Smoking With Matt Briggs

Read the Story March 15, 2008

I like the feeling of insignificance this character has. “He didn’t have to look after me.”; “The trees had been growing for decades before I was born. They would be growing decades after I was dead.”; “In just thinking about the landscape where I lived, I understood what would happen to me and my remains.” Unusual thinking for a person his age…

I didn’t realize this until you pointed it out. I try not to think too much about a short short. It used to take me days to write one, but then I found that I usually liked, in retrospect, the ones that I wrote in one setting and maybe fiddled with for a while. I had a very strange job right out of college where I worked for a Wastewater Association. I was left alone in the office for hours and hours most days and didn’t have a lot of Wastewater business. I spent a lot of that time writing very short stories. One would take a week. I would write and then cut my story down and then rewrite the same three or four paragraphs over and over again. The office was in an old school. In the summer, it became very hot. I looked out on an old parking lot. I’d think about my stories while I went for a walk through the green belt and look at the gigantic ant hills under the madrone trees. It was right under the flight path, near the house where I live now. I miss having all of that time. I’m avoiding answering your question. I have theories I guess. I kind of felt this way as a child. I didn’t really relate to my father. I felt closer to my uncles, but they hardly ever visited our house and when they did they were often drunk or stoned so they would get distracted by other things. I’d get this intense focus from them, and then it would move on. Mostly I was left alone, which is kind of how I like it.

Why did you end this story with a philosophical thought from the narrator?

For some reason this story ended up having philosophical asides. I used to have a theory that short fiction and even shorter fiction such as the short short should only have concrete language in it. “The Hills Like White Elephants” being the ideal story in this mode. I don’t feel this way anymore, although I still like “The Hills Like White Elephants.” Even when I had this theory and would spend weeks working on a single page, abstract language would end up in the story. The idea was that concrete language was somehow more honest and transparent than abstraction. I took show don’t tell at its word, although I was stuck trying to show with words instead of pictures. And now I don’t really think there is anything honest about words, and I don’t believe they make good windows in the way, for instance, that glass makes for a
good window.

It’s wonderful that place is so prominent in this flash. Is it an important aspect in your other work as well?

I would like to believe I could write about the Pacific Northwest, which is where I grew up and where I find many writers who really interest me because they are writing about the place where I grew up, without really referring to anything specific about the place. I would like to think that a place could be abstracted into a kind of inflection in the way, maybe, that someone would write a Southern Novel set in Scotland or a Russian novel set in Florida. I guess I mean by this a place is less a geography and more of a collection of generations gossiping about each other. This communal talk makes for a place because it is reflected in language.

Part of the reason “a sense of place” bothers me is that it gives too much weight to the idea that fiction must be rooted in “life experience,” and real, significant events, as if fiction should only be written by someone like Ernest Hemingway, or Norman Mailer, Janet Frame, Lois Ann Yamanaka—writers I am inspired by but who have also suffered massive trauma in one way or another. In this way, I guess I’ve been fortunate. I’ve overheard a great deal of trauma even if my own life is pretty boring.

But, this seems kind of limiting to the possibilities of fiction—and irrelevant to some of the fiction that I find equally inspiring, such as Donald Barthleme, Russell Edson, and Jorges Luis Borges.

Even though I don’t want my own fiction to be tied down to more or less realistic places, I can’t help but have been born somewhere and to live there. I can’t help but think about where I have lived, and things I have seen. They end up in stories. But I don’t mind if a building moves a block in my stories. I don’t really feel this is a shortcoming. I make stuff up all the time. I don’t remember things very well.

Even so, I am willing to accept that I am a hick or regional or whatever you want to call someone who isn’t a writer of national reputation or international in some way. Most of what I write is set in the Pacific Northwest. Everything I have written is written in the Pacific Northwest even if it is about somewhere else and read by someone who is somewhere else.

Asking about place, as you can see, is very complicated for me. When I think of “Regionalism” then I am thinking less specifically of “a sense of place” and more about how objects and ways things happen in the place where I am and how they have been turned into fiction by other writers and how other writers have used this stuff. I recently read H.L. Davis’ Honey in the Horn—a great novel set in 1908 Oregon—it follows a runaway traveling through the Oregon countryside. H.L. Davis’ book in turn was clearly something that Ken Kesey read and thought about in terms of his book Sometimes a Great Notion. This is regionalism to me, and although place is part of it, something that would be more important to me would be the more or less arbitrary way in which writers have written about how things sometimes happen here, if that makes any kind of sense whatsoever.

I guess this is a really long-winded answer (maybe longer than my short!) to the question. My books are set in the Pacific Northwest for the most part. I am happy being a Pacific Northwest or North Pacific Novelist over being an American Novelist or English Language Novelist or White Guy Writer. Place for me since I wrote about people who live in buildings and walk on railroad tracks is inescapable—but not inescapable like a prison, I hope.

You’re giving a reading in Seattle on March 11th. What, and where?

I am teaching a class at 826 Seattle on the short short. It is about writing as fast and loud, as quickly as possible. It’s less about the whole Beat thing—first thought best thought—and more about making whole pieces of writing in the context of doing ten million other things. It is about the blurt being a perfectly valid art form. When someone says something to you and you start telling them what is on your mind, write it down. That is something. If Frank O’Hara could give Robert Lowell a run for his money, well then, 400 words is enough for a story and it doesn’t take more than twenty minutes to write it down.

While reading through the annual Kathy Fish Fellowship applications, I was struck by the number of writers who were using flash as, to paraphrase, a means to an end. Most people weren’t writing flash because they loved the form, because it took them places other types of fiction didn’t. Instead, they were using it as a gateway into longer works—short stories, short story collections, novels. As a champion of flash, I found this discouraging. Is flash fiction less satisfying, in terms of either writing or reading, than longer works? Or is it that the markets still haven’t accepted flash as a legitimate form? Why do you write flash, and where do you see it taking you?

As a reader my favorite form is the short story. I like them to be varied from short shorts (0-750 words or so) to maybe 5-6K. Over 6K I start to get antsy. When Alice Munro started writing longer stories, I stopped reading her. At first I thought it was just that her stories were boring. But it was just that her stories were too long for me. They were just as good as the stories in Moons of Jupiter, one of her earlier books. One time I grabbed a bunch of books that I wanted to have on a shelf where I could look at them while I was writing, and they were all collected stories—Conrad Aiken, Hemingway, Donald Barthleme, Wallace Stegner, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Raymond Carver, Isaac Babel, Jim Shepard, Three Lives, Anton Checkov, Flanner O’Conner, Lydia Davis, and so on.

Length is really important although it seems really, really simplistic. A short short cannot do the things that a novel can do and a novel can only rarely do what a short short can do, Why Did I Ever? being one of the exceptions that prove the rule. I have a few books of short shorts that I like: Jim Heynen’s books, The Tunnel by Russell Edson, The Lagoon by Janet Frame, and Internal Combustion Engine by Michael Ives. The tone and structure of these books are a lot different from collections of short stories. They aren’t “prose poems” either although they sometimes get called that.

But are they are a means to an end? I take it your question is asking whether they serving as a kind of training story or a sketch that might be developed into a “real story.” Wallace Stegner said about his own stories that short stories were a young writer’s medium. It is sometimes said that short stories are training for the writing of novels. And I suppose you could apply this logic to the idea that something even shorter might be a medium for training how to write a short story.

I don’t think this is true. There are a lot of writers who write great short stories or novels that are really collections of stories. Stephen Dixon is a writer like this. He always writes something and what he writes is what it is. He isn’t writing something to get to something else. He is writing something to write something. And I don’t read something to get someone’s training material. In Our Time is a great book with or without The Sun Also Rises, in the same way that Dubliners is a great book without or without Ulysses. Plenty of writers only write short stories—Grace Paley, Raymond Carver, Anton Checkov, Thom Jones, Isaac Babel, Amy Hempel and a lot of writers who sometimes write novels I think are mainly story writers, Flannery O’Connor, and John Cheever.

The thing is, although they are both narratives—at least this thing I’m talking about—shortness, either short story or short short—puts an odd kind of pressure on the story. A short story for instance can rarely capture an entire life. Some classic things usually constrain a short story, even if the story disregards them. Unity of time and place and action being one of them. A short story unfolds generally in continuous time with a sequence of events or a logical progression. It contains scenes and events and things that happen to someone. Mostly the thing that happens is that a person becomes a different person somehow.

A short short, however, is just a sliver of this story. It is so short that it usually cannot contain a person much less a person becoming someone else. But it suggests this event somehow, and it does this by focusing mostly on the words. Words are a lot more important than even a short story where they are also important. I don’t think in many novels that words are that important. I think in novels that words and sentences are overrated. How can someone explain writers like Stephen King who can write an unintelligible sentence? Critics often talk about the sentence in a novel as kind of athletic event. I think this is a completely misplaced idea. However, in the short short, things come down to words.

So I think of each of these things as different forms although they are prose. For some reason, and I wish I had a cogent explanation, length changes fiction. A short short, which is a really bad name for a genre, is different from a short story which is different from a long story, and all these are different from a novel. They are an end to themselves. A person who writes short shorts gets good at writing short shorts not novels. A novelist who only writes novels only gets good at writing novels. At least this is what I think right now.

About the Author:

Matt Briggs is the author of four works of fiction, including Shoot the Buffalo, a novel published by Clear Cut Press and winner of a 2006 American Book Award. Recent work has appeared in The Raven Chronicles, First Intensity, Seattle Magazine, and The Clackamas Literary Review. He keeps a blog at http://www.seedcake.com/mattbriggs.