Meg Pokrass asks Roy Kesey to discuss his thoughts on creating microfiction. Roy Kesey’s “Learning to Count in a Small Town” and “Calisthenics” are forthcoming in New Micro – Exceptionally Short Fiction (W.W. Norton & Co, 2018).
MP: Roy, I have been sharing “Calisthenics” in my workshops for a long while. I find it a brilliant example of what can be achieved with unreliable narration in flash. It makes me feel something, every time.
“The television had things, and he watched them.” One of my favorite sentences in this story. Though every sentence shines.
I admire the details you’ve left out in this piece. Your short, strange lines are beautiful, poetic. Haunting. Can you tell us anything about the writing of this story? How it came about?
RK: It started with a fall I took, and the smell of damp cement, and from there it was just one thing after another. I don’t know why that’s a nostalgia-bearing scent for me—I can’t think of any specific event or setting from childhood involving it—but it very much is, albeit one that’s weirdly content-free and thus fiction-ready.
Unreliable narration is the only narration, or so I believe. Nothing happened the way I remember it. Anoetic sentience is a cool idea, but there’s no way to get there—our physical senses have set parameters, and our interpretations of past memories create expectations that pre-exist (and shape) our understanding of whatever comes in through those senses, and we’re all subject to directive processes that organize our perceptual field in ways designed to maximize percepts in line with our expectations and minimize percepts that don’t fit them.
We’re shitty at dealing with incongruity, is another way to think about it.
And my narrator in “Calisthenics” is as bad as the rest of us or worse.
MP: “Learning to Count in a Small Town” leaves the reader with the feeling of a much longer work. You show us these lives in fractured bursts. Nothing is explained to us, everything is glimpsed. What inspired this piece?
I stole the structural conceit of this story from a six-year-old I never met. This was down in Cuernavaca. There was a captive eagle, and too many guns, and prodigious amounts of cocaine. Somewhere in the midst of all that someone told me about this poem their daughter had written where the numbers were people. That seemed wise and useful to me, so when I came home I tried it myself, setting the piece in the small town in northern California where I grew up. The girl who writes the postcard to her grandfather isn’t the girl from Cuernavaca, but I bet they’d get along.
MP: How do you begin? Do you set out to write a story with a strong feeling about it, or is it something that finds itself while writing?
RK: With voice. Whether it’s a flash or a novel or an essay, always and ever with voice. Everything that comes later—character present, character past, character future (i.e. plot), character world (i.e. setting), and god knows theme, if there ever is one—comes afterwards and as a result of and is hopefully loyal to.
MP: Is there freedom in writing pieces of this length?
There’s freedom in writing anything of any length, I think, as long as it’s what you really want to be working on and serves no practical purpose.
MP: The world seems to be falling in love with the short form these days, though it’s been around for a long while. Why do readers love flash fiction and microfiction?
RK: Maybe for the same reason we love diamonds. Density, clarity; the intimation of immense pressure brought to bear over time, of countless essential contributive narratives untold. Plus, easy to smuggle.
MP: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
RK: Something that started as six bad narrative poems, which I turned into six mediocre flash fictions (i.e. I deleted the line breaks), and which is now a 650-page… thing. I stole that whole deal about anoetic sentience from one of its characters. She’s the one I’m second-craziest about.
Roy Kesey’s is the author of Any Deadly Thing (Dzanc Books, 2013). He’s also the author of the novel Pacazo (the January 2011 selection for The Rumpus Book Club, and winner of Word Riot’s 2012 Paula Anderson Book Award), the short story collection All Over (a finalist for the 2008 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award and one of The L Magazine’s Best Books of the Decade), the novella Nothing in the World (winner of the 2005 Bullfight Media Little Book Award), and a historical guide to the city of Nanjing, China.
He has won an NEA grant for fiction and a PEN/Heim grant for translation. His translation of Pola Oloixarac’s debut novel Savage Theories (Entropía/Soho Press) is currently a contender in the 2018 Tournament of Books sponsored by The Morning News, and was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award. His translation of her novel Dark Constellations (Literatura Random House/Soho Press) is forthcoming in early 2019.”
His work has appeared in numerous anthologies including Best American Short Stories, New Sudden Fiction, The Robert Olen Butler Prize Anthology and The Future Dictionary of America, and in more than a hundred magazines including McSweeney’s, Subtropics, The Georgia Review, American Short Fiction, The Iowa Review and Ninth Letter.