Smoking With Dave Clapper
Read the Story June 15, 2008
What do you, as an editor, look for in a story? What about your own story, “The Cougar,” fits this criterion?
I want to be captivated, to be forced to keep reading. I like to have an “Oh, no, she di’n’t!” moment while reading, but for that moment to be natural within the course of the story. I want my posture to change from leaning back in my chair to leaning forward with my eyes far too close to the monitor.
It’s hard for me to say whether or not “The Cougar” does that. It’s on the long side for SmokeLong—a bit over a thousand words—but I think (I hope) it doesn’t feel like it. I think the dialogue keeps things moving quickly. In re-reading it while editing, I was pretty happy with how easy it was for my eyes to keep moving from beginning to end.
I also really want flashes to stick in my head after reading. Quite often, my initial vote on a story can be a “no” or a “maybe, leaning no,” but then after a week or so, I realize that it won’t get outta my head, so I go back in and change my vote. And I still find myself thinking about these guys, much moreso than my usual flashes.
So I guess it passes my editorial eye a couple ways, even though I think it’s fairly different from what usually grabs me.
This flash is comprised almost exclusively of dialogue. I’ve never seen that done before. Was dialogue the natural structure? Or was this piece an exercise in control?
Totally the natural structure. It was the best way to convey the character of these guys, and also to set the scene. A lot of dialogue I see in flashes feels unnatural, like the writers are trying to force too much exposition/explanation into the words. But, for me, this was just how I felt these guys talking, and even though their words are often clipped and they’re not great monologists, they still convey a lot of information.
When I sat down to write, I didn’t know what was going to come out. This particular piece came during about a two-week period of forcing myself to write every night. I had nothing planned for this particular night, and changed my Facebook status to reflect that, then called Ellen Parker and said, “Can you give me five words?” This is an exercise a lot of writers I know use when we’re stuck: take five random words and use them somehow in a story. I think it’s in Natalie Goldberg’s “Wild Mind,” but it may be in her “Writing Down the Bones.”
Anyway, about the same time Ellen emailed me back with five words, Jon Rosenthal, a student who saw me speak at Fremd High School a few months back saw my Facebook status and said, “Write a story about the fact that the first cougar seen in Illinois for the past 100 years was shot for doing nothing. Damn hicks.” And that was all I needed. That and a couple shots of Dewar’s White Label.
All of which is to say, no, it wasn’t an exercise in control so much as an exercise in desperation.
What amazes me about this story is the weight it ends up carrying. Often times, dialogue doesn’t convey a deeper reality. At least not on its own. But it does here. A strong sense of community and character comes through, and the ending is a powerful pronouncement to what the cougar, and the fate of the cougar, means to both.
Thanks, Kelly. I’ve been thinking a lot since writing this about that community and character, especially because it’s set in Chicago, which I lived on the cusp of for a bit over a decade, but never lived in. Tao Lin had this funky article about Seattle in The Stranger a while back, summarizing his feelings about Seattle from a reading he gave here, and a lot of it had to do with the fact that he was a visitor. And that was me in Chicago. Although I lived in the ‘burbs through junior high and high school, and then just north of Chicago through six years of college, my trips to Chicago were always events: baseball games, theater, parties, visits to bars, museums, the zoo, etc. I was there a fair amount, but I never lived there, I never worked there—I didn’t walk the streets as a part of my daily life. So it’s this familiar yet mythical thing. It lets me have a different conversation with it than I could have with Seattle. It allows for the creation of a community that doesn’t quite exist in reality and to take liberties with it, but because I’m crazy about the place and a bit in awe of it, the liberties are taken with care.
And, even after 18 years in the Northwest, I’m still a Midwest boy by nature. I’m not sure I can explain it much better than that, but Chicago fits and informs my words, without dictating them. And because of that, I sort of stumble upon meanings without forcing them. Too often, when I have a specific message in mind for a piece, it falls utterly flat. These guys… this situation… this city… they all worked together to tell me what the message was, rather than me telling them.
This issue marks SmokeLong‘s fifth anniversary, which has me thinking about longevity and growth. There’s no denying the literary arena is a fickle one, with journals coming and going, writers shooting onto the scene then falling into a long hiatus, editors changing houses, agents merging, and the trends! Don’t even get me started! How do you, as a writer, endure the ups and downs? Have you experienced any setbacks? What measures have you taken to grow?
My focus as a writer (and an editor) is so narrow (flash) that I don’t think it’s impacted me in quite the same way it has a lot of writers. Like the whole memoir craze? And the uproar about fake memoirs? Just one big old shrug to me. Especially the outrage. I don’t get it. Just shelve it in fiction and move on. Good writing’s good writing, and I don’t particularly care how it’s marketed.
As far as growth, I try to let it be as organic as possible. Live, be a good father, a good boyfriend, a good person, etc., and let those things direct me. Perhaps I should say “try to be a good ____,” though, because trying and succeeding aren’t the same thing. And failure, frankly, is often the quickest path to growth, whether I like it or not.
Other members of the staff took the opportunity to ask some questions as well:
Randall Brown: You take your commitment to treat writers fairly and humanely very seriously, Dave. How does this belief translate to how SLQ operates? And why is that such an important part of SLQ‘s philosophy?
Mostly, it comes down to some bad experiences I had as a writer before starting SmokeLong, and the fact that I had a hard time separating my self and ego from my writing. If my writing was treated poorly, I felt like I was being treated poorly. So I wanted someplace where writers felt like their work was cared for. In the early days, that manifested itself in a number of ways: very quick response times, individualized feedback in rejections (often with recommendations of markets that might be interested in the pieces), a reasonably attractive site, individual interviews, etc. There are other things that I had in mind from the beginning that have become more obvious with time: a stable site that isn’t going to shut down unexpectedly, on-time publishing schedules, a better presentation of the material in terms of design, etc. Some of the initial stuff has fallen by the wayside over time: we’re not as fast as we used to be (we used to average two days to respond!) and we don’t tailor every rejection or recommend other markets. Some of that’s due to volume of submissions and some of it’s due to hostility we occasionally received to specific feedback. A lot of writers just want a “yes” or a “no” only, and there’s no way of knowing which writers feel that way until we know them. So our rejections are standard forms now.
The biggest way in which I think the philosophy manifests itself is in the staff. The people who work on SmokeLong are all writers who know what it’s like to submit, and they’re all very kind, respectful, and knowledgable. I can’t overstate the value of that, because all of us are in communication with submitters and writers. I can’t imagine ever hearing about a flame war between an SLQ editor and a writer like what Fence posted on their site recently.
Of course, having said that, I kind of got into it with the blogger behind Literary Rejections on Display a while back, not about him submitting to SmokeLong (he’s anonymous, so I don’t know if he ever has submitted to us), but about the appropriateness of solicitations and what they mean to submitters to the “slush.” Since then, I’ve come to really enjoy his site, and I think he likes me okay.
Thomas White: Has SLQ followed your vision for it from the beginning? How has it not? Are you happy with where it is now?
Yeah, I think it has. The vision’s really focused on two things: 1) treating writers well, and 2) promoting flash fiction. Everything else has been an organic growth from those two things. There are still a ton of things I want to do, many of them based on ideas from the other editors. The biggest holdup there is finding the time to do them, as a lot of them require new coding.
Joseph Young: Have you noticed in any way the influence SmokeLong may have had—through its style, it editors, what it publishes—on flash fiction? Do you think the magazine has shaped the flash aesthetic? Do you hope it does? Was this a thought for you when you launched SmokeLong?
Beyond promoting flash in general, I don’t think it was in my thoughts initially. But yeah, I do think it’s had an influence. Someone on Zoetrope a while back bemoaned the “SmokeLong style.” I thought that was kind of funny, because I hadn’t really thought about their being a style endemic to us. And I look at stuff we publish and think it could appear in a number of other excellent magazines: Quick Fiction, Vestal Review, elimae, FRiGG, etc. And vice versa. Just looking at the reprints in this issue alone, they’re coming from a number of different places.
I don’t think I can define the “SmokeLong style,” exactly, but I think there are things that we allow for that the more classic flash markets before us didn’t. Vestal Review, for example, feels strongly about each flash being a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. Those work for us, but that distinction isn’t necessary to us. There were also a ton of articles about writing flash out there that emphasized the importance of twists in the endings. Those don’t work for us. I find them cheap and unearned, more like jokes than literature. I don’t think our existence has killed that idea (there are still many markets for it), but we, along with a number of great mags that publish flash, have really helped to dispel the notion that it’s imperative to flash.
The biggest thing I think can be classified as “SmokeLong style” is that quite often our stories require a highly engaged reader. They’re not easy. They haunt. They require thought. The twist ending flashes, to me, are like tissues: you use them (read them) and then throw them away, never to think about them again. SmokeLongs aren’t so easily discarded. Or forgotten.
About the Author:
Dave Clapper is the founding editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.