“Flying” is one of my favorite stories in New Micro. You have a deep gift with writing about nostalgia, sadness and longing. Can you tell us how the piece came about?
Thank you. I honestly don’t know how this story happened. It was written quickly, and that shows in both good and bad ways. It started with the first line–a weird line, but that was the key to the whole story. It’s for sure a story I couldn’t have written when I was younger because it’s about time more than anything else, I think.
There’s a rhythm, a heartbeat in “Flying”, a breathlessness, that conjures the feeling of sledding downhill, of life whooshing past. Anything you can tell us about establishing rhythm, pace, music in your fiction?
That’s super important to me. A story has to sound good, it needs some music, and every story is different (although, if I’m being honest, lots of my stories are pretty dang similar, esp. when it comes to the people in them. I’m a big fan of stopping the moment in short stories at the most important place. If you don’t nail the opening and closing lines, you aren’t doing enough. I was in the MFA program with Richard Bausch as my instructor, and he had me re-do the ending to one story for about five weeks in a row until he said, You did it.
For me, “Flying” is a cinematic reading experience. I see it in my mind’s eye, and feel it. How do you suggest engaging the sense memory recall while writing?
Write about the things and images that speak to you. I’ve written way too often about snow, and living in Virginia, we see it, but it’s not a constant. Everything looks better under snow. Cities and deep country, everything. I like swimming pools, neon anything, old churches, birds…and that covers pretty much everything I use.
Another thing we love about your writing is that it is often very funny. (though “Flying” is not funny at all!) Sadness and humor, in your work, create an addictive reading experience. I’m thinking about “Zoo”, which we republished here at New Flash Fiction Review. And of course, “Five Fat Men in a Hot Tub” Is this combination in your writing a conscious thing?
Yes, absolutely. Every writer I admire mixes sadness with humor. If either one of these things is missing, I’m not there for it. Songs, too. I am a forever fan of Blaze Foley, John Prine, Kathleen Edwards, and so many others. “Clay Pigeons” by Blaze Foley is astonishingly moving and funny (to me, at least). But the humor needs (mostly) to be low-key, observational, used in dialogue. If I feel like the writer is elbowing my ribs and saying, Get it? My instinct is to turn away, turn around, bright eyes.
George Saunders talks about how vital music is in his writing life. I agree with him. For me, it helps create a mood and bring back buried memory. Do you listen to music when writing or beforehand?
I used to,but I stopped. When I did, it was almost always old soul music–ballads. I still love that music, but when I write, now, it’s silent, but I may go back to the way it used to be. It helps with key moments in stories. It shifts your mood and man, the longing, the longing. Songs by Al Green, Aretha, Chi-Lites, Curtis Mayfield, Delfonics, Barbara Lewis (I could listen to “Hello Stranger” on a forever loop), Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, or whoever sang “Emotional High.” You get my drift. But I can’t play songs I don’t know well because I focus more on the music, the music, you own it, you own it.
How can we use the real hard stuff of life in our stories without giving too much away? How does one work with an emotion such as nostalgia, regret, or longing— but also make it up?
We’re kind of stuck with who we are, so we might as well use it in the stories. Nostalgia–I don’t really trust or subscribe to that. Regret? Yes, of course. Longing? I don’t know where it comes from, but I know it’s where I live, better or worse.
How does the current divisive political climate in America inform your writing, if it does?
It makes me want to read more, watch less.
I remember speaking with Richard Bausch at AWP about how much I admire your stories. We were talking about flash writers we deeply admire. He said that with you, the trick (as your teacher) was “getting out of the way”. Can you tell us about your own teaching? How do you work with talented writing students?
I mostly teach composition and creative writing classes. In creative writing classes, I write with them, during class periods, and that helps with a We are all here, trying, feel. I try to teach them to write scenes, and not summaries. I praise strong work, and offer a few–only a few–suggestions to work that needs revising, and all work needs revising.
The best students I’ve taught are somewhat modest about their work, and understand how hard it is to do well. The students that tend to bug me are pretty darn convinced of their genius and my inability to grasp said genius. Also, I don’t have any interest in sci-fi or fantasy, so I’m not much of a help to them, and, really, I should try harder.
Are there re-usable writing exercises you like to offer your students, or that you use yourself? If so, can you tell us a few?
Get the books What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, and Naming the World, edited by Bret Anthony Johnson. I use both of these, all the time. I am also a fan of random prompt words filled with images (a snowshoe, a fly swatter, rice pudding, chickens).
What are you working on now?
Staying alive, chair yoga, more stories and maybe something longer. I am actually trying again to take writing and myself more seriously. The world is fine without me, but it’s something I need, and I’m thinking anyone who writes feels that way or else why do it? Well, aside from the massive fame and riches.
Jeff Landon has published a flash fiction novel, Emily Avenue (Fast Forward Press) and a collection of short-short stories, Truck Dance (Matter Press), and stories in Mississippi Review, New World Writing, Crazyhorse, Phoebe, Smokelong Quarterly, FRiGG, F(r)iction, Wigleaf, and other places.