Dressed All Wrong For This, Francine Witte’s new book of flash fiction and winner of the Blue Light Fiction Award, is a smorgasbord of poignant absurdity, expertly navigating the delicate line between pure whimsy and subtle, sometimes devastating truth. This book will make you laugh at the same time it takes your breath away.
Nancy Stohlman: Your work is whimsical and absurd, almost slapstick at times, just the way I like it! Where do your ideas come from?
Francine Witte: I get my titles first, for the most part. A phrase might pop into my head and I go from there. The story usually unfolds as I am writing it. I rarely know what the story is going to be about until I start. Just letting myself go where the story takes me often allows for the absurd to happen.
NS: There are so many memorable moments in these stories. This one from the story “Flag” stood out for me:
The waiter brings the Coq Au Vin.
This is chicken, Janie says
I thought it would be something more.
You might also say that about love, the waiter smiles.
This passage is the perfect example of what I love about your work—just when you think it’s pure silly, you swiftly rip away the tablecloth to reveal the truth underneath. Talk about the relationship between absurdity and truth in general and in your writing.
FW: To me, when something is absurd, it’s because it’s true. So very often as I’m thinking of writing how people are getting along in a restaurant, in love, in just about anything, I’m also thinking, what’s really true here. What aren’t the characters saying? In the above passage, it seems absurd that a waiter would just randomly say what he says, but it’s also true.
NS: There are so many recurring themes in this book, including food, betrayal, and of course, chicken. Why chicken?
FW: Betrayal is my go-to theme. It has conflict baked in. I have lots of guys leaving lots of gals for no reason, or lots of reasons. Parents cheating on each other. Friends stealing each other’s boyfriends, and on and on. It never leaves me. As to food, it seems to be what people do. They eat. Anytime people are getting together there is food. And if there isn’t food now, there is food later. And I suppose that chicken is kind of an easy food to reference, being as ubiquitous as it is in our culture. Also, I think the word “chicken” is funny.
NS: We first shared pages in Tom Hazuka’s wonderful anthology Flash Fiction Funny. Do you think comedic writing is taken less seriously in the writing world?
FW: Humor in writing certainly has less gravitas, even though it’s much more difficult to do well. Maybe humor tends to be more topical, and therefore has a specific shelf life. I love humor and absurdity is like a quieter form of humor.
NS: Talk a little about your journey to flash fiction. Did it choose you?
FW: I started as a poet, and most of my formal writing education, my MFA, etc. is in poetry. I wrote and published poems in the late ‘80’s. Then in the early ‘90’s, I ventured into playwrighting, and wrote a few full-length plays and many, many one-acts. I liked the one-acts more because I love the compression of them. Also, I liked that there are more things you could do form-wise in a short play. That’s pretty much the same as flash fiction. I started to write short-shorts (as they were referred to then) and immediately fell in love with the language and possibility of such a short story. You can set a flash on the moon, for example. That doesn’t work as well in a longer story. I took a class with the great Roberta Allen, who was the only person teaching flash in the late ‘90’s (that I’m aware of.) I started sending my stories out, and got them accepted into the print journals. And that’s how the journey happened.
NS: You are widely published in both flash fiction and poetry. How do you navigate/separate between the two? Or do they bleed into one another?
FW: Flash fiction and poetry have similarities in their language, but for me that’s where it ends. I feel like they do very separate things. Poetry is a meditation. It doesn’t need a story, and if there is a story to the poem, that story’s purpose is the speaker examining a moment and how it helps the speaker learn something. Poetry has an inward movement. Flash fiction, on the other hand, is the unfolding of events that the narrator is living in that moment. The narrator is in a state of discovery as the story goes on. An outer movement.
I always know what I am going to be writing when I sit down and have never wondered if a flash fiction should be a poem or vice versa.
NS: Dressed All Wrong for This was the winner of 2019 Blue Light Book Award: congratulations! How important do you think awards are for writing careers?
FW: Thank you. For me, awards have been important as three of my chapbooks got published as part of a prize. Often, contests are the only avenue to book publication. It’s also nice to get the recognition. I don’t know how important it is to one’s career. I think it’s more of a nice thing than a necessary thing.
NS: What’s it been like to be a writer in New York City during the year 2020?
FW: There is such a vibrant writing scene in New York City. In fact, many writing scenes. Downtown, universities, etc. You could go to a reading every night. Sometimes two. So, the closure of these readings made a significant dent in the networking and socializing aspect. Also the promotion aspect was affected. People who had a book launch in 2020 were kind of screwed. But I don’t think these limitations are distinct to New York. I do shudder, however, to think what we would do without zoom. Online readings have enabled worldwide connections that would have been otherwise impossible. So, while we missed out on in-person readings, a whole other kind of reading, the online reading, was born. Talk about lemonade.
NS: Lemonade indeed! Advice to someone writing a book?
FW: I can only speak to books of flash and poetry. I would say to write and publish the pieces and let the book come together from that. I’ve never sat down to “write a book.” Rather, I put all my favorite poems or stories together. I would find a way for them to tell a story, because usually they did. I do have a novella, The Way of the Wind, but I wrote it as if I were writing flash stories that had a plot tying them together. Most important thing – every story or poem should be a 10 (at least to you.)
NS: “Every story should be a 10.” I love that because, yes, we do get attached to our darlings. Thank you so much for hanging out with me, Francine! Can you share some links to book and other promo links?
Dressed All Wrong for This on Amazon Dressed All Wrong for This: Witte, Francine: 9781421836393: Amazon.com: Books
The Way of the Wind on Kindle The Way of the Wind (Novella-in-Flash) – Kindle edition by Witte, Francine. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
Or in paperback Ad Hoc Fiction The Way of the Wind : Francine Witte [978-1-912095-93-3] – £9.99 : Ad Hoc Fiction, Short Short Fiction Press
Poetry books, Café Crazy and The Theory of Flesh available on Amazon
Flashboulevard.wordpress.com (a web journal of flash that I edit)
Follow her on twitter @francinewitte
Francine Witte’s poetry and fiction have appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Mid-American Review, Passages North, and many others. Her latest books are Dressed All Wrong for This (Blue Light Press,) The Way of the Wind (AdHoc fiction,) and (The Theory of Flesh.) Her chapbook, The Cake, The Smoke, The Moon (flash fiction) will be published by ELJ September, 2021. She lives in NYC.