Meg Pokrass, New Flash Fiction Review’s Founding Editor and Norton anthology contributor is interviewed here by Tommy Dean. New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Co. in 2018.
Meg, your stories “Cutlery” from Five Points Magazine and “The Landlord” from Press 53 were selected for New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories, the forthcoming Norton anthology. My first question for you is: What gives micros their power?
Thanks Tommy! It’s so exciting to have here with our staff at New Flash Fiction Review! I’m honored to talk with you about this. Thank you for asking me!
That’s a hard question, because every micro re-invents itself. There’s no formula.
I believe that a micro must contain both dramatic urgency and attention to emotionally accurate detail. It must hold some powerful, unspoken truth or secret inside of it like a precious egg. The reader should be seduced, it must entertain. Every word, every comma, should earn its keep, or be taken out. Good microfiction has the quality of a mood ring, different upon every reading. And it should leave the reader with an emotional response.
Your work tends toward illuminating missed connections or couples that can’t survive their current relationships. What has drawn you to these themes?
Often my writing involves one of two difficult subjects: sex or death. I’m not exactly sure why. But, I think this is because of my former life as an actress. My best acting teacher used to put it this way: “Your job is to find the sex or the death in every scene.” Ha. Okay, this seems a bit extreme! But ultimately, I believe he was right. That’s often where great pathos lives.
If you look closely, you’ll find that many, many great stories do this. This is true in the work of Jayne Anne Phillips, Joyce Carol Oates, Amy Hempel, Aimee Bender, Stuart Dybek, and other modern flash fiction masters, such as Mary Miller, Jeff Landon, etc.
In “Cutlery”, there’s a line, “I knew he was without internet and accepted that he would never receive my message.” Is there a joy in writing with ambiguity, leaving things out, making the reader rely on clues? Is there any pain in writing so sharply, so precise?
I did feel that omission was a necessary way of telling this particular story. Omission is something I do unconsciously while I’m trying to tell a story in the best way I can.
In the same story, there’s a line, “We were each part of an intricate and delicate habitat, and we had our own ways of surviving.” If this were a metaphor for writing or the writer, what might it mean? Or does this way of seeing the world go beyond this character? Is this a common way of viewing the world?
I’m not sure if this is a common way of viewing the world, but it’s certainly a helpful one, especially when trying to understand why something isn’t working. If this were a metaphor for the writer, it would mean this: Find a way to live your life, or it will haunt you later. Your writing life is your habitat.
In “Cutlery”, her research about how different creatures mate fuels the narrator’s epiphany. She’s watching videos of rattlesnakes mating, etc, to remind herself that the world is a strange, scary and beautiful place. She’s got her own peculiar needs, just as he does.
What’s more important the opening or the ending?
Both! Every word must pull its weight, must feel essential. That being said, endings are so hard. Often, their job is to subtlety answer an invisible question that has been asked by the story itself.
A novel, a micro, and a poem go to a bar together. What happens?
The poem gets drunk, the micro falls in love, the novel keeps running to the bathroom.
Where do your most unique ideas come from? How do you know if a story idea is working?
My stories come from anywhere and everywhere, often from a weird memory of a time in my life that begs to be understood through writing. I usually have no idea what I’m trying to say; I just begin writing. My hand moves. Ideas come forth. Often I’ll give myself a prompt: for example, a few unusual words or an image I must try to make sense of and incorporate into a freewrite. To answer the second part of your question: I don’t know if an idea is working until I’m done with the final version and reading it gives me pleasure.
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.
Most of what I do is revise, rework, rewrite. There are a few that pop out just right. It’s so rare, and it’s a wonderful feeling. My story “The Big Dipper” came out like that. My story “Lifts” (which will be published soon) took at least fifty revisions.
What I find most helpful to revise (and experiment with) are the unique sensory and visual details. If a specific detail isn’t really working hard for the story, isn’t pulling its weight, I’ll try out a different detail, and see how that changes things.
If you could only write in one genre (word limit) for the rest of your life, what would you pick?
Both “Cutlery” and “The Landlord” though very short mention some salacious or deviant behaviors. Is there anything you’re afraid to write about?
Murder. Political fiction. It would keep me up at night. It’s hard enough to read of it.
If I felt that my little stories could change things, or bring comfort, it might be different. However, I did, last year, write a political poem about Trump’s America. It’s called “America” and it was published at Rattle. I must admit that it felt wonderful to write it, though I received some unhappy e-mails! I had no idea that anyone who admired Trump would have any interest in reading poetry.
What elements are essential to create a story, especially using such few words?
A fearless urge to experiment, a great deal of ingenuity, and love for unusual detail. A wood-carver’s obsessiveness for whittling things down.
What are your writerly obsessions? What theme, idea, or image can you not let go of?
Vulnerability, alcoholism, poverty, family pets, emotional abandonment, guilt.
What other media influence your life or your writing?
Listening to music leads to my best writing. I become aware of what I wish I could say while listening to stuff I love. Somehow, the music helps guide me there. My relationship to music is mysterious. I can’t imagine living without it.
What’s a 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?
My recent move from the United States to settle with my new husband in England. You’d think I’d be writing about learning to adapt to a completely new culture, fertile material for fiction. I suspect that it all still feels a bit too new to make fiction out of yet.
What’s been happening with your writing life?
I was so excited to have my story, “Barista” from Del Sol Review selected by Aimee Bender for Best Small Fictions, 2018! And I have a new full collection of stories coming out with Bath Flash Award’s Ad Hoc Fiction, called Alligators At Night. The new collection will have “Cutlery” and “The Landlord” in it, and also “Barista” from Best Small Fictions 2018.
These days, I judge a lot of international contests, which is hard work but greatly rewarding. Right now I’m judging Mslexia’s Flash Fiction Competition. And I lead monthly online workshops for flash fiction writers. Most of them involve experimental writing exercises which is something that fascinates me. I love making them up. This is something I really enjoy, helping writers to find their voice, and expand their range. Lastly, I curate Flash Fiction Festival U.K. Our next festival is July 20 – July 22nd at Trinity College in Bristol where I’ll be teaching workshops.
Meg Pokrass is the author of four collections of flash fiction, and one award-winning collection of prose poetry, Cellulose Pajamas, which received the Blue Light Book Award in 2016. Her stories have appeared in over 300 literary magazines, both online and in print, which include Tin House, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Matchbook, Jellyfish Review, New World Writing, Bayou Magazine, Fanzine and Five Points. Her writing has been widely anthologized, most recently in the forthcoming Best Small Fictions 2018, edited by Aimee Bender (Braddock Avenue Books), 2 Norton Anthologies of flash fiction: Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton & Co, 2015) and the forthcoming New Micro-Exceptionally Short Fiction. Other recent anthologies include Flash Non-Fiction Funny edited by Dinty Moore (Woodhall Press, 2018), Nothing Short of 100 (Outpost 19, 2018), and Short Circuits: Aphorisms, Fragments, and Literary Anomalies. Her new full flash fiction collection, Alligators At Night will be released in the summer of 2018 by Ad Hoc Press. She is the founder of New Flash Fiction Review and co-founder of San Francisco’s Flash Fiction Collective reading series. Meg currently serves as Festival Curator for the Flash Fiction Festival, U.K. and she teaches online workshops for flash fiction writers.