Tommy Dean Interviews Grant Faulkner about his stories in NEW MICRO (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) and about the craft of writing miniature.
In the story, “Model Upside Down on the Stairs” you start with dialogue. Is one of the joys of writing micro length stories that the chance to break the rules? Are there/should there be rules for writing?
I actually didn’t know that starting a story with dialogue is breaking a rule, so perhaps I don’t know the rules. I’ll have to trust that my ignorance can lead me to good places, like Mr. Magoo going out for a walk (that’s actually not a bad metaphor for the writing process).
I suppose a good storyteller is always making his or her own rules. I don’t think about any rules when I write. I follow the feel, the mood of the story. I walk into the cave with it and try to find my way through the darkness.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to try writing micro/flash for the first time?
Writing flash is more sensibility than word count to me. It’s a way to observe and capture the tiny but telling moments of life. I’d advise a beginning flash writer to write fragments every day, simple impressions, to fill a whole notebook with these little swatches of paint, and not to worry if they’re stories or could be stories.
Nurture the sensibility, in other words, and think about how to capture things in their incompleteness, to find the fleeting essence that is so evocative and beautiful.
In some ways, my introduction to the flash aesthetic came from Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” which is just two lines. A beginning flash writer should aspire to evoke an entire world through such simplicity:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
As the executive director of NaNoWriMo, do you think that writers need to have different dispositions in order to write the novel versus a micro length story?
I often ponder this. To compare writing to sports, some people are natural marathon runners, and some people are natural sprinters. I think writers and artists have natural inclinations, natural strengths that guide them. For example, Raymond Carver tried to write a novel, but he found that he couldn’t. Or perhaps he just realized how much he preferred short stories.
That said, we can determine our talents and change our proclivities by our practice. If Raymond Carver had truly wanted to write a novel, then he would have trained to do so with much more diligence and determination. We essentially wire our brains through our practice.
What novel or short story would you like to see turned into a micro? Why?
I recently read Yasunari Kawabata’s distillation of his novel Snow Country into a short story, “Gleanings from Snow Country.” Kawabata was searching for a way to only convey the pure essence of the story—in the belief that the essence, the lingering image, matters more than the extensive web of comprehensiveness.
I mention this because every story has such an essence. Every novel could be told in a short story. When I was in grad school, my professor Robert Gluck gave us an assignment to write a novel in one page. It was an amazing exercise—to write for essence instead of plot or plot summary, much like “In a Station of the Metro.”
But to answer your question. I’d like to see Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night as a micro, or anything by James Salter since he was such an imagistic writer. Marguerite Duras’s The Lover yearns to be told in a page.
What gives micros their power? Language? Silence? Structure?
If I have to choose only one, it’s silence. The power of the form is the poetry of the fragment, the white spaces that exist in and around the story. The best micros move through hints, so the reader is always working to fill in the gaps, to speak the silences, in other words.
In Hemingway’s famous “iceberg principle” of writing stories, he said that a story is like an iceberg because 90% of it is under water, unseen to the reader, but the writer knows it’s there.
With micros, sometimes 99% of the story is under water. You have to write with silence as much as you write with words.
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.
This story you talk about. The story that didn’t require any revision. I’ve never heard of such a thing. Has this ever actually happened, or is it legend?
Some stories come easier than others, but I put all of mine through nearly endless revision. I often think of this James Salter quote: “I’m a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible.”
I love some stories more than others, but they’ve all been revised many times for me to find that love.
What are your writerly obsessions? What theme, idea, or image can you not let go of?
I grew up in a small town in the Midwest where most people didn’t express themselves too much. Most people fit into a certain rigid norm, which made their sins all the more interesting and dramatic.
I like writing about sinners because people so often look to sin (or “sin” in quotes) for salvation. And it can lead to a type of salvation. I think that the only path to sainthood, not to mention selfhood, is through our transgressions, our deviance, our experimentations with life. That wastrel on the next bar stool over from you might just have some wise words for you. I write to exchange stories with that wastrel, to understand the inherent messiness of life in all of its damnation and glory.
What topic or idea haven’t you written about yet? Is it because you have no interest in it or are you afraid to write about it now?
I have a whole folder full of ideas for short stories and another folder full of ideas for novels. I have interest in them all, but not enough time to write them. I wish there was an idea that scared me so much I couldn’t write about it—because that’s the definition of a story calling you. I’d drop this interview and write that story now.
I’m scared of not having enough time to write all of the stories I want to, though.
A novel, a micro, and a poem go to a bar together. What happens?
The novel buys everyone drinks and chips and starts joking with people at the bar. The poem slinks away to sing karaoke. The micro writes a story about the evening on a napkin and leaves it on the bar and hopes someone will read it.
Where do your most unique ideas come from? How do you know if a story idea is working?
I wish I got more ideas from newspaper articles or history books—tangible stories that I could absorb and research. Most ideas feel like they’re just blowing about in the wind, though.
I don’t know if a story is working until I write it. And then rewrite it. And then rewrite it some more. You might say that one of the greatest pleasures of writing is trying to make a story that’s not working work. It can be nice to wake up to a problem child of a story and just start tinkering.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on an epistolary novel based on letters written from one lover to another but never sent. I’m also working on a nonfiction book about rejection—the stories behind famous author’s rejections and how rejection can be a necessary and vital creative tool. I’m also working on a collection of miniatures that I’d prefer not to describe.
Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin House, The Southwest Review, and The Gettysburg Review. His essays on creativity have been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. He recently published a book of essays on creativity with Chronicle Books, Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo. He’s also published a collection of 100-word stories, Fissures, which have been included in The Best Small Fictions 2016 and the new W.W. Norton Anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories.
(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.)