Interview with Meghan Phillips

Steven John, Senior Fiction & Features Editor, interviews Meghan Phillips 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: Both of your stories selected by Best Microfiction 2019 ‘Abstinence Only’ and ‘Final Girl Slumber Party’ have tension between the sexes as a background theme. This is a rich seam of course for many writers. What other themes are your personal favourites, and do you believe in the old adage that we should ‘write about what we know?’

MP: Kelly Link has this writing exercise that I love: quickly quickly write a list of things you like in other works of fiction, specific or general. I’ve done this exercise a few times over the last five years, on my own and with writing classes. It’s neat to see how the specific things change—the last time I did this there was a lot about outer space, charlatans, and games—and the bigger ideas stay the same. I am always interested in the experience of being a woman in the world, and the way bodies change over time. I also feel like I’m drawn to the in-between spaces, the process of metamorphosis, which is probably why I’m constantly writing about puberty and ghosts.

I studied acting in college, and was trained in the Stanislavski method of acting. This method is all about empathizing with the character that you’re playing, essentially training yourself to feel what the character feels, often by accessing parallel experiences and emotions from your own life. When I think about writing what I know, I think about it in this Stanislavskian way. I may not know what it’s like to be a teenage boy or the survivor of a masked murder’s attack, but I do know what it’s like to desire someone. To be frustrated. To be afraid.

SJ: You go without any spoken dialogue in either piece, preferring the more difficult second person narrator. How do we as writers make these point of view decisions?

MP: I can tell you that the no dialogue choice is because I am not great at writing dialogue. I think writers often develop their own rhythms and quirks by leaning in to what they feel confident doing and avoiding what they struggle with. Or maybe that’s just me.

For myself, at least, the choice of POV is one of the keys that unlocks an idea for me. With both “Final Girl” and “Abstinence Only,” it didn’t feel like a conscious choice to write both stories in first person plural so much as that’s how the story I wanted to tell worked the best. Point of view is how writers adjust the focus of a story. How close do we need to be to the narrator? How much distance do we need from this tough scene, this strange detail?

SJ: In ‘Abstinence Only’ you paint the main characters i.e. the boys and the girls, in a few delicious sentences. Boys – “Old onions and sprouted garlic”. Girls – “All sweet mint gum and cherry blossom hand lotion.” How important are descriptive passages in the short form?

MP: Thank you. They are so important! Descriptions and details, especially those anchored in the senses, do a lot of heavy lifting in flash and micro fiction. Kathy Fish is really exceptional at using sensory details in her fiction and also at teaching her students to use them in theirs. I worry that I am an over describer. Writing description might be the most fun I have while drafting a story, and I sometimes go overboard. I worried sending out “Abstinence Only” that it wasn’t really a story so much as a paragraph long description of what these boys were hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, and tasting.

SJ: In ‘Final Girl Slumber Party’ you ratchet up the sexual tension with lines like “Pretty sure fucking’s just another kind of stabbing”. How do we weave the frisson of opposing forces into our writing?

MP: Neil Gaiman has this great essay called “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” in which he tries to answer the titular question for his seven-year-old daughter’s class. One of his answers for where ideas come from is putting two things together that haven’t been together before. I think about that a lot when writing, the tension created when two unlike things are brought together. The strange thing about doing this, though, is finding that there are points of overlap or connection between those seemingly unlike things. And then working through that, those unexpected connection, can add a whole other layer of tension. I feel like the root of so many of my ideas is misunderstanding, which is in itself a kind of tension, and does, in a way, force you to reconcile two different things: what you think you know and the Truth.

SJ: You are Editor in Chief at Third Point Press. What current trends are you seeing in flash fiction, good and bad?

MP: I really love the trend of riffing on fairy tales or mythology. Amber Sparks has a story called “In Which Athena Designs a Video Games with the Express Purpose of Trolling Her Father” in wigleaf that is like my platonic ideal of this kind of story. Another stunner that riffs on mythology is Gwen Kirby’s “Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at that Point Fuck Them Anyway” from SmokeLong Quarterly (where I’m also an editor!). Kirby’s story is also an example of one of my other favorite things that flash writers are doing, which is just tearing up traditional story structure. Lists, linked micros, hermit crabs forms… I love it. I’m not a fan of flash that has a punchline ending, a story that ends with the narrator waking up to find everything was just a dream, for example. For the most part, though, I am just really excited about the curiosity and creativity of the flash fiction writers working today.

SJ: What’s the best advice you could give to any writer submitting their work to a print or online magazine?

MP: Put in the work of finding places where you want your work to be published. Places where you like the stuff that they’re putting out. You like their aesthetic, how their site or issues look. You like how they promote their writers or how they interact on Twitter. Remember that you decide where you send your work.

Also, please ask for help if you need it. And please please please, be kind to yourself.

SJ: What are the most common mistakes writers make when submitting?

MP: I feel a little strange answering this question because what I might think is a mistake another writer or editor might not care about at all. I mean, there’s a lot of general submitting etiquette, like making sure a publication is open to submissions, looking at guidelines, etc. that’s important to remember. Those small things can add up. I think maybe the biggest mistakes are mistakes of kindness. Pushing yourself to publish anything anywhere. Forgetting that everyone involved in this process is a person with their own creative work and insecurities.

SJ: Which book(s) have you got on your night-stand right now?

MP: Oh no, there’s a lot. I have my to-be-reread-at-some-point stack of The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff, which also helps raise my lamp a few inches. I have Mallory O’Meara’s biography of Milicent Patrick, The Lady from the Black Lagoon and Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey.I have two issues of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Paper Darts, vol. 8 stacked under the little tray I put my hair ties and stuff from my pockets in. There’s Chloe Clark’s chapbook The Science of Unvanishing Objects and Claire Wahmanholm’s Night Vision that I pick up and read poems from when the urge strikes. There’s my Kindle. And last but not least, my current before bed read, Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman.

SJ: If you could choose one book that was handed down to you, what would it be, and which different book would you like to hand on to your loved ones.

MP: It’s hard to choose only one! I was lucky to grow up in a house with a lot of books. Both my parents are readers. They read to my sister and I, but I think maybe more importantly there were just books around. I encountered a lot of books this way. The one that probably had the most lasting impact on me is Jack Finney’s Time and Again, an illustrated novel about a secret government time travel experiment. A book that I’m constantly recommending and giving as a gift, and that I hope my son will read when he’s old enough is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It somehow examines both the best and worst parts of humanity while also being a just a straight-up great read.

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Meghan Phillips is the author of the chapbook, Abstinence Only (forthcoming Barrelhouse). She is the editor in chief of Third Point Press and an associate editor for SmokeLong Quarterly. Her stories and poems have appeared in WigleafBarrelhouse, and Strange Horizons, among others, and have been nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology, Best Microfiction and The Pushcart Prize. You can find more of her writing at meghan-phillips.com and her tweets @mcarphil. She lives in Lancaster, PA with her husband and son.