Steven John, Associate & Features Editor, interviews Pedro Ponce about his flash fictions in New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co, 2018)
SJ: In your Norton New Micro Anthology piece ‘The Illustrated Woman’ you use metaphor with startling effect “explosion of dying star”, “rush of the chassis through her clenched thighs”, “a tangle of hair and tongues”. Sometimes metaphor can have the opposite effect and detract from our writing. How do we spot the right time and place.
Flash fiction is uniquely suited to metaphor because of the need for brevity. The abrupt substitution of one thing for another—without even an intervening “like” or “as”!—gives you a framework for story without the classic beginning, middle, and end. The surprise and density of metaphor require unpacking, and in the process of unpacking, the reader experiences the effects of a longer story. That’s why, to me, the best flash fiction invites readers to slow down rather than speed up.
SJ: You don’t use speech marks in either of your stories in the anthology. Should we use modern or traditional punctuation to fit the piece? What are your own rules about this?
What I wanted for my stories was a dream-like quality—these are episodes in the narrator’s mind that are recalled from some distance in time. Using quotes would make the dialogue seem too present for the effect I intended. Inspired by other writers, I also wanted to challenge myself. Would the tone and subtext of the dialogue be clear to the reader even without punctuation?
I believe that language is a living thing—constantly evolving and adapting. So I don’t have any rules about modern versus traditional punctuation. Certain popular abbreviations annoy me—crayfor crazy, vacay for vacation. But that’s my own very personal pet peeve, certainly not a standard by which to judge literary language.
SJ: ‘One of Everything’ describes a desired relationship with exquisite subtlety. The sentence “A light breeze rippled the back of her skirt” somehow did the work of a whole paragraph. Can you give us any clues about how much to tell the reader and how much to hold back?
I wrote both these pieces one sentence at a time. I didn’t write the next sentence until I got the previous sentence right—in terms of sound, stress, and image. If I held anything back from the reader, it was those minutes (hours) reading and re-reading written sentences until I felt I could extend them further into void.
My approach to flash fiction couldn’t work when I wrote my first novel. Or, it could have, but I might have never finished. Instead, I threw the first draft out there, churning out thousands of words at a time until I reached what felt like the ending. It was awful, but I waited until I had a (very) rough narrative trajectory, which I could shape more carefully in revision. When I was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins, Alice McDermott talked about how to dramatize emotion in fiction; she suggested putting it all out there, and thenparing back the writing until it has the kind of subtlety that invites a reader in. This insight was crucial for my transition from short stories to the novel.
SJ: You have expertly distilled both stories down to the essence. Please talk us through your writing and revision processes.
Writing the novel has influenced my process for shorter work. I try to follow the writing as far as it will take me, without imposing form prematurely. I draft my work by hand, on notecards. When I reach what feels like the end, I’ll take the resulting stack and pin it to a bulletin board over my desk. After a time, I’ll type what’s on the cards into a computer file, print it out, and then start hacking away. (As I write this, there are a couple of new stories I wrote last summer still in the board stage that need to be typed up.)
SJ: Do you like anyone else to read your work before submitting?
I used to want to be playwright. But when I found out how collaborative the production process was, I turned to fiction. Which is to say, I’m very protective of my work. I’m not saying this is a best practice, but it does create the space I need to keep working. Maybe one day, I’ll feel comfortable enough to let the audience in a little more.
SJ: If you were to write a recipe for the perfect short fiction cake, what are the essential ingredients?
Beautiful frosting of a thick, appetizing texture. The knife should slice through the top layer effortlessly; the resulting seam should be redolent of butter and sugar. Only on breaching the bottom layer do you notice the dark sludge puddling at your shoe and seeping into your shirtsleeves.
SJ: As a lecturer in Creative Writing what do you find most commonly missing from modern short fiction? What craft skills do new writers have to work on the most?
Letting the story be what it is, rather than what you want it to be. Of course we want our stories to make sense, to mean something, to show people at their best even when we might feel at our worst. But stories tend to resist our intentions for them, however aspirational. You want an elephant, but you end up with a squirrel. Learn to appreciate the squirrel—its small size and energy allows it dig under the everyday, go places that an elephant can’t. You wouldn’t blame a squirrel for not being an elephant, or a zebra, or a blue whale. You shouldn’t blame a story for not being happy enough or idealistic enough or redeeming enough of our common humanity. Let your stories live on their own terms.
SJ:When we receive a rejection to a piece (often with no editorial feedback) what are the most important questions we should ask ourselves?
Did I send this piece out too soon? (I’m guilty of this.) If so, put it away for a time and work on something else. If not, is there another journal out there that might be receptive?
SJ:I’m going to use another culinary analogy. The best chefs continually search for new ingredients and innovative ways to cook them. How will the written word and we way we consume them change for the next generation of writers and readers?
I like to believe that technology will make reading and writing more intricate and immersive. I recently saw the Black Mirror: Bandersnatchon Netflix. I know the response has been mixed, but I couldn’t help thinking that this was the future. Rather than having a season of something, you would have one episode that could be experienced in multiple ways. Books that work like videogames, combining text and images on a screen. Novels written in collaboration with their audiences. Print won’t die—it’s the DNA driving all these evolutions in other media.
SJ: What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m currently editing my first novel, Dreamland, for publication. A colleague of mine is adapting some of my flash fiction into graphic narratives. I’m also slowly assembling my first full-length collection of flash, tentatively titled The Little Book of Conspiracies.
Pedro Ponce teaches writing and literary theory at St. Lawrence University. His first novel, Dreamland, is forthcoming from Satellite Press.