Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Matthew Barrett

by Kari Nguyen Read the Story December 19, 2016

One of the things I love about “The Father’s Story” is the way it evokes character, family history, emotion, and many questions, and does this in under 500 words. Can you describe what draws you to writing flash fiction and what you look for when reading it?

Thanks so much. I think the biggest reason I write flash fiction is so I can take a break from putting a novel together. In a way, it’s become an escape from all of the other genres. It’s nice to sit down and actually have a complete story at the end of the day. It’s so much more rewarding! When I begin a story, the only thing I really care about is whether a reader will feel something. So all I’m looking for is a little spark of emotion. I think that’s the beauty of flash fiction—the storyline doesn’t have to be overly complicated, so I can get straight to the heart of a character. I don’t like reading stories with too much background information, and I try to write as little of it as possible in my own work. Flash fiction kind of forces you to cut out the backstory or incorporate it more organically. It’s freeing that way. You can get straight to the scene. I look for that when I’m reading or writing anything. The faster I can get to what matters, the better. Good flash fiction forces everyone into a story from the very first word.

The existing action here is minimal. A man writes a few lines in a letter to his children. He places the letter into an envelope, taps it, and turns out a light. The real, compelling forward movement of the story centers on the imminent actions of the father and the reunion with his kids, to powerful effect. Did you know from the outset that you wanted to write it this way?

I knew that I wanted to write minimal action, but I hadn’t decided how much of the story would exist in the future and/or past until I wrote it. I have always been a big fan of minimal action, and most of the stories I write are set in a single moment or evening. I get excited about writers like Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, whose stories sometimes feel like unimportant conversations but actually reveal everything you need to know about the characters. So to keep myself interested, I try to write a lot of my stories in a similar way. As for “The Father’s Story,” I went back and forth on whether I should set all of the main action in the future. I considered bringing the father to his children’s house and ending it there. I also considered having him rip up the note so the action only existed in his head. None of that seemed to do anything, and it felt like the only real solution was to leave their interaction a few days away. I’m kind of happy their meeting hasn’t happened yet. I’m still waiting for the father to knock on their door, and maybe if the right idea comes to me, I’ll write a follow-up story detailing what actually happens when he goes home.

Yes! We hope you do! The father left me feeling haunted, unsure, and hopeful. How do you view the father? Did you write him this way intentionally, or did his character evolve?

I view the father as someone who has become so desperate to find meaning in his life that he will risk scarring his kids to do so. Maybe it’s because he’s travelled the country and hasn’t been able to talk about his journey or because his motel room now feels empty and cold or because his children just lost their mother—but for some reason, he finally realizes that his life has to change. I always knew he wanted to see his children again, but my first draft ended with him standing on the porch. It felt so boring to me. Why would he just stand on the porch? Who cares if he stands there? So I thought about who he might be. Could he been even more of a menace than I originally thought? Could he become a threat to his own children? That’s when I decided he would go inside the house. Because even though he wants his children to love him, he is willing to scare them into doing so. What kind of person is he then? I’m not entirely sure.

Your last line is killer. It speaks to the urgency and unknowns of the story, and kept me unsettled and invested. Generally speaking, how would you describe that moment in writing when you realize how a story will end?

I rewrote the last line about twenty times before I actually settled on the one you see. Some of the rewrites were just to change a word or two, and others took the story in an entirely different direction. I normally try to come up with the ending when I’m halfway through a story—I’ll type a general idea at the bottom of a document and work toward it. Unfortunately, I almost never use that ending. Some new detail will take me in another direction, and I’ll have to think about my story differently. It’s frustrating sometimes, but the vagueness keeps me looking for new answers. I won’t ever be sure of the ending until I write the final sentence, and even then, I’ll have to step away from the computer and let it sink in. If I reread my story and it feels like something is missing, I’ll rethink the ending first. How can I make all of the details matter? That’s the most important question for me, and once I figure out how to tie every little piece together—while keeping it all as loose as possible—then I know it’s over.

About the Author:

Matthew Barrett was born in Doylestown, PA and earned his MFA in fiction from UNC-Greensboro. His fiction and essays have appeared in River Teeth, The Maine Review, Word Riot, Wigleaf, Timber Journal, and elsewhere. In September he moved with his wife, Lindsay, and dog, Rudy, to Sacramento, CA.

About the Interviewer:

Kari Nguyen lives in New England with her dog, husband, daughter, and twin boys. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, a two-time prize winner in the Glass Woman Prize, and her work has received recognition from Glimmer Train, The Binnacle, and New Hampshire Writers Magazine.  Over twenty-five of her stories have been published online and in print, most recently in The Best of Boston Literary Magazine anthology. Kari is the former Nonfiction Editor for Stymie Magazine where she also directed Stymie's "Why I Write" web series. Find her at karinguyen.wordpress.com or on Twitter @knguyenwrites.

About the Artist:

A Best Small Fictions 2015 Winner, Dave Petraglia's writing and art have appeared in Agave, Apeiron Review, Chicago Literati, Crack the Spine, Foliate Oak, Gravel, Jersey Devil Press, Necessary Fiction, Loco Magazine, New Pop Lit, North American Review, Pithead Chapel, Popular Science, Prairie Schooner, Stoneboat, theNewerYork, Vine Leaves, and elsewhere. He is a Contributing Editor at Arcadia Magazine.