Robert Scotellaro has been a treasure of the flash fiction community for many years. Back in 2015 I said of his work, “Scotellaro demonstrates that the more we understand our stories, the less we have to explain them. Often the journey of an artist is a journey of learning what to leave out: Rothko’s complex surrealism eventually matures into single or double colored canvases; Picasso’s realistic drawings mature into simple thick lines and shapes—and writers such as Scotellaro say even more with even less… His work takes the leap into mastery, zooming in on the subtle moment at hand and letting that one drop of water tell the story of the entire world.” Now, with the release of his new collection, What Are the Chances? we get the opportunity to take another step on this journey with him.
Nancy Stohlman: Welcome, Scotty! First, and in the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in 6 words:
Robert Scotellaro: Flash exploring the vagaries of “chance.”
NS: You are widely considered a master of flash fiction, and deservedly so. Talk a bit about how you found the form—or did it find you?
RS: Thank you, Nancy. I think the form found me. I was always innately drawn to brevity in literature: poetry, the short story, flash and micro fiction. Reading the work of Emily Dickenson as a teenager opened me to a level of compaction that (ironically) seemed borderless in its ability to express the intimate doings of inner and outer worlds with such clarity, emotion, philosophical sensibility, and power. That was an early eye-opener.
So I started out as a poet. In the seventies I also wrote fiction (including a short novel in 1971) that incorporated what I called “segments”—what now might be considered microfiction. It was surreal and reflected the times. (A joint prior to reading was required.) Most of the full-length stories I wrote subsequently were comprised of those “segments.” It was natural for me to write that way. I guess I was always a sprinter rather than a marathon runner in terms of lit.
After a time I was writing short-short stories regularly. When I discovered the anthology Sudden Fiction by James Thomas and Robert Shapard I was elated. The very short form was being showcased (taken out of the shadows of “filler” status in magazines). Then came the iconic anthology: Flash Fiction (72 Very Short Stories)by James and Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka, and many such books by W. W. Norton were to follow.
In 2018 I went full circle and Norton published New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, an anthology co-edited by James Thomas and myself. I remain as excited as ever about exploring the limitless potential of the genre.
NS: What are the Chances? is very cinematic—in fact I read all your stories almost as if they are mini movies. Does that description resonate with you?
RS: It does. I think many of the stories I write are not so much language pieces, but rather characters interacting in various settings and situations which lend themselves to those visual possibilities. Scanning What Are the Chances? one finds characters in a hot tub, an Uber car, a commune, a cave, on a fire escape, a carousel, in a subway car, behind a rectory… I view the stories in that cinematic way as I’m writing them.
Plus I like creating different characters (delineating them) and letting them interact on their own, as opposed to an “author-recounting.” Perhaps this adds to that cinematic element in my work.
NS: In the title story, “What Are the Chances?” there are two techniques that I love: the deliberate use of repetition and the way you strategically manipulate your title. Can you let us in on some of your other “masterclass” writing techniques, particularly around flash fiction?
RS: I’d like to do more stories using various refrains in that manner. They create a kind of rhythm, a word-tumble of sorts, to the finish line.
Far as titles (I almost always) don’t think of them until a story is completed. In the case of the title story: “What Are the Chances? I was taken with how timing, chance, and random happenstance can alter a life/lives, and that all of these elements were contained within that piece. I felt this title served the collection, highlighting that occasional theme which runs through it as connective tissue.
Not sure about the “masterclass” part, but what I feel is essential to writing flash, is the “telling detail” (replete with implication). Perhaps several that create an allusion to something bigger— more at stake upon reflection—after the last word is read, providing a kind of lingering resonance.
NS: Yes, “refrains” is the right word, I think. For example, in Nothing Is Ever One Thing published earlier this year from Blue Light Press, you have a series of “Micro-Fables” that thread through the other stories. Love this idea—can you talk about the inspiration?
RS: With Nothing Is Ever One Thing I wanted to “mix things up” a bit, bend/blend genres. There are also four “P.S.” stories throughout. I sought to incorporate lots of tempo/tone shifts. The micro-fables are prose poems—microfiction’s kissing cousin. I am, at this point in my career, fascinated with the notion of investigating form. Forms within the very short form. I have a chapbook’s-worth of such stories recently completed and a full-length manuscript I’m finishing up devoted to “like” forms. And I’m finding infinite possibilities for variety within them. I’m pretty excited about this new direction.
NS: As soon as I read “Mr. Nasty” (in What Are the Chances) I had a flashback: I chose (and loved!) this story for a Fast Forward anthology over a decade ago! My, how time flies. Which goes to say you’ve been writing flash fiction for a long time. Tell me: How has it changed in the last decade or more?
RS: I liken it to a music concert where a performer plays new tunes, but adds a dash of “oldies” that have stood the test of time. That mix well.
Fast Forward was a terrific venue for flash. I think I published four or five pieces in various volumes. If I’m not mistaken your co-editor, Kona Morris, read “Mr. Nasty” on a Colorado radio station. You all contributed so much to short form lit with those anthologies.
Far as changes—good lord!—so much has evolved with the genre since then in terms of popularity, expansion, and status. Flash fictionis no long consigned that “sub-genre” category. It is its own genre now. Officially. Standing on strong legs. Now you can hardly find a magazine (including the major ones with The New Yorker on the list) that don’t publish flash. And there are a plethora of personal collections by outstanding authors continually finding their way to print. There are important anthologies by W. W. Norton and many others in America as well as internationally. And now there is even a significant Flash Fiction Collection housed at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin. Flash is thriving.
NS: Which leads to the exclamation of wonder that you published not one but TWO books in 2020, a year in which publishing has been challenged like everything else. Can you talk about how these two books are different/complementary to your oeuvre?
RS: Actually Nothing Is Ever One Thing was published in 2019. What Are the Chances? was accepted in 2019 as well, but Kevin Morgan Watson at Press 53 didn’t want them bumping heads (promotion wise) in the same year, so we waited for a 2020 pub date.
I think both collections tread that territory between misplaced intentions and a quest for connection, solace, and redemption, with humor/irony close enough at hand to grab onto. Uncertainty, of one sort or another, is perhaps the biggest thing that trips us up. I like exploring that, and how we stumble or correct to find peace with it.
Nothing Is Ever One Thing is more experimental because of the genre shifts (prose/prose poetry). However, with What Are the Chances? I’ve welcomed examining challenging subjects (still at a slant) and in a variety of ways.
I think Kevin was right about waiting. It’s allowed each collection to breathe a bit.
NS: I agree. What’s it been like to publish a book in the Year of Our Lord 2020?
It’s been a sweet counterbalance to these dark times. I so miss the hugs of friends at readings, other gatherings, my daughter many states away, dinners out… But it was so great working with Kevin at Press 53 and his editor, Claire Foxx, on this book and with Diane Frank at Blue Light Press before that, with my previous collection in more stable times. I’m so grateful.
NS: Advice for writers working on a book?
RS: When you have enough stories for a collection to assemble, see which of them rub together in interesting ways. Sometimes similar themes side by side with fresh approaches work well. Sometimes it’s tempo shifts that are more interesting. Read the stories out loud. Sometimes that clanking sound in the machinery is what makes the movement more compelling. Sometimes it’s the smooth purr of words you’re after. Don’t look over your shoulder. It’s important to make the process as organic as possible, maybe even fun. Finding a publisher is something else entirely. Too bad there isn’t something like a dating service for publishers and writers. You’d probably learn all you needed to after the first drink.
NS: That is perfect advice. And I love the publishing dating service! Anything else you want to add?
RS: In terms of writing that book/those stories: show up! Be bold! Writing is all about mystery and discovery. Never let the blank page or screen intimidate you. You cannot have the reward of discovery without the mystery.
NS: And this is why you are a master. It’s been such a pleasure getting to pick your brain! Can you share the links to the book/books and other promo links.
Robert’s work can be found at: www.robertscotellaro.com
Robert Scotellaro has published widely in national and international books, journals and anthologies, including W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International, NANO Fiction, Gargoyle, New Flash Fiction Review, Matter Press, The Laurel Review, and many others. His stories were included in Best Small Fictions (2016 and 2017) and Best Microfiction 2020. He is the author of seven literary chapbooks, several books for children, and five full-length story collections: Measuring the Distance, What We Know So Far (winner of The 2015 Blue Light Book Award), Bad Motel, Nothing Is Ever One Thing, and What Are the Chances? He was the recipient of Zone 3’s Rainmaker Award in Poetry. He has edited, along with James Thomas, New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction published by W.W. Norton & Company. He is one of the founding donors to The Ransom Flash Fiction Collection at the University of Texas, Austin. Robert lives with his wife in San Francisco. Find him online at: www.robertscotellaro.com