To start, can you share with us what’s the best flash fiction you’ve read recently?
I have to mention Flash Fiction International, published last year by W.W. Norton. Editing it took two years of reading contemporary flash, looking for the best from around the world, including the U.S.
Lately I’ve been reading writers in San Francisco’s Flash Fiction Collective and Denver’s FBomb series. I’ve also been impressed with the many newcomers. Meg Pokrass and I taught a one-week MFA class in flash at Indiana University-Bloomington last fall. Maggie Su and Paul Asta in that class come to mind as up and coming, publishing writers.
In New York I like the work of Robert Lopez, who teaches at The New School, Pratt Institute, and Columbia--he lives in Brooklyn.
Internationally, I like the Mexican writers Alberto Chimal and Mónica Lavín. By the way, Alberto is guest editing an issue of Mexican writers for New Flash Fiction Review, coming next fall.
How is flash fiction different than other forms of writing and other art forms?
Nadine Gordimer claimed that short fiction captures ultimate reality better than long fiction, like the novel. That’s because a novel must rely on conventions that distort the picture. Shorter forms like flash fiction are more like modern consciousness itself, which she thinks is “best described by flashes of fearful insight alternating with near-hypnotic states of indifference.”
When looking at the world around us, what is its effect on the development and transformation of flash fiction?
Flash transforms the world into the personal. Sometimes in sneaky ways. As a young writer, Jayne Anne Phillips saw very short fiction (or the paragraph) as “secret and subversive,” because a “poem in broken lines announces itself as a poem, but the paragraph seems innocent, workaday, invisible.” But in her writing there was a poem inside that innocent paragraph that was “a mainlined image”—the kind of image that before the reader knows it “shoots right into the vein, into the blood of meaning.”
Meg Pokrass says, casually but just as profoundly, “Flash is the only form in which my most silly and serious observations feel safe enough to live on the page.”
Flash goes the other way, too—from the personal back out into the world, easily, because it’s very short and device-independent. That has made it a go to form for evading censorship in China and other countries.
* * *
Deep Green Lake
She unbuttoned the fish—they were in her raincoat pockets—ran the bathwater and released them into the tub. She lit a cigarette and took one of the barbs, that Jack called bombers. It was her birthday, a bright panel of morning sunlight across the tiles, the wall heater ticking in the other room. She wished she was swimming, she wanted applause, for leaping off the deck into the lake, a dark green cold that deafened her pressing against her ears, seizing her body then yielding. It hurt like hell, the splinter she got on the dock. They cheered at her distress, how she flailed in the water back to the ladder as fast as she could. Then hobbling and collapsing onto her bottom, rolling back like a bug trying to find the splinter in her foot, they laughed at that, too. Later, dressed, warm, band-aided, she remembered the cheering most. That was last summer. This morning she was more awake than she’d ever been, since four in the morning, getting organized. Now she couldn’t remember what for. She hadn’t seen Jack in forever. Maybe days. She said where r u and he texted back, take a bomber. So many ideas, scrambling one over the other. When the sun came up she took a walk in the park, the air biting, but the raincoat kept her warm almost, it wasn’t bad, waiting for the pet store to open. Why fish? She couldn’t remember, but at home it was the right idea again. She wanted fish in a lake on a sunny morning in the bathtub where she could control them. She took off her clothes, swallowed a handful of bombers, finding applause in her own lovely, warm, deep green lake.
* * *
Why is flash fiction important in the realm of how we deal with our common struggles and different kinds of love?
Chris Merrill was once asked, “Are there stories that shouldn’t be told?” He travels the world connecting writers and writing communities, as director of the University of Iowa International Writing Program. I like his reply—no stories should be untold, because of course we live by stories. Flash is important that way, as are all the arts.
After years of working and living in Hawaii, you have relocated to Austin, TX. Who are the characters that make each of these locations fantastic, even magical, in your opinion? What are the most surprising aspects of the literary environments in both places?
Austin’s a pretty town with a long history of welcoming eccentrics, free-thinkers, and artists. Nowadays it’s especially full of songwriters and Hollywood screenwriters.
Hawaii is the most isolated population center on the planet, out there in the Pacific Ocean, yet it’s also a crossroads of the world. They love their artists, musicians, and writers there, whether Hawaiian or from elsewhere.
I had a magical afternoon at a beach restaurant once. The old Soviet Union was breaking apart and a famous Korean-Russian novelist came to Honolulu, his first trip away from Russia. He spoke only Russian. A bit of background: hundreds of thousands of his people had been forcibly taken from Korea, in the 1930s, to be slave laborers in the cotton fields of Kazakhstan (Soviet Union) by Stalin. He was a grandson of these people. He and I met for lunch with a terrific Korean-American novelist who spoke only English--his people had migrated from Korea to Hawaii to labor in the cane fields. We invited, also, a Russian translator who looked like a young Brad Pitt—it was his first trip away from Russia, too (he was happily learning to surf)—and a young woman Russian translator, who was a professor at the University of Arizona. The two Korean novelists, neither of whom could speak Korean (only Russian and English) spent two eager hours talking about their people, their art, their lives, with the help of the two brilliant translators—the words running instantaneously back and forth from one language to the other—and it was wonderful to hear. All this took place within the sound of the surf, in the shade of a huge old hau tree—the exact same tree where Robert Louis Stevenson told stories to the children of the kings and queens of Hawaii.
As an editor of numerous, highly praised publications of flash fiction work, what are some of the reoccurring themes that you have seen resurface from time to time? We never really think about themes. We just always look for really good stories, whatever the topic or theme.
* * *
They said she’d gone to Virginia, that she had an offer to be the weather girl for a tv station. I didn’t think so. I saw the photos of the weather balloon she’d been roped to. I was there when it was swept up in the storm. There was no way she could survive. It was on tv the next day where it landed hundreds of miles away, deflated and mangled across a Pensacola gas station like a giant condom. I saw when it got away from us gusting over the campus lagoon shooting skyward in a lane of sun, imagine the power of it, in barely a minute it was just a bright silver pin between massive storm clouds over the Gulf. I saw the look of terror in her eyes. She’d been helping to hold the balloon with the line wrapped around her waist then dancing around trying to get untangled from it, everybody was screaming and scrambling. Just when the big gust hit she turned to me with a look of calm resignation that said goodbye, I could have loved you. And then she was gone.
I had a feeling when she turned up in our program a few days before she wasn’t long for us. The way she talked about isobars and air masses, it was poetry not data points. Me, I can read charts is about all. The night before the terrible storm I don’t know how she ended up with me, there was the big party then we were in my room sleeping together. The next morning I said why are you here? She said I was funny and sweet and she’d been lonely, and I said I mean what are you doing in a little coastal Florida college program like this? She shrugged, sighed, and said, Stanford didn’t want me. Her hair was wild, she was trying to cover herself, pull the sheet up that was caught in her feet. I took a shower and when I came out she was gone. I found her that afternoon on the athletic field where it was about to happen—I can’t get her out of my mind in those jeans with her knees showing, that cut off tee. That huge gust that knocked everybody down, it was chaos, the girl was tangled, we all saw it take off. The rest of the day I kept saying we’ve got to find her—but nobody in the department knew anything, they said she’d never enrolled. I called Uncle Bob in Port St. Joe the next night. I was still in shock. I said, I don’t know if this is for me. I said, What kind of college is it where a girl is lost in a storm and nobody even acknowledges it? I didn’t expect much from him. He’d told me before I should go in the Coast Guard. He said they always needed climatologists. I was under a campus streetlamp, it was sweltering and bugs were whirling around and I guess I broke down. I said Jesus, I think sometimes I just want to sail away forever and ever. You’re young, Uncle Bob said. I don’t think he understood what I was saying. He said, People are always gonna need fishing forecasts. I couldn’t talk. He lowered his voice and said, You know, bud, there’s always another storm coming.
* * *
Is there such a thing as a good recipe for writing good flash fiction works? Can flash fiction be taught or can anyone, with a passion to write, train to be an interesting flash fiction writer?
I think the answers for flash are similar to those for other kinds of writing—you need the desire to write, the willingness to read a lot, and to write a lot. I think flash is a very welcoming form, open to experiment, with few conventions or rules, a good one to dive into for a page or two, to try different things. That doesn’t guarantee early success. My co-editor James Thomas likes to say, “It’s easy to write a flash, but it’s hard to write a really good one.”
As for recipes for writing flash, there are lots to try out. I like writing to prompts of any kind—articles, photos, random words, bits of dialogue or memory—the kind of “lint” (Richard Brautigan’s word) that a writer jots in her journal. The development can take a bit more work—try reading a collection by a single author and see if they have a typical form for a story and see if you can replicate it. My favorite (and a lot of people’s) is Stuart Dybek’s. He says take some memory (or piece of journal lint), basing the opening description of a story on it, then introduce a 2nd character and dialogue—that’s what makes it a story. He likes to end it on a final line of dialogue.
We live in a time where internet, social media, non-stop news outlets, etc. allow little time for serenity or a slow paced life. Does that jack up the need for flash fiction or does it take away from it? What’s the remedy?
Flash’s popularity has certainly grown with the Internet (though it was getting popular even before the internet was born). They seem made for each other. But now it seems reading is on the decline everywhere—the remedy for that, I don’t know.
What are your go to resources for good literary works and good art?
I’m all over the place—friends, reviews, bookstore browsing.
Do you have a motto you follow or do you make up your own objectives as time goes by?
No, I don’t have a motto. But I think it’s a good idea to have one.
Can you share with us the latest and funniest story you have heard lately, but that also made you ponder on a number of issues, afterwards?
Lately I was reminded that a dear friend and colleague described herself this way in a literary magazine bio, when she was a freshman in English at LSU: “Her present ambition is to be an unprofessional poet, even if she has to make a great deal of money in order to do it.”