Interview with Kathy Fish

Tommy Dean interviews Kathy Fish about her stories in New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co, 2018)

(This interview is part of New Flash Fiction Review’s ongoing New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) interview series, created by New Flash Fiction Review’s Founding Editor, Meg Pokrass.)

TD: How important is metaphor when writing something so short? Is it the key to pushing the reader to imagine past the white space of the story?

Metaphor is important when it arises organically from the piece. I don’t think intentionally writing to a metaphor works, generally. If you create a micro that’s dense and rich and deeply imagined, you invite the reader to experience its inherent metaphor and maybe that’s different from reader to reader.

TD: How important is the placement of information? Especially in relation to this line from  your story “The Possibility of Bears”: “After the ceremony he’d found some emails…”? Other writers might have placed this toward the beginning, but here it’s dovetailed with the ending, the metaphor of the bear. Did this line come out naturally here? Did you consider putting it earlier in the story?

Well, to my point above, I didn’t sit down and decide to write a piece in which a (possible) bear symbolizes the imminent demise of a new marriage. But, yes, it’s undeniably there!

KF: I see what you’re saying about that line. It’d be just the sort of reader-grabbing first (or early) line we’re instructed to write. But then everything that came after it would have already been explained to the reader.  To me this would have effectively cut the story’s engine.

TD: How important is dichotomy/opposites  in micro storytelling? In “Akimbo” there’s this tension emanating from what the narrator thinks the male character wants to do but, can’t. If he could get across the room, would this story still work? Is the story created by the last action a character can’t make happen? What forces need to be in play or not in play to create a great story?

KF: Not the only way to create tension in a story, micro or otherwise, but yes, dichotomy is a wonderful way to achieve it. Hugely effective in micro because you want to eliminate as much exposition, explanation, and backstory as you can, right? Maybe leave it out altogether. So we’re not given this couple’s “story” so much as we’re given their response to a cataclysmic event. Was it Vonnegut who advised we begin a story as close to the end as possible? This is the end for this couple. After this, nothing will be the same again.

The essence of writing microfiction is to find the most potent, emotionally charged moment you can that suggests for your reader a much longer, lasting narrative.

TD: Do form and function need to be intricately meshed or is there room for a bit of roughness or chaos in a story to make it satisfying?

KF: The word count constraint of microfiction presents the writer with a wonderful opportunity to use form to its greatest and most innovative advantage. As you know, I talk about this a fair bit in my Fast Flash workshop. What happens, for instance, when you eliminate transitions and bridges and white space? What is the experience for the reader of being confronted with a breathless block of text? Conversely, what happens when a story is fractured, fragmented, segmented, etc.? And there are leaps in the storytelling represented by the liberal use of white space? What is the experience for the reader in that case?

KF: So yes, form and function are “intricately meshed” as you put it. This allows the writer to powerfully and economically—not just tell a story—but to actually evoke an emotional experience in the reader.

That said, I’m all for “roughness” or “chaos” in a story if that roughness isn’t the result of simply failing to revise. If a sense of chaos is integral to the experience you wish to evoke in your reader.

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

KF: Well, there’s only so much one can do with a first sentence! Your main job is to draw the reader in and there are lots of ways to do this. Look at the first sentence of Jeff Landon’s story, “Flying” in this anthology. Three words: “Say we met.” But wow, right away he’s establishing voice and he’s telling the reader what kind of story this is. It’s a reverie, a dream, a wish, deeply imagined. Rather than grabbing the reader by the neck, Landon invites his reader in. So those three words do a lot of heavy lifting.

Then there’s the opening sentence to Claudia Smith’s “Mermaid.” It’s super compelling and conveys a lot of information, bluntly, from the get-go: “My sister killed herself the week I turned eight.” Just the facts. Now the story is set in motion. Smith gives us an emotional grabber of a first sentence and we can’t help but read on.

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

KF: I keep going back to things I witnessed as a child without benefit of an adult’s understanding. There’s something hugely compelling in that. I encourage writers in my workshop to mine childhood memories and not attempt to explain them from an adult POV simply because doing so enlivens the writing. One must go to the senses and the specifics and the images because that’s all they have at their disposal.

I have all these image memories devoid of context that I’m obsessed with, I guess, understanding more deeply. I feel if I just go into those moments in a deeply sensory way, I’ll connect with my readers in a powerful and organic way. Like, oh, that was painful or joyful or bewildering and I didn’t completely understand it either, but I know how that felt.

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

KF: Ooh, I don’t love “ideas” in writing. I feel like every clever idea for a story I’ve ever had has failed miserably. But that’s just how my brain works. I have to start from something very small and lay down some words until something resembling a story is set in motion. Every decent story I’ve written has begun this way.

I know a story is “working” if I’m excited as I’m writing it. Really engaged.

TD: Revision: Love it or hate? Tell me about a story that didn’t require any revision; tell me about a story that took multiple drafts.

KF: Love it. Most of my first drafts are pretty bad. I love fussing over the sentences and word choices. I love moving things around. I even love striking out whole sentences and paragraphs with my pen and making that lovely loop on the end. Poof! The writer’s equivalent of waving a magic wand. I feel like I’m pretty good at self-editing and that my stories are always better afterwards.

I wrote my story, “The Hollow” longhand, in one quick rush in a coffee shop. I had headphones on and I was listening to Neil Young I think. I was totally in the zone, the beautiful, rare, writerly zone. And maybe I changed a word or two or a comma, at most. That one was published in Denver Quarterly and it’s still one of my favorites.

Two stories that were revised heavily were “Cancer Arm” and “Blooms.” I will say in both cases, this was due to not trusting my initial instincts. I definitely over-revised them both to the point where they felt “pushed” or forced to me, and they both got their share of rejections. It wasn’t until I reverted back to something closer to the initial vision that the stories were accepted for publication. I’m not making a case for submitting first drafts though! Just for maybe not revising the life out of your stories.

TD: Flash/Micro have increased in popularity. Is there a reasoning behind this? (I don’t think it has anything to do with decreasing attention spans, am I wrong?)

KF: Thank you! I also don’t buy the whole “reduced attention spans” explanation for the increased popularity of flash/ micro! If anything, I feel like super condensed storytelling requires more of the reader. More attention and engagement and thought and empathy, if not time itself. I also think that the best flash is being written right now, in cool, innovative ways, so of course it’s popular.

TD: What are you working on now?

KF: Nancy Stohlman and I have begun offering out flash fiction writing retreats. (https://flashfictionretreats.com/) The first one is in August, in Breckenridge, Colorado. Then we’re off to Costa Rica in January. Then a 13th century villa in Italy! A few spaces remain if anyone’s interested. Writing-wise, I’m working with Randall Brown at Matter Press, putting together a new edition of my 2011 collection, Wild Life.

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Kathy Fish teaches for the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. She has published four collections of short fiction: a chapbook in the Rose Metal Press collective, A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women (2008); Wild Life (Matter Press, 2011); Together We Can Bury It (The Lit Pub, 2012); and Rift, co-authored with Robert Vaughan (Unknown Press, 2015). Three of her stories have been Best Small Fictions winners, most recently “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild,” chosen by Aimee Bender. This piece was also selected for Best American Nonrequired Reading 2018, edited by Sheila Heti. Additionally, two of Fish’s stories are featured in the W.W. Norton anthology, New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (2018).  More about the author may be found on her website: http://www.kathy-fish.com/