Tommy Dean asks Matt Sailor to discuss his story “Sea Air” forthcoming in NEW MICRO — EXCEPTIONALLY SHORT FICTION (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) and to talk about the craft of writing microfiction.
TD: In “Sea Air”, the narrator says of a friend that “His family was headed to the mountains like everyone else, to ski on synthetic snow.” How much of fiction should be a fight against the what everyone else is doing? Is that the aim of fiction, to show characters in their divergence from the norm?
MS: I see this as two questions so I’ll answer them in turn.
I don’t think the fiction writer’s project is necessarily to go against what everyone else is doing, although it can certainly be a motivating factor. I think flash fiction is appealing to many for that reason—it’s so much the opposite of the dominant prose form of the novel, and provides a whole other set of creative problems.
As for characters, I think divergence from the norm is very often what makes a story worth telling. The moment that a character does something different or unexpected or against what society expects is very often the moment at which the story starts.
TD: I love the subtle drop into the dystopian setting. Was the reveal of the landscape always so smooth, so backgrounded in your original draft?
MS: I don’t know that it was always so smooth, but it was always understated. The challenge of telling a dystopian or speculative story in such a small space is you don’t have the space for exposition, for the sort of extended world building that you can indulge yourself in with a novel or even a longer short story. So, you have to be more oblique.
It helps to keep your scope small. This story started with a question I asked myself: “In a post-climate change future, will people still go to the beach for pleasure?” So I didn’t set out to answer every question a reader might have about this world, just to answer this one.
TD: How important is mystery to micro length stories? How much can you rely on the reader to put together the pieces?
MS: I think one of the great benefits of the form is that it forces you to trust your reader. You don’t have a choice because you can’t paper over your mistakes with the next chapter or a four page scene later on. Flash fiction makes you realize just how much a text is a combination of what you write and what the reader brings to it.
TD: What’s more important the opening or the ending?
MS: The middle. Endings and openings are important, but they’re much easier and more fun to write. Middles are harder, and if you lose them, you’re going to lose them in the middle.
TD: What gives micros their power? Language? Silence? Structure?
MS: Distillation and omission. I’m stealing this from Josh Russell, a master of the form and creative writing faculty at Georgia State University, my alma mater. This is his almost-mantra when it comes to very short fiction. My attempt to clumsily interpret that mantra would be to suggest that, through distilling the story down to its core, and omitting everything unnecessary, you can do for the reader what no other form can do. The precision of the poem with the empathetic power of the story.
TD: Revision: Love it or hate? Tell me about a story that didn’t require any revision; tell me about a story that took multiple drafts.
MS: It’s a love hate relationship because it can be an excruciating process but I recognize it as necessary. I think of revision as the moment when you let the hypothetical reader into the process. When I’m writing, I try to allow myself to ignore any idea of an assumed reader. When I’m revising, I’m putting myself in their shoes and asking myself what might be unclear or boring or extraneous. I’ve found that I often don’t really know what the story is about until I’m in the revision process. You find things you want to turn up, things you want to turn down. The rare instance where I don’t need to revise is when I come into it with a very specific idea of what the story should do that doesn’t change. “Sea Air” is such a story, where the idea appeared fully formed, early in the morning before the coffee had kicked in.
TD: What are your writerly obsessions? What theme, idea, or image can you not let go of?
MS: For me it comes down to the parent-child relationship. At one time I might have said pop culture or nostalgia, but I’m working on a few projects that traffic heavily with those and I can see myself totally abandoning them down the line. But whether it’s fathers or mothers…this primal, elemental relationship that defines so much about who we are, this relationship that changes so much throughout our lives while somehow staying the same at its core. It’s really compelling and difficult and I don’t see myself growing tired of that any time soon.
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?
MS: There are many, many topics I have no interest in writing about. I have pretty esoteric interests and I tend to stick to those as inspiration and let other writers handle the rest. If I had to pick one that stands out, I would say compared to many other writers I’m less interested in the drama that arises in romantic relationships. That’s not to say I never write about it, but I don’t think I find that as interesting as political ideas and the relationships within a family.
TD: A novel, a micro, and a poem go to a bar together. What happens?
MS: The novel won’t stop talking. The micro and the poem get bored and go hook up in the bathroom.
TD: Where do your most unique ideas come from? How do you know if a story idea is working?
MS: I mine ideas from dreams, or from the groggy half-awake state between dreaming and waking, or from the groggy three-quarters-awake state of sitting with my notebook open and a cup of coffee. I also draw a lot from pop culture and politics. As far as whether an idea is working, it’s all about momentum. If I can stay interested and keep at it, it tells me there is something there. I don’t really apply a metric other than that. Although sometimes the final result might feel like it isn’t something I want to publish for one reason or another. I’ve written plenty of pieces that function perfectly well but don’t to me rise to the level of being unique or interesting enough to publish. And when I’ve tried, editors often agree!
TD: What are you working on now?
MS: I’m in the late stages of a novel set in my home state of Michigan in the mid-80s, following multiple storylines in a working class family struggling to stay afloat in the Reagan economy, with unavoidable parallels to our current political moment.
Matt Sailor lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared in publications such as Day One, AGNI, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, and has been anthologized or long-listed in the Best Small Fictions, the Wigleaf Top 50, and Best American Essays, among others. He earned an MFA at Georgia State University, and was awarded an NEA fellowship in fiction. He served as an editor at NANO Fiction for several years, before the publication celebrated its final issue. By day, he works as a copywriter and sometimes creative director in the marketing and advertising field.