Meg Pokrass can be heartbreaking, shocking, witty, and wise in the same sentence, and her new book, Alligators at Night, is both bizarre and tragic, with turns of phrase that will take your breath away and narrators who are almost too smart for their own good. And while the work may be witty on the surface, it points to a deeper sophistication; profound insights, poignancy and sadness/hopefulness bleed through the seemingly regular occurrences of regular people looking for love, belonging, and redemption.
Nancy Stohlman: So, Meg, this is not your first book. You’ve also published other collections of flash fiction including The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down, Cellulose Pajamas, and Damn Sure Right. How is Alligators at Night different from your other books?
Meg Pokrass: This book is mostly shorter pieces, newer, mostly pieces that fall between 100 – 600 words (with a few exceptions). This is the length of stories that I love writing the most.
NS: You have stories in Alligators at Night that were published over an 8-year period, from 2017 all the way back to 2009. Would you call this book a sort of “Greatest Hits” of your work?
MP: I imported a handful of strong stories over from my first collection “Damn Sure Right” for “Alligators At Night”, but it’s definitely not a “best of” volume. Most of the pieces in AAN are brand new. But I would certainly like to have a “best of” collection published someday.
NS: Your story “Barista” appeared in Best Small Fictions and it is one of the stories (along with “Bug Man”) that ends on this lovely note of belonging and/or not belonging. I think many of your stories touch on this idea. Is this an intentional theme for you?
MP: I do agree, and it is unintentional. I think it’s something I ponder often, and have felt for most of my life, that sense of being an outsider. Of “almost” belonging. Which stems from my unusual and stressful childhood, leaving my father in Pennsylvania when I was five and moving with my mother to perfect California where we knew nobody. I loved California but never really felt that I belonged there. If I unconsciously use this feeling in my writing, then it’s finally useful to me! But it’s not a conscious thing at all.
NS: You are particularly great at endings. Your endings just seem to stop at the right time—not too early (although sometimes shocking) but not a beat too late. What is your philosophy around endings? How do you know when the story is finished? Do they end like this on the first try or is this something you refine afterwards?
MP: I grew up as a writer reading the short fiction of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Jayne Anne Phillips and Bobbie Ann Mason. These writers taught me how to end stories, are masters of it. And I must have learned it long ago. I remember studying these endings, thinking Holy crap! That’s IT. It’s not a conscious thing, where a story ends as I’m writing it, but I like to end with a sense of some seemingly small yet significant character realization. A slightly new way of seeing or of understanding. Often I need to go back to a story after the first few drafts and hunt for that ending, find it through multiple re-readings. It’s often hidden. Sometimes I change the order of paragraphs and sentences, and sometimes the story structure benefits from this too.
NS: Okay, here’s the tough question: What is your favorite story in this collection and why?
MP: “Barista”. I feel it captures something mysterious, something I can’t put my own finger on, and it feels as if it wrote itself. The idea that this story came from something I wasn’t aware of thrills me. I’m also rather fond of “Probably, I’ll Marry You”. I like what the story says about love, how deeply flawed the nature of romantic love is, and also how that is exactly what makes it so wonderful. And “The Bug Man” because it is semi-memoir. My mother really was secretly smitten with our exterminator, and so was I. But he didn’t have long spidery arms, and I didn’t have a brother. And of course, our exterminator died of lung cancer. I love making something of such a sad but sweet memory.
NS: I heard you read “Imaginary Chinese Take-Out with Lydia Davis” at the Bath Flash Fiction Festival last year and you have a very funny, almost deadpan reading style that perfectly emphasizes the outrageous, weird situations of your stories. I know you have a performance background—how does that background inform your public readings?
MP: That’s so kind of you Nancy. It’s wonderful to have that reinforcement. I’m sure the acting training helped. But I admit to having awful jitters when reading my own work. I’m so glad you can’t tell.
NS: Many of these stories have been republished and anthologized. How do you feel about your older work vs your new work?
MP: I believe that about 1/6 of these stories are older, and a few have been anthologized. But most of the stories in Alligators At Night have been written in the last 3 years.
NS: You are (I believe) the first single author collection released from Ad Hoc Fiction. Congratulations! Talk about your journey with Ad Hoc Fiction.
MP: This began as a rather casual and fun conversation I had with Jude Higgins soon after I moved to England, when I was judging the Bath Flash Fiction Award and had visited Bath to take part in a reading with Jude and her writers. Jude told me that Ad Hoc was moving into publishing single author collections, and I boldly asked her, point blank, would they consider my new collection (I had a manuscript ready to go). The rest is history.
NS: Finally: What advice do you have for someone writing their first book?
MP: I wouldn’t tell myself I was writing a book at all. I’d just keep making stories. That’s much less intimidating, and it’s exactly how it worked for me.
Meg Pokrass is the author of five flash fiction collections and a novella-in-flash from Rose Metal Press. A new collection “What the Dog Thinks” and a novella-in-flash, “Smog Is Invisible” are forthcoming in 2019. Her work has been anthologized in New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018), Flash Fiction International (W. W. Norton & Co., 2015), Best Small Fictions, 2018 and 2019, the Wigleaf Top 50,and numerous other international anthologies. Individual stories have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines includingElectric Lit, Tin House, McSweeney’s and Passages North, Tupelo Quarterly, Smokelong, Wigleaf, etc. Meg currently serves as Flash Challenge Editor at Mslexia Magazine, Festival Curator for Flash Fiction Festival, U.K. (Bristol) Co-Editor of Best Microfiction, 2019, and Founding/Managing Editor of New Flash Fiction Review. Alligators At Night is available from Ad Hoc Fiction’s online bookshop.Meg’s website is: www.megpokrass.com and her teaching website is here: http://flashfictionworkshops.uk/ You can follow Meg on Twitter at @megpokrass.