“Look, this is everything”: An Interview with Guest Reader Jay Patel

by Tara Laskowski See all Guest Readers

Tell us a bit about your writing and what you are working on now.

I’ve been writing mostly longer-form short stories for the past few years, but recently I’ve gone back to both flash fiction and novel length work. It feels really weird to bounce between those two extremes, but I do think writing one helps you think about the other. The novel that I’m working on is actually my thesis from my MFA that I shoved in a drawer after graduation. It’s been more than a few years, and I’m hoping with that distance I can think about what might be worth saving. I won’t lie, looking back at that work from so long ago is… embarrassing in a lot of ways? But also kind of exciting. I think it’s one thing to only see how bad something is, and there’s a lot that’s bad. But it’s another to have the clarity of mind to be able to say “Ok, so here are ways we can fix this.” I think that’s huge. I’ve also tried to write some short films, but that’s a whole different thing.

What do you love most about flash fiction? What styles are you most drawn to–more traditional narrative flash? Experimental? Prose poetry-ish stories? Something else entirely?

I’m probably most drawn to prose poetry-ish stories, and of the things I love the most about them, it’s that the worlds built in flash fiction can be really unstable but still feel so real and grounded. I think that it feels that way because flash fiction has to get to the heart of the matter pretty quickly. And that usually means the seemingly small moments, the feelings, the experience that means the most to us, that hit us the hardest. The ability of flash fiction to take a small part of something and say, “Look, this is everything!” is a really profound exercise in empathy.

I’m also always surprised at all the different varieties of things to talk about, and ways to talk about them, that come up in flash fiction. For something with such constraint, there is just so much that can be done.

You recently had a daughter—how has this changed your writing, both with how and when you find time to write, and also the themes and subjects of your writing?

Since my daughter was born, writing has been harder to find the time for. Though, of course, I was also saying that before she was born as well. Sometimes I look back at that time and am just amazed that I was able to complain about having no time to write! When my daughter first was starting to sleep through the night, she would get up around 7 a.m. I thought, ok, I’ll set my alarm for 5:30 and get some work done before she’s up. Within days of this she started to get up at 5:45 a.m. So that went out the window. Now I try to write before bed. And I’ve had to make the stakes pretty low. I bought a 15-minute hourglass and keep it on my desk. Just 15 minutes. Both long enough to actually get something done, but short enough that it’s not something that feels daunting or undoable. It doesn’t always lead somewhere, but it’s something.

While the time constraints are frustrating, I think some of it has been made up for in things to write about. My daughter has really shaken up my previous life. Because she looks at things so differently, I’ve had to look at things differently too. Everything is a miracle to her. That squirrel in the distance, this blade of grass, the glow of the moon, this cheerio that she dropped under the sofa the other day and just rediscovered. At first it seems childish and frustrating, and in a lot of ways it can be, but that switch in perspective opens up so much. When I start to get frustrated, bored, or impatient about something I think about how she’d look at it. “Look at this crazy rock I found? Isn’t it wonderful?! Did you know that this is a thing that exists?! Why do you think waiting in line at the bank is more important than this?”

What was the last book you read that blew you away?

Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger. I loved the way it was written and how it can take a seemingly abstract idea and make it deeply personal and moving. It’s also one of those books that’s absolutely thrilling in just the way it explains things. It was just riveting and beautiful.

About the Reader:

Jay Patel has an MFA from George Mason University, where he currently is the graduate programs coordinator for the English Department. He has taught composition and literature at Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University. He is currently in mourning after Kellogg's changed the formula for Rice Krispies Treats cereal.

About the Interviewer:

Tara Laskowski has been editor at SmokeLong Quarterly since 2010. Her short story collection Bystanders was hailed by Jennifer Egan as "a bold, riveting mash-up of Hitchcockian suspense and campfire-tale chills." She is also the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, tales of dark etiquette. Her fiction has been published in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, and numerous other journals, magazines, and anthologies. Tara lives and works in a suburb of Washington, D.C.