Category Archives: Interviews

Interview with James Thomas

Meg Pokrass interviews James Thomas, co-editor of New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co, 2018) about the forthcoming anthology, and about his history with publishing Norton anthologies of very short fiction.

(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.)

MP: You are one of the original Norton Anthology editors who brought flash fiction to so many writers and readers through your Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction series, co-edited with Robert Shapard and later with Chris Merrill, and now with microfiction writer Robert Scotellaro you’ve co-edited New Micro which will soon be published by W. W. Norton & Co.  Please talk about your years devoted to bringing flash and sudden and micro fiction to the world. How did all of this evolve for you originally? How did it all begin?

JT: Sudden Fiction came on the scene in 1986 and, living up to its title, caught the eye of a surprised literary audience. Then Flash Fiction appeared in 1992, with stories told in half that sudden space–two pages rather than four–and the die was cast.  In 1996 Jerome Stern’s Micro Fiction dialed it down to a shocking single page, or 300 words.  All three books were edited by the legendary Carol Houck Smith at W. W. Norton—and now there are eight Norton anthologies bearing those iconic sudden, flash, and micro title names, Carol’s DNA you might say, and New Micro is the newest family member.  So that is my evolution story of where the books came from and how I now find myself on old and new familiar ground, cultivated for thirty years.  But New Micro would never have happened in the present time if you, Meg Pokrass, hadn’t introduced me to Robert Scotelarro (Scotty) in San Francisco: to his library, his tutelage and mentoring, and his relentless passion to select the very best stories we could find.  Which took quite a while. I thank them both for the exciting ride.  It has been a gift, an ongoing and uplifting thrill.

MP: How has the awareness of flash fiction and microfiction changed since you started publishing anthologies?

JT: It’s hard for me to even guess how many short-short stories I’ve read over the years, but it must be in the hundreds of thousands, maybe half a million.  Fortunately the first line has often been enough (whew!), leaving time to focus on the very few that are truly engaging.  What is striking is how the opportunities for flash fiction writers have increased exponentially in this century, with the explosion of the Internet and the magazines there where writers gather and model for each other.  It was bound to happen.  Now we’re awash in a digital sea of protean prose poets and first time flash fictioneers.  All good, the enthusiasm.  Molds have been broken and those pixilated magazine screens have spawned books in print, bound books where we’ve gone to find the stories for New Micro.  That traditional hard copy mode of research remains the same, but beneath it there has been a sea change and seismic shift, activity that is hard to measure but exciting to watch.  We are in uncharted waters.

MP: How do you feel the form is being embraced in academia? Is it being taught in graduate programs and undergraduate level? has this changed in the last decade? 

JT:; The sudden, flash, and micro anthologies have been the darlings of academia from the very start.  They all get exceptionally fine critical reviews, validating them for the university crowd, and they are widely adopted by graduate MFA programs.  But they are also used for freshman English 101, because the language composition is so precise and the story construction so visible.  They are easy to teach. The stories are small, tasty and digestible, and easy to discuss in class.  They are also used as texts for modern and contemporary literature study, where they celebrate both fiction and poetry and show the fine line that divides them.  But most importantly the books have been embraced at all levels because they are widely available and inexpensive.  Flash and micro fiction are cheap dates, there in a pinch.  They rarely stand you up, or let you down.  Just ask one out.

MP: While choosing stories, were there any stories that you wanted to include, but they were left out?  Any stories here that you especially had to include?   

JT: In reverse order, I am delighted that we were able to open the book with Pamela Painter’s “Letting Go” and close it with Ron Carlson’s “Grief.”  Both writers appeared in the original Sudden, Flash, and Micro anthologies (all three), thirty years ago, and here they are again, bookending each other in New Micro.  It means literal and literary continuity, and a symmetry that speaks to sentiment.  I do wish we could have included work by Carolyn Forché and Mark Strand, another pair of fabulous writers of prose poetry and microfiction, but you can’t have everything.  What we do have is New Micro, to serve as a reference text for a new generation of writers and readers, representing the avant-garde but also the venerable, cutting across genre and changing the game.  If I have the opportunity to make another book it will be New American Flash Fiction, to compliment Flash Fiction International, and go with New Micro. The operative and most meaningful title words for me through my anthology making years have been “new” and “fiction.”  They sum me up.

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

JT: The power of micro is that it is telegraphic and telepathic, in the same place at the same time, where the space is small and time is short.  Confused?  Write it down to figure it out, like with a poem.  It is compression without compromise.  Compulsion okay.  Get in and get out, if you can.  Let the silence speak.  You’ve heard it all before: theories on invention and serendipity, urgency that can lead to epiphany–don’t think, think–with language flying all over the place.  It’s hard work.  Some people talk about tricks, clever ways to get there.  I only know that the good stuff comes from someplace underground and grows organically.  The really good stuff that surfaces is hard to find, like black truffles and albino asparagus and morel mushrooms, but we’ve done our best to hunt them down and gather them in, bring them to your table.  Delicacies.  Bon appétit.

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James Thomas has coedited all eight of the Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction
anthologies. New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, coedited with Robert Scotellaro,
appears this year. He was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, received a James Michener
grant from the University of Iowa, and been awarded two NEA grants. His own
collection of stories is Pictures Moving. He founded Quarterly West magazine and
was the original director of the annual Writers At Work Conference. He has taught
at the University of Utah and retired from Wright State University. He lives in Xenia,
Ohio.

 

Charmaine Wilkerson Interview

Author Charmaine Wilkerson, who won both the Sabateur Novella Award and Bath Flash Fiction’s Novella-in-Flash Award for “How to Make a Window Snake”, a novella-in-flash, is interviewed by Meg Pokrass

How does one learn how to write in the flash-novella form?

The obvious answer is to read novellas-in-flash and let what works for you sink into your brain files. The oft-cited “My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form” (Rose Metal Press, 2014), is a great resource. It includes works and essays on the novella-in-flash form by you and other authors and it helped me, not so much in the writing of my novella as in the editing process, which is an important part of any story preparation. The added value in this book was the essay written by each author about the process of writing flash fiction. Rather than make me feel that I was learning a certain form, these pieces left me feeling that it was alright for me to try to tell a story in a certain way. The main question that the book answered was not How do you write a novella-in-flash? but, Can your unique way of telling this story hold together and make sense to a reader? Surely, what I write does not always work. So, going back to authors whose work resonates with me as a reader and writer helped me to go back to my stories with fresh eyes.

Where does one begin when writing the story/chapters for a novella in flash? 

For me, most stories begin with a detail of some sort that ultimately gives birth to a story, whether that story is 100 words or 200-thousand words. Something I see, or smell, or hear, or maybe an item in the news, will connect with ongoing currents of thought about life, and the initial cell of an idea cleaves into a story. So far, I’ve only published a novella and short fiction but what I’m saying applies, also, to the novel-length work which I’m developing. I think that writers need to give themselves permission to begin in the place that is most appropriate for the individual author.

Is there anything unusual that you might wish to share about the process of birthing How to Make a Window Snake?

My novella “How to Make a Window Snake” (which you chose as winner of the 2017 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award), leaned naturally towards the novella-in-flash format because I kept writing these short-short stories about the same two adult daughters and their aging father and a secret at the centre of the family. I didn’t sit down and say, Today, I’m going to write about two daughters and their father who’s seriously ill and a family secret and I’m going to do so in nineteen stand-alone pieces of flash fiction. I just wrote little stories and they kept coming back to the same people until I realized that I was, indeed, writing a longer story and the family’s difficult history began to reveal itself more fully. I knew, early on, that one of the daughters would find a note in the house that shed light on dramatic events from the family’s past but I didn’t know exactly what it would say or who had written it. I discovered that through the writing process. Then a mundane thought in my own daily life gave me the idea for another key detail in the story, which eventually led to the title. Finally, the competition’s requirement for stand-alone flash fiction pieces guided the editing of my pieces. I would ask myself, Can this individual tale still make sense without the other stories in the novella? What is the event or revelation in this short piece which makes it a fully-formed story, with a beginning, middle and end, and not just a scene from a story? Ultimately, I used the repetition of key images or phrases to help hold the story together.

Are you saying that the story should come first, and the form later?

Not necessarily. In my case, this is mostly true but other writers have had great success by thinking first about form. Look at poetry. It is proof that form can be part of the genesis of a story. You could approach the novella-in-flash form by looking at individual short-short stories that you’ve already written then asking oneself whether there is a novella-in-flash somewhere in there. Joanna Campbell and Ingrid Jendrzejewski, who wrote the other winning novellas-in-flash in the book “How to Make a Window Snake,” both developed their projects in this way. They saw the common threads running through existing stories then went on to write other material to pull their novellas together.

You’ve published some very short flash fiction, closer to 100 words. Is it a matter of editing them/whittling them down to compress them? Or are they born that way?

Again, my stories tend to tell me what they need to be. They may need to be cut down but not much. Even a little micro fiction that was published this year in 100-Word Story (“Row”) naturally grew to that general length, after which I snipped a word or two to meet the required word count. I didn’t take a five-hundred-word story and try to chop it into shape. Other writers can do that and with impressive results, but I tend to end up with a finished length that’s fairly close to where it began. The funny thing is that, all my professional life, first as a broadcaster, then producer of other forms of communication, I have written to meet specific subject and length requirements. But not in literature. I just write. It took me a long time to unblock the thought processes and language that I needed to access in order to express certain things, so I try not to tell myself what I should or shouldn’t produce. I’ve only published fiction with any frequency since 2017 and it’s an evolutionary process. What I have noticed is that some of my really short stories do mimic the fairly straightforward, declarative style of a news report but then take more intimate or emotional turns.

Here’s a recent example: Italy, where I currently live, was struggling to come up with a new prime minister after a particularly fractured election result. This absence of new government gave me an idea for a story but the resulting narrative, “Holes” (Bending Genres magazine, June 2018), isn’t really about any particular election or country. It centers around a fictitious character and a universal condition, which is the buying and selling of human relationships.

How much does the reader matter when you write a story?

Storytelling is a form of communication so, of course, I would like to share my stories with readers, I want other people to read them and hear them and relate to them, in some way. But a story is intrinsically linked to how I, as a person, experience and process the world around me. I start on the path towards a story and hope that it will take me towards the reader.

How well do you know your characters before you start writing about them?
I tend to see and hear characters but know little about them and discover them along the way, just as we get to know new people in our lives. Sometimes, we think we like them and then we grow to dislike them, and isn’t that interesting? I am fascinated by that kind of character and that kind of story, which calls to mind the shift in perception that changes how we feel about someone or something. I am working on a novel right now about an entire life built on half-stories and what happens when the larger story comes to the fore.

What’s the best writing advice you ever received? What is the worst?

One great piece of advice that I’ve received refers to the process of editing one’s writing after receiving feedback. When someone reads your work and they have a question about it or something bugs them, but you don’t agree with their suggestions, you’re not obligated to follow their advice. Still, it’s a good idea to stop and think carefully about why the reader is reacting in that way. It can be useful to consider what their comments reveal about something that might not be working. If someone says, “Why is her hat blue? I don’t like that blue hat. Get rid of that blue hat,” maybe what they’re really saying is, the story has not convinced them that her hat should be blue. Could you tweak the story a bit to make the blue hat more plausible?

You have won both the Saboteur Award and the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award for How to Make a Window Snake. How has life changed in going from a career that involves keeping the cards close to the vest (broadcast journalism) to being an expressive creative writer whose tools are emotional honesty? 

After working in a newsroom, I moved on to working behind the scenes for people who wanted to share technical or institutional ideas with other people. While both of these roles involve writing, they are very different from my literary work because they focus on other people’s messages, other people’s objectives, and other people’s subject, length and language parameters. My role, there, is to use my skills to honor and convey the ideas of another person or an organization. When I write literature, it’s all about breaking away from that and coming up with my own way of processing the world, of sliding down a slope and tumbling into a universe of characters and situations of my own invention.

You are still relatively new to having published fiction. What was the catalyst for this change in your life? 

I’d always wanted to write literature but studied other things. I published one story years ago and took a couple of after-work classes but never went beyond drafting stories or scribbling notes. More recently, I sensed an increasing agitation under the skin, a feeling that nothing was quite right. This feeling was heightened, in part, by living in a country and household where I rarely used my mother tongue. I had refused to live the kind of expat-ghetto life that I saw so many others living, where it was all about hanging out with people just like me. But years had passed, already, and I felt as though a large part of my mind was locked inside, even though I could chatter away in another language. Then, when my father died, I went back to the U.S. and stood alone in the cool, cement quiet of his studio, breathing in the scents of paint and canvas and unfinished wood and reflecting on how he’d managed to work all his professional life as a visual artist. He had done it, not by dabbling but by applying methodology and discipline and making huge sacrifices and changing his approach when something didn’t work out. Soon after, I put on a blue-plaid flannel shirt of Daddy’s that I always used to borrow from him and sat down with a notebook and let a few stories spill out of me. But the most important shift took place after that, when I actually started sending stories to editors in the hope of getting published. I went from saying, “This is what I want,” to saying, “This is what I’m doing.”

How have the literary competitions helped?

When I started sending out stories, I contacted literary magazines who, naturally, said, no thanks. Then I completed a novel and sent that to literary agents who, naturally, said, no thanks. I had been raised to open doors, to get people to say, sure, yes, not to keep doing things where people would tell me, nah. But I took an objective view. I didn’t have a literary track record, I didn’t have a literary social media profile and, maybe, my stories just weren’t that appealing. So, I kept writing and then I sent a couple of stories to competitions where the judges didn’t know whose work they were reading and I got a couple of bites that way. Editors still mostly say, no thanks, but I’ve learned that, statistically speaking, it’s common, even for some of my favorite, award-winning authors.

Anything you’d like to share about breaking in and gaining momentum as a not-under-40 writer?

Having had another career and other life experiences before trying to publish my stories with any kind of regularity has helped me as a budding writer. Earlier, I mentioned looking to my father’s creative-practical balance for inspiration. Eventually, I came to recognize that I, too, have lived through the process of making a plan, trying to accomplish something, switching to Plan B if Plan A doesn’t quite work and knowing that consistency and good dose of hard-headedness can make a difference. This has been especially useful because neither of my university degrees is in creative writing or literature and I live far away from the publication centers for the language in which I write.

Anything you would like to say to other older writers who are on the same journey?

It’s a learning process at any age. It can help to read amusing but frank revelations about writing by established authors as varied as Stephen King and Anne Lamott. It can help to read blog posts and watch interviews about the writing, editing and publishing processes. It can be useful and encouraging to turn to online chats and face-to-face writing groups. But, ultimately, it’s a bit like being a teenager, all over again. You need to respect the lessons of others but learn to listen to your inner voice. You need to appreciate the realities of the world around you but avoid letting trends or other people’s score-keeping shake your core. And it’s crucial to hold on to the why of writing. Other people’s stories have helped me to get to this point in my life and I use my own storytelling as a way to process the world, to try to make sense of things, from the most intimate struggles to the larger, social and political currents that are running through all of our lives. For me, writing has become a way to live and contribute to life. I think this is what we mean when we talk about finding one’s vocation.

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Charmaine Wilkerson was born in New York, has lived in the Caribbean, and does most of her writing in Italy. Her story How to Make a Window Snake has won the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award and the Saboteur Award for Best Novella. Her flash fiction has won prizes from Fiction Southeast and Reflex Fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

Interview with Tania Hershman

Tommy Dean asks Tania Hershman to discuss her story in NEW MICRO, and to talk about the craft of writing microfiction.

 

(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: Do metaphor/allegory help us deal with death and/or grief? Is this type of storytelling especially suited to micro length stories?

TH: I prefer not to make any grand pronouncements about anything, about something as enormous as death, or about any kinds of writing, what is suited to what, etc.. It’s my philosophy that a writer can do anything at all, there are no rules, and that guidelines, definitions and labels may be helpful for publishers, but not so much for readers or writers. If you are talking about my own story, I feel like, as the writer, I am the last person who should answer this question. This may not be helpful, we all want guidelines, rules, but the truth is, every writer has to figure out for themselves how they want to write what they want to write.

TD: I feel like I really know these characters. Did you need to abandon the normal craft it takes to create these characters? What feelings did you have while in the midst of writing this story?

TH: I wrote ‘My Mother Was an Upright Piano’ 10 years ago so I don’t remember much anymore. I believe the first draft was written quite fast, as part of a writing challenge set by one of the online writing groups I was part of, using prompt phrases. My writing processes involve the minimum of thinking – I don’t plot or plan, I try as much as possible to short-circuit my logical brain when I’m writing stories or poems, I never have any idea what I might write about, and once a piece is done I don’t always know what it is about. Thinking, for me, isn’t conducive to using my imagination, to letting go of my grasp on logic. I am very fond of thinking, so stopping myself is quite a task.

There is no “normal” for me, either in my own writing or compared to other writers. Everyone does it differently. I am pretty sure I upset myself writing this story, in the best way, because that’s what writing is about for me, telling myself stories, moving, surprising and delighting myself. I am my first reader.

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

TH: As with any piece of great writing, this is hard to pin down, and I am an avoider of general pronouncements. I read around 1000 short and very short stories and poems, and non-fictions, every year, and I demand no less from a great piece of writing than to feel like I have been punched in the gut. Every piece that does that to me seems to do it in its own way, each writer makes it their own, which is the way it should be. I have a great love for a freshness of language, cliché turns me off, laziness of language will stop me in my tracks. Voice is what grabs me as a reader, the voice of a character or the narrator, in any piece of any length. The story itself, the plot, maybe be tiny and quiet, I never ask for enormous events to happen, there is great power in the small moments.

TD: Revision: Love it or hate?

TH: I wouldn’t believe any writer that said that a piece required no revisions at all. I wrote a chapter in the book I co-authored with Courttia Newland, ‘Writing Short Stories: A Writers and Artists Companion’, about a flash story that is in my second collection, ‘Under the Tree’, which took three years to finish, and went through at least 8 drafts, starting at 1500 words and ending up under 800. I had no idea what the story was in the first few drafts, or whose story it was. It took a long time – as it often does – to write my way into the story, to let go of myself so that my characters told me what happens.

TD: What are your writerly obsessions? Do you have themes, ideas or images that tend to emerge again and again in your work?

TH: I don’t have any. I’m interested in everything, I am incredibly curious and easily bored. Writing is my lifeline, my calmative, is how I process my thoughts about the world, is how I ask questions, not generally finding any answers, because, as a former scientist, I know that the curiosity, the questions, are the goal. Answers are rare, elusive.

TD: What’s 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?

TH: I don’t know, because I don’t assume that I know what topics or ideas I have written about. The several hundred stories and poems I have written are not mine anymore when they are out in the world, and what they are about, what they mean, is up to the reader, not me. I hope I’m not afraid to write about anything, if it seizes me and demands to be written. After 20 years, I have very few inhibitions when I’m writing. It’s a lovely position to be in.

TD: Where do your most unique ideas come from? How do you know if a story idea is working?

TH: I get ideas from everywhere, every time I open a book, a magazine, turn on the tv or the radio, every time I leave the house. Writing comes from noticing, paying attention, which is something it seems fewer people are doing, so there is more scope for us writers to spot things no-one else has seen. I listen, I watch. Science is a very fertile source of inspiration for me, it always has been, and I am fond of colliding topics which seem completely unrelated and seeing where sparks emerge. I have been keeping a list of interesting occupations for several years, and sometimes would pick an occupation and collide it with another story idea from one of my notebooks. Many of the short stories in my third collection began this way. I don’t worry about an idea “working” or not, about what a reader might like or not like, I am just telling myself stories, listening to the voices in my head, trying to do them justice, to surprise and delight myself.

TD: What are you working on now?

TH: I haven’t written any short fiction for several years, it’s been mostly poetry, which allows me to add even more ambiguity, to leave even larger gaps and let go a bit of the need for “story-ness”. I may also be working on a Long Thing, which may be a hybrid collage of fictions and memoir. Maybe.
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Bio:
Tania Hershman’s third short story collection, Some Of Us Glow More Than Others, was published by Unthank Books in May 2017, and her debut poetry collection, Terms & Conditions, by Nine Arches Press in July. Tania is also the author of a poetry chapbook, Nothing Here Is Wild, Everything Is Open, and two short story collections, My Mother Was An Upright Piano, and The White Road and Other Stories, and co-author of Writing Short Stories: A Writers’ & Artists’ Companion (Bloomsbury, 2014). Tania is curator of short story hub ShortStops (www.shortstops.info), celebrating short story activity across the UK & Ireland, and has a PhD in creative writing inspired by particle physics. www.taniahershman.com

Interview with Lynn Mundell and Grant Faulkner

THE MAKING OF NOTHING SHORT OF 100

An interview in which New Flash Fiction Review’s Meg Pokrass asks 100 Word Story’s illustrious editors Lynn Mundell and Grant Faulkner to talk about the creation of their thrilling new anthology:  Nothing Short of 100, a collection of the best 100-word stories from 100 Word Story magazine.

Meg: When you and Grant set out to putting together your anthology, how did you define your criteria for selection?

Grant: We decided not to publish any multi-millionaires or people who owned third homes, but we felt that bribery was acceptable as long as we split the take (Lynn might owe me some money here).

Beyond that, we just came up with a big list of our favorites. Initially, we thought the collection would consist of exactly 100 stories, but there were so many good stories, so we decided to include more.

So our criteria was to choose good stories. Good stories that we both thought were good.

Lynn: We wanted the best stories that could stand alone, but we were also aiming for variety because we wanted it to be an interesting and even challenging collection overall. We had seen so much as far as form and originality in what we published over the years that we felt excited to show readers what micros can achieve. Choosing stories was an iterative process, where we would pull stories, discuss, add the ones we agreed on, and start again. We both read all of the stories we’ve ever published. Eventually we ended up with 116, a sort of odd number but representative of all of our favorites.

Meg: Give me some behind the scenes, dirt, or secrets about the creation of Nothing Short Of.

Lynn: We almost got a back-of-the-book blurb from George Saunders! We can attest to the fact that he is a very, very nice person.

Also, it is possible in this day and age to not find people, even writers. There were several writers we just could not track down in order to ask permission to use their stories.

Grant: I’d love to tell some stories, but Beret and Lynn’s lawyers have served me injunctions, liens, and cease-and-desist letters. I’ll just say there were intense discussions, liquor, late-night phone calls, punctured tires, a broken salad spinner, a kidnapped rabbit, and a missing (or perhaps stolen) bottle of lavender spray. That’s what it takes to produce a good collection.

Meg: Has being a reader/editor for 100 Word Story impacted your own writing life?

Lynn: I am not sure I would have ever returned to my creative writing if Grant hadn’t asked me to join him in starting the site. For that, I will be forever grateful.

Being a writer may make me more empathetic as an editor. And as an editor, I learn a lot I can apply to my own writing.

Finally, being part of 100 Word Story has deepened my involvement in the flash community—a fantastic bunch of people who mean a great deal to me.

Grant: Every time I read through our submissions, I marvel at how challenging it is to get published. We receive hundreds of stories, and we only accept the top handful for every issue, so a story has to really stand out and shine.

As a result, I’m more stringent with my revision process, and I never submit a story unless it’s truly all the way there. I imagine an editor reading my story after reading through so many other stories in the queue, and I consider how my story might make him or her pause and pay attention. I’m less forgiving with my writing than I used to be, which is a good thing.

As Lynn said, the value of the flash community has been a wonderful bonus. We didn’t know there was a flash community before we started 100 Word Story.

Meg: What are some unusual lessons about writing you’ve learned as editor of 100 Word Story?

Lynn: I’ve seen how the best stories can come from a seasoned pro or from a high-schooler. It is a very approachable genre, but also a demanding one. I’ve learned that it is not a good look to have a bio longer than your story. Also, that there are endless ways to tell a love story. Finally, that at their best, micros can achieve remarkable things, flying as high as poetry and going as deep as much longer stories. I am constantly astounded at what can be done in so few words.

Grant: In such a short form, you’ve got to nail the ending like a gymnast. If you waver, tip, or fall, you’ll ruin everything you’ve previously achieved. I read so many stories that are good … up until the last sentence. That last sentence matters far more than in a novel or a conventional short story. It can’t drop off in any way.

Meg: Many of us have been rewarded by cultivating a social media following. How do you feel about social media these days: friend or enemy?

Lynn: Frenemy. You can make dear friends and important associates over social media, and also learn about new literary journals, contests, and classes. But you can also become paranoid, delusional, narcissistic, and a bit of a wastrel if you hang out on FB or Twitter too much.

Grant: Friend. Enemy. Lover. Hater. Giver. Taker.

I miss the days when you had to call people, when you had to venture into the world to see them, when you put a letter into a mailbox with a sense of anticipation, and then you had to wait for a response, feeling the person through his or her writing on a page.

That past world is an exotic world, right? The world where postmen carried people’s love and memories around the globe.

In the past, I might have written stories about the people from my past who I’d lost track of because their lives beckoned with mystery. Now I look at their vacation photos and their kids’ graduations.

Meg: What’s the best writing advice you were ever given?

Lynn: Coincidentally, it was something you wrote online once, Meg. You said something to the effect that one should not try to write like others but to write like one’s self. That is something I remind myself of often. I write better when I am myself.

(Meg: Thanks Lynn! And I need to remember that advice of mine too. It’s so easy to read a great story and think: why can’t I say it that way)

Grant: When I first decided to become a writer, a much older writer told me to “always have something in the mail.” It was good advice because it spoke to the inevitable rejections I’d receive and how a writer has to be resilient and persistent. Having something in submission always gives you at least a glimmer of hope, and you need that glimmer, no matter how fragile or fleeting it might be, to keep writing, keep trying.

Meg: How does one go about writing an effective 100-word story? Let’s pretend there’s a recipe.

Grant: My favorite miniatures are those that reside on the blurry line of a prose poem and a story. I like shorts that evoke a definite mood, create an environment, but which also trace the subtle pivot of a character’s conflict. There must be character change, even if it’s just a breath of the slightest of realization in the last line.

I think the most meaningful moments of our lives reside in these small pivots. They aren’t necessarily the kind of moments we can express to others or recount over drinks with friends. They’re the moments we might go to sleep thinking about, moments a character might even fail to truly recognize. Is that a recipe?

Lynn: One-fourth character, one-fourth setting, one-fourth point of view, one-fourth plot. Fold all together gently, layering into a Pyrex dish. Heat it up in the oven or stow it in the freezer, depending upon how you want it to taste. The let sit overnight. Test with a tablespoon. If it stands up, the story is ready. If not, wait another day. Serve on a paper plate.

Meg: Do writers often start with a much longer draft and pare it down to the essentials?

Grant: When we first started 100 Word Story, I thought most people would write longer stories and chisel them down. That’s how I started writing them, but I rarely hear of this technique. I’ve now written so many 100-word stories that I have essentially wired my brain to write at that length, so my first drafts are usually between 90 and 110 words.

I think there’s a lot to be said for writing a long first draft and then editing it down because a miniature is about capturing the essence of a story. I think of how Kawabata re-wrote his celebrated novel Snow Country as a short story, “Gleanings from Snow Country.” He pursued the story’s essence, and to find it, he distilled the novel into approximately 10% of its original length.

The essence is what every flash author should search for. There’s the recipe you asked for in your previous question.

Lynn: I am not sure how others approach the stories. I hope with a sense of the small scale of the canvas. Otherwise, it would be a lot of work to peel away. But I do see fairly often that writers go much too broad, which makes for a less successful story.

Meg: Why do certain tiny stories stay with us? Why are some so memorable? Is there a key ingredient?

Grant: I think the best stories are those where the author becomes vulnerable on the page and reaches for a deep and risky truth. That’s what we read for, no matter if it’s a tiny story or a longer work—that’s what drew me to your work, in fact, Meg.

(Meg: Aw. Thank you Grant!)

Grant: Some tiny stories stay with us piquantly and poignantly because I think they have captured that pure essence, that intense, combustible, and beautiful distillation. The story is like a pin prick. It makes you pay attention.

Lynn: What a great question. And a hard one. I think it is a very original story and character, or characters, that tells you a new story at the same time it lets you feel something very identifiable and familiar. For example, there’s a story in the anthology called “What I’m Not Saying,” by Emma Bogdonoff. In it, the narrator is in love with a boy and they share all sorts of moments, but she never tells him she loves him. The last line is really perfect. That story could make you cry. It’s unique and original in its detail, but, wow, what a universal feeling—regret, deep, deep regret!

Meg: What are other pleasurable activities that one might compare to reading a book full of well-crafted 100-word stories, such as your new anthology Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story

Lynn: Eating your favorite meal made by your granny that reminds you of your youth. Petting a cat you love very much as it drools on you and makes pudding, which results in a feeling of great peace and comfort. Getting the high of riding a Ferris wheel. Falling in love. Swimming far out in the ocean on a sunny day and seeing something underwater that is strange, a bit frightening, but also beautiful and thrilling.

Grant: Bowling is an activity perfectly designed for the flash fiction aficionado. It’s a sport designed around containment. Its boundaries are rigid. You can roll your ball into the gutter, but you can’t go out of bounds. You only get a certain number of chances. You can’t break the record.

But maybe napping is the better analogy. A nap is just a snippet of a deeper, more novelistic sleep, but a nap can be its own strange and intriguing interlude. A good nap invites mystery and wonder into the day while also being invigorating and refreshing. That’s the definition of a short short.

Meg: Who are your dream readers for Nothing Short Of? Who would you like to see buying this anthology who might not know about it yet? 

Grant: I love when I hear from someone who is completely unfamiliar with the form. I love hearing the wonder in their voice, the sense of discovery, when they realize how brief stories can be, how stories can be written in a different way.

Lynn: I would like to see it get out beyond our flash community, where I feel it is becoming known and very warmly received. I would like to see college students immersed in it on my morning commute, babysitters in playgrounds scanning it as they feed toddlers applesauce, CEOs reading it aloud in board rooms, and Meryl Streep quoting from it when she accepts her next Oscar.

Meg: If Nothing Short Of… were an animal, what would it be—and why?

Grant: Not a chicken (although you can peck at the stories).

Not a badger (although some of the stories are tenacious).

Not a school of fish (even though the stories often swim together).

Maybe a cat that fits perfectly in your lap and purrs.

Or maybe a coyote that mysteriously appears in your back yard and stares into your kitchen window before running away. Many of the stories in the collection are like that—a wild animal that inexplicably wanders through a safe domestic space. You lock eyes, and the world is suddenly a little dangerous, a little less predictable.

Lynn: It would be a dog, probably a good-looking but not pedigreed one. Like all dogs, it would be loyal, low-maintenance, by turns adorable and shocking, act like a 1-year-old when it is 7, and be able to find and retrieve important objects, such as short stories.

Meg: Which came first for you? Editing 100 Word Story or writing flash fiction and microfiction?

Lynn: I had been editing the site with Grant for a year or so when we were still doing traditional issues with 10-12 stories a month. One month we didn’t have enough stories so I volunteered to write some Halloween-themed “scarytales,” where I took traditional fairy tales and make them hecka frightening. Grant was very encouraging and I had such a good time that I just keep writing.

Grant: I wrote fiction of all lengths before starting this big little magazine of miniatures with Lynn and Beret. I guess I’m a schizophrenic writer because I write short and long, and I write nonfiction and fiction, but my immersion in the short form has been wonderful for all of my writing. Everything I write has at least a trace of a flash aesthetic.

Meg: Flash forward: Lynn and Grant are in their 80s and in a retirement community. What does 100 Word Story look like?

Grant: There will actually be a 100 Word Story Retirement Community. It will be right next to the 100 Word Story Theme Park, which will be just down the street from the 100 Word Story Shopping Mall. Planes will write 100-word stories in the sky. Presidential candidates will be judged on 100-word stories they read at debates.

Yes, we plan to go big with this. The Oscars will have an award for 100 Word Story movies. Beyoncé will stop singing to write 100-word stories. Cistercian monks will chant 100-word stories. There will be a 100 Word Story TV station.

And we’ll just sit there and lead 100-word story workshops at our retirement community. It’s actually a perfect form for those who have Alzheimer’s.

Lynn: This is far, far in the future, of course, where you can put on glasses that have stories you can read yourself or you can turn on your hearing aid and Benedict Cumberbatch will read on demand. We will be in the midst of publishing our fourth anthology, called Short Circuitry: Yet Even More Tiny Tales from 100 Word Story.

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Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin House, The Southwest Review, and The Gettysburg Review. His essays on creativity have been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. He recently published a book of essays on creativity with Chronicle Books, Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo. He’s also published a collection of 100-word stories, Fissures, which have been included in The Best Small Fictions 2016 and the new W.W. Norton Anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories.

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 Sarah Freligh

Meg Pokrass asks Sarah Freligh to discuss her stories in NEW MICRO and to talk about the craft of writing microfiction.

(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.)

MP:  “We Smoke” is one of my personal favorites in New Micro. It’s darkly funny, rebellious, sad and complex. It begs for rereading. Every word feels essential. It’s poignant and it sizzles. You have hinted to me about its “checkered past” (which sounds perfect, considering the nature of this story!) Please tell us the story about writing this story!

SF: Thanks so much, Meg! Such a high compliment considering the number of fine stories and authors comprising this book. . . .

“We Smoke” began its life as a poem. Like most poems I wrote between 2010 and maybe 2015, it began its life in a spiral notebook I carried everywhere in my purse in hopes of maybe wedging in a little writing time during a crazy busy day. It was a terrible poem on first draft and stayed a terrible poem, refusing to lineate in surprising ways or yield up intriguing language. When I finally released it from its lines, I realized how controlling I’d been; that is, as a piece of flash fiction, I could finally see the poetry in it and how the repetend of “We smoke” might build the narrative arc for the story. I realized at some point that the repeated phrase “We smoke” not only presents the scenarios in which the protagonists smoke—a movement through time and place, as it were—but also the tonal shadings that form a pattern of change for the narrators: from defiant to humorous and ultimate (I hope) poignant as the reader understands more about why “we smoke” than the narrator can articulate.

Once it had been spanked into prose form, I sent it out on a whim to Sycamore Review’s Flashcard contest in 2015 and was extremely surprised and pleased when it won. A good thing, too, as the $100 honorarium helped to pay for my rebooked flight to AWP in Minneapolis after I came down with the flu.

MP: “Another Thing” is so beautiful, fiction written like a poem. The images cling to my brain. My favorite line: “When they turned, I could see her hand on his back, her nails like red holes in the white of his shirt.” I see this like a painting as I’m reading it. Is there anything you’d like to share with us about the writing of this story? 

SF: I’d been writing a linked collection of short stories since 1987 that followed a married couple in Michigan, Vince and Marie, from mid- to late twentieth century. “Another Thing” was written a long time after the other stories and is tonally much different from them; it’s a much darker moment in the couple’s marriage and suggests what they might become as the marriage wears on. Ultimately the story didn’t end up in the collection, so I was very happy when Scotty wrote to say that it had found a home in this anthology.

MP: How do memories and images from childhood inform our voices as adult writers? Please describe how you draw on memories from childhood in fiction.

SF: The older I get – and that seems to be accelerating rapidly – the farther I get from my : memories, which is a good thing. “Real life” doesn’t bend enough for fiction. Image memory, however, is a very good thing. I think of those eight balls we used carry around and ask questions of—“Will he ask me to the dance?”—and the answer would wiggle its way to the surface and present itself in this ghostly white writing: “It will never happen.” Image memory is like that, the way something will break free and rise to the surface—sometimes when I’m writing, more often when I’m in motion, swimming or walking. The lipstick glasses are an image memory I think I carried around with me for a while before they found a home in “Another Thing.” Once they did, they assumed a significance beyond just the visual image/’50s memory.

MP: How do you begin? Do you set out to write a story with a strong feeling about it, or is it something that finds itself while writing?

SF: I used to start with intent, that is, with a firm idea for where things might end up, but writing poetry helped me trust the line-by-line process. Nowadays when I write a micro, I’m more likely to be led by sound and image. I love to revise, too, so much of the story will take shape on revision.

MP: Is there freedom in writing pieces of this length?

Freedom in the sense of accomplishment, yes. You can write from beginning to end in a fifteen-minute freewrite, and when I was teaching full-time, that’s often all the time I could carve out of a day, fifteen minutes.

SF: The world seems to be falling in love with the short form these days, though it’s been around for a long while. Why do readers love flash fiction and microfiction? What are their uniquely addictive qualities (aside from being very short)?

Flash combines the narrative impulse of fiction, an if/then causality, with the sonic punch of poetry. Also, there’s an aspect of mystery to flash, and often it’s what’s left unsaid that will linger and haunt. I’m thinking in particular of Jon McGregor’s story “That Color” in Flash International, co-edited by James Thomas. What appears to be a simple moment at home between an archetypal, long married “he” and “she” isn’t. That story just undoes me and still does, even after the fiftieth reading.

MP:What is the best writing advice you ever received? What is the worst?

SF: Best advice: Don’t get into too many habits.

Worst advice: Never __________ (fill in the blank). I hate being told I’m forbidden to do something.

MP:When writing microfiction, do you begin the way you would when writing a longer short story, or a poem, or a novel? What is different? What is the same?

SF: I try to catch hold of the tail of something—an image, a sense of place, a character— which is pretty much how I’ve always written/begun to write. Then I start flailing around and if I do that long enough, I eventually find the light switch.

MPWhat’s next for you? What are you working on now?

SF: I’m revising a novel. Please send prayers.

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Sarah Freligh is the author of Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis. Her fiction and poetry work have appeared in Sun Magazine, Hotel Amerika, BOAAT Journal, diode, SmokeLong Quarterly, and in the forthcoming anthology New Microfiction: Exceptionally Short Stories (W.W. Norton, 2018). Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in 2006.