I recently re-read your story “Good Deeds” in WhiskeyPaper. One of the things I find really striking about the story is even though Len is a character who’s really easy to laugh at, you treat him so kindly throughout the story. Can you talk more about why you chose him, rather than any of the other characters, as your main character?
I wrote Len for a lot of reasons. First, I read a lot of stories where distressing things are happening to the main character, rather than the main character causing this distress, so I wanted to play with that a bit. But answering more as to why I treat him kindly, I did this for a couple of reasons. In life, off the page, I try to be as empathetic as I can to everyone, even (and perhaps especially) those who make choices that I wouldn’t. I think it’s too easy to write people off for being different or unlikeable, and it’s too easy to categorize people into the black and white: good and bad, wrong and right. I would rather take the time to see the shades of gray, the reasons people act like they do, their complexities and their struggles.
I wrote the story to be funny, but not because Len deserves to be laughed at, if that makes sense. I can’t really laugh at anyone – I’m too sensitive and I hurt for other people too easily. I’m a big sloppy cry baby when it comes to other people’s pain. I’d rather get inside that person’s mind and try to figure out why they are the way they are. I may not like what I see, or even like the person they are, but I’d rather live a life of empathy and risk disappointment than miss out on being wonderfully surprised.
I’m not trying to paint myself as some kind of saint, but sometimes empathy is a choice and I choose it every time. Writing, for me, is a great act of connection, so I carry all of this into my fiction. I want to write characters who have those shades of gray, who are complex and difficult to understand, that you want to shake and say “you’re making a mistake!” but you, as the reader, know why they’re doing it. You read them and think they’re doing bad things, but you don’t think they’re bad people.
Haven’t we all known a Len? Someone who wants so much to do something meaningful, but there’s something missing in the execution? Someone who is so lonely and starved for recognition that they do something desperate, and don’t understand why it isn’t going their way? That’s the real conflict here – sure, he’s offensive and can’t pick up on social cues, but it comes from a place of loneliness. His mistakes are humorous to read, but he’s sort of pitiful in the way he can’t connect with anyone. He’s just misunderstood, and I like to write characters who are begging to be seen and understood.
What makes a character feel real to you?
Gosh, this sounds so cliché, but a character has to be complex. Just like what I said about Len, I want characters who are flawed and imperfect, because people are messy piles of imperfections. No person is all good or all bad or all innocent or all evil. My mother always said that our gifts are our curses, and I want to see that in characters too. Someone’s sensitivity to other people’s feelings makes them get hurt easily. Someone’s extreme intelligence makes them seem condescending.
Also, a real character has to want something, be driven by something, and this inspires their actions. A real character makes questionable decisions, and isn’t always likable.
I’ve never met someone who is wholly content, who isn’t wanting something, or someone, or somewhere different. Once the fleeting feeling of contentness passes, we’re chasing after that feeling again. People are always striving for something, and I think characters have to contain this human restlessness as well. Who wants to read a story about someone sitting around happy with their life and nothing changes? First of all, that’s boring. And second of all, that’s not how life works. Even the most happy people have their boats rocked once in a while.
Real characters tap into a real human emotion, or they stir that emotion up in the reader because we, as readers, are imperfect too. We recognize our imperfections in characters and we are able to connect. We see the ugliness and beauty that we recognize in ourselves. That feeling of connection is what makes a character feel real.
As the acquisitions editor for Hypertrophic Press, what makes you feel like you must publish a story?
There are a few things I look at when deciding if I want to accept a story. For one, does it match the journal’s aesthetic and guidelines? Is it full of clichés or is it unoriginal? Is it written with care? What I mean by that is, can I tell that thought was put into it rather than being dashed off and sent away immediately. Not that hasty stories are always bad, but they often show marks of rushed writing, such as incomplete thoughts or ideas, major grammatical errors, logic flaws, etc. Some editing may be necessary for any story, but if it’s clear the writer didn’t take the time to look their story over, it makes me wonder why we should take the story more seriously than the author did.
Especially in flash, the story has to feel whole within itself. It has to have an ending, even if, as Chris DiCicco tends to say, the ending is a beginning. I know that sounds contradictory, but I see a lot of stories that don’t know where or how to end.
OK, that’s all normal submission stuff. I think most editors would agree with all that.
I, personally, love stories that are grounded in natural elements. Taylor Imel’s “My Mother is a Person” in our Summer 2016 issue is a great example of this. Using the natural world, our most basic elements, to describe the human condition always speaks to me and my nature-loving heart.
I love stories that touch a nerve, that feel like a punch to the gut or a warm hug. Stories that make you want to read it and reread it because the combination of words is something new and exciting. I like stories that surprise me without cheap shots. I love stories that have fun with words and concepts, that make you look at the meaning of words and how people interpret them differently.
I love stories that challenge me to think about people differently. To understand people outside myself. We didn’t publish this story, but Amanda Miska just had a story in Little Fiction called “Weightless and Hysterical” that I loved. It talks about people who are so different from me, but they’re relatable and textured and real. That’s a story I would have published.
In ten words or less (your choice if the words are concurrent or not), what is your definition of flash fiction?
Very short story. Captures change and connection. An exposed vein.