Your story “Alligator” is striking for the way it balances melancholy and the absurd. When you sat down to write this story, which came first to you, the dissolution of the marriage or the alligator in the pool?
I find it difficult, usually, to pinpoint the genesis of a story, but the origin of “Alligator” is clear. I was on vacation, reading in the corner of the pool, the sun on my back, when I felt something nudge me. I looked over my shoulder and there, turning slowly in the water, was an inflatable crocodile (or what I thought was a crocodile). This got me thinking: what if there was an actual crocodile in the pool? And what the hell is the difference between a crocodile and an alligator anyway?
I sat down to write a draft soon after, and that’s when the guy, his absent wife, and their struggling relationship appeared on the page. I didn’t plan it; the story just happened. That’s one of the things I love about flash—I don’t need to worry about character arc or plot beats or any of the trappings of traditional longer form fiction. The limited word count actually gives me more freedom to magnify a single moment, often anchored by a specific image, without diluting it with peripheral details.
Let’s talk about opening sentences. This story begins with “the second thing”—an unusual way to open a story. I like how the reader’s attention is drawn sideways in this manner. Do you often look at scenes sideways and enter them through an oblique angle? How did this opening sentence come about—and was it an unusual process for you?
I spend most of my time working on first and last lines. For me, a good introductory sentence is one of the most challenging aspects of writing flash fiction. Not only where you start the story, or the information you choose to put in, but also introducing the tone of the piece—the emotion. I wanted to give a sense of the protagonist’s despair and longing right from the outset. Despite the fact his wife’s handprint is the second thing he sees, it’s this, and not the alligator in the pool, that is the focus of his attention.
I think it’s also important to try and approach something from a new angle, to engage the reader, but only if it serves the story. It’s a difficult balance. With flash, you have such limited space to work with that sometimes trying something new with form, structure, voice, etc., is the only way to express an idea sufficiently. On the flip side, experimentation for the sake of it rarely has an impact. For this reason, I don’t consciously try a radical approach with everything I write, and in fact up until the last couple of drafts of this story, the first line was, “The last thing I expected to see when I pulled the bedroom blind was an alligator in the pool.” This was fine as lines go—it set the scene and introduced the voice—but it was empty. I read it and didn’t feel anything.
Do you have personal experience with alligators yourself? Tell us about your writing space—out overlooking a pool, perhaps, or gazing out over a gator habitat on the bayou?
I wish! I’m from the UK, where the closest I get to an alligator in the pool is finding a frog in the garden. I do live in a beautiful part of the country, though, in a quiet village bordering a National Park. Inspiration is just a few minutes’ walk away. So to answer your question, I have no personal experience. As a kid, Crocodile Dundee was one of those films I used to watch on repeat until the VHS ribbon wore out, but that’s as far as it goes.
The only dedicated writing space I have is inside my head. I write wherever I can, whenever I can. Usually it’s late at night when my family is in bed, or early (and I mean early) in the morning before everybody wakes up. There’s something liberating about writing in the twilight hours—creativity is sharpest on the edge of things.
Your character Googles alligators, so he knows when he’s looking at one. What’s the oddest thing you have Googled lately?
Delving into my Google history, between the regular stuff like “what to do when a mouse chews through a water pipe” and “how to carve a Spiderman pumpkin face,” there are always odd little searches related to my latest writing projects. A couple of recent ones are “Do tortoises have teeth?,” and “What shoe size is the Statue of Liberty?” Turns out the answers are “No,” and “879.”
And finally, if there were a follow-up to this story, what would it be called?
I’m never going to win the award for World’s Greatest Title, so the working title of a sequel would probably be something like “Alligator 2: The Second One,” or “The Alligator Strikes Back.” I often want to rewrite the same story from another angle, so it would be interesting to explore the other half of this relationship. Maybe pick up on that final memory of his wife diving underwater, holding her breath for one, two, three lengths before she bursts above the surface. What does she see when she looks at him, sitting on the window ledge, smoking? How does she feel? Does she swallow the world, or choke on it? Now there’s a title…