NFFR Associate Editor Steven John interviews Len Kuntz about his work in New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co, 2018) and about the craft of writing microfiction
SJ: What is it about writing short fiction that most appeals to you?
LK: It’s immediacy and explosiveness.
SJ: In the Norton New Micro Collection both your stories ‘Lens’ and ‘Hard Dance’ are set in the home – family stories of a female partner and a daughter respectively. How do the comparatively parochial dynamics of family feed into our storytelling?
LK: When you come from a dysfunctional family, those bleak and scary moments from the past never quite leave you. When I was young, there was a fire in our house, a fairly small yet destructive one. I saved some unburned photographs, but the charred fire smell remained woven inside every picture, no matter what I did or how long I kept them. That’s sort of how it is with regard to my childhood. That acrid odor is always there, and so versions of those experiences show up as fragments in my stories, sometimes as outright, whole versions.
SJ: In both your stories there are only shadows of the loss of a child in ‘Lens’ and domestic violence in ‘Hard Dance’ – not called out for what they are. How important is to leave those wide spaces for the reader in the short form?
LK: It took me quite a while to have enough confidence not to over-write, not to be so blatant with whatever I was aiming to say. Trusting the reader to fill in the blanks comes with time and experience. Dense, truncated pieces that do so, usually leave me saying “Ahhh.” I admire the restraint and the ability the author has given me to sit back and watch the canvas fill itself.
SW: What advice have you got for writers when that rejection email pings into their inbox?
LK: I always go back to Roxane Gay’s blog title from years ago—I HAVE BECOME ACCUSTOMED TO REJECTION. This is Roxane Gay we’re talking about. If she can have the fortitude and resiliency to understand that rejection is a part of what we do, then shouldn’t I? Shouldn’t all of us? I also think of Anne Lamott in “Bird By Bird” when she says, “Try not to feel sorry for yourself. After all, you were the one who decided to be a writer.”
By when it comes to rejection, you simply have to love to write. It must supersede everything. You also have to want to get better at the craft, and to do so you have to learn where your writing is lacking or failing. When you get negative feedback, you really should write that person a thank you note, or give them a hug. They’re actually trying to help you get better. Once you’ve done all the work of a student hellbent on mastering the craft, rejection is almost always a matter of your work not matching a publication’s aesthetic, that, or the editor is merely having a bad day and would pass on anybody, even Joy Williams or Stuart Dybeck.
SJ: Can you walk us through your revision process. Have you got any hard and fast rules about putting lines through say adverbs or adjectives or clichés?
LK: This is embarrassing to say, but I am a lazy revisionist, meaning that I rarely do it, and if I do at all it’s just tweaks. However, I belong to a writing group, and the critiques they give are always so generous and insightful that, trusting their ear, I usually find something to make the writing pop better.
Regarding clichés and adverbs—I’ve been beaten up so often over the years about using them, that I just don’t do it, or I don’t try to. Maybe an adverb here or there. But for the most part, using clichés is, for me, akin to eating beets or cottage cheese. Meaning, I throw up in my lap.
SJ: Why does any story deserve to exist? What difference can a story make to either the writers or readers real lives?
LK? For me, being a person who writes about tough subject matter, story is a means of shedding light on the dark places that tend to stay buried, or at least hidden. Almost everything I write is autobiographical to some degree. Selfishly, writing is a cathartic act for me, a way to at least temporarily keep the demons at bay. But I’d like to think the things I’ve gone through, or still go through (like loneliness, depression, poor self-worth) are what others have experienced, or might be dealing with now, and that therefore they can relate to the writing on an intimate level. Meaning, it’s their story, as well as mine.
I also think this quote says a lot about both of your questions: “A life becomes meaningful when one sees himself as an actor within the context of story.” – George Howard
SW: As a prolific writer of poetry and short fiction, has it made a difference to how you choose and read a full-length novel?
LK? Well, I rarely read tomes anymore. There are simply too many wonderful books and I want to get to as many different ones as possible, rather than sit with a single tale for such an extended period. Overall, though, length isn’t all that important so long as the voice is distinct and fresh, and the writing lush.
I prefer to read writing that prickles my skin in one form or another. I like to have to stop reading and underline a wonderful phrase or sentence, which I do constantly when I’ve got my hands on something special. Recently “Scrap Metal Sky,” by Erik Bromett did just that. At least a dozen times, I paused to think or say, “Holy hell.” Yep. It’s that good.
SJ: When you begin writing an idea, how do you know if it’s a poem or a piece of flash?
LK: I don’t. Typically, I start with a word that sounds interesting, or maybe is ripe with possibilities. Like I have “facemask” written on a piece of paper right here by my keyboard. Lots of places to go with something like that. Other times, it’ll be a line or fragment of a line. Like, “I wanted to be here with you when…” That came to me on a plane recently and a poem sprang forth. Usually, I just take off, and the writing that follows–the sonics and pacing of it–tells me what it is. Anymore, though, it’s such a blurry line between what’s poetry and what’s flash, because the best flash is almost always dripping with poetry.
SJ: Like all writers you must have been in the situation where a great idea pops into your head. You get halfway through writing it, then run out of steam. Where does the inspiration come from to make it to the finishing line?
LK: This happens all of the time. I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t have the will to finish a piece when it runs out of energy, or when I do. I tend to vomit out a piece in five or fifteen minutes max. If I stop, that piece never sees the light of day. I literally have thousands of unfinished things hanging around. Again, I’m not proud of this failing of mine, but there’s just no getting around it for me.
SJ: You’re going on a two-week vacation with any writer, past or present. Who’s your travelling companion and where is that plane going to land?
LK: Past writers, of course, would be Raymond Carver or John Updike. We could go anywhere that has a bar. I’d have a list of at least a hundred questions in my head, and a hundred more written down. I’d take notes. I’d try not to drool too much. I’d ogle a lot and apologize for not being able to help myself.
Current writers would be any number of close writer friends that I already see on a regular basis, even though we live in distant places. NYC is always the go-to spot. It’s impossible not to be inspired there. Walking around SoHo with Robert Vaughan last week had me feeling like a toddler with a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. I couldn’t stop smiling, or squealing. At times I was so giddy, I almost peed my pants. I was likely quite distressing to be around me.