Interview with Pamela Painter

Tommy Dean interviews Pamela Painter, whose story “Letting Go” was first published in New Flash Fiction Review, and reprinted in NEW MICRO (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018).  Her second story in NEW MICRO is “Help” first published in Five Points. 

This interview is part of New Flash Fiction Review’s ongoing New Micro Interviews series, created by New Flash Fiction Review’s Founding Editor, Meg Pokrass

How important is it to establish setting, mood, tone, and character in the first sentence of a micro?

Very important– I guess.  But I don’t think about these aspects of fiction when I start a story.  Before I began writing fiction, I audited a course by James Cox, a brilliant and dynamic Dartmouth professor, who said “language is all you have.”  So my stories just “begin”—one word after another pursuing the kernel of a story, working with a degree of disjunction. Thinking about “setting,” etc., occurs in the revision process.  And I totally believe in the revision process.

How do you know when to stop? How do you know when a story is finished?

The language tells me.  Sometimes when I write a line I realize with amazement– “this is the last sentence of this story.”

In “Letting Go” how quickly in the drafting process did you come up with the Ex in the backstory? Why is it that most stories have at least two threads to make them work?

I’m intrigued with your first question – when did I come up with the Ex?  The answer:  not in the first draft.  I wrote the story of the woman who photographs the couple falling over the cliff—but it isn’t at all that young couple’s story.  So I had to ask how might it be the woman’s story.  Enter the ex and her no doubt troubled past to answer that question.  He’s an “ex” who has deplored one of his wife’s habits.  She evidently hasn’t changed and is looking forward to using the emollients at her hotel.  (Oddly, I don’t think I’ve ever used that word before or since.  I certainly have never said it out loud except when I do this story at a reading.)  Meanwhile, at the story’s end, she does take his advice that “sometimes you have to let things go,” but it wasn’t soon enough to save their marriage.

I do agree that most stories have to have two threads—and I call them the inside and outside story.  An anecdote is often the vehicle for the outside story, and then it is deepened by adding the inside story—how an unstable past and the troubled state of the narrator’s inner life affect the character’s actions and what it means to his or her life.

 “Letting Go” ends with a satisfying abruptness. Does the reader know enough to fill in the rest of the character’s history from this moment? Is that important to this story, to micro in general?

The “abrupt ending” asserts that the narrator is “still here” despite a critical husband, a divorce, and this unsettling encounter with the couple who fell over the canyon’s cliff.  “Still here.” And that is enough for the reader to know.  If the “history” from that moment on were important to the story, then the story wouldn’t end at that point.  And it might turn out to be longer than a Micro.  I’m grateful that NFFR’s guest editor, Robert Shapard, suggested I change the title to “Letting Go”—a change that underscored the story’s meaning.

One aspect of an “abrupt ending” I admire is what I call a “fall-away” ending, where the ending goes abruptly sideways from the story line.  It is hard to describe, but my second story “Help” in New Micro has a fall-away ending.

What is the process for you to keep the narrative tone/ point of view so objective? Do you purposely look and strike out words of subjectivity?

Aren’t her observations about the “alarming” depths of the canyon walls, her attitude toward the young couple “joined at the hip” subjective?

What gives micros their power? Language? Silence? Structure?

Yes, and all three are contained in each story of the Micro’s length of 300 words.

 What’s more important: the opening or the ending of a story?

Clearly, the opening is more important because it has to pull the reader/editor into the story, insist that he or she “stay for more.”  On the other hand, perhaps it is the ending because a story needs to complete something, to reward the reader with a shape that is finished. But wait, the middle is crucial, too.  Now where am I—I guess the real answer is that every word matters.

What are your writerly obsessions? What theme, idea, or image can you not let go of?

Once my writerly obsession was subject matter.  I wrote numerous stories about my first marriage from the divorced wife’s point of view.  One of the stories was in Harper’s Magazine and contained this line about the husband,  “…thank heavens he doesn’t read a thing.” I knew my ex wouldn’t read the story even though it was in a high-profile magazine.  Then I felt sorry for him and wrote several stories from his viewpoint.  Images?  Someone pointed out that I have a lot of canopy beds in my stories, though I never owned one.  If I longed for one, I’m not aware of it. I do like to write about art—Wyeth’s Helga paintings, which to both Wyeths’ delight and relief were purchased for a fortune by the publisher of Swine Flu Claim and Litigation Reporter, Hopper’s erotic “The View: Office at Night.” The squiggly magic lines in Hockney’s swimming pools that are as real as the men who swim there. The gifts from artist friends.

What 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?

I don’t think about ideas or topics – they appear belatedly when a number of stories are about the same situation–such as divorce, grief, a parent’s engagement with difficult and/or precocious children.

A novel, a micro, and a poem go to a bar together. What happens?

I’ll start a story with that line and see where it takes me.  Here goes:

Bar Talk

A novel, a micro, and a poem go into a bar together. Considering itself of a higher order, the poem speaks first.  “So, where is story?”  Both the novel and the micro insist on ordering drinks before they even address this question. Scotch for the novel; bourbon for the micro, both straight-up.  And the poem?  Belatedly, the poem approves, then displays its tendency for precise images by ordering a martini: Tanqueray Gin, three pitted olives, shaken four times with three ice cubes and served in a frosted martini glass. Soon the novel, the micro and the poem toast this fine occasion. Then the poem, playing host, rephrases the earlier question: “Did anyone invite the story?  Though it’s not like we need a fourth for bridge or two folies a deux.”   “The story’s too short,” the novel says.  “Too long,” the micro says.  The poem is astonished at such mundane reasons and says “’length’–is that all that’s keeping the story from our little party?” The novel and the micro admit it’s true.  They call for a new round.  Delighted with another martini, the poem realizes that four at the table would have meant an even larger bar tab.  And poems, as we know, are rarely able to pay the bill.  So the novel picks it up; the micro leaves the tip.

Where do your most unique ideas come from? How do you know if a story idea is working?

Where stories come from is a mystery I can’t or don’t want to decipher.  But I do love hearing people’s anecdotes and turning them into a story.  The anecdote behind “Help” came from a bartender who recounted how he was annoyed at people taking over his bar’s restrooms to do drugs or sex, and one night he wedged a couple in.  I told the story from the POV of a young girl working for this bartender who indeed, on a busy night, wedges the offending couple in.

I don’t know where the idea for “Letting Go” originated.  But oddly this is my third story in which someone going over a cliff is contemplated or actually happens. The most recent one is in the current issue of Five Points.   Hmmmm.

Can you tell us about your experience as a flash fiction teacher?

Yes.  I think I was one of the first writers to teach a graduate workshop exclusively on Flash Fiction– sometime in the 90s at Emerson College.  Students write one or two stories a week, and put together a chapbook at the semester’s end.  An undergraduate student, Jenefer Pieroni founded and edited QUICK FICTION for ten great years.Two students have placed first in The World’s Best Short Short Story contest begun by Jerome Stern.  I also taught several flash workshops at Jude Higgins’ wildly successful Flash Fiction Festival in the UK. Why is there not a flash fiction festival in the US? Meg Pokrass, New Flash Fiction Review’s Founding Editor, and Flash Fiction Festival, U.K.’s Festival Curator, needs to return to the US and begin one here!

Do you have a favorite micro story you’d like to mention, one that may have been published recently?

I do, I do! Kathy Fish’s “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild.” She begins with imaginative collective nouns—for example “a group of grandmothers is a “tapestry, a group of toddlers a “jubilance,” a group of short story writers a “Flannery,” and continues on to a devastating ending that I won’t give away.  But every member of congress should be sent this story.  And the President.

What are you working on now?

I’m putting together another collection.  I have to decide if it will be all flash fiction or a mixture of longer stories and flash.  And I’m always writing stories.  See my response to your challenge above, “A Novel, a Micro…..”   I belatedly titled it “Bar Talk.”   Hey, this was fun.

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Pamela Painter is the author of four story collections:  the award-winning  Getting to Know the Weather,The Long and Short of It,Ways to Spend the Night, and her collection of Flash titled Wouldn’t You Like to Know.  Her stories have appeared in numerous journals, The Atlantic, Five Points, Harper’s, Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, Ploughshares,and ThreePenny Review, among others, and in numerous flash anthologies, Sudden Fiction, Flash Fiction,Flash Fiction Forward, Flash Fiction Funny,Flashed;  Sudden Stories in Prose and Comics,and Microfiction.  Painter has a flash story in The Best Short Fiction of 2017and two stories inNew Micro, 2018. Her essay on the value of exercises is the first entry in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction.  She is co-author of the widely-adopted textbook, What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers,now in its third college edition, and used in almost every university in the US. Painter has served as judge for numerous competitions, such as RoseMetal Press’s Flash contest, regularly appears at conferences such as The Flash Fiction Festival Bath, UK in 2017, and WordTheatre’s Writing Retreat. Painter has received grants from The Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts, has won three Pushcart Prizes and Agni Review’sThe John Cheever Award for Fiction.  Her flash stories have been presented on National Public Radio, a Norton CD titled Love Hurts, and also appear on the YouTube channel, CRONOGEO, presented by noted illustrator Anthony Russo.   An extensive interview with Painter appears in Superstition Review.  Her work has also been staged by various theatre companies, most notably WordTheatre who presented Painter’s stories in Los Angeles, the Hamptons, London and New York.