Interview with Jim Heynen

Steven John interviews Jim Heynen about his stories in New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) and about the craft of writing brilliant microfiction

SJ: ‘Why Would a Woman Pour Boiling Water on Her Head’ has something of a Dadaist work of art about it – a canvas of the mundane ( ‘see a moose head from the 1920’s’, ‘see old encyclopedias, magazines from the ‘40s’) and the dream-like (‘while standing naked in a snow bank near a cabin in the north woods’). Can you tell us a little of how this story came into being?

JH: Sometimes Dadaist scenes are right under our noses.  This story is an oddly realistic spin-off from a situation I witnessed at a lake cabin in Minnesota’s north woods.  Urban people were escaping to a rustic cabin only to have the romantic notion of connecting with the old ways backfire.  It was both absurd and awful and an almost satiric portrayal of a city person not knowing how to imitate modern conveniences in a quasi-primitive setting.

SJ: You ‘direct’ the reader’s eye to scenes as a film director would direct a camera with the repeated use of ‘see’ (‘see our woman’,’ see a large stone fireplace’) This is a fascinating lens for a writer to use. Can you give us any background to your choice here?

JH: The repetition is no doubt connected to the lyrical poet in me, and the photographic detachment is no doubt rooted in my sense of irony: the music of repetition blending and colliding with the disparate accompanying images.  For me this was a satisfying cacophony. Dadaist indeed.

SJ: You bring the narrator and the reader together with the use of the first person (‘we know there must be more to it’, ‘see our woman’). How does a story tell us the best perspective to use – do you try different versions in your own writing?

JH: Yes, I try different perspectives.  Writing this totally in the third person with an objective third person narrator felt ruthless to me.  Moving to the first-person plural with the inclusive “we” gave me a sense of empathic unity with the woman as we viewers start to participate in her discomfort.”

SJ: There is beautiful balance in the story, pivoting on the haunting sentence ‘The room divides between moonlight and fire light, between pleasure and pain, between fire and ice.’ Can you tell us something about your writing and revision process?

JH: I don’t understand the impulse to write about something until I’ve written a first draft, letting it flow through me in a way that D.H. Lawrence described as “the wind that blows through me.” After the wind has made its first pass through me and maybe also exposed what Lawrence called “the chaos of the world,” I look at what that tornadic creative wind has left behind.  That’s when everything I have ever done, thought, and read comes into play.  The jigsaw pieces are spread across the table and I try to figure out how to put them together.  The advantage at this stage in the writing is that I can add new pieces to the scattered jigsaw pieces if I need them. 

SJ: The reader is left much to imagine. In microfiction, just how important is it to leave space for the reader?

JH: I wouldn’t speak for all micro fiction pieces because some of them are condensed packages with quite inclusive and explicit details of the players involved—whether scenery or humans—but in all cases, brevity is our friend.  Starting with the guideline of brevity invites the writer to hint and suggest rather than explain. The power of white space.  If someone were to write, “Her life was a life of wrinkles” without explanation, most readers would imagine numerous ways in which that might be true.  With that comment, I’ve almost inspired myself to write a short piece about someone whose life is a life of wrinkles.  It might pretend to be a self-portrait.

SJ: Where do you look for your writing ideas or do you wait until they find you?

JH: My five senses are the searchlights.  When an image or phrase registers on my senses, have those images or phrases found me or have I found them?  If I am going through a writing dry spell, I tell myself to wake up.  The world that comes to me through my senses is brimming with material.  Sometimes so much material that it drives me to hide behind the friendly monster Procrastination, a monster that is really a screen we writers can hide behind when the real reason for not writing is fear of failure.

JH: I must say, though, that the longer I write the more I realize how everything is in some way autobiographical.  Indelible imprints of a childhood on an Iowa farm are always there.  A strict Dutch Calvinist indoctrination is always there.  My best teachers’ dedication and sense of wonder are always there.  My training in music is always there.  The loves and lost-loves of my life are always there.  The stew of one’s life grows thicker as we age.  Some spices become more prominent while others fade.  I find the greatest danger is that I might settle for the dismal swamp of contentment.  The antidote, always, is a reawakening of the senses.  New recipes are always waiting for discovery.

SJ: I’ve read your ‘60 scintillating hints’ for writers on your website (which I’ve now pinned on my noticeboard by the way) http://www.jimheynen.com/index.html You say that all writers should read poetry. What can writers of flash fiction learn from poetry?

JH: Everything:  Music over the prosaic monotony of informative chatter. Economy over explanatory expansiveness. Precision over the lazy cover-up of wordiness.  I would also add that like poetry, flash fiction has high expectations of the reader.  Even as the writer of flash fiction aspires to make every word count, so too it assumes that the reader will realize that every word counts.  Poetry and flash fiction call for intent readers.

SJ: You’ve been a published writer since the 1970’s and you’ve had stories in previous Norton anthologies of flash fiction. How has the culture of writing in the short form changed over the last few decades? What changes, if any, have taken place in your own writing style, if it has?

JH: In the earliest collections that come to mind, “prose poetry” was the umbrella label.  A handsome little collection from 1974 was titled Fifty-Four Prose Poems.  What’s notable about that collection is that many of these pieces have a narrative element that would almost certainly put them in the flash-fiction category today.  But what’s even more notable about that collection is that not one of the authors is a woman.  In contrast, about half of the authors included in New Micro are women.  That is the biggest and most welcome change of all.

I do remember some early attempts to define the prose poem, but the prose poem got wily and mutated into all sorts of unlined short forms.  Enter the genre police who insisted on clarity of form and expression. A few even laid down rules and guidelines to distinguish prose poems from short-shorts.  It was a great time of confusion, even if this kind of confusion was a tempest in a teapot.  When some of my flash pieces were accepted, I never knew if the editors were going to put them in their poetry or fiction section. But the horses were already out of the barn and galloping wildly across the wide-open pastures of possibility.  If there have been changes in my own writing, it is because I have tried to keep a bit of the wild-horse spirit in me.  Don’t fence me in.

SJ: You must have met some inspiring writers during your long career as author and poet. Did any of them impart any long-lasting or unusual advice? Who were the guiding beacons for your own work?

JH: Many writers who are no longer with us were personal friends—Raymond Carver, William Stafford, Denise Levertov, Frank Herbert, Carol Bly, Bill Holm, and many others.  Stafford was the closest I ever had to a mentor.  His simple diction aligned with my inclinations.  I was inspired by Carver’s life probably more than by his writing.  I only knew him in his post-drinking days when we both lived in the Pacific Northwest.  I loved his casual attentiveness to everything around him.  If he used your bathroom, you can be sure he checked to see what was in your medicine cabinet.

Today when I teach aspiring writers, I don’t discourage imitation of people they admire because I don’t think it’s possible to successfully imitate someone who is not an advanced version of what you are meant to become. 

SJ: Who are a few talented writers you have discovered recently?

JH: I’d like to name several of my students in the low-residency MFA program I teach in through Miami University in Oxford, Ohio—but I’m going to wait until their first books are out.  And then I’ll blurb them lavishly.  Right now I’d like to point to some of the literary presses that are opening readers’ eyes to many marvellous young writers who show a wide diversity of identities.  Many of them bring us news of a world that is totally unfamiliar and thereby enrich and expand our small worlds.  I’m thinking especially of Copper Canyon Press out of Washington and three presses that are right here in Minnesota: Milkweed Editions, Graywolf Press, and Coffee House Press.

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Jim Heynen is best known for his short-short stories (The Man Who Kept Cigars in His Cap, Graywolf Press; You Know What is Right, North Point Press; The One-room Schoolhouse, Knopf/Vintage Contemporaries; The Boys’ House, Minnesota Historical Society Press; and Ordinary Sins, Milkweed Editions). Many of these stories have been broadcast on NPR’s All Things Considered, and Minnesota astronaut George Pinky Nelson took a recording of Heynen’s stories for bedtime listening on his last space mission.  Heynen has also published three novels (The Fall of Alice K., Milkweed Editions; Cosmos Coyote and William the Nice, YA, Henry Holt; and Being Youngest, YA, Henry Holt) and several collections of poetry, including A Suitable Church, Copper Canyon Press and Standing Naked: New and Selected Poems, Confluence Press. He wrote prose vignettes for two photography books published by the University of Iowa Press, Harker’s Barns and Sunday Afternoon on the Porch. His major nonfiction book, One Hundred Over 100, Fulcrum Publishers, featured 100 American centenarians. He has been awarded National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in both poetry and fiction. He lives in St. Paul, MN.