Interview with Thaisa Frank

Flash fiction master Thaisa Frank is interviewed by Pushcart Prize recipient Steve Adams as part of New Flash Fiction Review’s ongoing craft-of-flash interview series!

SA: You write novels, short stories, and flash. Do any of these forms feel closer to your heart? Are some easier? What makes you write in one form as opposed to the other?

TF: I like all these forms when they’re working.  But because flash works most easily for me, it’s closer to my heart more often!   A novel involves living with a world for a long time and the immersion is wonderful. Short stories are like brief excursions into unknown territory. Maybe a little like a cruise ship stopping in a port—but without the burden of other passengers and with the permission to visit uncharted territory.

I think the forms choose me. In all cases, I start with a line or fragment and this line or fragment carries the world it connects to. And by this, almost literally, I mean a sense of that world’s space.   If I sense a lot of space and interconnecting tendrils, the world is a novel.  If I sense less space and more concentration on a mood or an image, the world is a short story.  In flash, the lines build the world and the space from scratch.

SA: Because of its brevity and concentration, flash can approach prose from a lot of angles and use a range of literary elements, whether ones we’d normally associate with poetry, or more traditional narratives. Years back when I was studying poetry I remember the form being called “prose poems,” and it feels to me your flash works deeply through poetic realms. Does that phrase, “prose poem,” have any resonance for you? To what degree do you see your work traveling through the poetic (which admittedly, is an entire universe)?

TF: Prose poets have had a great influence on me and I got to know some of them through correspondence–most notably, Ana Hatherly and Russell Edson. (He typed with wide margins so he wouldn’t have time to think and his letters looked a little like poetry.)  Writers like Edson and David Ignatow and Danhil Kharms illuminated the form, but the Portuguese writer, Ana Hatherly, taught me the most.  Most notably, she taught me how the fantastic can be communicated so matter-of-factly it becomes believable.

The thing about prose poems is that the image must transform as opposed to flash where the characters transform (or don’t, but in an interesting way).  Maybe because I was always drawn to poetry, and the role that inanimate objects play in our lives, I’ve always been interested in the image.

I could find examples of this in my work, but I’m pretty sure I became transfixed by the transformation of the image (and the power of the transformation) when I was four and saw the movie Pinocchio. A character bites into an apple so it’s concave on two sides and looks like this )(.  Then he lights the stem and the apple becomes a candle and illuminates the walls.  It blew me away. 

SA: I tell clients and students about the importance of specificity in their details, which is good advice. But it’s easy to give, and another thing to pull off. Your details aren’t just specific, but clean, wedded to the story, and often ripe with surprising meaning. How do you think about details (or do you)? Where do they come from (if you have any idea)? What is your process for finding them?

TF: If I have to think about details and force them, it doesn’t work. But when the work is flowing I’m pretty sure I hear the details and they choose me. For a while I kept a log of ordinary objects that made an impression on me.  This may have helped tether me to the power of the noun and concrete imagery.

SA: Your flash fiction goes down with the ease and clarity of water, regardless of shifts in content. So much information is transmitted effortlessly—the sharp perfect unexpected turns, the way your imagery is brought to the surface like Braille. There’s extreme refinement here. Do you go over and over these pieces? Or do they come out not terribly far from completion? What is your revision process like? When do you know it’s time to stop?

TF: Thank you! In truth, I go over many flash pieces again and again.  They can go down the wrong road and get derailed and then it takes time to bring them back to the main road. The kernel is almost always in the promises of the first sentences but this is often hard to see I generally find that a narrative works best if it’s in same time frame, the same space, and without flashbacks. (Or I use them sparingly and mindfully.) But I often handle my anxiety about not knowing what to write next by changing the place or changing the time.   Aristotle called “time, place and action” the three unities.  He was rigid in his thinking that you could never deviate from them, but he also recognized them as something to be very conscious of in narrative.

As for the process of revision, I often hear what’s wrong and just listening will work it out because I’ve been working in the wrong musical key. But when I realize there’s no narrative arc, I have to wait until my mind unhinges from some fixed idea about the piece I may not even know I have. I have to wait for a reversal or a surprise that turns the piece around or inside-out or upside-down.

And how do I know when to stop? I stop when the piece sounds “whole.” What I mean by a piece sounding whole is that it seems carved out of one thing.   At the same time, there’s also some double-jointed sense of motion that’s a surprise. I guess this is the elusive narrative arc.  

SA: Of course, the one thing I can’t ask, or I doubt you can answer, concerns where your very particular imagination come from, and how it moves so soft and surprisingly. Sorry, let me try and make this question more manageable—do you have any idea of particular life experiences or artistic influences besides the usual “reading and writing” that impact your work, because I sense something else here.

TF: I think that maybe you sense that I experience the imagination as a substance that’s no different from what we call the “real” world. It just, to my mind, occupies a different tier and is just as real—or unreal—as the table I’m typing on.  If a piece is working, then everything is in this layer of consciousness, or reality—or whatever you call it.

My experience of the imagination as tangible probably started when I was young. For instance, I remember looking at Red Riding Hood in the forest through a viewer  and knowing that even though I couldn’t enter this forest, Little Red Riding Hood existed there. She had her own life, her own thoughts and was even considering what path to take. And when I  was four, I saw a puppet show and later talked to my parents about the puppets as though they were real.  I was heartbroken when they told me they weren’t real; but in retrospect, I realize I thought the puppets were real the way I thought Red Riding Hood was real.

Sometimes the two worlds collided and created sparks. For example, when I saw Pinocchio, or—to the horror of my atheist parents—was an angel in the Christmas play.  Maybe my amazement  about the collision of these worlds was the start of my interest in crafting stories—that is, of being one of the catalysts in this collision.    

It’s possible, too, that you’re picking up on a way that this predilection led me to touchstones that reinforced or expanded it.  For example, when I was eleven, I discovered the poet Wallace Stevens, and his poems and essays about the sovereignty of the imagination made a great impression on me. In college I majored in philosophy of science, and later I practiced Zen. I was interested in philosophy and Zen for multiple reasons.  But it’s probably not an accident that I was also drawn to them because they explore layers of experience and often treat them as equally viable or real. My sense is that experiences of childhood are the foundations of imagination.  But these later interests helped give me a sense of authority, as well as the sense of company on the path.

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Thaisa Frank’s sixth book Enchantment was named one of the Best Books in the SF Chronicle. Her novel,  Heidgger’s Glasses has been translated into 10 language. Her most recent flash has been anthologized in Short Forms, (Bloomsbury, 2019) and New Micro, (WW Norton & Co., 2018).  She is a member of The Writers Grotto.

Steve Adams’s writing has won a Pushcart Prize, been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays, and anthologized. He’s been published in The MillionsThe Pinch, Notre Dame Magazine, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. His plays have been produced in New York City. He’s a writing coach and freelance editor at www.steveadamswriting.com.