Paul Beckman has a new collection of flash fiction, Kiss, Kiss! Aren’t familiar with Beckman’s work? Here’s a taste: drunk mothers at weddings, grandmas who play strip poker, “Too Many Uncles”, a man whose body parts are falling off, a man whose right hand is battling his left, and “Goodbye, Already”, where dead family members are still showing up to family functions. These and so many more make up the delightful, dark smorgasbord that is Kiss Kiss.
Nancy Stohlman: Paul, can you tell us what the book is about in exactly six words?
Paul Beckman: These are not your mother’s shorts-stories.
Nancy: This is not your first book. You have also published other collections of flash fiction including Peek and Come! Meet My Family and Other Stories. How is Kiss Kiss different from your other books?
Paul: The stories are darker in substance and in humor.
While many of your stories are tongue-in-cheek humor, you also have these intensely serious ones, like “Daddy’s Way” (a micro about a beating) or” Father Panik Village” (one of several stories set in the projects). To me it seems like the perfect balance—just when we think we have you figured out, you surprise us with something completely different. Does that happen automatically or do you have to craft that balance?
For a collection without connected stories I go through my published and unpublished stories and lay out the ones, that while not connected, still seem to have a thread of feeling while reading, that flow together by my voice.
You go back and forth between realism and surrealism almost seamlessly. And even your realism can have a touch of the absurd, from a strip poker-playing grandma all the way to a story like “TSA: Here to Serve” where the narrator finds himself in some sort of reality show after being pulled aside and waterboarded by the TSA at the airport. Many writers do one but not both well. Do you prefer realism or surrealism?
Okay, this may sound surreal but my writing is based in realism and while I’m writing I don’t consciously make a turn to surrealism–it’s only after the story is written do I realize the surrealism aspects to it. Take the TSA story: The real TSA people are constantly in the news for abusing their power and punishing people by making them miss their flights or suffer the indignities of being felt up and groped with the other passengers watching. How’s that so different from being on a TV reality show with a live audience?
Family–and all the ways family is functional/dysfunctional and unique—is a regular theme. In your books we meet wives and husbands and grandmothers and stepfathers and cousins and children and siblings and family dinners on the holidays. So…how does your real family react to all these stories of family?
Most of my family is gone now but their memories and mischegas live on. At one point when my first book was published (Come! Meet My Family) I invited cousins and an uncle to a reading and I read a story about a conflict between two aunts and a cup of black coffee. After the reading the cousins surrounded my Uncle wanting to know which of his seven sisters drank their coffee black. He said, “All of them.” which dashed their hopes of figuring out whose mother I was writing about. I can’t talk about my stories with my brother because he thinks I constantly do a hatchet job on our mother when, in reality, our memories and feelings being separated by four years in age allow me to write from a different vantage point about the mothers in my stories. We fiction writers steal behaviors, bits of dialogue, punishment, and praise overheard and incorporate these thing into our stories that are not as we’ve seen them. We adapt and get to play God. And it’s not only family–sometimes it’s friends who are sure they know other mutual friends or themselves who I’m writing about. I believe there are only dysfunctional families in the world only sometimes their dysfunctionality is out in the open and often it’s behind closed doors. What a great source of material–whether it’s my family or strangers.
Mirsky and his wife, Elaine, are two of your signature, reoccurring characters. Talk about the evolution of Mirsky and Elaine as characters in your work.
An early story that’s also in Come! Meet My Family, introduced Mirsky not knowing he would hang around me and feed me stories for all these years. In that story I think it was the only time I used his first name and later on I wanted to write a story about a character who was only known by his last name. I knew I wanted a strong two-syllable name so I drove to the cemetery where my relatives are buried and drove around looking at the headstones until I came upon a group of Mirsky headstones and that’s how Mirsky was born (or re-born). From there he and Elaine populated many of my stories through marriage, divorce, infidelities, and all things couples go through. He may or may not be my doppelganger, my foil, or my muse.
Okay, here’s the tough question: What is your favorite story in this collection and why?
“The Only Hope of the Jews” for a number of reasons: It may be the first story about growing up in the projects as a young Jewish kid, fighting the anti-Semite name-calling from kids who were only repeating words they heard from their parents or friends. The conflict between Mirsky and his mother over her not understanding what he had to endure so often and then have her blaming him for defending himself, the Jews of the world, and his family. My brother wouldn’t like this story either.
I’ve been your editor for many years so I get to see how you work behind the scenes. You always have a deluge of ideas and you’re always willing to take risks and try something new. You’re even willing to abandon ship and try again if necessary, which is sometimes how the best revisions happen. Can you talk about your process from idea to draft to revision. How does it happen for you?
Almost every story I write stars with a prompt or a word I saw or heard (I guess that’s a prompt also). Then I just start writing. I don’t know the story I’m writing and certainly not the ending. I put myself in the MC’s mind and let it rip. Sometimes it works (often times) and sometimes not and I start again. At times I know a sentence or three ahead of where I’m writing, but now always. I feel fortunate that my writing over the years has morphed into this position from when I first started and felt I had to know the whole story before I could write.
From there I wait a few days and then go back and try to tighten it up.
I’d like to say I read every story aloud to myself but there are times I don’t. When I do I catch more mistakes and that’s the best avenue for me for rewrites next to the following:
Nancy Stohlman edits the bulk of my stories. She’s smart, knows her subject, and knows me and my stories. There are times we don’t agree and she never pressures me to do it her way but she does explain her thinking. Often, the conflicts come with what and how I write a scene which Nancy picks up on and I clarify it. Neither of us want to spell everything out–the reader gets more out of a flash or micro story if they have to mentally fill in some white space.
This is your first book published by Truth Serum Press. Talk about your journey with Truth Serum and the road to publication for Kiss, Kiss.
I’d been submitting stories to Matt Potter’s Pure Slush Magazine for years and he wrote me about a story and knowing I was close to a new collection I told him he needed a book from someone like me to publish. He got right on board and between Nancy and me we came up with the stories that I put in the order I thought they should go, sent it to Nancy, reconfigured a couple and dropped a couple and she’d suggest a few I’d written that I should consider adding and then sent it to Matt. He sent me a contract and had some questions and suggestions on a couple of stories and we were off. He designed a cover and I sent him a photo I was considering for the cover and he left it up to me.
Looking at your list of acknowledgements is almost like reading a “list of places you should submit your work.” I love that you submit to a variety of journals, big and small and everything in between. What is your philosophy around publication? How do you decide where to submit? What would you tell another writer if they asked you where they should submit?
This is one of the toughest questions. I love Duotrope. It’s the best $50 a writer can spend to find markets, read editor’s reviews, and the all-important submission guidelines. If you read a story on line (and you should read as many as possible) and like the author’s writing check out the mag that published them and send them a story. I’ve gotten some of my best stories published that way–tracking other writers and in talking to them many have told me they do the same thing.
There are times I have trouble knowing where to submit certain stories and I ask fellow writers or take a shot at a new publication if I like their website and their requirements are reasonable. There are also many mags I love so I submit on a regular basis. Then there’s my “wish list” group of mags that I’m determined to get in and I keep trying. I’ve been fortunate enough to whittle down the list a bit.
Finally: What advice do you have for someone writing their first book?
Write, Read, support other writers who have written books in the same genre as you. And don’t be shy about submitting your work. A manuscript with a list of publications for stories in it is a factor in getting a good publisher.
Anything else you want to add?
Take some classes in the genre you write in or want to write in to expand your reach, I’ve taken a number of classes with Nancy Stohlman and classes with Kathy Fish, Robert Vaughan, Meg Tuite, and Meg Pokrass. I’ve gotten something out of every class both in my writing and in meeting kindred souls.
Links to buy the book: Kiss Kiss–You can be reading it tonight!
http://bit.ly/KisseP e book
Paul Beckman’ new flash collection is Kiss Kiss, (Truth Serum Press). Paul had a micro story selected for the 2018 Norton Anthology New Micro Exceptionally Short Fiction. He was one of the winners in the 2016 The Best Small Fictions and his story “Mom’s Goodbye” was chosen as the winner of the 2016 Fiction Southeast Editor’s Prize. He’s widely published in the following magazines among others: Raleigh Review, Litro, Playboy, Pank, Blue Fifth Review, Matter Press, Pure Slush, Thrice Fiction, and Literary Orphans. Paul had a story nominated for the 2019 Best of Small Fiction and he hosts the monthly FBomb flash fiction series in NY at KGB’s Red Room.