Fish Fellowship! Look for more details on that award later in summer 2017.
We’d like to extend another congratulations to this year’s finalists as well: Maria Alvarez, Joy Baglio, Jacquelyn Bengfort, Rebekah Bergman, Hedgie Choi, Tayler Heuston, JSP Jacobs, Ingrid Jendrzejewski, Andrew Mitchell, Eric Schlich, Mackenzie Smith, and Benjamin Woodard.
Thank you to all our applicants. It was a pleasure to read your work.
And Happy New Year to all!
December 14, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Bernard James shares the insight and humor of Langston Hughes’ character, Jesse B. Semple. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Bernard James
The indomitable spirit of Jesse B. Semple (aka “Simple”) was first introduced by Langston Hughes in 1943, through a series of stories that appeared in a column he wrote for the Chicago Defender. Simple’s legacy as a literary fixture was later cemented following the release of three compilations that made Hughes’ original content available for wider public consumption. The first was Simple Speaks His Mind, published in 1950, followed by Simple Takes a Wife in 1953 and Simple Stakes a Claim, released in 1957. Subsequent anthologies (The Best of Simple, 1961, Simple’s Uncle Sam, 1965 and The Return of Simple, 1994) sample from the earlier pieces to form new collections, but the charisma that is Simple and the grace with which Hughes delivers him to the page are no less impactful when viewed through this updated, curatorial lens.
Each story is presented as a conversation that opens a window onto the beauty of pedestrian encounters. Indeed, part of what makes them so beautiful is the ongoing discovery that Simple’s life (our lives) are not pedestrian at all. “Simple on Indian Blood,” “Simple Prays a Prayer,” “Temptation,” “Vacation,” “Letting off Steam…” The titles are succinct, the prose direct and easy to understand. Through Simple, Hughes elevates the ordinary and shines a spotlight on what is otherwise common. Simple becomes a metaphor for profound statements exploding from unassuming packages. Hughes’ abbreviated prose cuts to the chase and by intensifying the mood, brings his subjects into better focus.
In “Simple Prays a Prayer,” the protagonist carries on about how whites would not recognize Christ if he returned at that moment; that they would barricade their segregated churches and sink deeper into their pious, segregated selves. Simple hopes that when Christ does return, he lands in the South and brings anger and vengeance with him. Notably, Simples hopes that “Christ drives the Jim Crowers out of their high places, every living last one of them, from Washington to Texas!” concluding his rant with “I hope he smites white folks down.” When Hughes asks if Simple is referring to all white folks, Simple replies, “No, I hope he lets Mrs. Roosevelt alone.” ntentional, but discerning. Humorous, but righteous still.
In “Conversation on the Corner,” Hughes and Simple talk about everything from haircuts to gambling, drinking, and dancing. Simple claims he drinks because he is lonesome, but the author shoots this down, questioning how Simple could possibly be lonesome given his popularity and the many friends at his disposal. “I’m lonesome inside myself,” Simple explains. Yes…this line grabs at me too; and I keep going back to it, turning it over in my mind. Relating and understanding. Unflinching in his delivery, Hughes understates it like a whisper that pulls you in closer until it squeezes your soul with devastating veracity. Alone in one’s own head is sometimes a challenging place to be. Anxiety. Insecurity. Depression. Hughes plainly speaks the truth of this.
Simple manifests as an amalgamation of identities. He is everyone and no one, yet accessible to anyone. He is available to the masses—and as a technical construct, these conversational vignettes serve up bite-sized portions of commentary and introspection through which the reader comes to invest in Simple’s foibles and concerns. Simple’s observations as presented by Hughes are analogous to holding up a mirror on a typical day, reflecting its typical problems and potential (typical) resolutions.
Simple’s longtime lady friend Joyce figures prominently in his many discussions with Hughes. She is patient to a fault, and forgiving of Simple’s assortment of less than perfect traits. But we soon learn that Joyce has her limits, and when Simple really screws things up, even Joyce no longer finds him tolerable. In “Blue Evening,” Hughes finds Simple sitting on the corner stool alone. He mistakes his friend’s malaise as the manifestation of another hangover, but Simple explains that Joyce has finally quit him. When Hughes offers a drink to cheer him up, the author is blindsided by another surprise. “This is one time I do not want a drink. I feel too bad,” Simple says, and Hughes knows his friend is in serious trouble.
Simple pleads his case, but Joyce is not persuaded. He rings her bell, sends telegrams—phones her seventeen times in a row; and still she will not answer. “You never miss the water till the well runs dry,” Simple concedes. At that moment, he cares about nothing other than winning back Joyce’s affections. Liquor and other women are of no concern; the distaste he harbors for his landlady is of no concern; even race relations and Jim Crowers do not bother him in the face of this unexpected loss. “I would not care if Mississippi moved to Times Square,” he proclaims, which is something, because Simple is fiercely protective of New York and especially the (black) safe haven that Harlem provides. Having drifted beyond the point where Hughes’ explanations carry any weight, Simple has resolved to stand outside Joyce’s brownstone all night, pleading his case and calling her name if that is what it takes. Who among us has not experienced the pain of love lost and the desperation to get it back? That is a condition understood by everyone, escapable by no one, and applicable to anyone.
Novels have longer arcs; slower deliveries. Reading one is like taking a long train ride or a cross country trip. By contrast, Simple’s reflections feel more like a walk home from the corner grocery store—with a random stop on a friend’s porch or a quick detour inside the neighborhood bar to catch up on gossip over a couple of drinks. In Hughes’ capable hands, a profusion of action transpires inside these discrete windows in time. This is a testament to the author’s talents and the beauty of the sensory context established through repeated dialogue with Jesse B.
The Simple Shorts (as I like to call them) functioned as a kind of gateway; priming and preparing me for denser volumes that were yet to come. Flawed and irreverent though he was, here was this likable, accessible character who was plainspoken but substantive in discourse and thought. As fictionalized trough Hughes’ sensibilities, Simple opines on weighty matters of the day, striking a prescient chord as it relates to our current state of racial and economic affairs. But unlike the solemn to somber tone found in some of Hughes’ poetry (A Negro Speaks of Rivers, Kids Who Die, and Suicide’s Note for example), Hughes successfully reaches for a more buoyant plane of expression through the humorous and dubious rationalizations of Simple.
Having grown up in the decaying orbit of Youngstown’s once vibrant steel industry, I was several imaginations removed from the cultural consciousness that permeated Langston Hughes’ Harlem. Nowhere was that more evident than in the mostly Eurocentric curriculum to which I was subjected during my primary and secondary education. But my lovely mother, God rest her soul, was my saving grace. She stepped into the breach, exerted her influence and remedied this lack of exposure. An avid reader with a special appreciation for the canon of Black American classics, she made sure I was introduced to—amon others—Morrison, Hurston, Ellison and Hughes. More than any other, it was Langston Hughes who captured my imagination and fueled my desire to further acquaint myself with Harlem’s renaissance period; and it was Jesse B. Semple who stood out as one of the most significant influences on a young boy’s immersion into the world of black language arts.
Jesse B. Semple was a purveyor of flash long before such a notion had settled into common understanding. Hughes’ capacity for lyricism and his ability to unpack, then distill complex ideas uniquely positioned him to take full command of the short story form. By reducing the framework of each story to a brief conversation with Simple, Hughes imbues the narrative with additional powers, enabling it to punch above its weight. He sets us up to expect and wait for Simple’s gems. Each story is uniquely capable of standing on its own, encapsulating and resolving itself from brief beginning to end; but when taken together, the reader is lulled into a comfortable pattern of elongated time and space; each story building upon the one that came before it and in turn, setting the stage for the next in line. Hughes’ voice and the folksy appeal of Jesse B. Semple are what allow this magic to unfold—from story to story, in the space between collections, and in the reflective silence that follows, long after Simple’s tales have been told.
Writing under the pseudonym Bernard James, James Bernard Short is an emerging novelist, essayist, and poet. His singular ambition as a writer is to produce smart, expressive and culturally authentic content that captures the wide spectrum of aspirations and challenges encountered by persons of color. Notions of what define the cultural and geographic boundaries of the Black diaspora are of particular interest, as well as pieces that explore the dynamics of love, loss and personal transition. James’ work has appeared in sx salon, a Small Axe literary platform, the Killens Review of Arts & Letters, and the Columbia Journal of Literature and Art. He is a 2016 Kimbilio Fellow, a member of the 2016 Writer’s Hotel Master Class in Poetry, a 2015 Givens Writing Fellow, and a participant in the 2013 MN Northwoods Writer’s Fiction Workshop. James holds degrees from Northwestern and The University of St. Thomas. He currently resides in the Twin Cities.
December 13, 2016 News Digests
SmokeLong Quarterly is excited to nominate six fantastic stories for the 2017 Pushcart Prize!
Zombies. Yes, this is a zombie story. A stunning and moving one. While “The Dead Are Not Hungry” is yet another sign-of-the-times story about a world spinning out of control, it’s also a very personal story about a father’s feeling of helplessness. And Justin Lawrence Daugherty aces the ending. It will leave you breathless. – Christopher Allen, Managing Editor
Read “The Dead Are Not Hungry”
Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Justin Lawrence Daugherty
Marysa LaRowe’s “Independence Day” builds layer upon layer toward a shocking ending—a deluge that carries the reader away just as flash fiction should. – Christopher Allen
Read “Independence Day”
Congratulations to all of our 2017 Pushcart Prize Nominees!
December 8, 2016 News Digests
Out of more than 300 applications for the 2017 Kathy Fish Fellowship, our staff has narrowed the list to 13 finalists. We’d like to congratulate and honor these 13 writers for their accomplishment.
The finalists are:
We hope to make a final decision about the winner of the fellowship in the next two weeks. Congratulations to all our finalists, and thank you to all the writers who submitted to the contest this year. We’ve been truly stunned by the talent in the queue.
December 6, 2016 News Digests
SmokeLong Quarterly is excited to nominate six fantastic stories for the 2017 Pushcart Prize!
Over the next three Tuesdays, we will announce our nominees by posting links to the selected stories and author interviews.
“Sometimes My Father Comes Back from the Dead” draws the reader in so effortlessly. Magic realism is not easy. It can often seem heavy-handed or forced, but Steve Edwards pulls it off with a solid, engaging voice that urges the reader along to a sort of coda in the brief line “Love is a mess.” This is a brilliant example of flash fiction. – Christopher Allen, Managing Editor
Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Steve Edwards
The Apocalypse is coming. Our world in crisis has inspired an onslaught of end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stories. “The Sound and the Song” is one of these. Letitia Trent deftly uses cadence to create a confused and dazed tone as her characters, an archetypal nuclear family, succumb to the effects of a gas attack. Trent manages to make this apocalypse personal and even beautiful. – Christopher Allen
Read “The Sound and The Song”
Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Letitia Trent
Check back with us next Tuesday for our final round of our 2017 Pushcart Prize Nomination Announcement!
December 6, 2016 Fridge Flash
In fewer than 30 words, this week’s Fridge Flash from Raya Ghosh-Roy follows the journey of a wistful Parisian fox. Showcasing evocative, haiku-like descriptions, “A Fox in Paris” recalls one of the earliest forms of flash fiction–fables–with a cosmopolitan twist.
By Raya Ghosh-Roy
There was a fox in Paris swerving in and out of a dark, gloomy alley listening to echos. It was thinking of its family, back in the misty hills.
November 30, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. Stefen Styrsky waxes poetic on the day he discovered Isaac Babel and it changed his life. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Stefen Styrsky
Isaac Babel arrived in my life like a bolt from the blue, or maybe I should say like a Cossack horde appearing on the horizon. It was at Myopic Books, a used bookstore on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, near Wicker Park, an old neighborhood of odd-angled intersections and flatiron buildings.
It was pure chance, me fortuitously catching Babel’s name as my eyes swept the shelves. The Collected Stories. The cover image: three men on galloping horses, an abstract representation that appeared to be a sponge print; the cover itself helpfully taped at the corners and along the spine. The tape probably kept the book whole, enabling it to travel from its publication in 1960 — through who knows how many hands and boxes and personal libraries — to me in that year of 2008.
I’d often heard Babel mentioned in connection with other great short story writers, especially his fellow countrymen — Gogol, Turgenev, and Chekhov – artists who had developed and honed the story into the shape we know today. Floating around in my head were a few other Babel-related items absorbed over years of indiscriminate reading. There was his observation, so perfect a writerly sentiment it’s suspiciously apocryphal: “Nothing pierces the human heart like a period in the right place.” That his last public words, shouted as Stalin’s secret police hauled him off to the gulag, were, “But I’m not finished yet!”
When I returned to my hotel room that evening I dove right in and read the first few stories from the book’s opening section, Red Cavalry. (Attesting to the power of Babel’s stories, I can’t recall why I was in Chicago, my memory of the time completely subsumed by initial exposure to his prose). I had no idea what to expect. Stories, obviously, but my imaginings hadn’t prepared me for these compact, visceral tales.
The first paragraph of the first story, Crossing into Poland:
The Commander of the VI Division reported: Novograd-Volynsk was taken at dawn today. The Staff had left Krapivno, and our baggage train was spread out in a noisy rearguard over the highroad from Brest to Warsaw built by Nicholas I upon the bones of peasants.
Followed by two brief pages that end with the narrator awakening alongside a dead man he’d unknowingly lain next to when bedding down in a civilian’s house for the night. The man’s face is hacked in two and “in his beard blue blood was clotted like a lump of lead.” We learn that soldiers of the invading army killed the man the previous day, the same army the narrator marches with. The dead man’s daughter, who perhaps allowed the narrator to sleep next to the corpse as a kind of gruesome revenge, asks aloud in the story’s final line, “I should wish to know where in the whole world you could find another father like my father?”
Under a thousand words; it barely tops 850. History and war, horror and pathos, all in one compact package. I shivered with jealousy and awe. Who was this writer and when had he composed such brief stories? Babel seemed thoroughly modern, despite writing about a minor conflict from a previous century. I flipped to the copyright page. The book was a reissue of a translation published in 1929 by Alfred A. Knopf. And so here was not just an amazing writer, but here also was flash before flash technically existed. Before the writing of the short-short story was considered a separate prose genre.
Later, I’d learn from Lionel Trilling’s introduction that Isaac Babel began his career as a journalist in Odessa and often based his fiction on details he picked up. During the Russo-Pole war of 1920-1923 he rode alongside the Russian Cossack cavalry as a correspondent for Soviet periodicals. Bespectacled, asthmatic, and Jewish, Isaac Babel was everything the Cossacks were not, men literally born to the saddle, brought up riding horses across the steppe, who demonstrated outright disdain for “intellectuals,” and possessed a long and deep experience with violence, especially against Jews. Somehow, he earned their grudging acceptance. The thinly-fictionalized stories in Red Cavalry depict the evolution of outcast into tolerated colleague. Most are as short as Crossing into Poland. Only a few reach beyond five pages. So not only was Babel an early practitioner of flash fiction. In Red Cavalry he also stumbled into what is these days called the flash novella: a series of flash or very short pieces that comprise an entire story arc.
But it wasn’t simply Babel’s hyper-compressed style that prompted my reaction. There was first and foremost his language. It’s vivid, energetic and extremely tight. His stories come across as dispatches from the front, reports dashed off in the fire and heat of combat.
Then there are his metaphors which seem conjured from the fevered edge of dreams:
Savitstky, Commander of the VI Division, rose when he saw me, and I wondered at the beauty of his giant’s body. He rose, the purple of his riding breeches and the crimson of his little tilted cap and the decorations stuck on his chest, cleaving the hut as a standard cleaves the sky. The sickly sweet freshness of soap emanated from him. His long legs were like girls sheathed to the neck in shining riding boots. (“My First Goose”)
And many descriptions in Red Cavalry simultaneously combine the horrible and the sacred. Acts of violence and destruction arrive in terms that seem almost holy. Consider this final paragraph from the one-page story Prishchepa’s Vengeance:
On the third night the settlement saw smoke rising from Prishchepa’s hut. Torn, scorched, staggering, the Cossack led the cow out of the shed, put his revolver in its mouth and fired. The earth smoked beneath him. A blue ring of flame flew out of the chimney and melted away, while in the stall the young bull that had been left behind bellowed piteously. The fire shone as bright as Sunday. Then Prinschepa untied his horse, leaped into the saddle, threw a lock of his hair into the flames, and vanished.
The Red Cavalry stories were so head-clearing they became one of the first times I actually studied how an author employed language. From Babel I learned that word choice could imbue a story with an emotional volume that belied its scant word count. Consider how powerful Crossing into Poland becomes with that final word: father. That the reader will intuit much in a story without having to be told. And that metaphors should not merely describe, but also reveal meaning. Above, the images around Savitsky convey the man’s dominating grandeur and beauty.
I revisit the Red Cavalry stories often. The language is forever fresh, the situations forever revealing of new angles and modes of interpretation. And, obsessed as I am, I’ve obtained other versions. In 2003 W.W. Norton issued the Complete Works of Isaac Babel translated by Peter Constantine. Red Cavalry was also printed as its own volume. I bought the 2013 Boris Dralyuk’s version from the Pushkin Collection not only because it’s an engaging translation, but also because the volume is sized perfectly to fit inside a coat pocket, making it easy to carry and pull out whenever I require a Babel fix.
No translation is perfect, but all three manage to capture the essence of Babel’s unmistakable work. Sometimes I’ll play a little game and lay the three side by side, each open to the same passage. Then I’ll try to decide which I like best, which I think comes closest to what Babel intended, where his periods, commas, paragraphs, and words seem to be in just the right place.
Stefen Styrsky is a graduate of the writing program at Johns Hopkins University. His fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Litbreak, The Offing, Number Eleven Magazine, and the Tahoma Literary Review. He is currently at work on a series of stories based on a theme from Babel. He lives in Washington, DC.
November 29, 2016 News Digests
SmokeLong Quarterly is excited to nominate six fantastic stories for the 2017 Pushcart Prize!
Over the next three Tuesdays, we will announce our nominees by posting links to the selected stories and author interviews.
Why we chose it: “‘Daddy’s Boy’ is an abuse story. You might even call it a conversion therapy story. We read a lot of abuse stories in the SmokeLong queue; and while they’re all troubling and tragic by nature, few add much new to the story. Dennis Norris II gives the reader a dialogue between a father and a son: the father teaching his boy how to be a man in the first section, the son showing his father the man he becomes in the second. The father’s voice embodies so well that damning voice church-reared gay men carry around with them: I’m hurting you because I love you. Painful and real.” -Christopher Allen, Managing Editor
Why we chose it: “‘Some Cool Heaven’ is a linear narrative: an account of a mother taking her son to the fair for the last time. She’s dying, probably cancer. It’s one of those types of stories that we get again and again, but the difference is that Emma Smith-Stevens’ attention to detail is moving and so intelligent. This story has something to say, and it says it perfectly–in each and every line.” -Christopher Allen
Check back with us next Tuesday for Round Two of our 2017 Pushcart Prize Nomination Announcement!
November 28, 2016 News Digests
PLEASE NOTE VENUE CHANGE BELOW! This event is no longer being held at the Wonderland Ballroom.
Heading to AWP‘s conference? Washington, D.C. is COLD in February. So why not warm up with some dark, steamy flash fiction?
Join SmokeLong Quarterly and D.C.’s Noir at the Bar for an off-site AWP reading “Cold, Dark Flash,” an evening of noir flash fiction. RSVP on our Facebook event page.
Cold, Dark Flash
Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017
The Pub and the People
1648 N. Capitol St. NW
Washington, DC 20002
(Three blocks from the Green Line Metro)
W. Todd Kaneko
and hosted by:
Music by DJ Alkimist
Books for sale, raffle prizes, music, and more! Hope to see you there.
November 25, 2016
It’s been an amazing week of flash fiction giving and receiving. Thank you to everyone who participated in SmokeLong’s #FlashGiving!
We discovered many wonderful pieces of flash fiction, while celebrating and saying thank you to the talented writers who created them. Please check out the hashtag #FlashGiving to read all the stories.
Five lucky individuals were chosen at random to receive a copy of Randall Brown’s Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction. Below are the winners and a story they tweeted to us:
Christina Dalcher tweeted us Ani King’s “Conjugate ‘to be’, using complete sentences,” published at freeze frame fiction.
Cathy Ulrich tweeted us Rebecca Harrison’s “The Slinky” published at Menacing Hedge.
Jan Stinchcomb tweeted us Ashley Hutson’s “The Hen of God” published at The Conium Review.
Voimaoy tweeted us F.E. Clark’s “The Solstice Shade” published at The Molotov Cocktail.
Sophie van Llewyn tweeted us Paul Beckman’s “I Have a Problem” published at Spelk.
Thank you again to everyone who participated. Happy #FlashGiving!
November 23, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Katey Schultz discusses how Hemingway’s In Our Time allowed her to embrace flash along side traditional length fiction. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
by Katey Schultz
We waited till he got one leg over and then potted him. This line, from Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, is one sentence from an eight-sentence story published by Scribner under the heading, “Chapter III,” in 1925. The piece, which might be labelled today as somewhere between a dribble (50 words) and a drabble (100 words), is 75 words in length. When I finished reading the story, I didn’t care what it was labelled. I knew I’d never be the same again.
Not because it was Hemingway, mind you. And not even because the piece was so beautifully short. But because of the verb “potted.” The entirety of the war—the senseless waste, the black humor, the scale of loss that leads to dissociative language—seemed summed up in that one, keenly appointed verb. To kill a human being should never be to “pot” one. And yet…Hemingway potted that soldier, and, as the story concludes, “Then three more came over further down the wall. We shot them. They all came just like that.”
It’s worth noting that I read this story sometime around 2011. The number of rejections for my first book of short stories titled Flashes of War—as of then unpublished—was somewhere in the upper twenties. The rejections I received were filled with some of the kindest things anyone has ever said about my writing. Yet time and again, editors concluded something along these lines, “That said, I just can’t imagine how to market a collection of mixed full-length and flash-length stories. Regrettably, I’ll pass.”
Regrettably, too many writers are still receiving rejection letters like that, and while I certainly wouldn’t want any editor to take on a book she or he felt dispassionate about, I do want to beseech all editors (and readers! dear readers!) that the “problem” of marketing or relating to mixed collections isn’t new and it isn’t a problem. The work speaks for itself. In Our Time contains flashes, drabbles, full-length stories, and various indefinables. I suspect its sales are…well…isn’t it enough that almost a hundred years later, it’s still selling? Trends will be trends. We can never outsmart them and it isn’t the business of art to do so.
It is the business of art, however, to make every word count. Potted counts. Potted takes my breath away. Potted says more in two syllables than 50,000 first draft NaNoWriMo words can say in a month. (Ok, I’m not hating on NaNoWriMo, but I am suggesting that deep work leads to precise word choice, and it’s often hard to go deep and go long at the same time, at least in early drafts, while also under pressure.)
In the end, Flashes of War received 44 rejections. After Loyola University Maryland published it, it went on to win to awards, be required reading at the United States Air Force Academy, be studied at more than a dozen universities and colleges, and be embraced by the veteran community. I’m not saying that to tout accomplishments, I’m saying that to prove a point: mixed collections do speak to the human heart, and flash—dribble, drabble, micro, nano, sudden, call it what you will—deserves just as much shelf space as other genres. If Hemingway were alive today and faced with “marketing” and “platforms” and “tweets,” would he keep on shrugging and writing whatever he wanted to write? Easy answer. Hell yes he would, and he’d pot anyone who suggested otherwise.
Katey Schultz is passionate about short form writing and provides feedback to writers via email instruction.
November 16, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Jennifer Fliss discusses the deliciously deep and ominous works of Franz Kafka. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Jennifer Fliss
Somewhere in the middling, flannel, acne-covered early nineties, I was introduced to Franz Kafka, via The Metamorphosis. As someone who didn’t particularly enjoy classic literature, Kafka was a welcome departure. The strangeness and the details left unexplained impressed upon me that part of the fun of reading is leaving something for the reader to parse out – a mystery in form and not only in subject matter. I quickly read through Kafka’s other stories, long and short. And it is in Kafka’s shorter works that I found exactly what I was looking for and what would influence my writing decades after.
Often this style of omission can be difficult for a reader in longer works. When reading novels, my mind wants to grasp onto tangible setting details and storytelling. In really short stories, there isn’t enough physical space for these things and requires the reader to fill in the blanks and work with the writer for a fully composed masterpiece and experience.
One hundred years ago, Kafka’s 775-word story, “A Fratricide” is a very early example of what we now have given the name, “flash fiction.”
The premise is of a man, Schmar, murdering his brother, Wese. The killing is premeditated. As he awaits his brother, we see him sharpening his blade, we feel him hot with nerves, we see what he is wearing; we are in very close narrative distance to Schmar. Also, of importance: Kafka gives us a witness, Pallas, who is watching in his bedclothes from his apartment window.
In this short piece, in a style similar to what we see in many flash pieces today, it is unclear who the narrator is. This is critical. The first line is everything, and is a tell for the reader: The evidence shows that this is how the murder was committed. This means – and I love it – that you can’t actually count on this being the objective truth. This is only what the evidence shows.
In “A Fratricide” there is also some wholly unbelievable dialogue after the murder transpires. Schmar rejoices aloud in the blood-letting. But the words don’t ring true. Presumably, it is what Pallas has reported. And who is Pallas? Kafka asks the reader this pointedly which I believe was Kafka’s way to say – hey, this guy may not be so innocent.
This is all a break from straightforward narrative. In flash fiction, we can do that since flash is often conceptual. Flash writers experiment with all kinds of form and in this way, Kafka does not disappoint.
In my flash, I love writing the intangibles. What can you not grasp onto that is keeping you in the story? Have you caught it in the end? Yes? No? Want to read it again to see if you can parse out the meaning? Because the work is so short, you can easily read and reread it and engage with it on multiple levels and reinterpretations. It can mean something to one reader and something entirely different to another. As a flash fiction writer, you present a stage, throw in some clues as to what your intentions are and leave the rest to the reader.
But you decide. Read the story yourself. It’s brilliant and it reads very modern. One thing to note though is that Kafka was doing it one hundred years ago, a time when James Joyce and Marcel Proust and E.M. Forster were on the scene. These authors were writing long epic novels (Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is over 3000 pages!) filled with rambling sentences with nary a detail left out.
Of “A Fratricide,” others have said the three characters are personifications of Freud’s three elements of personality: id, ego, and superego. And if this was an English class, I’d say: yes, go there. Dig deep. Find meaning. See the obvious parallel to the biblical brothers, Cain and Abel. Look for the layers. But I also enjoy reading this story for the story directly put in front of me. That’s the beauty of flash fiction – it can be so many different things at once.
Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in PANK, The Rumpus, Bartleby Snopes, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She recently won the Fiction Southeast Hell’s Belles Short Fiction Prize. She can be found on Twitter at @JFlissCreative or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com
November 14, 2016
Celebrate the season of giving with us by sharing your favorite online story!
From now until Wednesday, November 23, SmokeLong Quarterly is sponsoring #flashgiving to show how grateful we are to writers of flash.
Flood your Twitter account—and ours—with the greatest flash stories of the year. We depend on the talent, energy, and creativity of these writers, so let’s celebrate them.
Besides the great feeling you’ll have from promoting a writer, there’s something tangible and square to win: Five people will get a copy of Randall Brown’s Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction.
We will compile all the shared links on the SmokeLong blog sometime the week following Thanksgiving, right after we’ve had our vegan turkey and gluten-free stuffing.
Here’s how it works:
- Choose a story from any online journal (not your own story, not your own journal). You can share as many stories as you want of course (why would we stop you?), but your name goes into the hat only once.
- Use #flashgiving to tweet the link and the reason you love it. Also include the author and the journal’s handles whenever possible.
- Check out other #flashgiving stories.
We will contact the winners via Twitter the day before Thanksgiving. World-wide entries accepted. Winners should expect a direct message from us November 23.
November 10, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
This week’s “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from Melissa Scholes Young discusses why and how she teaches her students flash fiction as their first assignment. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Melissa Scholes Young
On the first day of class, my students are often cautious. They’ve heard I’m a hard teacher. Their friends have told them I’m fanatical about form and revision. Rumor has it I lecture too much about concrete details: “It’s never an apple! It’s a Gala or a Pink Lady or a Jonigold.” Others warn them to never have their characters strolling through cities without sensory details: “Cities smell. How do they smell? Put it on the page!” My first fiction assignment is an analysis and emulation of a flash form. When I share the instructions, my students begin to snicker. 500 words? 1,000 words? Seriously? Finally, an easy A, they think. That’s when the deception begins.
In “The Art of Microfiction,” a column by Gayle Towell published at LitReactor, she compares the brief fiction form to meals:
“Good stories come in all shapes and sizes—all lengths and forms. If a novel can be thought of as a ten course meal, and a short story as an excellent deli-sandwich. A microfiction piece might be an exquisite chocolate truffle. All are food. All are enjoyable. But they’re each very different. Microfiction is a scrumptious, bite-sized nugget of a story. It packs big flavor and satisfaction into a small package.”
Continuing with Towell’s lovely comparison, I teach flash fiction first because it is a manageable morsel all on its own and it is a digestible amount for sharpening writing skills. Depending on whether I’m teaching at the undergraduate or graduate level, I assign either Jerome Stern’s Micro Fiction anthology or Rose Metal Press’ The Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction edited by Tara L. Marsh. With our guides in hand, we dig in to understand the stories first. Here’s the assignment:
Close Reading and Analysis
In less than 500 words, tell us how this story works. Do not waste space summarizing; we’ve read the story, too. Focus on how not what. Your liking/disliking of content or theme is not necessary. Do open with a one-sentence declaration that tells us the technique you’ll analyze and eventually emulate. Use specific text references to support and to expand your claim. Consider the structure carefully. Also, tell us how “complete” the story is and how the author accomplished (or didn’t) so much with so little.
To prepare them for the reading task, we discuss “Close Reading” by Francine Prose published in The Atlantic. It’s delightfully ironic that the essay is actually four times as long as their assignment, but we are developing skills to put flash under a microscope. It’s heavy lifting and we need to build our reading muscles.
After wallowing in how others write micro/flash well, we try out the techniques in our own work.
Writing a Flash Fiction Emulation
Using your analysis and micro/flash fiction choice, write a new story in less than 1000 words. It should be a complete story and the technique you are emulating should be obvious. For example, if you wrote your analysis about the use of dialogue, your emulation should rely heavily on dialogue and accomplish a similar result. The theme and content should not be the same as your micro fiction choice.
Inevitably, because my students are hard working and earnest, someone will raise their hand and ask the “rules” of flash fiction. They don’t like my answer that “rules” don’t matter nor do they find it satisfying when I insist that “rules” in art are meant to be challenged, so I give them a few rules I’ve adapted from “Stories in Your Pocket” by David Gaffney published in The Guardian.
- Start in the middle.
- Don’t use too many characters.
- Make sure the ending isn’t at the end.
After their close reading and emulation drafting, they present their analysis and we workshop their stories. In my experience, most of what needs accomplished in a workshop can be done in fifteen minutes. After fifteen minutes, someone usually brings up their grandma or starts rewriting the story for the author; neither are useful to the work. I limit their responses to three questions and require a specific text reference for each.
- What is this story about? What is the writer accomplishing?
- What is the central conflict? What are the character’s motivations?
- What does this story do well? What might this story need to do better?
Using these parameters, my students write “Dear Author” letters before class. In that way, they’ve focused their feedback in preparation and, like the flash form itself, we can accomplish more in the briefer workshop form.
What I hear most from my students during this assignment is a whining variation of “This is harder than it looks.” They’re right. Flash fiction does a lot more with less. Reading, examining, understanding, questioning, analyzing, and emulating flash is worthy and difficult to do well. You can’t hide anything from the reader in micro/flash forms. Your intention must be crisp. We can see your every move. As my students learn, deception is futile.
Melissa Scholes Young’s work has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poets & Writers, and other literary journals. She was born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri and still proudly claims it her hometown. She teaches now at American University in Washington, D.C. is a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. Her debut novel, Flood, will be published by Center Street/Hachette in June 2017.
November 3, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Insurrections author and former SLQ guest editor, Rion Amilcar Scott, breaks down the beauty and magic of Alice Walker’s short story “The Flowers.” Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
by Rion Amilcar Scott
Once I picked up an anthology and chose the shortest story in the interest of time, but neither time nor brevity functioned as I expected them to. I probably read it quickly—I’m sure I did—but years later part of me is still back in the woods of the story with the little girl protagonist—her name is Myop—puzzling over that disturbing thing I saw. My brain is unable to distinguish the action of the story from memory so images from the brief and intense tale come flitting through my head from time to time.” More so than any story I’ve encountered, it doesn’t feel as if I’ve read “The Flowers” by Alice Walker as much as it feels like I’ve lived it.
The story begins with the lightness of a fable, and somehow without losing that lightness, it takes on, in addition, the darkness of a horror. Myop skips through a clearing engaged in a child’s vocation, collecting flowers. And here is where Walker binds her protagonist to the reader. The author primes us to live the story rather than just read it with a series of notes to the senses. She tells us about the “keenness” in the air that makes Myop’s nose twitch. And then she follows it with this image: “The harvesting of the corn and cotton, peanuts and squash, made each day a golden surprise that caused excited little tremors to run up her jaws.” We go from feeling to sight back to feeling. The images cause a delightful Synesthesia that Walker plays with over and over again in the course of the story’s 563 words.
We learn that Myop is ten and carefree. She bothers chickens, feels the warm sun on her skin and with a stick she taps out a song on a fence (“ the tat-de-ta-ta-ta of accompaniment”). By this point, Walker has been so relentless with her sensory descriptions that the mixed sense effect begins to happen without the author even forcing it. The author mentions pigs and I hear them snort. There is a stream and Walker doesn’t mention it bubbling, but I hear it bubbling and I hear the whisper of its flow.
Then Walker does magic. She writes the sentence: “She found, in addition to various common but pretty ferns and leaves, an armful of strange blue flowers with velvety ridges and a sweet suds bush full of the brown, fragrant buds.” And each time I read it, out of nowhere I smell the sweet purple fragrance of the flora in Myop’s arms. The smell passes through my nasal passages and rests on my tongue until I can taste it. It’s as someone has sprayed the air with a floral perfume. Here I usually look around, feeling my sanity has finally come to an end. What is this weird evocation, but a hallucination?
And after this glorious delusion is where things begin to get dark. It’s noon and Myop is a mile from home, a place Walker says is gloomy. The fragrant air is now replaced by a damp scent. Perhaps we should have seen this change coming, right before the fragrant buds Myop begins looking for snakes, the first hint of danger after paragraphs of beautiful carefree images.
Just as she looks to turn for home, Myop bumps into a skeleton partially buried in the ground. Its clothes are rotted away and its teeth broken. Worst of all, a rope lay around this man’s neck. This was no accident. This was not a case of a poor fool dying of exposure. This man was murdered. He was lynched.
Not only does the finality of death intrude on Myop’s carefree jaunt, but the reality of racialized violence. This could happen to one of the men in her life, she realizes. Myop rests the flowers next to the dead man and leaves. In the end, an understated Walker announces: “And the summer was over.” Poor Myop, she can never have summer again. She can never truly experience the lightness of a nature walk again. She now knows too much of the world.
I’ve read this Walker story over and over, sometimes going from the final word back to the beginning hoping to find more of Walker’s secrets. I’ve read it out loud from semester to semester with my students to show how cleanly the story moves from purpose through perception; trying to figure out just how in the world Walker managed to make writing the perfect short story look easy. But often I leap back to not wanting to know, yearning for the innocence of Myop in the story’s first paragraphs. After all, doesn’t it ruin the magic to unravel all the movements of the illusionist’s hand?
Rion Amilcar Scott’s work has been published in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, PANK, The Rumpus, Fiction International,The Washington City Paper, The Toast, Akashic Books, Melville House and Confrontation, among others. His debut short story collection, Insurrections (
November 2, 2016 InterviewsReviews
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.
October 28, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Christopher Allen shares his experience reading Virginia Woolf’s “A Haunted House,” right in time for Halloween. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Christopher Allen
I was in graduate school during the Virginia Woolf craze. Remember that? When all the teenagers were screaming and fainting? Pulling out their hair? Putting rocks in their pockets. Claiming to be channeling Virginia’s ghost? Forget the Beatles; Virginia Woolf was our boy band.
I read everything. The journals. The letters. The essays. The novels. I read Orlando a decade before the film came out. You might say that I dived so deep into the person of Virginia Woolf that it’s a miracle I ever surfaced. Maybe it’s a tragedy. I’ve just reread Woolf’s story “A Haunted House” and am leaning towards the latter. She might have referred to it as a sketch, but as it continues to resonate with readers a hundred years later—it’s more. It’s flash fiction.
We should never ever stop reading Virginia Woolf. And that’s why I’m so happy to have this opportunity to dive right back into this haunting flash back.
One evening—I think it must have been October 1993—I got a call from a colleague of my father’s. He was enjoying a relaxed evening with a bottle of bourbon and he wanted to talk about Virginia Woolf. He needed to convince me that Virginia Woolf was crazy and her writing was a jumble, a bunch of nonsense scribbled down haphazardly for the rest of us to worry over. I think that was the upshot. Stream of consciousness was somehow on trial, and I was its advocate. Because back then we didn’t have caller ID, I found myself trying to teach this drunk guy the difference between reading and writing; meanwhile I had 200 pages of The Wings of the Dove to read. He was under the impression that stream of consciousness writing was unedited narrative vomit spewed onto the page for what it’s worth. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to read, but that’s not how it’s (normally) written. No matter how I tried to convince this person that Virginia Woolf edited her prose (again and again and again), he simply did not believe me.
Virginia Woolf, you’ll be thrilled to know, went through the same process of writing that many of us go through: we jot, scribble, scrawl down the first draft of a story, put it aside to marinate for months-maybe-years, and take it back out when we think it’s right for a journal. And then we edit, and we edit. And we edit. And, it seems, Woolf’s very short stories fell under an even more scrutinizing eye.
Leonard Woolf, from the foreword to A Haunted House and Other Short Stories, drives this point home:
“It was her custom, whenever an idea for [a short story] occurred to her, to sketch it out in a very rough form and then to put it away in a drawer. Later, if an editor asked her for a short story, and she felt in the mood to write one (which was not frequent), she would take a sketch out of her drawer and rewrite it, sometimes a great many times.”
I did not become acquainted with Woolf as a short story writer. Before I read “A Haunted House,” I’d read To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, Between the Acts, The Waves, The Years, The Voyage Out, A Room of One’s Own and so on. I don’t actually know how I ran across the short story collection. It just appeared one day—or maybe it surfaced. It has been on my bookshelf for decades.
“A Haunted House,” the first story in the collection and one of the stories published in Monday or Tuesday (Woolf’s only short story collection published during her lifetime in 1921), is to my knowledge the first piece of flash fiction I ever read, and of course I had no idea what flash fiction was back then. “A Haunted House” is character-driven prose that has all the elements of Woolf’s longer works: tertian rhythms, effervescent language (bubbling, threshing, pulsing), a narrative that mirrors post-impressionism here and points towards cubism there. It’s so dramatic, maybe melodramatic by today’s standards, and a ghost/love story to boot.
“’Safe, safe, safe,’ the pulse of the house beat softly.” Then gladly, then proudly, then wildly. These moments lend structure and cadence (something so important to Woolf) to this story that I’ll read a hundred times and still find moments buried in its two and a half pages. What I find again and again is a love story. An enviable love story.
“A great many times,” Leonard Woolf told us of Virginia’s editing habits. You can be assured that Woolf chose each word carefully. Even if she wasn’t the sanest person around (and who really cares?), she was an editor. “A Haunted House” is a great introduction to Woolf’s style. All the elements are there. And here. And there. Here is a popular audio version read by Tom O’Bedlam. And a dramatic interpretation that’s pretty cool and a bit wacky and which has not received enough attention.
Christopher Allen’s flash fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Indiana Review, Camroc Press Review, Literary Orphans and lots of other beautiful places. His story “A Clown’s Lips” was the recipient of Ginosko Literary Journal’s award for flash fiction. SmokeLong Quarterly nominated his story “When Chase Prays Chocolate” for the Pushcart and included it in SmokeLong Quarterly: the Best of the First Ten Years (2003-2013). And he’s received a few other nods. Since 2014, Allen has been the managing editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. He lives somewhere in Europe. Find him online at @christopher_all or www.imustbeoff.com.
October 20, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Jeanne Jones discusses Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings,” and how it gave her permission to break the rules of traditional storytelling. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Jeanne Jones
When I was in college, I knew I wanted to write, but I thought I was going to be a poet. If you had asked me then, I would have told you I was a poet. I wrote horrible lines in poems with ridiculous titles and I thought I was being mysterious and profound, until my poetry professor finally said, “coughing up ashes again? I think that’s a bit much.”
I also remember reading poems in this class from a book called 45 Contemporary Poems. One of them was Margaret Atwood’s “Variations on the Word Sleep,” which ends with the lines “I would like to be the air/that inhabits you for a moment/only. I would like to be that unnoticed/& that necessary.”
Once I read those lines, I never forgot them. They were everything I was trying to write and failing at, but more important, they showed me just how badly I was failing at it. I couldn’t imagine anyone ever reading that poem and saying, “that unnoticed & that necessary? Don’t you think that’s a bit much?” No. You read that poem and you say: “I’m going to read every Margaret Atwood poem I can find.” If I couldn’t write great poetry, I could certainly be good at reading it.
These were pre-Google days, when making good on a statement like that didn’t mean you had to sit down in font of your computer for the next 17 hours. You just had to make a good faith effort at a library or a book store. My good faith effort turned up Murder in the Dark, Atwood’s 1983 collection of short stories, essays, and prose poems. And nestled in that thin, 110 page collection of 27 pieces was a tiny story called “Happy Endings.”
“Happy Endings,” is not really a story. It’s more of a comment on stories. Or a manual for story writing. Or a comment on life. Or maybe it’s six different stories. But what I loved most about it was its strangeness. It is definitely weird. And back then, when I was learning about story analysis, plot structure, and Freytag’s pyramid in my literature classes, it seemed like a gift to me. A whisper of possibility that I could hear underneath all the different versions of “isn’t that a bit much?”
The story starts with a sentence that is about as basic as you can get in storytelling: “John and Mary meet.” Then Atwood asks us, “What happens next? If you want a happy ending, try A.” So you go to A and you get a basic happy (and boring) plot line, with many cliches and no conflict: John and Mary fall in love, get married, buy a house, have children, who “turn out well,” and eventually they retire and have rewarding hobbies. We are told three times in the space of one paragraph that John and Mary’s life is “stimulating and challenging.” Atwood ends section A with, “This is the end of the story.”
But then there is section B, where we move into conflict. John doesn’t fall in love with Mary and Mary ends up doing things no self-respecting woman wants to see herself doing, eventually killing herself. And then section C, where John is an older man falling for Mary, who is only twenty-two. Section C adds more complications, and two more people—Madge and Fred. Eventually we find out that John buys a handgun. And here is where Atwood gives us an aside, saying, “this is the thin part of the plot, but it can be dealt with later.”
Now this was something new to me. A story that comments on itself? Are you allowed to do that?
With every section of this story I discovered a new possibility I thought writers were not allowed to do. In section D, the couple is getting along “exceptionally well,” until a giant tidal wave destroys everything, killing thousands of people. In section E, Atwood tells us we can substitute items in the story. “If you like, it can be ‘Madge,’ ‘cancer,’ ‘guilty and confused,’ and ‘bird-watching.’” In section F, she exhorts us to try to turn it into a story of political intrigue, “and see how far that gets you.” And finally, in the end, she warns us not to be deluded by the deliberately fake endings we may have read in other stories. She reminds us that in stories, as in life, the only authentic ending is death. And she repeats it three times to make sure we get it: “John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.”
This story made fun of everything I learned about story making. And it was hilarious. (Atwood says, about trying to turn the story into one of political espionage, “Remember, this is Canada.”) Here was the same woman who had written those meaningful lines about love and longing that I would carry with me for the rest of my life now telling me that fiction writing is basically “one thing after another, a what and a what and a what” and showing me that it doesn’t have to be that way. You can try something new if you like.
I carried on with my tortured poetry for another few years before I decided to write fiction instead. And when I did, I had this lesson as my fortress, always with me as a sort of encouragement. The lesson, as I read it, is there really is no wrong way to do it, and if you’re having fun while you’re doing it, it’s even better.
When one of my pieces was finally accepted for publication, the editor told me it landed “firmly on the lap of experimental fiction” they were looking for. I had thought, at the time, that I had written a narrative with a traditional story arc, but if they were publishing it, they could sit it on whatever lap they wanted. I have since realized that just knowing that “Happy Endings” exists has allowed me the freedom to make up whatever structure feels right for my story.
I recently read that Atwood compared writing “Happy Endings” to “scribbling anonymously on a wall with no one looking.” She believed she had discovered a new mutant literary form and that it was “disappointing to learn that other people had a name for such aberrations (metafiction), and had already made up rules.” I like the thought of Atwood creating graffiti and ignoring rules she didn’t even know were there. It gives me encouragement to do the same. “Happy Endings” was a new form to me when I came across it, and it still reads like a revelation every time I read it.
Jeanne Jones is a graduate of the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University. A writing teacher in the Washington metropolitan area, her work has appeared or soon will in Abundant Grace: Fiction by D.C. Area Women and online at American Short Fiction, Barrelhouse, and the EEEL, among other publications. She lives in Hyattsville, Maryland, with her husband and two children.
October 19, 2016 Interviews
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.
October 12, 2016 Interviews
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
October 6, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
This week’s “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from Jennifer A. Howard discusses how puzzling over the world’s mysteries drives her flash. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Jennifer A. Howard
Sometimes the ugly truth might be that I write flash because I’m super Midwestern or female or an INFJ and don’t want to take up too much of your time. At my worst, I don’t want to bother you at all or demand your attention for what might feel like too long. Performing as an artist with an audience, in which I’d have to dance or cello or juggle in front of you, would be an impossibility. Even reading my own work to a crowd of people can feel like a compromise more than a joy. Sorry, I’m going to read to you for a little.
And what have I got to say anyway?
But that dark feeling really only happens sometimes. Because most of the time, my writing flash, my writing, isn’t about you at all. The world is full of interestingness: right now I’m trying to figure out if the British drink more tea than we do because their kitchen outlets kick out more power and their electric kettles boil water more quickly. Could that be true, and what else in my life would change if my house were wired differently?
This investigation into plug adapters may or may not lead to an insightful meditation on love or parenting or language or time or bodies or habit or gender or history. Probably on its own, it won’t. I’ll have to track down three or four more leads first; post-its around me right now contain notes from Forensic Files and tweets about #Brexit and my nieces’ kid-syntax and translation apps and albino deer and this movie about an astrologer who turns around a 1970s basketball team, plus I’ve got a leaky faucet in my bathroom, which will require some research to figure out.
Because I do not know yet what I have to say. But things in the world need to be written down, feels like anyway, and the fun part is figuring out how to puzzle those irrelevant facts and wishes and gumdrop or grease-stain words together into a handful of sentences that follow each other and land somewhere honest. Often, that takes for-freaking-ever to figure, but how awful is it to be given a mystery and guess the solution right away? No fun at all: I want the game to last and last. I want to work, at least some, for the win.
Which is why I’m so grateful writing flash is not a performance art. I want tangling together a story to take a long enough time, so it feels like a case I’ve cracked, but I don’t want you to watch me guess and guess at where I’m going, to witness every time I get it wrong. That part is private. Here in the tip top of the Midwest, it’s me and a coffee pot that only needs 110 volts to spark and so much delete key and then once in a while a little solution on paper with a title you can take home with you and read. You know, if you want to.