Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Brad Aaron Modlin

by Beth Fiset Read the Story December 19, 2016

The kind of form used here, a list, has been popular in fiction, but this particular number—five—seems to work well in flash fiction. It’s not as ironic as using the number 10, but creates a greater sense of a list than the number three. Can you tell us about your inspiration for this piece, and why you chose to write in this form?

This story began in part because some characters kept hanging out in my imagination, and I wanted to get to know them better. I was curious how they would each react to the same catalyst. New characters were written to bounce off the ones I already had—additional people into whose ongoing lives the drought also imposed itself. Five was the right number because fewer than that wouldn’t have offered as much opportunity for comparison. More would have cut into each man’s time.

Knowing that you are a poet as well as a fiction writer, can you tell us how the two forms of writing intersect for you? The obvious answer from an outsider’s perspective looking at only the work here would be the length of the writing—flash fiction coincides with poetry because they are both shorter forms. I imagine that there is more to it than that.

I tell my students that a longer form is a pitcher of orange juice and that a shorter form—especially a poem—is the can of orange juice concentrate from the frozen foods section. Actually, a spoonful of it that you eat straight from the container. This is an oversimplification because when writing standard-length fiction, I’m also looking for energetic, orange-spoonful moments. Likewise, fiction tells us to consider desire and change, and these elements fuel a poem. I write nonfiction as well, and CNF offers some fascinating opportunities with structure—which in turn find their way into my fiction and poetry brainstorming. For me, the three genres are always bumping into each other: big, talkative people on a small elevator.

One thing about these five men that sticks out to me, even though there are narrative elements present, is that each character functions as a complete image. I envision a series of paintings of this story world, each painting featuring one of the characters. What is it about flash fiction that calls for an image that longer fiction does not? Or you could argue that longer fiction calls for the same quality and type of imagery, but flash doesn’t move beyond that, calling out its importance in fiction.

While image empowers longer fiction—we could think of Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes or of Janie Crawford’s hair—I think shorter work invites the reader to stand still and stare. If you describe this flash fiction as a painting, then perhaps a longer fiction is a film. It provides more movement and more time. And of course, more images that take turns seizing your attention.

Is there a reason you chose to write about five men as opposed to five women, people of various genders, children, etc.?

This story is a sibling to another, longer story, of which an earlier version featured multiple genders. But with time, eight women characters arose as the ones who owned that longer narrative. As I was working on Surviving in Drought (The Cupboard, January 2017), I realized it needed another piece, one featuring men. Both of these stories seek to explore and complicate ideas about gender, love, and family. Highlighting women or men in each story emphasizes those ideas. With “Five Men in a Drought,” I was particularly interested in how threats to survival—or to the desired life—affected the characters. For Man #2, the question of how/if he can handle these threats is tied in with his understanding of what a man is, and of what that means for his sons.

A central theme of this piece is loss—a lacking, a missing—essentially, a drought of various things. As we are all called to write about it, what do you believe this theme and the piece as a whole says about the human condition?

It’s beyond my ability to speak for capital-H Humanity, but many old stories and myths describe an original loss. A garden from which we were expelled. Or Plato’s idea that before we were divided down the middle, we each had four arms and four legs and now we search for our other halves. These tales suggest a shared lack or homesickness. If that’s part of being a person, then we have to think and write about it. We have to live well with this longing. On the one hand, it can lead to greed and unhealthy competition—like the hoarding of water in the story. On the other hand, it can lead to curiosity, to spiritual exploration, and to seeking people to create community.

About the Author:

Brad Aaron Modlin is the author of Everyone at This Party Has Two Names, which won the Cowles Poetry Prize — and the author of Surviving in Drought, a small collection of stories that won The Cupboard's annual contest. His nonfiction has appeared in River Teeth, Florida Review, Fourth Genre, DIAGRAM, and others. He is a member of the English faculty at Missouri Southern.

About the Interviewer:

Beth Fiset earned her MA from Missouri State University, where she still teaches composition. She is a proud mom of one and dreams of living in New York City, and her flash fiction can be found in Bartleby Snopes and Heavy Feather Review.  

About the Artist:

A Best Small Fictions 2015 Winner, Dave Petraglia's writing and art have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, bohemianizm, Cheap Pop, Crack the Spine, Five:2:One, Gambling the Aisle, Hayden's Ferry, matchbook, Medium, McSweeney's, Necessary Fiction, North American Review, Per Contra, Points in Case, Popular Science, Razed, SmokeLong Quarterly, Up the Staircase, and others.