SLQ interviews editor Robert Shapard about international flash fiction

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What was the goal behind Flash Fiction International? Did you have any expectations starting out?

Our publisher wanted us to do a new international book, based on a successful one we did years ago, Sudden Fiction International. We thought this time flash was the way to go. I’ve always loved seeing very short stories from around the world alongside those by U.S. writers. But it’s so rare to find them, really good ones, all together in a single book, because gathering them can be so difficult. In fact ours is the first major international anthology devoted to flash fiction. Our goal was to give readers a glimpse of the best from everywhere. The idea was to entertain, to satisfy curiosity, to be useful.

Flash Fiction International brings together flash fiction from dozens of different countries. In what ways do the stories differ based on geographic location? Have you noticed any significant differences in the way, say, someone in the Middle East writes very short fiction vs. someone in Canada? Or are the themes, styles, forms universal?

We had a panel last month in Minneapolis to celebrate Flash Fiction International and discussed these very questions. Yes, flashes do vary by geography and culture. But ways of telling—ah, that’s the most interesting. And hardest to pin down, because there are more variations between writers than countries. Tradition and experiment abound everywhere. I’ll try a broad stroke, or two—flashes in North America are more often grounded in traditional scene with realistic detail, or showing, than in Latin America, where they are more likely to be grounded in narrative, or telling. Thus North American flashes on the whole are longer, Latin American flashes shorter. Chinese stories tend to have a conversational tone. Maybe that’s a proletarian stance. Though in Hong Kong they’re more literary, experimental. It’s best to read a whole collection, from around the world (please try ours); when you do, an intriguing picture emerges. A picture of what exactly?—and how to say it? To get people thinking, we included a section called “Flash Theory” in the back of Flash Fiction International. Sometimes it’s tongue in cheek (how short can a theory be? If it’s a flash theory, only a sentence or two). But mostly it’s for serious thought—about 40 brief quotes on carefully selected aspects of flash. Basically, some ways to talk and think about flash.

Can you talk a little about your process in choosing stories?

We’re a little like Best American Short Stories, which selects from 200+ magazines and literary journals every year. But we go much farther, looking at many more journals. And we consult mountains of books—unlike Best American— individual author collections and anthologies. We search not just one year of publications, but 5 or more. We also send invitations directly to many authors and to translator organizations. Add all that together and multiply not by just one country, but worldwide. We must be crazy!

A quicker, more deductive approach would be to find a pre-approved list of world-famous authors, and dig up something very short by each. But our (long) approach has always been to look for the best stories, regardless of who wrote them, wherever they can be found, no matter how obscure. As for the breakdown of labor, James Thomas, Chris Merrill and I did all the searching and reading and made initial selections, then we asked a dozen valiant associates, people who loved to read, to select favorites, which helped us narrow down. It was like building a giant pyramid. At the very top, Chris, James, and I made final selections. We knew we couldn’t make everyone happy. But we hoped readers would agree that most of the flashes in the book are truly great.

You’ve been collecting flash fiction for more than 20 years now—does it continue to surprise you? Have you seen the form evolve or change in any way?

A good flash is always new. Yes, the form has changed. When we first started, everything seemed experimental, then for a decade flashes became mostly traditional, realistic stories (except shorter), and now, the most recent decade or more, experiment has been returning. The Internet certainly has pushed flashes to become shorter. I’ve been told readers and writers in Latin America are beginning to grow tired of, feel constrained by, extremely short stories (under 100 words, which they’ve loved). So their flashes may start to become longer now. Maybe it’s like low tide in one part of the world, high tide in another, move the opposite way and become the other.

Even within the constraints of a short word count limit, flash fiction writers experiment with all different ways of telling a story. At SmokeLong, for instance, we could read one very traditional narrative scene in the queue, but the next story might jump around in time, and the next story might be told in all dialogue. Do you have any favorite style?

No favorite style. I like them all. That’s one good thing with a “best of” type anthology like ours or a magazine like SmokeLong—the variety of style. It keeps you alert, in suspense about what’s coming next.

What about pet peeves in flash? Are there any stories that shouldn’t be told? Are there any mistakes you see over and over?

Nope, no pet peeves. I do chafe when I see dogmatic prescriptions on how to write a flash—it must be a single scene, it must cover only a short period of time, it must use terse language. Some of those may be common, but none of them are true. You asked, Are there stories that shouldn’t be told? I like what Chris Merrill says—no stories should be untold, because of course we live by stories.

You directed the MFA program at the University of Hawaii. Two questions there: one, did you teach flash fiction to students? Two, why the heck did you ever leave Hawaii?

I directed the MA with Creative Thesis Program there. Yes, I taught flash fiction, usually mixed with longer fiction, in introductory classes. I also taught a few grad courses in flash. Why did we move? We loved Hawaii, and had a wonderful long run there, but ultimately we chose to be closer to family on the mainland. We had to trade laulau for barbecue, but Austin (where we live now) is a great town.

What’s your favorite quote or definition of flash fiction?

I have so many favorites! Here’s one. Lia Purpura, from her essay “On Miniatures” (in any art) says: “Time, in miniature form, like a gas compressed, gets hotter.”

Maybe we should talk about flash fiction not in terms of length (or length alone) but heat.

In your opinion, is it harder to write a funny piece of flash or a truly scary one?

I’ve always heard writing humor takes a special talent, and so does horror. That may be true at any length. Ask Tom Hazuka, who edited Flash Fiction Funny. For me personally, writing scary would probably be harder.

Any plans for the next anthology you want to share? Or what other projects are you working on at the moment that make you happy?

I’m enjoying reading, anything and everything, short and long. Right now my writing projects are long, except for one flash I can’t get right. (I envy and admire those who write good flashes quickly.) I’m guest editing a magazine issue and planning a short flash course I’m teaching in Indiana next fall. In general what makes me happy is being with friends and family, reading a good book and writing something that’s not bad.