Steven John interviews Roberta Allen about her stories in NEW MICRO (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) and about the craft of writing microfiction.
SJ: Both your stories in New Micro, “The Beheading” and “The Fly”, have something of the macabre about them. We all have a dark side to our personalities – is this something you like to explore in your writing?
RA: I never thought of that in these particular stories though I can see why you would think so. I guess I do explore the dark side though I’m unaware of doing that while I’m writing.
SJ: In “The Fly’” particularly you use short, staccato sentences to great effect. How important is sentence length in the short form?
RA: Thank you. The story dictates how it wants to be written. I have micro stories that are one long sentence.
SJ: As well as the macabre in both stories there is an underlying black humour. They complement each other well – pepper and salt. For example, in “The Fly”. ‘There are plenty of biting flies and mosquitos in this tiny room, but fortunately, the others are not in my ear.’ Is humour something you consciously worked into these stories or does the humour happen unconsciously?
RA: The humour happens unconsciously.
SJ: In “The Beheading” and “The Fly” it reads as though the narrator is travelling in foreign parts. Travel has always been a rich source for writers. How inspirational is travel for your own writing generally?
RA: Travel has been very important in my micro stories, especially travel alone to 3rd world countries (before it became a kind of norm for women as I think it is now) though I’ve never thought about writing stories on my travels. Only later, sometimes years later. I really “lived in the moment” on my trips.
I think my most recent micros, the Amulet Stories may be inspired by travel but travel is not so important in the longer stories recently except for those started but never finished decades ago.
SJ: Both your stories are caught in brief moments – inner thoughts or reflections with no spoken dialogue. Can you tell us why this type of telling works so well for you in microfiction?
RA: It seems there is only “energy” in memories that stand out and need to be written though the micros change in the writing. Rhythm is vey important to me. Who knows what I actually thought or reflected upon then? And who cares? Micros and all stories I write need in the writing to surprise me.
SJ: The endings in your two pieces rang in perfect pitch. Please share with us how the author should leave the reader in micro-fiction. Are there any particular emotions or conclusions that work better than others?
RA: The micros must surprise me. If they don’t surprise me, they won’t surprise anyone else.
SJ: Do you try to stick to any work discipline with your writing – so many hours a day, at a set time, or is it something that has to fit around the rest of your life? Describe for us your perfect writing day.
RA: Writing usually comes first in my day as I drink my coffee but my days start later since I’m a night person (though I was a morning person when I wrote these micros). Since I’m also a conceptual artist, I may split my day and do both. Chores and all the things I don’t want to do but have to do come afterwards. I don’t write every day—I need to have distance—and I don’t write for any particular length of time, depends on when I finish editing for that day. I don’t write or do any work at night. (A perfect day would be not having to do any chores or “stuff” I dislike doing but that’s not going to happen.)
SJ: You have written books on the art of writing. What is the single most important piece of advice you’d give to any aspiring author?
RA: Throw out any writing that doesn’t have energy. What I mean by energy is going with the words and images that excite you, inspire you, that you have a strong urge to write. Using a timer helps (5, 10, or more minutes. The timer brings energy to the surface).
SJ: I know our readers would love to hear about your current writing projects and plans for future work.
RA: I am still revising old micros that I think need some editing. I will also write more and revise more “Amulet” micros written a few years ago which are quite different from my earlier micros.
Right now I am focusing on longer stories but even these are shaped into segments like “Easter” in The Collagist and “The Guest” in The Brooklyn Rail, and more in my collection of micros and longer stories in “The Princess of Herself”.
The author of nine books, Roberta Allen is a micro and short fiction writer, novelist and memoirist, including two micro collections, Certain People, and The Traveling Woman, a collection of micro and longer stories, The Princess of Herself, a novella in micro stories, The Daughter, the first writing guide to micro stories, Fast Fiction and two writing workbooks. Bomb Magazine and Bookworm, KCRW Radio in L.A. interviewed her about her latest collection. This year she was long-listed for the Gordon Burn Prize in the U.K. Her micro fictions appear in the W.W. Norton anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction. Over three hundred of her micro and short stories have appeared in anthologies and journals. She has received the Honorable Mention for The Gertrude Stein Award and Honorable Mention three times from Glimmer Train. She has been a Tennessee Williams Fellow In Fiction and a writing fellow at Yaddo several times. She has taught at Columbia and for many years at The New School. She teaches private workshops and 1-Day Intensives. www.robertaallen.com