“You can just read it. You should just read it.” An Interview with SLQ’s Former Fish Fellows

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This week on the SmokeLong Blog, in honor of the 2016 Kathy Fish Fellowship, we’re catching up with former SLQ Fish Fellows Tara Laskowski, Adam Peterson, Megan Giddings, Beth Cox Thomas, and Stefanie Freele. Read on for sage advice from our former fellows and some of their top picks for the distinction of “Honorary Fish Fellow.”

SmokeLong: How did you decide what to submit for the Fellowship?

Tara: I honestly don’t remember—I think at that point, I wasn’t really writing flash all that much, so I just submitted the only stories I had of that length! One funny thing I do remember—I found out I won on the same day as Obama’s first inauguration day, and when I read the email about winning, I gasped really loud. My husband came running in, really concerned. He thought that the president had gotten shot or something terrible! He was really, really happy to hear the news after that.

Adam: I looked for commonalities and tried to think of the pieces I chose as a cohesive series. Like a pamphlet. Like a pamphlet you hopefully wouldn’t immediately drop onto the street. Like a pamphlet you would politely recycle later.

Megan: Honestly, I only had four stories that were a thousand words or less at the time that I thought I could turn into something worth reading. I knew everything else I had was either not right for SmokeLong (I’d been reading the magazine pretty regularly) or were just junk pieces that I needed to write to learn how to write flash, but shouldn’t be sent out.  Having such a small amount helped to keep me focused. I also remember thinking while I was working on them that I was never going to win, but it was nice to have a purpose while revising. I was just happy at the time that there was this fellowship out there pushing me toward revision.

Beth: I mostly just tried to pick my best stories. At that point, I didn’t have a ton of stories to choose from, so it wasn’t too hard. I also tried to lean toward stories that I thought fit both the SmokeLong and the Kathy Fish kind of vibe. I had been a fan of Kathy’s for years, so it was fun to try to pick stories that might mesh well.

Stefanie: The stories I submitted for the Fellowship felt like the ones that seemed the most indicative of the style of writing I wanted to keep playing with. I searched through my stories and found a group that seemed to have in common: unpredictability and a slight sense of magical realism.

SmokeLong: What was the most unexpected result of the winning the Fellowship?

Tara: Getting to stay on staff at SLQ after the fellowship was over, and then taking the helm! I would never have dreamed of that—and it’s been so totally amazing.

Adam: Finding out how great and committed the entire SLQ community is. Not just your editors and artists and writers, but everyone who reads the site.

Megan: Winning the fellowship led to me becoming a reader for SmokeLong, which led to me becoming the Executive Editor last year.

Beth: I’d say 100% the most unexpected PART of winning was actually winning. I was completely shocked. The most unexpected result of winning was joining the SmokeLong Quarterly staff as a staff member after my year mentorship was up, then working with Tara as a senior editor for a year or so after that. Just being on the masthead of such a great publication was unexpected and wonderful.

Stefanie: I did not expect the group to help me get those stories so finely tuned. It was amazing. Randall Brown and team were forthcoming and helpful. They worked hard to get the stories tight.

SmokeLong: What was the best part of the Fellowship for you?

Tara: The best part for me was networking with so many writers and editors, and experimenting with my fiction for that year. I had so much fun focusing on flash.

Megan: About six months in, Tara started having me read for SmokeLong. I think the most helpful thing for my writing was getting to read a lot of submissions and learning how to think about writing not just in line with what I like or don’t like, but what’s a good fit for the magazine. Doing that also helped me become a stronger judge of where to submit.

Beth: The best part was working with writers I had admired for years. They gave me some wonderful advice and helped me rework stories until they were publishable. Just having a sounding board like that, people throwing out ideas and suggestions, gave me confidence to try new things.

Stefanie: Not only was it an honor to have my stories published in SLQ, but I had the opportunity to read lots of submissions and help choose some for publication. Finding stories to accept turned out to be unexpectedly fulfilling.

SmokeLong: How did your writing or your writing identity change if at all as a result of the Fellowship?

Adam: It got me back into writing short shorts. I hadn’t done many for the year or so prior while I worked on other projects, and apparently I really missed it. I made a goal to write all new stories for posting on SLQ, and I not only managed that but to write a lot more as well.

Megan: I don’t know if I would’ve been writing much flash today if it weren’t for the fellowship. It started right around the time I started my MFA. In my first workshop, I was expected to turn in a minimum of sixty pages spread across three stories. I guess I could’ve asked my workshop instructor if I could’ve turned in twenty to sixty flash fiction pieces, but I doubt that would’ve gone over well. Anyway, having the fellowship helped me continue developing and thinking about how quickly unique, clear details could establish character, stakes, and setting.

Beth: Mainly, just feeling good about myself and my writing is what changed. Until the fellowship, I felt like I was just experimenting (and failing a lot). I was struggling to complete stories and to be happy with them, and even more to get them published. I didn’t believe that I knew what I was doing. The fellowship gave me the confidence I needed to keep working and keep trying.

SmokeLong: What advice do you have for Fellowship hopefuls and other writers at this stage?

Tara: Publish your flash fiction online. I love print, I do, but I think you can build an audience and a reputation easier by publishing online. Also, like others here have said, volunteer for a journal if you can–reading the slush pile can really help you understand what’s out there and how you can set yourself apart from the pack.

Adam: Speak with your own voice. Choose pieces that prove that voice is yours and yours alone. Avoid extended pamphlet-based metaphors.

Megan: The cover letter actually does matter. One of the things Tara cited in my acceptance letter is how specific I was in what I would gain from having a year of writing workshops and publications.

Beth: As cheesy as it sounds, just be true to yourself and your own voice. It shows and is appreciated. Take chances. Most importantly (some advice I should take, also) is to just keep at it. Keep practicing and improving. Read and read. If you get a chance to be a reader/editor at a magazine, take it. You’ll learn so much by seeing what everyone else is doing – both what works and what doesn’t.

Stefanie: The same advice I always give: Read. Read. Read.

SmokeLong: Who are your favorite flash writers these days, your nominations for “Honorary Fish Fellows?”

Adam: O, man, I wish I would have just been an “Honorary Fish Fellow” instead. That’s way cooler on a business card. Did I successfully avoid the question? Because my honest answer is that my favorite thing about short-short fiction is how authorless and fleeting it is. No piece is an opus. And that’s good because opuses are dumb. You can just read it. You should just read it.

Megan: A lot of the people who’ve read for SmokeLong Weekly over the past months (and in the future). I’ve also read some great stories not on SmokeLong recently that if they were in a Fish application packet, I would be voting for them. Some of them are: “The Spread” by Jennifer Howard; “Swearing in January 20, 2009” by Meron Hadero; and “3 Fictions” by Siel Ju.

Stefanie: Well, could we resurrect Russell Edson? I admire Lydia Davis, Bruce Holland Rogers, and Kathy Fish herself. Could she be a Fish fellow? There are a bunch of talented FF writers: Sherrie Flick, Avital Gad-Cykman, Tara Laskowski, Stefani Nellen, Ray Vukcevich, Kyle Hemmings, Tania Hershman…and many, many more.

SmokeLong is accepting submissions for the 2016 Fellowship until October 15, 2015. Send us your best!