Extremely spare, the micro stories in Randall Brown’s latest collection, This is How He Learned to Love, function almost as tiny puzzles to decipher. Brown is a master of compression, and these stories are the most delicate of enigmas rupturing page after page with the rhythm of a heartbeat.
Nancy Stohlman: So in the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in six words:
Randall Brown: Short bursts of emotion, maybe insight.
NS: I absolutely love your use of titles, and I remember you sharing how to use titles unconventionally at the AWP panel on microfiction in 2019. Your titles, especially the ones in this book, almost feel at times like a classic call and response (I’m thinking of your final story, “Yes, I Knew”). Discuss.
RB: Because almost all of these piece fit on a single page, I thought perhaps readers would read the title, then the story, then the title again. So the title might work as a first line, last line, or both. Other times, the title was an original word or phrase in the piece that, in the process of editing, got deleted. In titles such as “Skip a Life Completely” and “What To Do,” they came from other sources, the first from Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” and the latter from the rhyme “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.” In a piece such as “Ghost Writer,” the title sets up the reader to think one way about the meaning of a “ghost writer” and then the ending might change that meaning. I do like to find words in titles that might have varied meanings, especially if those meanings might change as the reader progresses through each piece.
NS: I’m curious about your process, especially as you have been on the front lines of flash fiction for a long time. Do you start with longer ideas and then whittle them down to these little micro nuggets? Or do they come out short? Has your process changed over time?
RB: They come out this short—and most of my ideas work no longer than a single 9 x 6 page. The idea comes first. For example, I recently thought about a guy who fires his inner voice and begins to interview for a replacement. Why would he fire his voice? What might the other voices he interview sound like? What might he learn from the process? I then write to find out myself, to figure it out, to see what happens. Most of the times, I find that the execution of the idea fails and fails and fails again. That is one great thing about the (very) short from. You can try many, many times to make an idea or piece work. For me, there’s a lot of anxiety around writing, especially the uncertainty about whether each choice is the right one. So getting the piece to end quickly is key to my surviving the process. Also, it helps so so much that, in my non-writing life, I repress most feelings. They get buried deeply, and there they compress themselves, getting deeper, denser, until they just have to explode. I let that happen in the writing. Boom.
NS: I’m laughing. Well said, and how nice of your subconscious to compress for you! So one result of the micro form, then, is that there is often a lot of white space on the page. When one flips through the pages of This is How He Learned to Love, for instance, the simplicity can be deceiving. I wanted to (and did) read most of these stories twice, and I’m pretty sure they will continue to reveal themselves to me on every subsequent read. Is this something you do intentionally or does it happen unconsciously?
RB: Maybe it’s the nature of compression, that each word is loaded so that each word continues to set-off varied meanings. Frost’s “The Oven Bird” ends with this sentence: “The question that he frames in all but words / Is what to make of a diminished thing.” Perhaps, one answer to that, for Frost, was that one makes a poem, another “diminished” thing in response to a fallen (diminished?) world in which “the highway dust is over all.” One thing I learned from Frost is the use of “indeterminate” words that seem simple but have various possible referents. In the above line, for example, Frost’s use of “thing” allows the reader to fill in that “indefinite-ness” with varied meanings. In my collection, you’ll find many examples of Frost’s technique. Just in the first story: “my father whispered something”; “somewhere, in between casts”; “I’d felt it this time”; “something entirely else.” Those “indefinite” words continually search for a referent, and that feels about right, doesn’t it, for the nature of things.
NS: This sort of nuance and complexity is (in my opinion) where prose meets poetry. How can flash writers hone this level of nuance in their writing?
RB: I learn (surely not steal) from other writers’ techniques. For example, from Kim Chinquee I learned how to remove modifiers at the end of sentences. At the end of the titular piece in the collection, I originally wrote something like “And then he’ll have to decide whether to stay or leave.” Channeling Chinquee, I changed it to “And then he’ll have to decide.” I think another time I had a sentence such as “In the crib, the baby rattled the bars.” This changed to “In the crib, the baby rattled.”
In reading Poe, I came across this line: “I quickly unclosed my eyes.” Cool way to define things, I thought, by what they are not, rather than what they are. In one story, instead of dislike or hate, I used the word “unlove.” In reading Anne Sexton, I found “my heart / is a kitten of butter.” I loved the repeated “tt” that connected the words. That might become something like “he kicked the deck of cards” in a story, not even close to the wonder of Anne Sexton, of course, but an attempt.
And so on. In Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma,” he ends the song with the line, “It’s life and life only.” Would the line “it’s love and love only” be too much of a “steal” from Dylan? Hmmm.
NS: Hmmm, indeed! So Randall, you are a very funny person in real life (and on social media!), but the stories you write are often quite serious. And yet the humor slips in very gently, in subtle ways and moments. Talk about humor in your writing.
RB: By being funny, I think you mean I comb the internet for jokes and either post them or memorize them to deliver at the right moment. I think the humor is a preventative against pretension: it helps me not take myself too seriously. It sometimes works.
NS: This is How He Learned to Love was the first runner-up in the Sonder Press Chapbook Competition—congratulations! Talk your journey to publication with this book.
RB: Not much to tell. They asked if I wouldn’t mind having them publish the collection. even though it didn’t win. Such an honor to be asked by such a wonderful press! I was over the moon. Elena Stiehler provided amazing editing suggestions—and I believe I said YES to all of them, except when she tried to cut a reference to Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh stays. I was adamant about that. No one puts Pooh in the corner. Well, unless it’s Pooh’s Corner. Then it’s okay.
NS: Okay, so here comes the genre question: You’ve published many books in many genres, including prose poetry (I Might Never Learn), a novella (How Long is Forever) and even non-fiction (A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction) as well as being a master of flash fiction. Talk about the crossover. Does it help cross-pollinate your work or do you have to shake off one genre to fully engage in the other?
RB: To be honest, and I know we disagreed about this idea a bit on our panel at AWP, I don’t care what label gets put on a collection or piece. It comes out the way it comes out. So that’s my “real” answer. But here’s maybe a more helpful answer. The longer my pieces get, the worse they get. This has been confirmed not only by agents, readers, editors, and the like, but by the very best scientists. Big league scientists. And I have often wondered why that’s the case. To make things longer, to draw things out, things need to happen, and I find that to make the choice after choice of “what should happen?” means I’m too often going to get it not quite right. I think I’m better at making the language-level choices of what should come next than at making the narrative choices of what should happen next. After a bit, choice after wrong choice of what should happen next leads to a rather confusing, convoluted narrative. I’m working on it still.
NS: I first read your essay about flash fiction in the Rose Metal Field Guide to Flash Fiction in 2009, when I was writing my MFA Thesis. How do you think flash fiction has changed (for good or bad) in the last decade?
RB: I think I might’ve been able to get noticed way back when just for writing something so compressed and compact; now, the size itself isn’t enough to get readers interested. There might be more focus on what each writer is able to do with that compressed space—and perhaps editors and readers want to see innovation beyond the challenge “Can you tell a story in [ ] words”? So, I think when I was first writing flash, pieces were partially accepted because of the novelty of the form; places weren’t being inundated with very short fictions. Nowadays, I don’t think there is much novelty in writing flash fiction: editors are quite familiar with the form. So writers might need to push the form into new, exciting places or create content that feels fresh.
NS: I totally agree with you–short and clever isn’t enough anymore. It’s a good thing you are short, clever, and brilliant!
It’s been such a joy to chat with you, Randall. Can you share links to buy the book or other promo links?
RB: I just finished HAND IN HAND, a coffee table photo & essay book that matches the macro-photography of my wife Meg Boscov with my own micro. A weekly dose of image and words gives readers (we hope) a year of inspiration, meditation, and reflection. That makes for fifty-two macro/micro doses. It’s available at Matter Press or Amazon . We also have AFTER available on Kindle. AFTER again takes photos from award-winning photographer Meg Boscov, but this time projects them into a peopleless future, and describes, in the prose poetry accompanying each one, the time after the melting, after the rising, after the disappearing, as Earth begins the recovery, out of the woods, a return to form.
Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning collection MAD TO LIVE, his essay on (very) short fiction appears in THE ROSE METAL PRESS FIELD GUIDE TO WRITING FLASH FICTION, and he appears in BEST SMALL FICTIONS 2015 & 2017 & 2019 and The Norton Anthology NEW MICRO: EXCEPTIONALLY SHORT FICTION & The Norton Anthology HINT FICTION. He founded and directs FlashFiction.Net and has been published and anthologized widely, both online and in print. Recent books include the prose poetry collection I MIGHT NEVER LEARN (Finishing Line Press 2018), the novella HOW LONG IS FOREVER (Running Wild Press 2018), and the flash fiction collection THIS IS HOW HE LEARNED TO LOVE (Sonder Press 2019). He is also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College.