Tommy Dean interviews Paul Beckman about his work in New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co, 2018) and about the craft of writing microfiction
TD: I love the nature of this brotherly relationship in your story “Brother Speak.” It’s almost as if they are stuck in childhood though we know they are now adults. Do brothers ever mature in their discourse, their way of communicating? If you had wrote this story with sisters instead, would they act the same way?
PB: As a long time brother and brother watcher any maturing of the discourse is temporary and it takes very little for them to resort to communicating in their childhood ways. One brother reaching out for a simple handshake upon getting together will most likely cause the other brother to resort to a flinch movement. It becomes their replacement for a brotherly hug.
If I had written this same story with sisters, it would most likely lack the physical aspects and all of the swipes would be verbal.
TD: Could this story have been longer? Could the story have maintained this structure for 2,000 words? Or do some stories just find their perfect lengths?
PB: While I believe I could stretch this same story to 2000 words I believe it would play itself out much sooner and not give the reader the feeling of intimacy and rivalry that this micro brings to the table.
TD: Paul, you might be one of the most widely published writers I’ve ever spoken to. How consciously do you think about the placement of a story when you’re writing? Or does that only come at the end? Do you have a submitting strategy? Do you think in terms of audience as you draft?
PB: My thinking of placement while writing only comes into play if I’m writing for a contest or a prompt driven challenge. Even then, I know almost nothing about the story until I’m writing it. The opening of the story leads to the next line and so on. I almost never know the ending or plot line while I’m writing but I do get an internal notice when it’s time to stop writing and set the story aside for Titling, Editing, and Reading Aloud.
I’ll think about submitting when the above is done unless I’m writing to a specific magazine’s prompt or contest. I do write to a number of prompts given by other writers whose flash classes I join. E.G. Nancy Stohlman, Kathy Fish, Meg Pokrass, Gay Degani, Meg Tuite, Robert Vaughan, and others. But these prompts rarely suggest a magazine to my mind until the story is finished.
My submitting strategy is to submit. I try to have between 20 and 30 stories out at any one time. (Thank heavens for Duotrope!) And the only time I think of audience when I begin a story is if the story is specific to a magazine’s style. Sci-Fi, Crime…
TD: Do you approach writing with a sense of play? Your stories often seem to center around using words as a form of joyful puzzle.
PB: I do approach many stories with a sense of play after I’ve gotten to the point where I can put myself or someone I know in the character I’m writing about. That usually comes in the first paragraph and it may not even be a person I know but just a person or people observed—very often a couple in a restaurant. I love writing about what I imagine goes on behind closed doors.
TD: How important is it to establish setting, mood, tone, and character in the first sentence of a micro?
PB: I think the best flash and micro fiction have at least one of these four: setting, mood, tone, or character in the first sentence. If the writing gods are with me, I’ll be able to establish at least two or more in the opening sentence. So often it’s the person’s name that drives the narrative or their place in conjunction to the narrator—teacher, bartender, grandfather, husband, etc.
TD: What are your writerly obsessions? What theme, idea, or image can you not let go of?
PB: Dysfunctional families, fractured families, deceiving spouses, middle child living, children that lie, cheat, and steal as well as snoop, fight and don’t get along with their parent(s). I don’t think I could write a story about a perfect family—it wouldn’t be as interesting, and I know me–something would happen to expose their so-called perfection.
TD: How important is mystery to micro length stories? How much can you rely on the reader to put together the pieces?
PB: Mystery and micro go hand in glove as do the writer and reader—one who starts the fire and the other who finds some way to put out the fire. It’s a partnership—it’s the white space—it’s the spouse that finishes the sentences the other has started. The shorter the writing the tighter the partnership and that’s why Norton’s New Micro is so good. If the reader wants everything spelled out, he should read a novel–but in micro the reader and writer have a contract and a major part of that contract is the understanding that shorter is not easier to write or read.
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?
PB: The two biggest parts of my life that I haven’t written about yet are the two careers I’ve retired from: my air traffic control days and my years as a real estate developer and builder. I may have written one or two stories over the years, but I am not drawn to these careers as a writer for some reason. I’m not afraid to write about these topics but maybe, since you framed the question the way you did, I may feel that if I write about these two things it should be CNF.
TD: A novel, a micro, and a poem go to a bar together. What happens?
PB: The novel sits at the bar and explains to the bartender exactly how he’d like his Perfect Bourbon Manhattan made and stays at the bar chatting up the bartender and everyone else on stools near his. The poem and micro get into a quarrel when the poem tells the micro his work is “prose poems”, not “very short stories” and they go their separate ways: the poem with his glass of wine taking a table far away from everyone else at the bar and begins writing right away on the pad he keeps in his back pocket. The micro also takes a table by herself but one right next to a table filled with people and she pretends to read while listening to the group of six who all work in the same office. She writes notes in the margin of her book while sipping her wine.
TD: What gives micros their power? Language? Silence? Structure?
TD: What are you working on now?
PB: Right now, I’m working on a flash and micro manuscript about growing up in the projects. I’m also writing every day because I want to see what comes out of my mind.
Paul Beckman’s a retired air traffic controller. He was one of the winners in The Best Small Fictions 2016 and was selected for the Editors Choice Award for 2016 for his story in Fiction Southeast. His latest collection of flash stories, “Kiss Kiss” ( Truth Serum Press) is available from Independent Booksellers, Amazon or his blog www.pincusb.com. Some places his stories have been published: Literary Orphans, Matter Press, Spelk, Playboy, and Pank. Paul had a story selected for the 2018 New Norton Anthology of Micro fiction.