Category Archives: Interviews

Interview with Lynn Mundell

Meg Pokrass interviews Lynn Mundell about her work in New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) and about the art of writing microfiction.

 

MP: I find your way of telling of your story, “The Old Days,” fascinating. You capture the personality of a man’s destructive life and ripple-effects by weaving his own well-worn phrase (and way of looking at the world) throughout, blending repetition with very real moments of disastrous human behavior. It feels like a magic trick, like misdirection, how we’re watching this life play out between the lines, literally. Can you tell us anything about how this piece evolved?

LM: Thank you, Meg. It was story that began with the first line, “In the old days, there was no Human Resources.” I had been contemplating how things in the workplace and the world in general are so different from when my parents were coming up. For example, there aren’t many pension plans in the U.S. anymore, but my parents each retired young with a pension. Also, men and women had somewhat prescribed roles and behaviors, which are mercifully changing and constantly being re-evaluated.

In the instance of this story, which is unusual for me, the character was waiting very eagerly for me — an older man who is hanging on to old beliefs as the world around him changes. It seemed to be a story brewing for a while because it poured out pretty clearly, also unusual! Finally, I wanted to submit the story to Five Points‘ call for submissions for its first flash fiction issue, so I also had a big goal and a deadline. The word count was only 250. So, I knew I had to get in there and get out.

MP: Your last sentence is startling and revealing. Now we’re sure he’s telling his own story. I wasn’t sure until the end. His defeat, even though the reader knows that he’s a jerk, feels brutal but fitting. What a great ending this is! Is there anything you can enlighten on about how this ending came to you? Did you know how it would end when you began writing the story, or did it find itself in the process of writing?

LM: The first half of the story is somewhat comic. He is not a nice guy, but he is also sadly hapless. How much can we say is his fault and how much is the time he lived in colliding with a new, modern time? As the story turned to its conclusion, I wanted to up our sympathy for him but I wasn’t sure exactly where he would end up toward the end of his life and the story.

During some of my evening commutes from the office with my friend Alexandra, we are stuck in Berkeley traffic on Sacramento Street, where there was a senior assisted living facility called The Berkshire. Sitting in traffic we would talk about how we would meet up there as old ladies, what we would do each day, and which apartments would be ours. That place ended up as the home for the narrator in “The Old Days.” (The Berkshire finally closed and has re-opened as Silverado, which might not have inspired the same story ending.)

MP: Lovers of the form know how essential omission is in these pieces. How do you know what to include and what to leave out?

LM: That is a good question and a hard one. The closer I can stick to what I want the story to say — whether it be about aging, lost love, family dysfunction, what have you — the clearer it is for me in the writing the path I should follow and what should be noted on that path. I get into trouble if I have a really vague idea of the story’s thrust and just starting throwing all sorts of details and stuff into the piece, sort of like when my dad used to sometimes do the family grocery shopping and he would come home with bags and bags of items, some really fun — like Hostess fruits pies and jumbo boxes of Crayons — and some pretty pointless — such as way too much plastic wrap.

MP: Any tips for tackling revision? How much revision is necessary for you with your very short pieces?

LM: I write with pen in notebooks sitting up in bed, like a granny. I never compose on the computer. I have kept all of the notebooks, and there are dozens gathering dust under my bed. I can’t part with them, like they are piece of me. Sometimes I look back and will see one small story took a whole notebook or even two, with fits and starts, rewrites, fiddly pondering over an adverb. Somewhere within me I usually know when a story is done.

If I don’t listen to myself, I regret it. I have made myself slow down even more with my writing this year, really digging deep for a story and taking more time. I recently thought I finished a piece but woke up in the middle of the night realizing I had not taken it far enough. It felt right after I rewrote it. My mantra is, Don’t treat writing as some sort of race but as a contemplative walk.

MP: When writing microfiction, do you begin with an image? A few random words? A memory? How do you begin, and how did you being when you wrote “The Old Days”?

LM: While “The Old Days” was really one line that rattled around my head, stories come in different ways. It can be a memory that I want to explore, such as the time my parents tried to adopt a boy who kept running away or the time my mom took me to our sunporch to talk about sex ed and mid-way one of our kittens fell in the pool. Sometimes you need look no further than life itself, which can be pretty crazy.

Word prompts don’t work quite as well for me, for some reason, but photos and drawings do. I also will have a theme I am thinking about in “real life” that will be worked out in a story. It is weird when time has passed and I see that a story was a conflating of memory, big stuff I was going through, such as the death of a dear friend, concerning world issues, and very mundane stuff, like when the washing machine malfunctioned and tore up my favorite work pants. 

MP: How do you get going when feeling uninspired? How do you attack the blank page?

LM: I will free-write some. If I feel stalled and that I am procrastinating, I will look for literary journal calls for submissions to see if that structure will bring about a story, as a story assignment might at my job. Sometimes that works but not always. I really would rather take half a year to write something I am really proud of than several weeks to write something forgettable. So, if I have nothing to write, that means I don’t need to write. I will do the two things that aid my writing, which are reading and swimming, and let myself regroup before I try again.

MP: Are there common traits that the best microfiction pieces, no matter how different, seem to share with one another?

LM: It sounds sort of woo-woo, but all of the great stuff out there — and microfiction and flash fiction really seem to be hitting a new high lately–shares a strong vision by the writer. It could be about a bear, Planet Earth, or our collective consciousness as humans, but there is not just description or just a character or just a place or just lovely language. There are all of those things working hard together to tell us something greater, either something we knew but forgot or something we didn’t realize but really needed to be told. 

MP: What other art forms do you feel are most similar the writing of microfiction?

LM: I am going with … knitting! Yes, knitting is an art, if one is good at it. (If one is not, then it is a crime against humanity.) When knitting, you might get pretty far along with your sock before you realized you effed up and dropped a stitch. If you want your sock to look good, you are going to rip out the stitches and lose the hours you spent knitting perfectly well after you made that mistake in order to correct your error and ultimately make the sock you were born to knit. For me, writing is the same. If I take a wrong turn, I need to go back to that juncture to fix the story. Otherwise, I will have a sock, I mean, story, that has not lived up to its potential. A stupid, useless sock-story.

MP: A novel, a micro, and a poem go to a bar together. What happens?

LM: All of the hot young people rush to the novel’s side to buy it Manhattans. It gets sloppy drunk and starts making out with the poem, which is stone cold sober and many will say later was overly serious. The poem has been in love with the novel for years — a dangerous cocktail of envy, slavish devotion, and pure lust. After a session in the men’s room together, they exit, smoothing their clothes and hurrying back to their genre group houses, where they tell the story of their meet-up to their titillated roomies. Nine months later, a micro is born. It is small, red, and squalling, but it is also the best aspects of the poem and the novel, which becomes more clear each year as the micro matures. One day its parents will be proud of it, acknowledge it as their own, and call it by its name.

MP:What are you doing now? What is next?

LM: I have been using news stories as story prompts lately. It is a new sort of project of mine, I guess. Not big, ugly stories, like you see on the surface of American news in particular these days, but small, strange stories from around the globe. A news report that one of the wives from the TV show “Sister Wives” left the family inspired a summer story of mine,  “Sister Wives at the County Fair,” which will be published by SmokeLong Quarterly in late September. More recently, a news story about the true Mona Lisa’s descendants coming forward prompted my story “Smile, Lisa,” recently published in Monkeybicycle. Since the news is great fodder, who knows what is next?!

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Lynn Mundell is co-founder and co-editor of 100 Word Story and co-editor of its anthology, Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story, as well as a managing editor at a large health care organization. Her short-short stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in many U.S. and U.K. literary journals, including Tin House online, Booth, Superstition Review, Portland Review, Permafrost, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, The Sun, and Five Points, as well as in anthologies including New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (W.W. Norton & Company, August 2018). Lynn earned her MFA in Creative Writing from American University and is an advisory board member of the U.C. Berkeley Extension Post-Baccalaureate Certificate Program in Writing.

Interview with Christopher Merkner

Meg Pokrass Interviews Christopher Merkner about his work in New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) and about the craft of writing micro fiction.

This interview is part of New Flash Fiction Review’s ongoing New Micro Interviews series.

MP: The first lines in your New Micro story, “Children at the Bar”, set things up beautifully “They aren’t at all slow or simple. They totally get reproach.” Right here it feels like you are letting us know that the way grown people perceive children as simple creatures, short happy idiots, and that this is way off base, which sets up the story beautifully for the weirdness to come in which the adults behave in uncontrollable, childish ways. Can you tell us anything about the seed for this story?

CM: A few years ago, my wife and I took our kids to a sort of bar-like eating place, I guess because we were desperate or curious, and we then took them back a few more times to this place on subsequent weekends. We really had no business being there with the kids, but the burritos were in fact really very nice.  The last time we took them, we sat down at a table where a man and a woman were talking absurdly and loudly—as people do at bars—and swearing relentlessly—as people do at bars.  I began to glare, and I probably said something self-righteous to the kids, and then these two people got up and came over and told us to fuck off, we were at a bar, with kids, who were we to fucking judge them?   And then they pulled up some chairs, and we all started making out—as people do at bars—and I just remember thinking that, while awkward, this was all really good data for the kids to be collecting at such an early age. No, obviously, this is just a silly, absurdist tale of judgement and privilege in foolish 2018 America.

MP: Why was flash fiction the right form to tell this story?

CM: It seemed to me at the time like more words would only do a disservice.  As I look at this story now, I am pretty sure I should have probably cut another fifty. Tomorrow I might feel differently.

MP: I feel like the father-narrator in this story has sealed himself off from the conventional world and is living in an eccentric and private world with his wife and kids. It’s a strange and wondrous place to observe from the outside. It feels to me that the father, for whatever reason, wants his kids to know something about the world of messy adults, possibly about how unkind people are to each other, about how people often suspect the worst of each other. Or maybe the father wants the kids to know how much one is willing to tolerate when it comes to finding really good burritos. That the prize itself is worth the price of admission. Are any of my guesses close?

CM: Yes, to most of what you’re saying, but my main preoccupation is with the equivalency between the father-narrator’s family and the “vulgar couple.” They’re different but no different. Their vulgarities are different but no different.  I tried to stilt the language of the speaker and pair it with a language he couldn’t even condescend to repeat, at first, though he later appropriates it.  I like your idea of “sealing off” and “private world,” and I would only say that the vulgar couple and the narrator and his family have sealed themselves off and have an equally problematic approach to the public commons.

MP: Your stories can be delightfully mystifying. I’m saying this as a huge fan of your writing. It makes me want to read and reread these pieces, I’m pulled in like some kind of emotional detective, trying to sort it out. There is great joy for me in this. Are you concerned about confusing the reader?

CM: I am a huge fan of YOUR writing, Meg!  I’ve been teaching your stories for, what, nearly a decade now?  I can’t think of one that isn’t at turns confusing and mystifying.  Surely, that’s their joy, right? But probably we should acknowledge the important difference between mystification and confusion.   Confusion occurs when we have been offered too few options to understand our subject; mystification occurs when we find we have too many options to fix our subject with something like mathematical certainty.  We tend to associate confusion negatively, and mystification more positively, but what we really like as readers is the tension of that spectrum between knowing nothing, which offers us a chance to learn from a story something we hadn’t previously known or seen, and imaging everything, which allows us the opportunity to play inside a story’s broad experience.  So, no, I’d only be concerned with confusing readers singularly.  I don’t want to do that.

MP: What is it about the flash fiction form that draws you to it? What are the pitfalls of flash fiction’s popularity? What should students of this kind of writing be prepared to tackle?

CM: I think language is precisely what draws me, what is typically at stake in compressed prose, and probably all stories and storytelling, and precisely what students should be prepared to tackle.

MP: There is a quality in your writing of containing both comedy and tragedy. We’re laughing but it hurts. Do you set out to write this way, or is this an unconscious trait that shows up as a story develops?

CM: I can’t think of any literature I’ve read that isn’t this way. I can’t think of any part of life that doesn’t possess this quality, the pain and the laughter.  I suppose I’ve seen more tragedy without comedy than comedy without tragedy, but that seems somehow an entirely subjective distinction. I don’t really know the degree to which I can assume the comic dimensions of other people’s pain and grief, except in cases that the experiences seem entirely available to me.  That’s why I write really only about the American domestic, and really it’s just a very tiny sphere of the American domestic experience. I don’t seek to write about Syria’s chemical attacks on its own people, for example, and try to play out their pain and grief and the comic dimensions of their suffering.  I’m of the mind that this would be their pain and humor to explore and share.  The best I can do is to make sure I am creating spaces for that sharing to occur. Similarly, I should say, I am most frustrated by my own fiction when it fails to have created a space where the context for broader pain hasn’t at least been permitted or opened.  At the bar, as we’re eating burritos with our kids and fretting over sailors they might hear, or as we’re sitting at a bar with our friends fretting that some lame-ass middle-class wasp family is impinging on our freedom of speech, have I allowed the television set to run a story on the number of shooting deaths in Chicago?  For me, there should always be a newspaper on the floor beneath someone’s sneakers. etc. You get it.

MP: How are we challenged as writers in this hostile political climate, to be creative? To create something personal and true? How can we harness some of this crap and put it to use, if we can?

CM: I’m a little wary of this idea of “we” when we talk about writers.  Whoever we are, we played a role in how this political crap came to pass, and we play a role in how this crap persists today.  These things didn’t just emerge from the ether, or from some providential cause or agenda. We are living in this time because of how we live and how we operate and what we take for granted and what we do and do not do. So, I think we might try being less surprised by it, and certainly less victimized by it.  At any rate, I’m also pretty sure that some of the world’s best writing has always come from contexts of hostility, injustice, and horror. Perhaps that’s a silver lining, or, maybe it’s just an American or contemporary Western privilege to be able to find political or social excuses not to write?

MP: I read in an older interview with you that your daily writing goal is to write 500 words a day. Is this still your daily target?

CM: It is, though I mostly miss the target. I probably land closer to 150 words a day.  I can’t even really feel badly about it, because my main target is serving as a crutch for our kids to get through their insanely busy lives and schedules.   I miss this target, too, because my other main target is making sure I’m a responsible and attentive teacher.  Those kids deserve full attention, too, and they essentially pay the bills that facilitate hitting our targets at home.  No one is waiting for a story from Chris Merkner, except maybe Chris Merkner, so I really have to manage my targets as responsibly as possible. I don’t think this is terribly special. I expect most people with kids work on this management tirelessly.  It’s a grind.  If I can indulge 150 words a day, at this point in my life, I’m pretty happy about it.  But, yes, the target is still the decadence of five hundred.

MP: What is next for you?

CM: My wife and I are going to get our kids off to fifth and sixth grades, and then we’ll try to continue assembling something like functional personal and professional lives.  Mostly we’ll just do things that mask our fretting over how and what the kids are doing.  I suppose that brings me into the next twenty years or so.  After that, I’m not entirely sure.   Probably the same.

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Christopher Merkner is a writer and teacher of writing. His first book, The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic (Coffee House), is a collection of stories, and people have been overall very nice about it.  Merkner teaches for the creative writing program at the University of Colorado Denver, the creative writing program at West Chester University, and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, CO.

Interview with Sherrie Flick

Meg Pokrass talks to Sherrie Flick about her forthcoming work in NEW MICRO (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018), her forthcoming collection from Autumn House Press, THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS  (Autumn House Press, 2018) and her work as Series Editor for BEST SMALL FICTIONS, 2018.

(This interview is part of New Flash Fiction Review’s ongoing New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) interview series)

Thank Your Lucky Stars

MP: You have a new collection of flash and short stories coming out this Fall, THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (Autumn House Press, 2018). I feel honored to have been an advance reader, and enjoyed/savored every single piece in your new collection. Please tell us anything you would like to about the birthing of this collection.

SF: It was a long, slow birth with many stages to the labor. It was painful, of course, as all births tend to be. Twenty-five years of gestation. Whoa. Some stories were published in the mid-90s and others were written right before the manuscript was taken by Autumn House. The collection itself was formed as a kind of b-side to my debut collection Whiskey, Etc. (Autumn House Press, 2016). As I put Whiskey, Etc. together there were certain stories that just didn’t fit. I started cutting and pasting those into a separate Word document and then when all was said and done I had two manuscripts. A-side, B-side. Or maybe they’re twins? My metaphor is breaking down but I hope you get the idea. I love them both equally. No playing favorites and no snacks between meals.

M: Some of the themes in this collection involve isolation and loneliness, missed chances, lives not lived, the sadness of getting older and letting go of dreams. There’s a sigh in these pieces, a movement toward acceptance. Do you feel that the concerns of your fictional characters are changing as time goes on? What is different about your writing now?

SF: Interesting. I think those themes you note have always been present in my work—even in the beginning when I was in my 20s. I guess I’m a kind of old soul in that way. I believe the most recent story written for the collection is “Dance” and I do feel that it reflects some of my maturity as a person and a writer. The characters are weird and eccentric—there’s a roving third point of view that I could have never pulled off as a younger writer. The story itself spans time in a way that’s layered and more nuanced. The characters have made choices that they understand but don’t necessarily love (the fact that they actually understand the choices they’ve made is new for my characters) but they’ve come to a synthesis with each other, time, and place. I think as I learn more about writing, I also learn how to relay more layered, complex aspects of my characters’ lives.

MP: I was in the audience for an interview in San Francisco, many years ago, in which Daniel Handler interviewed Richard Ford. Handler was saying to Ford that to him, the magic ingredient in successful fiction is when a writer can make us love (and worry about) their characters. That happens to me with your stories, I begin to care almost immediately. The characters in TYLS feel familiar to me, as if I’ve known them all of my life. Do you have any advice for other writers about building characters we fall in love with, worry about, and ultimately pull for?

SF: That’s a really good question, and I’m really glad to hear that my characters did this for you. It’s something I worry over as a writer. Early on I was a Raymond Carver disciple and I think the stories I wrote under his spell kept my reader at arm’s length. My women were strong but inaccessible, so my workshops told me. Ha. I think the advice I would give is to let your stories breathe a bit, like wine, before you consider them finished. I’ve found that setting the work aside for months or even years sometimes gives me such profound access to the emotional lives and motivation of my characters that I can suddenly truly understand their internal mapping systems. This is the case with the story “Open and Shut.” I first wrote that story in 1999, but I really couldn’t know what it was about and revise it properly until about 2009. At this point, I’ve reworked it a thousand times and it has had just as many titles. I know that no one wants to hear this, but I think complicated characters take time to build, even in flash fiction. Sometimes when you have a character say Yes in draft one, you understand by draft twelve a couple years or months later that what they really mean to say is No.

MP: Many of your stories are about failing or damaged romantic relationships and unfulfilling encounters. Conflict is always buzzing around them. The conflicts aren’t, for the most part, huge and dramatic, they’re poignant and chronic. Can you talk about the idea that there is power in small moments?

SF: I guess for the most part I personally don’t know how to address huge and dramatic conflicts except through the small and powerful moments. I think this is how I see the world and it has taken me a super long time to understand that not everyone operates this way. There was a crazy period in my life with all kinds of stuff happening like you see in dramatic TV shows on Netflix. But when I remember this time now it is of me walking out of a screaming, volatile house into my beautiful, silent garden and trimming the dead blossoms off my peony bush.

MP: Will you give us some thoughts about the concept of “plot” and “narrative arc” in even your very shortest pieces?

SF: I’m not a huge, deliberate plotter. My stories move forward through tension that’s built between character and setting for the most part. Change often happens internally or microscopically. And it often involves engagement from the reader. For instance, in the tiny story “Crickets” there’s a shift from a description of crickets on a Nebraskan sidewalk to the intent and philosophy of those insects. The reader suddenly sees the scene differently—there isn’t a giant plot device that makes that change, it happens internally with the reader. I think this plays into my no big, dramatic conflicts thing as well. I try to relay authentic scenes—scenes that are accurate in detail and accurate in emotional truth and then let them unfold even if that unfolding is the tiniest dog-eared page.

MP: You have two microfiction pieces in New Micro, “On the Rocks” and “Porch Light”. Can you tell us anything about how these stories found their way into the world? Any backstory you might be able to tell us about the writing of these marvelous micros.

SF: “On the Rocks” plays off a trope I have used in a couple different stories of a character owning a lighter given to him by a dead person. I kind of like this idea of a dead person being present in the story only through an object–the lighter–and I like the ritual of opening and clicking a lighter to get the flame. I lived in Nebraska for a time while I was in grad school and during that time I met a lot of people who pretended to be one thing—who took on airs as it were—but were really this other thing. And because I’m kind of a gullible, literal person, I always believed at first the person that was presented to me and it took me a while to learn that what the person really wanted was a shot and a beer. Ha. So this flash is me trying to come to terms with that experience.

With “Porch Light” I wanted to work with a character who had these intentions to do one thing but really always did the other. That’s how she comes to kiss her neighbor, Tim. The only way she can kiss him is to listen to Nirvana. I love those kinds of associations. I minored in logic as an undergrad and sometimes I think those formulas make it into my work: If A, then B, but only if C is less than D.

MP: I find “Porch Light” to be very funny and charming, your comic timing and playful use of language is wonderful. Can you talk about writing humorous stories? Do you aim for funny, or does funny just happen?

SF: I had a friend, years ago, who asked me why I didn’t write funny stories. (At the time I actually didn’t write funny stories.) He said, “You’re a funny person. You tell funny stories all the time.” And it’s true, I’m good bar storyteller. I can keep a group entertained once I get going. My husband is great at tag teaming a funny story with me so we can sometimes have people in tears with these funny stories we tell. I guess back then, before I wrote any funny stories, I thought stories had to be serious. Once I started trying to write deliberately funny stories I realized that funny stories could be serious. So, I guess the funny part is kind of more of the real me seeping in? I don’t know if that’s actually true but it feels that way.

MP: As series editor for BEST SMALL FICTIONS, you clearly read a ton of short-form prose. Are there key ingredients that successful pieces have in common?

SF: Really, just a ton of stories. In the past year I do wonder how many pieces of short-form prose I’ve read because I’ve also judged a few contests, too. I also read some years for the Drue Heinz Prize (which has collections with mainly longer stories in them) but when I do that I also get just boxes and boxes and short story manuscripts to read. If you ever have the chance to do this, do it. It is such an education in what a story can be. With that said, I think with flash fiction voice is critical. I mean, if the voice is flat I just don’t see how the story can work. Voice is connected to sentence level writing, right? So I need to be engaged from the moment I start reading and I need those sentences to really do as much work as they can. I want to feel that zip-bang of Oh Yes now THIS, this is GOOD. So good. So good you want to read it aloud to your dog, good. Call a friend good. I have to take a break and think about this for a while good.

I also like when an author builds a world that is authentic but that I come to understand gradually. This is something that Dan Chaon does amazingly in his short stories. I think I know what’s going on, but I totally do not know what’s going on. Ah. Love that. In The Best Small Fictions 2018 there’s a story “What We See” by Denise Long where you think the story is about this baby who seems to be walking around at night causing all kinds of mischief but the baby is just a regular old not-able-to-walk-yet baby in the daytime. So, you’re reading this piece of flash and you’re like—sure, yes. A wacky story about a nighttime mischievous walking baby, which, you know, is a pretty good premise—but then you get to the end of the story and it slams you to the floor and you understand the story is so, so, so not about this baby. It is about the parents and the world and ego and devastation. When Chauna Craig (my domestic assistant editor for the anthology) and I got together to order the anthology we were like: where should we unleash this baby story because it was, for us, the bottom of despair. Does this even answer your question? There are so many stories in this anthology that do just this; they take me places I didn’t know I could go. And that is what I’m looking for in good flash.

MP: You write short stories as well as flash and microfiction. I’ve so enjoyed your longer pieces in Thank Your Lucky Stars.  Do you know, before you begin to write a piece, what length a piece will be? Are the processes in writing short stories different from writing microfiction?

SF: I do have (almost always) intent when I start writing as far as length goes. I understand at this point in my career what I can handle in a 750-word story versus a 5,000-word story. I think about how much I can compress, how much I can let out. How many characters can I handle given the scope of the world I’m creating. My nature is to write short so that’s where I’ll go if I don’t consciously think about expanding. The processes are similar, it’s just how much I’ll let myself explore. It would be rare for me to write long and then cut that draft back into a piece of flash, although of course that has happened, but I just don’t tend to work that way. It’s more that I draft to around the final word count and then rewrite and compress in that framework until I get the story as tight as I can.

MP: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever been given?

SF: I’ve been given so much great advice over the years. One piece that comes back to me again and again is from Tim O’Brien. I worked with him at Sewanee many years ago. He told us to remember to stop and look around while you’re writing. And what he meant was—stop and look around in your head, have your character look around in the scene that you’ve written. It gets at the whole Chekhov thing about writing without judgment. Try to see. And so I’ll often mumble to myself, “Look around.” And that has been really helpful for me.

MP: What is next for you?

SF: Well, right now I’m about halfway through a narrative nonfiction book manuscript that I’m under contract to write for Creative Nonfiction magazine’s book imprint In Fact Books. The book explores my experiences of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania (where I grew up, left, and returned to and where I live now) and also how I became the kind of feminist I am today. It is unlike anything I’ve ever written before. Interviews, research, facts. A huge creative challenge, which is both hard and invigorating.

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Sherrie Flick is the author of the novel RECONSIDERING HAPPINESS and two short story collections, WHISKEY, ETC. and THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (Autumn House Press, 2018). Her work appears in many anthologes and journals, including W.W. Norton’s FLASH FICTION FORWARD, NEW SUDDEN FICTION, and NEW MICRO. She serves as series editor for BEST SMALL FICTIONS 2018.

(This interview is part of New Flash Fiction Review’s ongoing New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) interview series, created by New Flash Fiction Review’s Founding Editor, Meg Pokrass.)

Interview with Robert Scotellaro

Tommy Dean asks author Robert Scotellaro, co-editor (along with James Thomas) of NEW MICRO – EXCEPTIONALLY SHORT FICTION, to talk about the creation of NEW MICRO and to discuss what qualities successful microfiction pieces share.

(This interview is part of New Flash Fiction Review’s ongoing New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) interview series, created by New Flash Fiction Review’s Founding Editor, Meg Pokrass.)

TD: As a well-established micro writer yourself, what did you learn from reading/choosing many of the stories for this anthology?

RS: It was somewhat of a revelation to discover how manfine writers have turned their talents to the micro story form.  I read thousands of stories, 300 words or less, and was amazed at the variety of approaches and strategies employed in creating them. Each story in the anthology is rife with impact and ingenuity,and fresh, often poetic, language.  

Robert Scotellaro has published widely in journals and anthologies, including W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction InternationalNANO FictionGargoyleThe Journal of Compressed Creative Arts,and many others. Two of his stories were Best Small Fictions winners (2016 and 2017). He is the author of seven literary chapbooks, several books for children, and three full-length flash and micro story collections: Measuring the Distance, What We Know So Far (winner of The Blue Light Book Award), and Bad Motel.  He has, along with James Thomas, edited New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fictionpublished by W.W. Norton & Company (August, 2018).  Visit him at rsflashfiction.com.  

Interview with Michael Martone

Tommy Dean Interviews Michael Martone on his fiction in New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018)

(This interview is part of New Flash Fiction Review’s ongoing New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) interview series, created by New Flash Fiction Review’s Founding Editor, Meg Pokrass.)

 

TD: In your story, “Dan Quayle Thinking: On Snipe Hunting” is Dan Quayle a stand-in for a certain type of American or the prototype Hoosier? How has Indiana inspired your writing? Is it much different than people from the coasts would expect?

MM: Dan Quayle is meant to be Dan Quayle. The fiction is from a book called Pensees: The Thoughts of Dan Quayle.  There are 12 thoughts. The book was designed to look like Mao’s book of thoughts, The Little Red Book. But Dan Quayle’s is gray. The Little Gray Book. Indiana is the state of vice presidents. Seven, including the current one, Mike Pence.  Many more were on losing tickets. I do think that the role of the Veep is particularly suited to Hoosiers. The waiting.  The just being a heartbeat away from power and never having that power. There is a Highway of Vice Presidents in Indiana.  And Dan Quayle is the only Vice President that has his vice presidential library. In Huntington, Indiana. It holds two copies of the book. One of my books—they all are about or set in Indiana in some way—is called Fort Wayne is Seventh on Hitler’s List.  It was true that when I was growing up I was told often that Hitler had my city on a bombing list, 7th.  Now the interesting, telling thing is that 7.  Not too boastful.  Possible. Fort Wayne was and is a big manufacturer of copper wire—not a sexy product but an essential one.  Even more telling is that we were very proud of being important enough to be destroyed.  I don’t know if my writing is much different from what people expect. But I do know the content of that writing is.  Most people outside of Indiana know more about India than Indiana.  That can be said of people in Indiana as well, as another of my books, The Blue Guide to Indiana, demonstrated. No one tours Indiana not even people in Indiana tour Indiana.

TD: This story uses a repetition of the word wait. How much of the essence of humanity is waiting? What power do words gain by or through repetition? Is repetition one-way to convey time in stories that are so short?

MM: Waiting is the essence of being a vice president.  Being second.  Being an afterthought.  One Hoosier vice president, John Marshall, said of the job that it wasn’t worth a bucket of warm spit.  Waiting is the essence of Indiana and the Midwest where you believe, at the same time, that you are in the heart of the heart of the country and that you are in the middle of nowhere.  Repetition for me is underused by all kinds of writers.  I think the greatest line in Shakespeare is: Never, never, never, never, never.  I am not a storyteller but a fiction writer.  I resist the existential nature of the language to go in a line.  I want language to blot and spread, to circle back, and to worry.  To meditate and associate.  Repetition is a vital part of the mix.

TD: When drafting do you have a feeling or inkling about the true length of a story?

MM: Not a storywriter.  A fiction writer.  Often in short fiction the length is dictated by a word count the editor or contest has set.  So not a feeling but more a hobble or restriction or a challenge that I work with.  I have done pieces of 25 words, 100 words, 150 words, 250 words, etc.  Often that is the only definition we have for what flash, micro, hint, short short fiction is.

TD: Do you approach writing with a sense of play? Your stories often seem to center around using words as a form of joyful puzzle.

MM: Thank you for that. Is there any other way to approach making art?  Adult play.

TD: How important is it to establish setting, mood, tone, and character in the first sentence of a micro?

MM: Too important to leave it to the first sentence.  I often think that that is the title’s job.  I have a book called Memoranda that is made up of hint fictions, 25 words or fewer.  The titles are all 25 words or more.  Who says that the title must be shorter than the thing it titles especially in micro fictions?

TD: What are your writerly obsessions? What theme, idea, or image can you not let go of?

MM: Indiana. The number 4. Trains and by extension all machines that move—airplanes, ships, cars.  Collages of all sorts.  Postcards.  Fakes, hoaxes, cabinets of wonder.  Mythologies.  Confusing genre whenever I can.  Camouflage.  Flowers and gardens.  Hermes, the Thief.  Corn-based agriculture.  Thermoses and thermostats.  Syracuse china.  Ruins of all kinds.  Architectural follies and star forts.  Shoes.  Hats.  Bowties.  Quonset huts.  The history of printing.  The construction of authorship.  Donald Barthelme said somewhere that he wanted to be “on the leading edge of the junk phenomenon,” I get that.

TD: How important is mystery to micro length stories? How much can you rely on the reader to put together the pieces?

MM: You know the author is dead, right?  The act of writing and reading is an act of collaboration between the writer and the reader.  I think of myself more as an arranger than a composer.

TD: What topic or idea haven’t you written about yet? Is it because you have no interest in it or are you afraid to write about it now?

MM: Surely there are some, but it’s not that I am afraid to write about them or even want to. Your earlier question about obsessions makes more sense to me.  And repetition.  I am a dog that worries the same old bones.

TD: A novel, a micro, and a poem go to a bar together. What happens?

MM: The Poem asks for a match. The Novel starts a forest fire. The Micro sits in the corner and patinas. They all split a deep-fried breaded pork tenderloin sandwich, the breaded meat of which is greater in circumference than the plate the sandwich is served on.

TD: What gives micros their power? Language? Silence? Structure?

MM: Turgenev said, “We all come from beneath the ‘Overcoat’.”  Yes and Poe’s idea of the unity of effect.  Everything contributes to create not a meaning but a feeling. We create atmospheres, solar systems, clouds, clockworks.  These fictions are the filters that baffle sunlight, slow light down so it falls out of the nothing as tiny pearls, as crazed concoctions new matter.

TD: What are you working on now?

MM: I have two books finished but looking for publishers.  The Complete Writings of Art Smith, The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, Edited by Michael Martone and Winesburg, Indiana.  Working on a set of novellas –Fort Fort Wayne, Philo in Fort Wayne, and City of Conductors.

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Michael Martone’s most recent books are Brooding, Winesburg, Indiana, Four for a Quarter, Not Normal, Illinois: Peculiar Fiction from the Flyover, Racing in Place:  Collages, Fragments, Postcards, Ruins, a collection of essays, and Double-wide, his collected early stories. Michael Martone, a memoir in contributor’s notes, Unconventions: Writing on Writing, and Rules of Thumb, edited with Susan Neville, were all published recently. He is also the author of The Blue Guide to Indiana, published by FC2. The University of Georgia Press published his book of essays, The Flatness and Other Landscapes, winner of the AWP Award for Nonfiction, in 2000. With Robin Hemley, he edited Extreme Fiction.  With Lex Williford, he edited The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction and The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction.  Martone is the author of five other books of short fiction including Seeing Eye, Pensées:  The Thoughts of Dan Quayle, Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List, Safety Patrol, and Alive and Dead in Indiana.  He has edited two collections of essays about the Midwest:  A Place of Sense:  Essays in Search of the Midwest and Townships:  Pieces of the Midwest.  His stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s, Esquire, Story, Antaeus, North American Review, Benzene, Epoch, Denver Quarterly, Iowa Review, Third Coast, Shenandoah, Bomb, and other magazines.

Martone was born and grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  He attended Butler University and graduated from Indiana University.  He holds the MA from The Writing Seminars of The Johns Hopkins University.

Martone has won two Fellowships from the NEA and a grant from the Ingram Merrill Foundation.  His stories have won awards in the Italian Americana fiction contest, the Florida Review Short Story Contest, the Story magazine Short, Short Story Contest, the Margaret Jones Fiction Prize of Black Ice Magazine, and the first World’s Best Short, Short Story Contest.  His stories and essays have appeared and been cited in the Pushcart Prize, The Best American Stories and The Best American Essays anthologies. In 2013 he received the national Indiana Authors Award, and in 2016, the Mark Twain Award for Distinguished Contribution to Midwestern Literature.

Michael Martone is currently a Professor at the University of Alabama where he has been teaching since 1996.  He has been a faculty member of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College since 1988.  He has taught at Iowa State University, Harvard University, and Syracuse University.