Steven John interviews Barry Basden about his stories in NEW MICRO (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) and about the craft of writing microfiction.
The road is the backdrop in both your pieces in New Micro, “Johnny Came By” and “Aerospace”. What is it about being on the road that lends itself so well to fiction, perhaps short fiction in particular?
America has always been about movement and some great stories have come out of that. One of the most influential books of my youth was On the Road. I hitch-hiked and rode buses all over the country after high school. Gone to look for America, as Paul Simon famously sang.
The other theme in both stories is the loneliness, and perhaps restlessness, of both Johnny and the unnamed girl in “Aerospace”. Is there something of you in those themes? How much do you draw from your own way of seeing the world in your fiction?
My own way of seeing the world is the only way I can write. We are all ultimately alone and restless because of it, full of yearning. “Plan for the worst and hope for the best,” a wise man once said.
As a parent myself, the line in Johnny ‘He’s still my son no matter what’ resonated deeply. Family was present in both stories, albeit broken. Can you tell us why ‘the family’ is such a rich seam for writers?
Family is what we all spring from, for good or for bad, broken or not. Familial relationships impact us our whole lives. I once saw my 80-year-old aunt, on her death bed, argue passionately with her sister about something that happened when they were both schoolgirls. So, of course, we write about family.
The line that told us everything about the father’s love for his son was ‘gave him everything I had in my wallet before he rode off’. How important is hope in this story? For example, you could easily have sent Johnny off with nothing?
Hope is important in everything we do. And without hope and some love in that story it would be unbearably bleak. It’s already bleak enough.
What struck me in “Aerospace” was the exquisite detail of the girl’s journey, particularly the cantina. The line ‘Chalupas and squash gorditas with guac and salsa picante’ feels like poetry. In micro we’re sometimes told not to waste too many words on scene setting. Can you tell us how you approach this in your own writing?
I don’t know. That story is so condensed, that I thought it needed a little scene setting throughout or it might have ended up as nothing more than a list. I listen to the words I write and try to get the rhythm right. It’s jarring to me if something is off. Plus, there used to be a little place up the road here in Texas that served excellent squash gorditas in an old converted gas station. I’ve never found them anywhere else and I wanted to put them in a story. Maybe that’s all there is to it.
You deftly ask the reader to envisage the girl’s love life with the line ‘An air force officer, married, intrigues her for a few weeks.’ Can you give us any clues how much to tell the reader and how much to hold back?
Most of my first drafts tell way too much. I always look to cut or rewrite so that, as much as possible, the story conveys more than just what’s on the page. Doing more with less is the essence of micro and why I love it. But it’s certainly a challenge.
In “Aerospace” you give everyone a name except for the main female character. Can you tell us what made her anonymous in your mind and how that makes the story stronger?
I’m not sure, but I do that more and more. An ongoing theme for me is that we are all sort of anonymous and alone and being nameless seems to fit that view. Carver (and Gordon Lish) did it so well in What We Talk About…, a book that still resonates with me.
Tell us about your writing method. Can you splurge the first draft out in a matter of minutes or are you a word by careful word writer?
Both. Sometimes a piece comes fully formed and needs very little revision. Other times I’ll do draft after draft and it still never seems right. Even titles. Even after publication. But that’s not just me. I think most writers are never satisfied that what they’ve written is as good as it can be.
Do you keep a notepad or journal close by when you’re not physically at your desk writing, or maybe you take photos. How do you capture those ‘moments’ in an ordinary day that make for good material?
Well, photos are pretty easy now if you’ve got a phone in your pocket. I’ve also kept a pen and notepad on my night stand for years. Many insights and ideas seem to crop up in that curious state between awake and asleep. Of course, when I read it over in the light of day, it’s often indecipherable or pure dreck.
You are so obviously at home in the short form. Do you sometimes find it difficult to write longer pieces, keeping in those sentences you would otherwise chop out in 300 word stories?
Yes. I’ve mostly given up trying to write longer pieces. I think the problem is that I keep trying to get to the essence of the thing, that kernel of universal truth, like the famous 6-word story that’s attributed—rightly or wrongly—to Hemingway. A thousand words is an impossible hill for me to climb these days.
Are you ever lacking inspiration? Have you got any tips for us on how to get the creative juices flowing?
Often. I don’t write for a living, so I don’t write at all unless I want to get something down that’s meaningful to me. And many of those things come from reading. Sometimes the smallest fragment of what I’m reading will trigger an entire scene. Many writers have said you have to read if you want to write. So, yeah, read read read. I can’t improve on that advice.
Do you listen to music whilst you write or is silence required? What music brings out the best in you?
I don’t. I find music distracting when I’m trying to write. But it’s on most other times—in the car, in the house. I’m drawn to its yearning and melancholy nature, and music often appears in my writing: Jackson Browne, the Stones, Jose Feliciano’s canciones, and much more.
Last question. You can invite any one writer to dinner (past or present). Who’s it going to be and what’s in the oven?
Oh, wow. So many. But not Carver. I think he would have been most interesting in his early days, but a little too volatile and dangerous when drinking. Not James Salter or Updike either. Too urbane, though I have loved their writing. Nor Garcia Marquez, but only because I don’t speak Spanish.
No, I think it has to be someone more contemporary, someone perhaps from my days as editor of Camroc Press Review, where I published so many moving and eloquent short pieces. The archives are still available online, by the way. Actually the names that crop up are Kim Chinquee and Kathy Fish, two masters of short fiction I most regret not publishing in CPR. And if I had to pick just one, it would be Kim Chinquee, I think, because we’re both military vets and it might be interesting to compare notes.
And what’s for dinner? It would be something rich and earthy, Italian maybe, lasagna. And a really good Napa cab—big and bold in its own right. Tiramisu and strong coffee later. A memorable evening, for sure.
Barry Basden lives with his wife and an old yellow Lab in the Texas hill country, where he is passionate about the San Antonio Spurs. He is coauthor of Crack! and Thump: With a Combat Infantry Officer in World War II. His shorter work has been published widely, both online and in print. His latest flash collection is Wince, and he is currently working on compressed pieces related to war.
This interview is part of New Flash Fiction Review’s ongoing New Micro Interviews series, created by New Flash Fiction Review’s Founding Editor, Meg Pokrass