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.