Steven John, Fiction & Features Editor, interviews Beth Gilstrap-Barnes about her two Flash Fictions in Best Microfiction 2019, edited by Meg Pokrass and Gary Fincke. Final selections by Dan Chaon. Published by Pelekinesis
SJ: ‘Becky’ is such a beautifully written flash memoir piece, starting right out with the first sentence ‘It’s hard to think about the whitest of white girl names.’ You have the readers full attention after just eleven words. What can the short form bring to written memoir which perhaps longer forms would lose?
BGB: For me, I’m most comfortable in fiction so flash memoir is an entry point for me into nonfiction. I’m not sure I could sustain a long piece about certain difficult parts of my life. This brief piece nearly brought me to my knees. I’ve only read it in public once and I had a hard time holding myself together. So, I suppose, it opens the genre up to folks who might not attempt a whole book. Yet.
SJ: ‘Bone Words’ leaves so much unsaid, so much for the reader to surmise. You’re telling this story of betrayal partly through the insect life ‘praying for rain, praying for horns, praying for horns of my own’. Tell us a bit about your editing process. How do you decide what to leave in a story of less than 400 words?
BGB: A large part of my editing process is reading the piece aloud until it matches the rhythm I’ve got in my head. I play with pacing even in short pieces. A piece like this one I read a bit breathless in parts and then slow it way down at key moments. So whatever words or lines don’t work aloud, goes. It’s all about compression.
SJ: In both ‘Becky and ‘Bone Words’ there are startling descriptive sentences. ‘I’d never be the delicate lace of your hem’ (Becky) or ‘The sleeping boy is too sweet for fighting. He writes songs about my hair’ (Bone Words). You sum up two characters in very few words. How important are these quick, sharp descriptions in micro-fiction
BGB: Two former teachers, Sherrie Flick and Lori Jakiela, taught me to look for “luminous” details rather than every detail. These details can and should include aspects of character, setting, atmosphere, etc. and a great way to do that (and Kathy Fish teaches this as well) is to use an important object (or in this case, an insect) as an entry point for all these things. And I’ve learned to trust my instincts with language over the years. The phrasing that is unique to your voice is important, too.
SJ: You’ve written two collections of short stories ‘I am Barbarella’ (2015) and ‘No Man’s Wild Laura’ (2016). Do you have any favourite themes in your writing – where does your inspiration come from?
BGB: Most of my inspiration comes from my dysfunctional southern (USA) upbringing, including the dogma of the Bible Belt which I have since rejected, the phenomenal storytelling traditions of my region, particularly in terms of the southern gothic. I am always drawn to and inspired by the natural world. If I feel stuck, I go work in my garden or take a walk. It knocks something loose in my brain every time. I also find inspiration from my love for other art forms: music, visual & performing arts, etc.
SJ: You are currently Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing at Queens University, Charlotte, North Carolina. What are the most important craft skills new writers should work on? What craft skills are most difficult to teach?
BGB: I taught in the First Year Writing Program at Queens this past spring, but was not part of the creative writing faculty. I love teaching First Year Writing because I get to see students who most often fear and loathe writing develop more confidence and work through the challenges that every writer faces with every writing situation. Learning to read like a writer, to pay attention to language, nuance, and analyse what each writer is doing with each piece I teach, is most important from my point of view. Learning it’s not about some magical skill you’re born with—that it takes a lot of work to seem effortless and beautiful—and that anyone can improve, is what I work toward. I always tell them that you wouldn’t expect to know how to play a violin the first day you held one.
SJ: In your busy writing life you are also Managing Editor at Little Fiction – Big Truths http://www.littlefiction.com/beta/BigTruths.html What are you looking for in your submissions ‘in box’ and what are the current trends?
BGB: One thing I love about Little Fiction is that we’re quite open to many styles. We’ve recently accepted two mermaid stories. We publish slow burn literary fiction. We publish rural gothic. We publish space stories. We published a story about Jazzercise. If we feel the story in our gut, we publish it. Full stop. I think we’re a bit unusual at Little Fiction | Big Truths because other than our annual flash issues, we mostly publish traditional length (2,000-4,000ish) word stories.
SJ: Do you have anyone else to read your work before submitting?
BGB: Usually. I have two poet friends whom I trust with my life and my words.
SJ: When we receive a rejection to a piece (often with no editorial feedback) what are the most important questions we should ask ourselves?
BGB: I think the most important thing is to keep submitting it for a bit. I tend to submit a piece a certain number of times and if they all come back as rejections, I consider that evidence that something isn’t working in the piece. Usually, I rushed the submission before it was fully ready. The language wasn’t quite there or the characterization, but the biggest thing I’ve noticed in six years of working for journals is that most pieces don’t have enough tension to sustain the story and simply aren’t compelling. Something has to happen to your characters. I’m guilty of this as well. When I was writing my first collection, my husband kept asking me if the characters got off the porch yet to which I’d roll my eyes and say, “No. Leave me alone.”
SJ: The best chefs continually search for new ingredients and innovative ways to cook them. How will the written word and we way we consume them change for the next generation of writers and readers?
BGB: I imagine since they are so well versed in visual storytelling, it will lean that way—more cinematic, perhaps. I have no idea what they’ll do but I sure as hell can’t wait to find out. My young students last semester showed so much openness to stories & voices outside the traditional canon and less scepticism toward the world than my generation so I find that comforting.
SJ: What writing projects are you working on now?
BGB: I recently finished a second full-length story collection and have started a new long project in the past two months. I don’t want to call it a novel, but it might be eventually.
Beth Gilstrap-Barnes is the author of “I Am Barbarella: Stories” (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and “No Man’s Wild Laura” (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. She serves as Fiction Editor at Little Fiction | Big Truths and a reader at Creative Nonfiction. Her work has been selected as Longform.org’s Fiction Pick of the Week and recently selected by Dan Chaon for inclusion in the Best Microfiction Anthology. Her work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Menacing Hedge, The Minnesota Review, Hot Metal Bridge, and Wigleaf, among others.
Features & Fiction Editor – Steven John