So You Wrote a Book? Robert Scotellaro

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.

Author Robert Scotellaro

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

Press 53: https://www.press53.com/robert-scotellaro

What Are the Chances now available from Press 53!

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

Flash Fiction Changes How We Tell Stories

Do you love to travel AND write? Do you find some of your greatest inspirations come when you are out of your comfort zone, stimulated by novelty and absorbing new experiences? Then you are going to want to hang out and listen to Marilyn Ball and I talk about the power of travel, the power of writing, and the gorgeous juxtaposition of my two favorite things.

Listen now!

Show notes: For over a decade, Nancy Stohlman has been writing, publishing and teaching flash fiction around the world. Much of her creative process is finding the sweet spot as a writer, performer and innovator and she teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Nancy tells us about her new book on the writing of flash fiction, “Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction,” and her future Flash Fiction Retreats for 2021/2022.  Flash fiction is changing the way we tell stories and Nancy is an enchanting storyteller! 

Flash Fiction and Writers of Color: A Conversation with Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam of Creative Writing News

I’m here with Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam of the Creative Writing News website. First of all, thank you so much for featuring Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction on the CWN website! And thank you for agreeing to have this important and long overdue conversation with me. 

**And to be clear to everyone reading: We are just two writers and NOT mouthpieces for entire groups, obviously. But as two writers who have insights into different communities, I appreciate having this opportunity to share ideas.

Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam

Nancy: As a woman, I’ve always been extremely proud of the gender balance in flash fiction—that women and men have both been represented and instrumental to the growth of the genre, maybe more than any other genre. However, I don’t think flash fiction has done as good of a job representing writers of color. What are your initial thoughts on that? Do you have any ideas why that might be?

Chioma: I can’t speak for all writers of color. But I can speak for many African writers who received education that was mostly tailored after the curricula of the European countries that colonized them. For instance, Nigerians and Ghanaians adopted the British style of studying literature and creative writing. The emphasis was always on studying and analyzing novels and poems as was often prescribed by the colonial educators.

Consequently, most (if not all) publishers in the continent preferred–and still prefer–to publish longer works of fiction and poetry. Also, publishing traditional novels and poetry collections seems to have a higher economic viability when compared to publishing short story or flash fiction collections.

Short story or flash fiction collections have never been included in the WAEC (West African Examination Council) syllabus for literature-in-English examinations. Publishers on the continent want to publish literary texts that are likely to be on WAEC’s recommended list for literature students. This way they can make tons of money from students who will purchase the books. I assume that writers have interpreted this to mean that there’s no point writing stories or books that no one will want to publish. No one wants to be a starving artist. No one envisages being like George Orwell, of whom it was said, that he took delight in sleeping on a bug-ridden bed.

Agreed. Tell us a bit about the advent of literary workshops in Africa. Did they in any way engender the culture of flash fiction writing in the continent?

In the early 2000’s, the literary world was transformed by the advent of the internet. The demand for flash fiction seemed to be on the increase. Writers of color entered and won excellent flash fiction for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. At the time, the prize was open to stories that were 400 words or less. It seems so long ago now that the guidelines have changed.

This period also coincided with the return of foreign-educated African writers who wanted to give back to the literary communities in their home countries. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila and Chika Unigwe are some examples of such writers. 

Africans also began to embrace the culture of creative writing workshops, especially as large corporate bodies were willingly sponsoring these literary events. Many young writers quickly realized that creative writing was becoming more and more profitable. And if ever there was a time to join the creme de la creme of the African literati, that time had come.

However, getting admitted  into these creative writing workshops was a herculean task. Writers suddenly found that they were required to write short fiction (also known as micro fiction or flash fiction) in order to wow the selection committees. As a result, more and more writers started experimenting with the art of flash fiction writing.

Soon, many writers got admitted into highly selective writing workshops organized by literary foundations such as the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus Foundation, Short Story Day Africa, Nigerian Academy of Letters, The Caine Prize for African Writing, and so on. I know several writers who forced themselves to learn how to write flash fiction and short stories just because they realized that it was an easier way to get their work out there. 

Although there’s no evidence to prove this, it’s difficult to not wonder if flash fiction is a means to an end for many African writers. When they break into the mainstream, they revert to writing long-form fiction, which they seem to believe the publishers will be interested in acquiring.

That said, a couple of organizations have been trying to encourage African writers to write more flash fiction. For instance, the The Short Story Day Africa used to host #WriterPrompt, a regular flash fiction event that ran on their Facebook page, but it’s been suspended for a while. Brittle Paper also used to hold annual flash fiction contests.

I’ve often wondered if part of the disconnect might be that there are writers of color embracing what I would call flash fiction, but they are calling it something else? Could we actually be writing in the same genre but calling it by two different names?

There are many writers of color embracing this genre of fiction, and they are calling it flash fiction and short fiction or ‘the short story’. 

Many writers of color have written and published brilliant flash fiction stories over the years. Also, new flash fiction writers are publishing amazing stories of extreme brevity.

When I was actively writing and publishing flash fiction stories in Fiction 365, Flash Fiction Press, Tribes Write, Sentinel Mag and elsewhere, I certainly wasn’t calling it that. I am not sure why. But at the time, the word ‘flash fiction’ wasn’t an organic part of my vocabulary.

At any rate, I believe you have a point. Many writers, not just writers of color, label all stories under 5,000 words ‘short stories’. It all depends on what your definition of a short story is. 

Who are some of your favorite writers of color who are writing what I might call flash fiction (whether or not they are calling it that)?

Shachi Kaul, Chika Unigwe, Mira Desai, Jude Dibia, Alice Walker, Imbolo Mbue, Lola Opatayo, Lily Mabura, Elnathan John, Folakemi Emem-Akpan, and A. Igoni Barrett.

How important do you think it is for there to be other writers of color in a field first before a new writer might be attracted to it/try it? I can see how, if a room felt dominated by white faces, it might not feel very welcoming. Thoughts?

There are many reasons why I think there should be more writers of color writing and publishing flash fiction. 

But I want to focus on how many new writers tend to focus on genres where people who look like them have flourished. When African writers started receiving awards of £10,000 for their short stories, many new writers started aspiring to be prolific short story writers. I believe that people of color will be drawn to the flash fiction genre if editors accept and publish more stories by POC. 

What do you think flash fiction writers can do to make the literary space more welcoming to WOC who might be discovering this tiny, awesome form? What is an important message or reframe our community can embrace to become better allies to WOC?

First and foremost, flash fiction writers can endeavor to be more welcoming of people of color in their critique groups. But they shouldn’t stop there. Workshop moderators should encourage racial diversity as well as discourage cyberbullying and the utterance of racist comments.

Flash fiction writers, who are slush pile readers and editors, can go out of their way to understand the subtexts, cultures and histories of writers of color, just as most writers of color have done for people of other races. I know many writers who have received kind-worded rejections that read something like: 

“we thoroughly enjoyed reading your story and would have loved to publish it. However, we have to say no to this because we believe our [white] audience will not relate to it.”

Sometimes, the editors or readers say they had to work hard to understand the subtexts and historical nuances of the story. Feedback like these can deter WOC from trying to say so much in very few words, especially when the audience seems to be unwilling to understand their work and their perspectives.

WOC might be willing to venture into this sphere, if editors and publishers make efforts to publish and promote brilliant works from writers of color. Also, there needs to be more Black/Asian-owned magazines/journals. Some exist, but there needs to be more. People of color should also work toward creating and promoting their own platforms. 

But in the end, it all boils down to funding. I think writers of color will run successful magazines if they can get funding to pay contributors and settle the miscellaneous expenses involved in running a literary publication. Also, it’ll help if many writers of color can get funding to organize and attend flash fiction writing courses online and offline. 

One important message all writers should embrace is this: every story is important. Every well-written story can move you deeply even when you aren’t familiar with the culture, the characters and the setting. Make room for other people’s stories; they will make you wiser, more empathetic and more humane. 

This is not an easy conversation, and again, I just want to say how grateful I am to you for holding space with me. In my own clumsy attempts to make change, I try to remember that lasting change happens steadily, one degree at a time. As a former organizer I’ve seen so much burnout—in the midst of emotional frustration, we aim for 100% change right now! And when that doesn’t happen, we give up. In my experience, true change is the slower, steady, less dramatic but more sustainable changes that actually lasts. We can all get 1% better right now. Then 2%. then 10%…Your thoughts? 

I totally agree with you. A sage once quipped, ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a step.’ Perhaps, this conversation is just one step out of many we’ll still have to take, before we can experience any real change.

What do you think is a 1% shift that we could all make today that would make a big difference?

There is so much work to be done. Where do I start? Online critique groups that are less racist and more welcoming to POC? Or more inclusive flash fiction workshops? And like I said earlier, more supportive editors in literary journals and publishing houses? The list is endless.

But I think it’s better to make small changes within our vicinities than to throw our hands up in surrender.

Yes to that. Yes yes yes. I’ve know I’ve been asking a lot of questions–to close us out, I just want to hand you the mic:

Thank you for asking these thoughtful questions. I hope we have a future where flash fiction journals feature the stories of many writers of color.

Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam writes prose fiction, creative nonfiction and blog articles. Her debut novella, Finding Love Again was published by Ankara Press. Her second novella The Heiress’ Bodyguard was longlisted for the Saraba Manuscript Awards. When she isn’t working as a content marketer or blogging about creative writing, she can be found playing mother hen with her three boisterous children. You can follow her on twitter: @cwritingnews or follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

Creative Writing News (www.creativewritingnews.com) is designed to help all writers succeed in their endeavors. It covers everything a writer and publisher might need. From writing tips to free-to-enter writing contests, creative writing news keeps members of the literati up to date with news, opportunities and more. Feel free to send in contributions about the writing life and all things creative writing. You can follow CWN on twitter @cwritingnews, on Facebook and Instagram

“Writer Types” Podcast featuring Nancy Stohlman, Beau Johnson & Ryan Sayles

I chatted with Eric Beetner of the Writer Types Podcast last weekend about flash fiction, crossover genres, the virtues of brevity, and my journey to creating Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction

Listen here

writer types

9-14-2020

In today’s episode, Eric is joined by Nancy Stohlman to talk about flash fiction and her new book Going Short. Plus authors Beau Johnson and Ryan Sayles.

All music used by permission under the creative commons license. Music in this episode includes:

The Diplomatic Scandal by The Polish Ambassador

Urchins by Rondo Brothers

You Like It by Vibe Tracks

Chuuch BY The Good Lawdz

Grassy Hill by Huma-Huma

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And join us for the Going Short Book Club Oct 15-31!