Season 3 begins Fall 2020!
Many years ago, I envisioned a day when I would have a bookshelf filled with books by my friends. Today, that bookshelf is about to collapse under its own weight! The So You Wrote a Book? series is my way to shine the spotlight on some of the amazing work being written by my colleagues. Read interviews with:
- Christopher Allen
- David S. Atkinson
- Cath Barton
- Paul Beckman
- Randall Brown
- Kim Chinquee
- Steven Dunn
- Michelle Elvy
- Vanessa Gebbie
- Len Kuntz
- Hillary Leftwich
- Nathan Leslie
- Michael Loveday
- Jayne Martin
- Damhnait Monaghan
- Jonathan Montgomery
- Meg Pokrass
- Matt Potter
- Selah Saterstrom
- Katherine DiBella Seluja
- Karen Stefano
- Robin Stratton
- Meg Tuite
- Robert Vaughan
- Charmaine Wilkerson
So You Wrote a Book? Hillary Leftwich
Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, the debut collection by Hillary Leftwich, is a sad, funny, broken, hopeful book: a strange coming of age. Leftwich has written a surreal Midwestern Gothic full of hand-me downs and family secrets; just as her characters open other people’s bathroom cupboards to “see the expensive tampons and boutique makeup”, opening the pages of this book allows the reader a compassionate, tragic, and sometimes difficult look into a darker side of innocence lost. We should not avert our eyes.
Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in six words:
Hillary Leftwich: It hurts to live with ghosts.
NS: Love it! Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock is your first book, congratulations! Has it been everything you imagined?
HL: My expectations were pretty low, so when I began my solo marketing and Denver/Front Range “Book Tour,” I was taken aback by the amount of support I received. It takes a lot of courage to share your words with the world, so no, it was not everything I imagined it would be. It was better.
NS: Is there a favorite story or “germ story” in here—the one piece that really started this book becoming a book?
HL: Germ story! I love that! The one piece that really got me going with continuing writing this hybrid collection would be “I Lost My Orgasm.” And I want to thank my ex for giving me the inspiration to write that piece.
NS: One of the strongest themes in your work for me is the loss of innocence. You are able to be funny about it, as in this line about a first sexual encounter: “You see your stuffed bear, Mr. Noodles, shoved between the wall and the bed frame, gaping at you with a look of abandonment…” but I still feel a lot of sadness–indeed, abandonment–in this loss. Your thoughts?
HL: That piece is based on my first experience of getting sexual with an older boy I had an immense attraction to and who intimidated me with his mohawk and leather. I remember seeing my bedroom through his eyes and feeling both ashamed as well as terrified. A sadness in knowing I was about to cross a threshold with this person that I had never crossed before. I suppose the melancholy of making a decision to leave part of our childhood behind is what comes through.
NS: At other times the transformation feels more manipulated, more sinister, as in this line beginning with unicorns and mermaids and ending with: “Shhh she sang, her hands two sleepy birds cradling me—you don’t want to be a little girl forever.” Does she? Do any of us? Why do we get so lost in these old versions of ourselves?
HL: That’s the first piece I’ve written about my childhood sexual molestations by an older girl who lived across the street from me when I was five. Her manipulation of our friendship and pressuring me to allow her to do what she wanted to my body is my first memory of losing something huge as a part of myself. I often wonder what kind of a woman I would be today if I still had that part of me she stole. Then again, maybe it’s best not to think of it as something missing. We fill our emptiness with all kinds of demons.
NS: Wow. And yes, so true. I was thinking: many of the stories here are told in the second person (you) and are also just surreal enough to make me wonder if they originate in dreams? If not in dreams, where do they originate for you?
HL: I have a need to make everything in my life surreal to understand other people as well as myself.
NS: Yes, agreed. Now the characters in this book exist in what we might call blue-collar Americana—they are factory workers and cleaning ladies and single parents. And yet there is no idealization of another world, no striving to escape circumstances. I was struck by this line: “I don’t trust anyone who’s never had to clean up someone else’s shit.” Do you think these characters are more content than they let on to be?
HL: Many of these pieces are nonfiction, especially the ones involving my days as a maid, and of course, being a solo mother. Christina, the woman who cleans my old office building, actually said that. And I agree with that statement. Being in a situation of barely making it paycheck to paycheck, feeling more comfortable with folks in the same boat as you, broke, struggling, is something I never attempted to escape from. To me, it was both comforting and absolutely a state of content in many ways. I only felt judged and wanting to be in better circumstances by those who looked down on me and the folks I worked or socialized with. I still feel this way. I don’t think that will ever change.
NS: There are a lot of references to ghosts, obviously even in your title. But after reading your work, I felt that the real ghosts are our own departed versions of ourselves, adults haunted by our past versions of ourselves. You say, “There are lots of ways to remain half alive and half dead. Tons.” I feel the ghosts in this book are not outside of us but inside. Talk.
HL: The ghosts inside us are what I believe drives us to destroy ourselves. Hauntings of people and situations passed, and like you said, a “departed versions of ourselves.” It’s easy to be half alive and half dead. It’s harder to educate ourselves and learn to grow, to move beyond our old selves and our ignorance. But we need to, especially now. Especially now.
NS: Yes, especially now. Which brings me to another theme I see in your work: resilience–the many ways that, as we are yearning towards our own fruition, forces from within and without can make us pivot and pervert but not die. Do you think there is redemption for these characters? Should there be?
HL: One of the hardest things about being alive is experiencing suffering, and seeing others suffer and learning the world is never fair. That sometimes, you experience something so horrific it hurts to keep breathing. There should always be redemption, but life doesn’t work that way. Redemption means a happy ending, and there can never be a happy ending without tremendous loss.
NS: What advice do you have for writers who are working on/want to publish a book?
HL: When I was pregnant with my son, everyone came out of the woodwork to share their horror stories and advice about pregnancy and giving birth. Turns out, none of it applied to me. I had my own unique (and scary) experience. You will have your own too, but you don’t have to go it alone. Seek out advice, ask for help, have a friend you trust, or a writing group look at your work. And when you’re ready, find me. I’ll be teaching a class on how to self-promote and create your own book tour for those on a budget.
NS: Yes, I love that comparison. Thanks so much for playing, Hillary! Links to buy the book and other promo links?
Hillary Leftwich is the author of Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock (CCM Press/The Accomplices 2019), which is featured in Entropy’s Best Fiction list of 2019 and is a finalist for the Big Other Book Award. She is the poetry and prose editor for Heavy Feather Review and runs At the Inkwell Denver, a monthly reading series. Currently, she freelances as a writer, editor, journalist, and teaches writing at Lighthouse Writers. She is a Kenyon Review scholarship recipient for 2021, and her writing can be found in both print and online in The Rumpus, Entropy, The Missouri Review, Denver Quarterly, Hobart, and others. She lives in Colorado with her partner, her son, and their cat, Larry. Find more of her writing at hillaryleftwich.com
So You Wrote a Book? Nathan Leslie
Established in 2015, The Best Small Fictions series is an anticipated event, a yearly tribute to the small form and the many writers involved in its continuing transformation. Series editor Nathan Leslie and guest editor Rilla Askew carry the torch in this latest offering: The Best Small Fictions 2019, a weighty who’s who of the year’s flash fiction standouts and a gorgeous exhibition of the power of the miniature.
Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in 6 words.
Nathan Leslie: I take it you mean Hurry Up and Relax? Satirical-minded stories mostly about blowhards.
NS: Ha. The Best Small Fictions 2019 is the fifth in the series—started in 2015–and your first time as a series editor. How did you get involved?
NL: Founding editor Tara Masih asked me if I wanted to serve as series editor and I jumped at the chance. I have long admired BSF and, as it happens, I have just enough free time to make it work schedule-wise.
NS: You have such an amazing variety of stories and authors–how do you find the stories? What is the discovery process? Do you all agree or do you have to fight it out for your favorites?
NL: Thank you for your kind comments. There are several streams–the nominated stories that come in via Submittable, stories that the crack BSF staff culls from their reading, and stories that I find from my own scouring. From there I just pick the best of the bunch with Michelle Elvy and the consulting editors providing much-needed assistance.
NS: Once you have chosen the stories, how do you and the other editors decide the order? Having edited several anthologies of flash fiction I know that the ordering process this process is not easy.
NL: In talking with Sonder Press and Michelle when I started my first BSF last year, we all agreed that alphabetical order would be the way to go–that way it’s completely non-judgmental. The only exception to this rule is that we also spotlight the top ten spotlighted works. These are chosen by the guest editor.
NS: I love that. The ordering is so important, but also so subjective. How important do you think the first story is in an anthology? Do you think readers start at the beginning and go to the end or do you think they skip around?
NL: It’s important and as mentioned, in our case it’s a spotlighted story so presumably it’s one of the strongest in the book. I think readers most likely skip around quite a bit. I sure do when I read anthologies.
NS: You also have a spotlighted journals section—and as I am looking through the anthology not only is there an enormous range of stories and authors but also originating magazines. How do you choose which journals to spotlight?
NL: It wasn’t too difficult as there were several journals that had multiple pieces in the anthology. From those, I just chose the journals that stood out to me–with considerable help and guidance from Michelle.
NS: Reading your bio I realized you were also the series editor of the Best of the Web anthology in 2008 and 2009 (the same time I was editing the Fast Forward books!). From an editorial standpoint, how have small fictions changed in the last 10 years?
NL: Yes. It’s hard to say–small fictions are much more “mainstream” now than they were in 2008-9 and there are certainly more journals that highlight their importance. I also think that aesthetically there are more writers within the genre taking risks. But for Best of the Web we were not solely looking at small fictions, so I was not quite as attuned to the genre as I hope I am now.
NS: I agree that there are writers taking more risks–which is so exciting for the genre. And you just announced the picks for the next Best Small Fictions 2020—congrats to all the winners! It must feel wonderful to know how much your acceptance means to a writer.
NL: It was nice to be able to give a glimmer of good news to authors this year because we were in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic. The authors were very appreciative this year–more so than usual. My favorite part of the BSF process is sending the notes of acceptance.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
NL: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me and for your interest in small fictions.
NS: Thank YOU for all you do, and thanks for including me for the first time in the 2019 anthology–it was such a high point of my year!
Nathan Leslie won the 2019 Washington Writers’ Publishing House prize for fiction for his collection of short stories, Hurry Up and Relax. Nathan’s nine previous books of fiction include Three Men, Root and Shoot, Sibs, and The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice. He is also the author of a collection of poems, Night Sweat. Nathan is currently the series editor for Best Small Fictions, the founder and organizer of the Reston Reading Series in Reston, Virginia, and the publisher and editor of the new online journal Maryland Literary Review. Previously he was series editor for Best of the Web and fiction editor for Pedestal Magazine. His fiction has been published in hundreds of literary magazines such as Shenandoah, North American Review, Boulevard, Hotel Amerika, and Cimarron Review. Nathan’s nonfiction has been published in The Washington Post, Kansas City Star, and Orlando Sentinel. Nathan lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, Julie.
So You Wrote a Book? Randall Brown
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.
So You Wrote a Book? Damhnait Monaghan
A deceptively slim book that tells an entire Irish family saga, Damhnait Monaghan’s debut, The Neverlands, is a beautiful treatise on who we love and how do we love–especially those closest to us. In this story love is vulnerable and risky…but it is also redemptive. A stunning mini epic full of equal parts sorrow and hope, each tension-filled story stands alone and yet together they create something powerful and universal.
Nancy Stohlman: Describe this story in six words:
Damhnait Monaghan: Family. Motherhood. Habits. Loss. Change. Hope.
NS: I love your opening story—the spray-painted phrase “Seamus O’Riordan is a gobshite” sets the tension and tone for me immediately. Was this story always the opening story? Or did this tale begin elsewhere for you?
DM: The Neverlands began as a mosaic flash written during Fast Flash, an online writing group led by the inimitable Kathy Fish, and was published at Jellyfish Review. A shorter version of the opening story was the first micro in that mosaic flash. It seemed a good place to begin the novella-in-flash as all three family members – Mammy, Nuala and Da – are referenced.
NS: How did the stories find their order—were they written mostly chronologically or did you mosaic around an idea?
DM: The five mini-micros in the original mosaic flash covered a lot of ground. Writing the novella-in-flash provided the opportunity to slow things down and fill in some of the bigger gaps between the original micros. I was vaguely aware of the overall arc I hoped to achieve, but I didn’t write the new stories chronologically, instead writing around images and ideas which then inspired more pieces. For example, I wrote a flash about Nuala’s holy communion ceremony where Mammy cuts down her wedding dress for Nuala. This led me to write a flash about Mammy and Da’s elopement, where Da shows up with that wedding dress.
NS: The title of the book, The Neverlands, comes from a literal misunderstanding of “The Netherlands,” but of course it’s a beautiful mistake. In some ways, “misunderstandings” both beautiful and painful are a defining feature of this epic story. Your thoughts?
DM: Yes, I think Nuala in particular misunderstands things that occur, partly because she wants to believe. For example, in ‘Holy Communion’ she half rises out of her seat to go look for the money tree in the garden that will pay for a new dress; she wants to believe in that money tree. But Mammy too makes mistakes; in “Star-crossed Lovers’ she runs off with Seamus/Da at sixteen, thinking his flattery is “dead poetic.”
NS: Your characters are Irish, and most of the story takes place in Ireland, but Ireland feels almost like a translucent background that you see in hints only. In the same way, I love how you pepper the Irish dialect without having it intrude on the story (as some written dialects can). What are your thoughts around writing in dialect?
DM: My parents were Irish, but emigrated to Canada before they married. I’ve never lived in Ireland (although I have visited) so I was over the moon when the wonderful Nuala O’Connor described the dialect in The Neverlands as ‘pitch-perfect.’
Done well, dialect adds another layer to a story, but I’ve read books where the dialect is so dense it’s off-putting (naming no names). I’m in the midst of dripping more dialect into the manuscript of my first novel, which is set in Newfoundland. I’m looking for that balance between a desire for authenticity and the need for clarity.
NS: At some point the child Nuala wants to stay and watch grandpa whittle, “wishing she could see what animal crawls out of the wood today.” I think your writing is a bit like this— you do an amazing job “carving” to the essence of each story. Talk about your writing process? Do you do a lot of editing/whittling or do they come out in big chunks? Or something else?
DM: Flash can be distilled right down to the essentials of the story. When I’m writing flash, I tend to write big, then pare down, changing words, tense, etc to polish the piece. The Neverlands underwent a fair amount of editing, as I explain below, and I was conscious of the need to ensure that each individual piece worked towards the whole, as well as the need for continuity.
NS: I really love the scene with the teabag—anyone who has traveled internationally will relate to being faced with unfamiliar and/or losing familiar cultural rituals. In your hands I felt this story as a point of compassion: being an immigrant is hard in hundreds of small ways (we usually only think of the big ones). Your thoughts?
DM: Thank you and yes, as an immigrant myself I agree that small things matter. When I first moved to the UK from Canada, I thought everything would be so easy. I figured, you know, Canada is a former British colony, we speak the same language, how hard could it be? Ha. There were myriad small differences that made day to day life incredibly frustrating in those early days.
As the daughter of immigrants, I so regret not quizzing them more about their culture shock -imagine their first winter in northern Canada! – while I still had the chance. The tea bag scene is based on a story my mom liked to tell about her first encounter with a teabag. During a layover in New York, en route to Canada, she had tea in a restaurant with her friends and they all had to take instruction from the waitress on how to “work” the tea bag.
NS: You use both Mammy and Nuala as story “headings.” It’s a simple strategy, but it works. How did you decide to do it this way?
DM: That was a suggestion made by my wonderful editor and publisher Sarah Leavesley at V Press. As there are two different voices in the novella, I think it helps to quickly ground the reader.
NS: The Neverlands is currently called “short fiction”—it could just as easily be called a novella in flash. Why one and not the other? And does it matter?
DM: Great question. At the time of publication, I was hung up on the apparent need for each flash in a novella-in-flash to be stand alone and wasn’t sure if all of mine did. (although reviewers seem to think they do.) But now, I think, why do they all have to be stand alone? Who made that rule? What is a novella-in-flash? It’s a short novel told in flash. If I was publishing it now, I would absolutely call The Neverlands a novella-in-flash. (Phew, glad to get that off my chest!)
NS: Ha! Now this is your first book—congratulations! Talk about V. Press and/or your road to publication?
DM: Thank you! The whole process was a delight, which I understand is not always the case in publishing. I met Sarah Leavesley of V Press at the 2018 Flash Fiction Festival and discovered they were open to submissions for flash pamphlets. At that point all I had was the original mosaic flash and another flash called ‘Habits’ written in that same Fast Flash course. The original mosaic was in Nuala’s voice and ‘Habits’ was in Mammy’s.
Well, it seemed these two characters had much more to say. While still at the Flash Fiction Festival I attended Karen Jones’ visualisation workshop (highly recommended). I was prepared to go wherever the visualisation took me, but allowed myself to hope it would be towards Mammy or Nuala. It was. The words flowed into rough drafts which I polished, later submitting a sample to V Press. Sarah got in touch to request the full MS and subsequently offered me publication. We then spent some time to-ing and fro-ing on edits until we were both happy with the final result. I can’t praise Sarah enough. She is a fantastic editor and also designed my gorgeous cover.
NS: Advice for writers who are writing a book?
DM: Oof. There’s so much advice out there, much of it conflicting. Do what works for you. Find your tribe, be it online or in person. For me, literary Twitter has always been a brilliant and supportive writing community, but there are lots of other avenues. Find what works for you. Don’t compare yourself to other writers and celebrate their success as much as your own.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
DM: Just to thank you so much for this opportunity to chat, Nancy. I’m sad we won’t see each other again this year in Bristol, but will cross my fingers for 2021!
NS: You are so welcome, and yes, long live 2021!
Links to buy the book or other promo links:
The Neverlands is in its second printing and can be purchased from V Press
Or for a signed copy, contact Damhnait direct via her website: www.damhnaitmonaghan.com
or on Twitter @Downith
Damhnait Monaghan was born and grew up in Canada but now lives in the U.K. Her writing has won or placed in various competitions and is widely published and anthologised. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfictions. Her novella in flash The Neverlands was published by V. Press in 2019. She is an editor at FlashBack Fiction, an online literary journal that showcases historical flash fiction. You can find her on Twitter @Downith.
So You Wrote a Book? Michael Loveday
Michael Loveday’s debut novella-in-flash, Three Men on the Edge, is a story in three movements, a triptych of liminal spaces that forces the reader to consider the interior landscapes of others and how rarely we intersect with or even understand the tortured lives of our nearest neighbors, friends, strangers.
Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in six words:
Michael Loveday: “For sale. Crazy muse. Never porn.” (that’s Hemingway, right?)
NS: Ahem–of course (wink)! Now your bio says that you are “inspired by his experiences of an in-between place.” Explain. Do you think we are all living in in-between places in some form or another?
ML: The specific inspiration for ‘Three Men on the Edge’ was the weird hinterland between northwest London and the Hertfordshire countryside where I lived for ten years – an urban-rural “edgeland” that became the setting for the book. These kinds of places (neither fully city nor countryside) are quite a common phenomenon in 21st century capitalism, certainly in the West (and of course have been so for a while).
But it’s true I was interested in liminal states in an emotional and abstract sense too. The geographical edgeland is a backdrop for describing those.
I guess in some sense this human experience is always one of “becoming”, as much as we might crave it to be only one of “being”. The more the pace of the world seems to speed up through cultural and technological change, the more we always seem to be hurtling towards some other way of living.
NS: I read this almost like the three movements of a symphony with a fast-slow-fast movement. Talk about your organizational choices?
ML: Yes I guess you’re right. I knew I had three separate but related sequences of short prose pieces, adding up to a kind of triptych, all linked by the shared setting (and certain shared themes about relationships and mental health).
Originally I had the middle sequence (‘The Invisible World’) as the last one. It stood out as different – more meditative, more descriptive, closer to prose poems, and as much about the watery landscape of the canals and lakes of Rickmansworth as it is about a person. I thought, naively, it would be a more substantial way to end the book. But it was just sort of dangling out there as a third limb.
It was my wife who suggested putting this section in the middle. She was so obviously right! With the new order, there was a sense of symmetry, the energy picked up again in the final third, the mood became (slightly!) more comic again, and the pieces more character-driven once again. It also created the pattern that the main protagonists became progressively younger in age through the course of the book.
NS: I find it interesting that all three of the men in here are defined in some way by the women in their lives—loveless marriage, dead wife, fantasy woman. Comment.
ML: Yep, and I’d argue they’re defined by a need for non-sexual female companionship too. Women have been influential, stabilising influences in my own life and the book was intended as an exploration of what can happen to men if they aren’t connected in a healthy way to women, or to the feminine principle in general. I think it’s a big problem in some parts of our culture.
NS: You have super detailed eye to nature, especially in the second movement (Gus). Are you a secret botanist or gardener?
ML: Oh gosh I’m terrible! I never know the names for anything and am always wondering “what the hell type of plant is that?” If I had more time I’d definitely do a course of study in it. The book was a deliberate act of witnessing in terms of the local landscape, but I had to work with terms and concepts that were fairly familiar to my suburban soul. Eco-fiction for the suburbs?
NS: All three of these men are living lives of “quiet desperation” as Thoreau would say. It makes me wonder (and this has been a topic of conversation in wider circles): do you think we talk enough about men’s darkest emotions and weaknesses?
ML: There’s been improvement but I think there’s so much further we could go as a society. When I had my own struggles with my mental health starting in the mid-90s I had no preparation for it, no vocabulary or language or comfort with the territory. I was very aware of the fact that I was embarking into terrain that would mean I lost connection with some of my “closest” male friends. And I did. Not with all, but with some.
Things have got better in general since then, at least for the broad majority I think, in terms of awareness, understanding and acceptance of mental health issues. But we can go further. So many men are carrying profound wounds that are unexplored or unexpressed and just get acted out – in violence, aggression, intimidation, ruthlessness, lust for power, competitiveness, lack of empathy, problematic relationships etc. There are examples at the very top of our social food chain in both the US and the UK!
I’m very interested in the idea, from Jung, that we all need to come to terms with the feminine and masculine impulses within us, anima and animus as Jung put it, reconcile them and learn to express them healthily. I’m still working on this! (And when I’ve figured it out that’ll probably be the death of me as a writer! Haha).
NS: Your stories share locations—Bury Lake, Our Lady Help of Christians, etc. In Part 1, Denholm is even making a town diorama, which seems very telling. How does the shared location—or even just the location itself—facilitate these stories?
ML: My experience of this particular suburban “edgeland” was that I had very ambivalent feelings about living there – I felt like I was neither in London nor in the countryside, neither belonging nor not belonging, geographically on the margins, with something very significant glimpsed further off.
The physical experience of the landscape was the foundation for being between states emotionally too. I had this idea that “edgeland” locations might be sites for ambivalent, transitional, liminal experiences in fiction or poetry. (And it’s true – it’s reflected in films and TV, for example, when so many acts of transgression or secretive (often criminal!) acts take place on run-down industrial estates or in neglected woods or in empty warehouses out on the edge of town).
Rickmansworth is in the Three Rivers District of Hertfordshire, a valley where the Gade, Chess and Colne rivers converge (and feed into the Grand Union Canal between London and Birmingham). The manuscript began (as my MA dissertation) as something called “Three Rivers, Rickmansworth”, with the idea that each of the three third-person voices was a different “river”. So landscape and geography were feeding into it from the start.
NS: The three men’s stories don’t overtly overlap but they pass by one another, almost “pass the baton” from one to the next. This is one of those clever tricks that the flash novella form allows us to do. Talk about the form and how it informed the way you told these stories?
ML: Oh gosh. I could bore people for days about the novella-in-flash! Working on ‘Three Men on the Edge’ kindled what i think is going to be a lifelong love affair with the form. I’ve since written essays about it for SmokeLong Quarterly [http://www.smokelong.com/strange-feasts-and-where-to-find-them-twelve-more-great-flash-fiction-novels-novellas-part-iii/] and been lucky enough to judge the Bath Flash Fiction Award Novella-in-Flash competition for the past couple of years.
As I developed the book, I did a lot of research, exploring examples and “permission-givers” that might inspire me and influence me. There are so many great examples of novellas-in-flash or “flash novels” out there – your own included. I was conscious of the fact that I wanted ‘Three Men on the Edge’ to add something new to the conversation, so I tried to make it as close to prose poetry as the form could bear and use the structure of three related “mini-novellas” set in the same location.
I knew some readers who were looking for a stronger sense of plot might struggle with the book – there are other novellas-in-flash that have a much more explicit narrative arc, like a traditional novel has. But I hoped that other readers, perhaps ones who separately enjoyed reading poetry, might find it an interesting and unusual way of reading fiction, one where you’re asked to fill in lots of “gaps” – a suggestion of narrative rather than an actual narrative.
NS: This is your first book of prose, and it was shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards—congrats! Talk about your path to publication.
ML: Thanks! I spent a long time struggling with the project. It was hard writing three mini-novellas at once, especially when I hadn’t written fiction before. I could really have done with a mentor, but I didn’t think I could afford to pay for one, and I didn’t dare inflict all my drafts on my friends – I drafted well over 200 stories for it from 2011 to 2017, although only 64 made it into the final manuscript.
A writer who read one late draft (not far off the final manuscript – about 25 pages short of the final version) suggested I send it to her publisher. That was around December 2016. I got my hopes up, as a result, and was gutted when it was rejected – the publisher was planning a transition into an “even more experimental” direction, they said.
But ultimately that nudged me to do some more editing and add some more stories to beef up the manuscript – I basically rediscovered a number of stories that I’d written but abandoned over the previous few years of editing, and I couldn’t understand why I’d overlooked them. It was weird encountering them again – like someone else had written them. But the manuscript was better off for including them. I’m now relieved that that earlier version didn’t get published.
In the meantime, I’d read a couple of V. Press flash fiction pamphlets and liked them very much. Because of the hybrid nature of the manuscript, I knew I wanted to send it to a publishing house that dealt with poetry as well as fiction, as V. Press does. So when their submissions window opened again (for pamphlets) in the late summer 2017, I sent a very tentative enquiry about the possibility of them doing a full-length book. Thankfully, they were willing to consider it, although they had only done them for poetry before. I was still writing a few more stories after the manuscript was accepted (and in fact some that I really wanted to include were written too late for the publisher to agree to include them. They very gently suggested it was time to stop writing the book. Haha).
NS: Advice for writers who are writing a novella-in-flash or other book?
ML: Well, maybe don’t try writing three at once! Be patient, read lots of published writing, keep editing, seek feedback. If you can publish parts of it (if perhaps it’s a story collection or poetry collection) as you go along, then do so, it will give you – and a publisher – necessary belief in the book. Lastly, be protective of your baby and don’t rush it into the world. There are so many books already out there.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
ML: If you’re reading this blog and enjoy flash fiction, why not come to the Flash Fiction Festival in the UK – it’s in Bristol in the summer each year – June 19-21st in 2020. It’s an amazing, inspiring event, very welcoming and full of writerly camaraderie. Nancy and I will both be there teaching two workshops on the flash novel / novella-in-flash. And there are dozens of other brilliant workshops to choose from. https://www.flashfictionfestival.com/
NS: I second that! Thanks so much for playing, Michael!
ML: Thank you, Nancy, for inviting me to think about these interesting questions!
Links to buy the book and other promo links:
Buy from V Poetry Press
Michael Loveday’s website
Novella-in-Flash workshops with Michael
Michael Loveday’s novella-in-flash Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the 2019 Saboteur Award for Best Novella. He also writes poetry, with a pamphlet He Said / She Said published by HappenStance Press (2011). He specialises as an editor for novellas-in-flash: https://novella-in-flash.com/. Other info about his writing, editing and mentoring can be found at https://michaelloveday.com/ When he’s not found holed up in cafés in Bath, United Kingdom, reading manuscripts or doing his own writing, Michael enjoys the usual distractions of music, cinema, and countryside walks. He has a soft spot for very earnest songs by Bruce Springsteen.
So You Wrote a Book? Karen Stefano
In What A Body Remembers, Karen Stefano creates a horrifying page turner, all the more horrifying because it is true, honest, and vulnerable. What resonates in the reader’s mind is the lasting effects of gender and other power dynamics in their myriad configurations. Karen takes us into that thin, raw place that no woman (or man) wants to be forced to go—the night she went from Karen to “victim”—and the aftermath of a life transformed. While some might consider her lucky, this story is both timely and able to address so much more than just assault of the body. Together, old and new Karen converge in a growing understanding of her assailant, and herself, and the ways in which their lives intersected and were changed forever.
Nancy Stohlman: So I have to admit that I waited until I felt like I was emotionally ready before I read this book. But what I discovered was not the graphic horror I had anticipated but a different kind of frightening vulnerability, something I could relate to even though I (thankfully) haven’t experienced an event like this. Was the writing of this book difficult or liberating? Did it come out in one gush or small steps?
Karen Stefano: “A different kind of frightening vulnerability” is a great way to put it. In its early pages, the book shares a horrifying assault, followed by its aftermath, and a whole lot more. But at the heart of the story is a young woman who had never given much thought to her own vulnerability—and then post-assault she can think of nothing else. Talk about a game-changer for a life’s trajectory.
But ultimately there is growth, redemption, a strength that blooms unexpectedly from that awful night—and I hope it’s that strength readers walk away with when they turn the final page.
Telling this story was incredibly difficult and, as you can imagine, quite triggering at times. It wasn’t until the book was finished that I felt any sense of liberation. And sadly, absolutely nothing I’ve ever written has come out in a gush. This book is the product of many false starts, followed by baby steps, a lot of self-discipline, and blind faith. Writing for me is always an act of blind faith.
NS: The assault itself happens early on but the book continues to address the many fallouts of assault that follow, including fear, ridicule, judgment and shame from self, co-workers, boyfriends, parents, and even police. Do you think this is true of many people’s experience of assault?
KS: Focusing on the shame piece of this question, my response is: Sadly, I think it is. I’ve spoken to many sexual assault survivors and have read extensively on the topic. Shame, self-loathing, and self-doubt always seem to be a component of the post-assault experience, regardless of the type of assault. We burden ourselves further by blaming ourselves. “I shouldn’t have been drinking.” “I should have stopped him.” “I should have fought harder.” These are examples of post-assault self talk I have heard and read about. In my case, I blamed myself for walking home alone at night near midnight—even when I literally had no other option. Of course instead of the shame and self-blame victims experience, the real reaction should be HE SHOULDN’T HAVE FUCKING DONE THAT.
Something I’m interested in (and in fact am working on an essay on this topic as we speak) is rape culture. We’re so focused on teaching women how to avoid sexual assault—and that’s fine. But the real conversation we need to be having surrounds teaching men to not commit the sexual assault.
NS: I’m struck by the way you talk frankly about feeling “neediness” in the aftermath, and also feeling badly for that. Women are supposed to ridicule themselves for being needy—it’s part of the gender power dynamic/misogynistic game even though it’s a very real emotion that everyone feels. Your thoughts on this?
KS: Yes, I became extremely needy, and extremely ashamed for feeling that way. I wanted to be a strong, powerful woman, a woman un-phased by the trifle of the experience of having a stranger run up out of the darkness and hold a knife to my throat. Isn’t that absurd?!
I don’t know if the gender power dynamic tells women not to be needy. I haven’t really thought about that aspect. But I do know, and I talk about this in the book, that our culture tells women they are supposed to be a lot of different things, many of which conflict. We’re supposed to be beautiful (it’s a trillion dollar industry!), we’re supposed to be sexy (but not too sexy! We can’t be “sluts!”). We’re supposed to be smart, get into the best schools, take on high power jobs, all the while accepting that we will earn less than our male peers. And we’re supposed to do all of this while raising children, while being loving and compassionate and nurturing.
NS: What you are really addressing in the early years is PTSD, though at the time it didn’t have a vocabulary. I think naming and claiming language is political (in much the same way “naming” flash fiction established its legitimacy). What are your thoughts on PTSD then and now?
K: I don’t hold myself out as an authority on PTSD, but in my personal experience: it’s your body refusing to forget what your mind has worked so desperately to push down.
The American Psychiatric Association defines PTSD as a reaction to an extreme traumatic event. Psychiatrists say that when people live through trauma, memories get connected in their minds with what they saw, heard, smelled or felt at the time. Fear becomes linked to the sensations that occurred during the event. These sensations become triggers – in my case, the sound of footsteps.
As far as the role it has played in my life, it was acute in the months following my attack. Then it fell dormant for decades. Suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, it reappeared again. PTSD brings terror into everyday events: walking down the street, going for a run. It makes you feel completely out of control. It makes you feel like a crazy person. Logically you can argue why the panicked reaction makes no sense – but your body isn’t going to listen. It’s going to judge what reaction is appropriate – and that reaction is to experience terror and to demonstrate vigilance, even hyper-vigilance.
As shown in the book, my PTSD primarily manifested in two ways: a fear of the dark (a bit of a problem when you work in law enforcement and have to put on a police uniform and patrol a sprawling campus and surrounding crime ridden streets in darkness!); and a severe trigger by the sound of footsteps behind me.
NS: You have such a unique perspective, having been on three different “sides” of this incident in some capacity. How does your experience as a “victim,” a lawyer, and police aide inform your understanding of sexual assault?
KS: Primarily this three-tiered experience has made me aware of the many flaws in our criminal justice system. There have been changes in the law to enhance victim’s rights and many District Attorney’s offices have a victim liaison office. But based on my experience as both lawyer and victim, there is still room for improvement.
How do we achieve that improvement? Start with simple communication. Most victims don’t have the first clue what to expect from the system and that alone is extremely anxiety-inducing. DAs have to view themselves as advocates for victims in the system, just as criminal defense lawyers act as advocates for their clients. Simply telling a person what to expect procedurally from the system goes a long way toward helping those individuals navigate that system—whether they are victims or persons accused of crimes.
NS: I find it fascinating the way that you portray the courtroom as a place where there is “re-victimization.” For the reader, too, it feels equally as violating as the original event (not being allowed to do anything but “answer the questions,” for instance). You say: “It’s me who is on trial. I hadn’t known I would be subjected to such painful scrutiny, that I would feel so degraded, so at fault. I feel violated, helpless. Again.” I’m thinking now of public cases like Cosby and Weinstein—has there been any progress?
KS: Following up on what I said previously, there has definitely been progress but the system needs to do better—both for victims and for persons accused of crimes. The statistics on mass-incarceration and wrongly convicted defendants are staggering. In spite of my own experience as “victim,” I want to be clear that I believe cross-examination is a necessary tool. I believe in due process. I believe in holding prosecutors accountable, in making law enforcement play by the rules. But what’s so disheartening to me is the ability of wealthy, privileged, “untouchable” men like Weinstein to manipulate the criminal justice system to their advantage. The whole issue morphs into “How much justice can you afford?” My own assailant came from a wealthy family, by the way, allowing him the opportunity to hire a skilled, seasoned trial lawyer. Not everyone has those resources and the fact is that people of privilege get a better deal in our justice system. And that’s just wrong.
NS: I really love and appreciate that you have compassion, even fascination with your assailant. You become curious about him, his humanity and the way that, like it or not, we are forever linked to the people who share traumatic events with us. Do you think you have this level of empathy and compassion because of your time as a defense lawyer? Was it the chicken or the egg?
KS: There’s a flicker of compassion I suppose but in the context of appreciating all of our humanity, all of our complexities and contradictions. It’s a recognition that as humans we are inherently flawed. And to answer your question, this point of view is definitely a function of my time as a defense lawyer, of getting to know so many clients from so many backgrounds.
NS: You published this book with Rare Bird Books, and you host a podcast on Rare Bird Radio. Tell us a bit about the podcast.
KS: It’s one of my favorite things! I’ve been doing it since 2015 and I basically talk to writers about their books. Indie authors, Big 5 authors, and everything in between, covering virtually every form and genre. There are a lot of great literary podcasts out there but often I feel they go off topic. This podcast is about writing, publishing, and how we choose to tell our stories. Guests and I laugh, sometimes we cry. I’ve enjoyed every single one of them—all for different reasons. If you’ve missed them, they’re all on my web site: http://stefanokaren.com
NS: This isn’t your first book. You also published The Secret Game of Words, a very different kind of book, several years ago. What advice do you have for writers who want to write a book?
KS: My advice varies depending upon what kind of book that might be. Writing is hard. It requires vast amounts of both faith and self-discipline. You have to push yourself, force yourself to stay in the chair and finish a scene. But this becomes more delicate if you’re writing about trauma, about the ugliest parts of your own life. You have to consider: am I being self-disciplined, or am I pushing myself to the brink of emotional disaster? If you’re writing about trauma, you will likely get triggered and you need to have a plan in place to deal with this triggering. You have to have a plan in place for the emotional self care that will inevitably be required.
NS: You are the best! Thank you for being here and for doing the brave work.
Links to buy the book:
Karen Stefano is the author of the memoir, What A Body Remembers: A Memoir of Sexual Assault and Its Aftermath (Rare Bird Books 2019). She is the author of the short story collection The Secret Games of Words (1GlimpsePress 2015) and the how-to business writing guide, Before Hitting Send (Dearborn 2011). Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Rumpus, Psychology Today, Writer’s Digest, Tampa Review, Epiphany, and elsewhere. She is also a JD/MBA with more than twenty years of complex litigation experience. To learn more about Karen and her writing, please visit http://stefanokaren.com.
So You Wrote a Book? Michelle Elvy
Sitting at the crossroads between flash fiction, poetry, and the novel, Michelle’s Elvy’s debut book in short form, the everrumble, is an allegory, a fable, a love affair with the world, and, considering what is happening to our planet right now: it’s a warning. In Elvy’s hands the everrumble is alive, the beating heart of the world. Only one small child can hear it. But sometimes one is enough.
Nancy Stohlman: This is your first book, congratulations! Talk about your path to publication with Ad Hoc fiction.
Michelle Elvy: For me, things usually happen serendipitously. I had two collections that were completed and ready for publication, mid-2018, and after thinking over the ideas behind both I decided I’d like to see the everrumble as my first book, because it holds something meaningful for me personally, and because the timing felt right. Jude Higgins at Ad Hoc agreed, and we worked towards publication for the UK Flash Fiction Festival, where the book’s launch seemed fitting, as it’s a small novel in small forms.
NS: I see this story almost as an allegory, similar to a book like, say, The Alchemist. Did you set out to write that kind of book or did it happen organically? Talk about the evolution of this project.
ME: It was an organic process – I had not planned to write the book it turned out to be. The idea of this young girl who would not talk came to me back in 2017, and I started writing down some of her stories. I did not have a biographical time line in mind; I just found moments from her life that seemed intriguing and followed them. Some came from her childhood, when she first starts to speak, then I wandered into her teen and adult years. It was an exploration from the beginning, moving step by step, tuning into Zettie in each situation – much like she listens to the world. First, there was Zettie’s immediate world. Then, I looked a bit further out – down the street, across town, in a different county. And soon I realised that Zettie (and I) did not need to be confined to the immediate physical surroundings – she could tune in beyond what felt like her ‘real’ physical space. As Zettie encountered new sounds, I’d have to tune in as well; I found myself thinking about how she’d respond, how she’d navigate through the different worlds she encountered, where she’d go next. It was an adventure.
NS: You have personally traveled the world many times over (for much of that on your boat), so your view, like Zettie’s, must have a sense of the world as a larger community. How are you like Zettie? How are you different?
ME: It’s true that my travels influence my world view, and therefore certainly the way I write. But as to how I’m like Zettie? Very hard for me to say. I find it liberating to think of this as fiction.
A bit taken from life: the books from Zettie’s Book Notes are all from our family travels and experiences – these are books that hold personal meaning. So in that way, there is a piece of me in Zettie’s story.
NS: Have you ever met a Zettie in your travels?
NS: One of the important moments in this story is Shamu’s capture. Without giving anything away, can you speak to the importance of this story within a story?
ME: I grew up with the idea of zoos and live aquarium shows. Seeing wild animals up close is exhilarating for a young child. Then we moved onto our sailboat and set out across the sea – we left North America, with no idea of where we’d end up. That was nearly twenty years ago. We have spent these years moving slowly, meandering across oceans and observing life at the edges of continents. We are often alone with no one around – no people other than our little community on board Momo (me, my husband and our two daughters) for weeks at a time. My appreciation for quiet and solitude has grown over these years – not something I planned, but something I now need, this space for reflection and energetic examination of my own relationship to the world.
An accumulation of experiences over the last twenty years has deepened my awe of the natural world – and also my sense of loss. Shamu’s capture is a dark moment in our human story. And it’s symbolic of so much more; our entire relationship to the wild animal kingdom is out of balance. From overfishing to contaminating our waterways with plastic to hunting rhinos to near-extinction to the massively corrupt and inhumane ivory trade. You know where I stand on elephants. That’s in Zettie’s story, too.
Am I an activist? Not really. But I feel the pull to saying something – and fiction is perhaps the best place to examine hard truths. I’m not someone who aims to write with a message. I really just wanted to see how Zettie might engage creatures whose voices may be lost.
My husband and I set out to live a small, quiet existence. But as it turns out, our personal encounters have changed the way we move through the world. We’ve seen diminishing fish populations firsthand, and we’ve seen far too many dying coral reefs. But we see the sea thriving, too – and that is inspiring. We’ve seen orca, humpbacks, dolphins, manta rays and so much more – vibrant and wild. Sharks and penguins, seahorses and octopuses, turtles and humpbacks. Also an inexplicable and powerful encounter with bioluminescence.
Our personal desire to simply disengage from the noisy world – Let’s go sailing! we said, back in 2000 – has given us experiences that I can’t quite measure. I guess it’s inevitable that they find their way into my writing. And so: Shamu and Zettie. Zettie and the African elephant. Connecting across thousands of miles.
NS: Zettie stops speaking at age 7 so she can start really listening. Do you think too much talking/not enough listening is the main crisis of modern humanity?
ME: I do not know if that is the main crisis – but it’s certainly a characteristic of the world we live in. I think we are in a moment in our human trajectory where the noise is very loud indeed: social media, television programming, news that may or may not be news. We seem to be putting out more than we are taking in – or than we ever could take in. I’m not alone in feeling the world is a bit out of balance.
So yes, sure – and I am not the first one to say this: we ought to try to listen more. To each other, to other creatures, to the sounds of the earth.
NS: If Zettie could speak and she could say only one thing what would it be?
NS: The Everrumble is what I would call a flash novel—coming right at the intersection between flash fiction and a novel. Yet this story could surely be a novel with all the nuances of a novel. What do you think are the advantages and/or limitations of using the short form to tell a big story?
ME: Oh I love the way a small story can convey so much – all that is between the lines, all that is left unsaid. Perhaps this goes hand in hand with listening: we can quiet down, read thoughtfully, and see what emerges with all that space.
In the case of these connected stories, yes: Zettie’s life unfolds over these pages in a way that feels like a novel to me. It’s more – I hope – than the words on the page. It’s what is there, and not there.
NS: What is your best advice to someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
ME: Sit down and start writing. And keep reading all the things – and listening to all the voices – that inspire you.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
ME: Thank you, Nancy, for talking with me. It’s exciting to see the book out in the world, and I appreciate you taking an interest!
(Links to buy the book/other promo links)
BUY: the everrumble at Ad Hoc Fiction
Michelle Elvy is a writer and editor originally from the Chesapeake Bay, now based in Dunedin, New Zealand. Her book, the everrumble (Ad Hoc Fiction 2019) – a small novel in small forms – was published in 2019. She is Assistant Editor for the international Best Small Fictions series and founder of Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction and National Flash Fiction Day NZ. Her poetry, fiction, travel writing, creative nonfiction and reviews have been widely published and anthologised.
As an editor, Michelle works with novelists, short story writers, memoirists, essayists and poets to help them find their voice and hone their words. This year, in addition to her regular manuscript assessments and editing work, she is teaching an online writing course, 52|250 A Year of Writing, and co-editing the anthology Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand, with Paula Morris and James Norcliffe (August 2020).
More about Michelle’s editing, teaching and writing at michelleelvy.com.
So You Wrote a Book? Kim Chinquee
The stories in Kim’s Chinquee’s new collection, Wetsuit, are the barest of wisps, impressionistic in their minimalism and yet dense with implied meaning. Each one is a gem, deceptively simple but hiding entire, barely concealed worlds in the silences. With each revisiting you discover the truth: that the stories are shadowboxes that continue into infinity, a magician’s hat with no bottom.
Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, explain this book in six words:
Kim Chinquee: Water. Swimming. Food. Animals. Motherhood. Men.
NS: I’m super intrigued by your titles, which are very often a seemingly random phrase pulled from the story that becomes the title and then suddenly isn’t random at all. Talk about your process with titles. Does it change the story for you?
KC: Absolutely! Titles are so much fun. A title can inform a piece, and can also turn it on its head. I’m always experimenting with titles, whether removing the first sentence of a story, and using it as a title. Or sometimes I’ll choose the last sentence, or one from the middle. Or perhaps the title is a word in the story that repeats itself. When I studied with Mary Robison, she recommended (to me and other students) closing our eyes and randomly pointing to places (on the physical copies of) our stories and opening our eyes and imagining the words and phrases (where our fingers landed) as potential titles. That’s a fun exercise I share with my students a lot. Sometimes a title can have nothing to do with the text of the story and can give that entire piece a different meaning. I think I have a few stories with titles like that.
NS: Your stories are very sculpted—sometimes down to almost an impressionistic wisp. I often find myself rereading them several times, as they are slight but extremely dense, sometimes deceptively so. How do you know when to stop? Do you think flash writers ever go too far?
KC: It’s possible to go too far, of course. But one can always save the latest drafts and rearrange the words, add them back, etc. I struggle with writing longer work because I’m always cutting.
NS: Water is a theme connecting these stories, from puddles to steam to oceans to ice. Talk about your connection to water and why it ripples through this book? (By the way I love your picture of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon on the cover!)
KC: Thank you! Pier Rodelon designed Wetsuit (and my books Oh Baby, Veer, and Shot Girls). And (in speaking of titles): I had several other titles of the book before deciding on Wetsuit (I think maybe MILK was one.)–and when I saw the cover, I realized Wetsuit was the one that best “suited,” and included mostly pieces pertaining to liquid and/or water of some form. And I added some words and lines to some of the pieces so they would better fit the overall theme. So, the theme of water was kind of accidental, I suppose. Or something that I didn’t see until later. I had been swimming a lot and doing triathlons when I was writing these pieces, so it makes sense to me now that I was writing a lot about water.
NS: The narrator seems consistent through many of the stories, and we get reoccurring images tagging back to other stories. Was this an intentional weave or a happy discovery? And if intentional, how you would distinguish this collection from, say, a flash novel? Or is it?
KC: It probably was a bit of both intentional weave and happy discovery. Some of these pieces were written long ago, and some were written during the same timeframe and in consecutive order. When compiling the collection, I ordered them to have some sort of arc, and/or storylines that connect and speak to each other.
NS: On that note, your beginning and your ending are also circular, with one image from the end hooking up with the initial one. It gives a certain sense of spiraling around and around a life. Can you about your circular concept?
KC: Thanks for noticing that! My editor and publisher Kathryn Rantala suggested ending on that last piece “My New Skin,” which I thought was kind of brilliant. I suppose, when looking at it now, I like to think it’s a metaphor for the front crawl or the breast stroke, the circular motion and the constant movement that keeps one not only moving forward, but afloat.
NS: About 2/3 of the way through the book your stories start to get super short and extremely dark. It feels like both a shift, a deepening, a quickening, and also, consequently, like the climax of the book. Can you talk about your design and intention with this purposeful pondering?
KC: As I was compiling the collection, it seemed natural to me to put these pieces closer to the end of the book, I suppose like a climax. I was afraid that if I included them near the front of the collection, they might discourage the reader, and that some content before might give them more context. I suppose it’s a lot like writing a novel. Wetsuit feels, content-like, or at least the way I compiled it, much like how I put together my first collection, Oh Baby.
NS: You have been an important voice in the flash fiction movement for a long time, and you’ve authored many books, including Shot Girls, Pretty, Veer, and Oh Baby. How is this book different than your others?
KC: Ah! Good question. I was about to talk more about this in the previous answer. I like to think Wetsuit holds a bit more hope for its main protagonist, and that there is maybe more maturity and depth. The son of Wetsuit is older, an adult, and there is a longing, I think. Artistically and aesthetically, Wetsuit is much like Oh Baby, imo. Veer was compiled as a collection to celebrate the venues where the pieces appeared (and where I’ve published most regularly): NOON, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Willow Springs, Story Quarterly. Pretty was published (as a prose poetry collection) with White Pine Press, under different editorship and is told in three parts. Whereas Shot Girls (also with Ravenna Press) includes mostly longer stories, of women working in “service,” including the military, and it includes a few flashes.
My next collection will also be published with Ravenna Press in 2020! It’s tentatively titled Snowdog. (And involves a lot of snow. And dogs.) Though I tend to change my titles a lot!
My novel-in-flashes, Battle Dress, will be published with Widow + Orphan House in 2021. I wrote the pieces in Battle Dress in consecutive order, while I was running a lot of local 5K, 10K races. So, there’s a lot of running and repetition in that book. Kind of like running the same kind of races (with different results) over and over.
I’ve also written a couple of “non flash” novels, and am currently revising Pirouette, which takes place in Boston, with alternating points-of-view of three protagonists and their experiences during the Boston Bombings. I’ve also started a new book called Stray Voltage, which is mostly about cows.
I probably write flash fictions with the most consistency and frequency, especially when I’m in the midst of teaching and doing administrative work. So, when compiling Wetsuit, I drew upon the flash fictions in my inventory, and put them together in a kind of collage.
NS: Congratulations! I’m looking forward to all of these! Wetsuit is published by Ravenna Press. Talk about your path to publication?
KC: Ravenna Press published my first book Oh Baby in 2008; I had such a great experience with Ravenna, and continue to publish with them. Kathryn Rantala is a great advocate and supporter of my work. I believe we have a mutual respect for each other and I love working with her.
NS: What advice would you give someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
KC: Read a lot. Write your story. Collect advice and keep what’s useful. Pay attention to what’s happening around you.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
KC: Thank you!
NS: Thank YOU!
Links to buy the book and other promo links:
You can buy copies of my books at www.kimchinquee.com, at Ravenna Press, and they’re also available at Amazon.
There’s a new review of Wetsuit available at Rain Taxi:
Kim Chinquee is the author of six books, most recently WETSUIT. She’s the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes, and serves as AWP Northeast Regional Chair. Her website is www.kimchinquee.com
So You Wrote a Book? Robin Stratton
In Some Have Gone and Some Remain, Robin Stratton takes us on a retrospective, a slideshow of love, loss, nostalgia and hope. Simmering within these poems and essays is a sweet, simple and honest invitation to witness the many interludes that make up one human life.
Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in six words
Robin Stratton: Sad, funny, honest, bittersweet, raw, hopeful
NS: I really love the way you take the flash fiction form and weave it with poetry to create this flash/poetic autobiography. Where did you get the idea to do this?
RS: Most of the flash form pieces began as poems, but were such involved narratives (“And Then There Was the Time”, “A Tumor Not a Cyst”) that they just looked better structured as paragraphs, not stanzas. The two long pieces, “Moms” and “The Summer of Lizzie Borden” were written years ago, and were waiting for a home.
NS: Unlike memoir, that generally focuses on just one aspect of a person’s life, this feels like a true autobiography—a retrospective beginning in childhood and taking us on the up and down journey through many moments of a life. I imagine this could make you feel somewhat “exposed”, especially compared to fiction writing. Can you speak to this idea?
RS: “Exposed” is just the right word for how I felt. When I was writing the ones I feel were most revealing, like “It’s 4:30 in the Morning” and “Results”, I kept thinking, Just write, but don’t show anyone. I kept thinking how my brothers would feel, knowing some of these things that happened to me, or how much damage I did to myself, emotionally.
NS: I love the reoccurring You Men (Vol 1-5): it reminds the reader that romantic relationships are so often the highest and lowest points. You even dedicate a note of gratitude to all the former boyfriends in your acknowledgements. Talk about this.
RS: Wasn’t it grand of me to acknowledge how their criticism and bullshit helped me grow? All those years of trying out different men introduced me to different aspects of myself; what I was willing to put up with when I was in my 20s, versus my 40s and 50s. Looking back on my evolution was fascinating to me. I hope other people found it interesting, too, and could relate. By the way, thank you for blurbing the book! I have admired you for years, and that meant SO much to me!!
NS: Oh, you are so welcome, thank YOU! Now you publish both poetry and prose, and you utilize both in this book. Can you talk about your own crossover? Where are you most comfortable?
RS: I am not a poet, even though I would love to say I am. I love the visual of stanzas that lead to a kind of unconventional performance of the sentences, but getting it just the way I want it doesn’t come easily to me the way it does to real poets. My mind thinks in terms of indent-paragraph-carriage return. I so admire poets who can break up a sentence right in the middle; especially when it goes against a natural way of speaking and changes the whole presentation. I was happy with the way “Teen” came out… but you can see that most of my poem lines end where you would normally pause in a sentence.
NS: Speaking of crossover, you have published multiple books in several genres, including the novels Blue or Blue Skies and In His Genes, several collections including Dealing With Men and Interference from an Unwitting Species, and even a writing guide! How is Some Have Gone and SomeRemain similar and different from your other books?
RS: Some Have Gone is completely autobiographical, from start to finish, there isn’t a single bit of fiction in it. My novels, of course, have a lot of “me” in them, but I never ever write them that way; it just happens. I always laugh when someone tells me they just read Blue or Blue Skies and they “see” me in the main character – I had gone way out of my way to create a character who was the exact opposite of me: successful, rich, beautiful famous author. I never saw even the slightest bit of me in her until people started pointing it out, and I realized that all my vulnerabilities – about men, and about my loneliness after my friends got married and ditched me – came through in her.
NS: Some Have Gone and Some Remain is published by Big Table Publishing—I happen to have a sweet spot for BTP, who also published my own Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities—and you are the founder and the brains behind the whole shebang. Can you talk a bit about the genesis and evolution of BTP?
RS: Believe it or not, I started Big Table with the sole purpose of being able to include “publisher” in my bio when I submitted my novels to agents, because I thought it would make me sound impressive, and that was all I cared about. I thought I’d publish a few books, create a website, and so on. I never thought Big Table would be so big. It’s why I started Boston Literary Magazine, too – I never wanted to have a magazine, I just figured agents would say WOW, lookit her!
NS: BTP just put out several “Best of” volumes. Talk about these. What do you learn about your own writing from publishing others?
RS: Any writer who is in a group knows you can learn a lot from observing how other writers do it, either badly or well. When your ear tells you that something they’ve written is wrong, it leaves a trace in your memory (hopefully) that alerts you when you find yourself doing it too. So seeing raw manuscripts submitted to Big Table often demonstrates to me how a character or story line can be ruined by writing that’s sloppy or inconsistent. A lot of Big Table novelists are surprised when I tell them I love their book but they have to re-write the whole thing before we’ll take it. Sometimes I’ll suggest taking a character out, or completely changing the ending. Some resist, but most appreciate it. It’s why our slogan has always been “Work hard. Get published.”
NS: What advice would you give someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
RS: This advice has changed over the years. If you’d asked me this ten years ago I would have (and often did!) said, Keep going! Don’t give up! Now I say, Accept that you will probably not be on Oprah, make any money, or sell more than 200 copies of your book; you have to write with the single purpose of creating the best book you’re capable of.
It’s easy advice to give, and I often have trouble accepting it myself. But I lived it this past summer when I posted my novel In Love With Spring on my blog. I started writing it in the mid 90s, and it was a “current” version of Little Women – the four girls are sitting around talking about how John Lennon was just assassinated and Dad has walked out on them. I had a lot of trouble avoiding a Young Adult tone, and wrote it over and over and over. Suddenly a few decades went by and it was no longer current, it was nostalgic, and I knew I’d never find a home for it. I didn’t even bother to send it out, I just decided to put it on line and hope that people read it. I’m working on Volume Two, and there’s a real freedom to writing for the sake of writing, not submitting for publication. When all is said and done, that has to be why we write. If anyone wants to check it out, it’s here: https://www.robinstratton.com/blog
All of my books are available at www.robinstratton.com along with opening paragraphs of each novel and fun little promo vids. Parking is free, and on the weekends we have coffee and donuts! I’d love for people to stop by!
Robin Stratton is also the author of four novels, including one which was a National Indie Excellence Book Award finalist (On Air, Mustang Press, 2011), two collections of poetry and short fiction, and a writing guide. A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she’s been published in Word Riot, 63 Channels, Antithesis Common, Poor Richard’s Almanac(k), Blink-Ink, Pig in a Poke, Chick Flicks, Up the Staircase, Shoots and Vines, and many others. Since 2004 she’s been Acquisitions Editor for Big Table Publishing Company, Senior Editor of Boston Literary Magazine since 2009, and she was Director of the Newton Writing and Publishing Center until she moved from Boston to San Francisco in 2018. Now she leads the popular “Six Feet of Poetry” and “Fiction by the Foot” series.
So You Wrote a Book? Len Kuntz
Looking into the darkest parts of humanity with compassion and honesty, the nuggets in Len Kuntz’s This is Why I Need You are keyholes into the quiet desperation of your neighbor, the painful tragedy of your lover, and the exquisite experience of being human: both pain and wonder, horror and redemption. Kuntz overturns the dark stones and pokes at the wiggling decay with a loving, careful, but unflinching bedside manner. He faces the wound of humanity, pulls out the poisoned arrows, and lets us see the rupture. And in seeing it, somehow, we are healed.
Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in six words.
Len Kuntz: Stories for broken and imperfect people
NS: I’ve read several of your books, including Dark Sunshine and I’m Not Supposed to Be Here and Neither are You, and they all have that searing “Len” quality: you love to break our hearts, and we love you for it. How is This Is Why I Need You different from your other books?
LK: Honestly, I think the only thing that is different are the stories. The voice is pretty much the same. People still struggle with their problems. Characters get hurt. The only slight difference is the last linked twelve stories are a little bawdier than I usually write.
NS: You have a character, Jess, that continues to show up in multiple stories but isn’t (I don’t think) the same exact character. Can you speak to Jess as a literary device? Is Jess more of an archetype or an everyman/everywoman?
LK: Names are important, and maybe even more so in stories. But they can trip things up, claim too much attention or even mislead the reader. I like Jess when you need a name for reader convenience, yet the name itself isn’t crucial to the story. I also like the quasi asexual quality of the name, how Jess/Jesse could be female or male.
NS: Many of these stories have a little thematic or imagery “hook” into the story before or after like literary chain mail. Were the hooks intentional in the writing or in the arranging process? Did you have to manipulate them or were they already apparent?
LK: I almost never know what the story is going to be about. I just start with the first sentence, and if I like the sound of it, or the weight or potential of it, then I move to the next sentence, then the next, and so on.
NS: The last 12 stories in fact are linked more overtly, like self-contained flash sequence connected by the 14th of each month. Any significance with the 14th?
LK: Yes, it’s a linked flash-novella. That was born out of a really cool project Matt Potter (PURE SLUSH) created where he took 30 writers and assigned us a date. Mine was January 14th. Then from there we had to continue through an entire year—Feb. 14th, March 14th all the way to Dec 14th. Matt is a terrific editor and all-around great guy. He published all of our pieces in an anthology through PURE SLUSH then separately printed each of our novellas into our own private book. He titled mine My Uncertain Search For Myself, which I thought was brilliant.
NS: Have you thought about writing a book that was more intentionally threaded, a flash novel or novella?
LK: I have briefly, but now that you’re bringing it up I’m thinking about it more. My best friend, Robert Vaughan and I spent a couple of months where we each challenged ourselves to write a poem a day, so we ended up with something like 120 combined. We’re going to paginate them into a manuscript and hopefully find a publisher.
NS: Your characters are often hiding secrets, summed up perfectly in this thought: “All your life you think you know someone and then you discover you don’t. That must be how it is when neighbors learn the insurance salesman in the rambler ends up being a serial killer.” Can you talk about this impulse in your work? Should all writing aim to expose?
LK: Secrets are fascinating, don’t you think? We all have them, and we all have secrets that are kept from us as well. As material for writing, secrets are brimming with possibilities. I don’t necessarily know if all writing should aim to expose, but it should jolt you in some way. When I worked in the corporate world, I used to say that, as a leader, when you’re through talking to someone you should leave that person feeling as if a warm mitt had been imprinted on both their head and heart. You should leave them stimulated, their mind buzzing, and their emotions stirred. I think that’s what any type of writing should do.
NS: This metaphor seems to describe your work perfectly: “…like those wicked weeds that look plain until you touch them and invisible needles sink into your skin.” Would you say your writing is like those invisible needles?
LK: Hopefully, and that’s nice of you to ask. I tend to write about the tough stuff in life because we’ve all been through our share of it, and if I’m able to portray things authentically, yet hopefully, I think the reader can identify with the writing, even when it hurts.
NS: You publish both poetry and prose, although this book is prose. Can you talk about your own crossover? Where are you most comfortable?
LK: I love writing anything short, sometimes very short. Novels, especially tomes, bogle my mind. I’m in awe of how an author can write about tedium without making it tedious.
Poetry is probably my favorite form. You can do so many things with it.
But mostly I just enjoy starting small fires, pieces that (hopefully) pop and spark and bring out some sort of emotional depth, then get out of the room.
NS: This is Why I Need You is published by Ravenna Press. Talk about your path to publication with this book and/or your experience with Ravenna.
LK: Kathryn Rantala runs Ravenna. I’ve still never met her yet I feel as if I have. She put out three books by Kim Chinquee, one of my idols and virtual mentors. On a lark, I sent Kathryn a note asking when their submission window would open because the site said Closed. She wrote back that they’re always open for writers they like and to send something, so I did that very night—a poetry manuscript and This Is Why I Need You. Kathryn was a delight to work with. She’s just a lovely person through and through. If I could, I’d put out all my books with her.
NS: Anyone who follows you or your work knows that you are incredibly prolific. What is your secret?
LK: Truthfully, I’m just incredibly lucky. I get to write full-time, every day. So many writers have jobs and have to squeeze in 20 minutes of writing here or there. But I do write really fast. Usually a story will take no more than 15 minutes. The other thing that helps so much is finding great authors who use language in surprising ways i.e, Sabrina Orah Mark, Steven Dunn, Heather Christle. I’ll be reading their book, and a phrase or certain word will spark an idea, and I’ll put the book down every other page, vomiting out piece after piece. Lastly, a bath with bubbles and wine works wonders. Really. I’ve written some of my favorite things in the tub.
NS: What advice would you give someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
LK: Of course, it depends where they’re at in their writing journey. For a novice, I would say, study the craft as if you’re studying to get a Master’s degree. Ultimately, write what moves you, what brings you joy after you’ve written it. Then get extra sets of eyes on your work before submitting. Plead for honest feedback and don’t be offended or hurt if some of what they say isn’t what you wanted to hear. Write you best book. It’s going to out-live you.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
LK: I love writing and I love writers of all kinds. I try to be a good literary citizen to my tribe. It all feels like such a gift.
NS: Links to buy the book or other promo links:
I have a blog where I post new writing, or something of that ilk, every M, W, Friday without fail. It’s at lenkuntz.blogspot.com. My last two books are on Amazon.
NS: Thank you for playing, Len!
Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State, and the author of four books, most recently the story collection, THIS IS WHY I NEED YOU, out now from Ravenna Press. You can find more of his writing at lenkuntz.blogspot.com
So You Wrote a Book? Cath Barton
Cath Barton’s award-winning novella, The Plankton Collector, is a modern-day parable, an allegory for a defeated world. The Plankton Collector is that archetype from dreams and fairytales: a hero in disguise who arrives just as one family is on the ledge of their grief. This slim book gives you hope for humanity and lets you remember that angels are among us, watching, and, every so often–stepping in.
Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in 6 words:
Cath Barton: Mysterious stranger helps grieving family recover
NS: This is your first published book! Has the process been what you thought it would be?
CB: I really had no idea what the process would be! I entered the book for the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella in 2017, with absolutely no expectation of success as the competition was open to writers throughout the UK and in the whole of North America. So I was amazed and delighted to win, and that the prize included publication.
It was a whole year before the book came out and that seemed an awfully long wait. I understand more about timescales in the publishing industry now!
NS: You say in your Acknowledgements that you weren’t planning to write a novella until challenged. Where did the idea for this story come from? Had this idea always been there or did it come after the challenge?
CB: The family in my book started life in a flash fiction piece I had written as an exercise some time before the challenge, about a boy looking out of his window at his mother visiting the grave of his brother. The graveyard is just beyond their garden. The house, the garden and the graveyard became key locations in the novella, which grew around the death of the brother. As for the Plankton Collector who helps the family, where is came from is as mysterious as everything else about him!
NS: Have you ever met the Plankton Collector?
CB: Not yet, as far as I know, though I could of course have been sitting at the next table to him in a cafe without realising it. As could you!
NS: How did your experience writing flash fiction help you write a novella (or not)?
CB: Yes, I think the discipline of working on flash, making every word is essential, is good training for the novella form, where not only is there no room for excursions from the story, but also, I feel, the emotional content is very concentrated. I like that – I’m not by nature a discursive writer, and I appreciate the challenge of making a story as taut as possible.
NS: The Plankton Collector won the 2017 New Welsh Writing award—congratulations! Do you consider yourself a Welsh Writer? If so, what does that mean to you?
CB: Thank you! The answer to that is yes – and no! I wasn’t born in Wales, so I’m not Welsh. I have lived here since 2005, and I do have an affinity with the country, but so I do with England, where I was born, and Scotland, where my parents were from. I identify as a British writer and also, I might add, as a European one.
Of course, as a writer living in Wales I have access to some specific writing opportunities, for which I’m very grateful. I was given mentoring support through Literature Wales last year, which helped me complete a collection of short stories.
NS: You have another book coming out later this year, I believe? What can we expect from that book? How is it similar/different from The Plankton Collector?
CB: I’ve got a second novella coming out in September 2020. It’s called In the Sweep of the Bay, which refers to Morecambe Bay, in north west England, where it’s set. It’s about a family as The Plankton Collector is, but focussing on the joys and sorrows of a long marriage, so the emphasis is different. And there’s no magical realism is this one.
NS: What is your best advice to someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
CB: Concentrate on the writing – tell your story the way you want to. Don’t think about publication until you’ve got the book done.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
CB: Thanks so much for inviting me along, Nancy!
The Plankton Collector is available in the US through Amazon as an e-book and also in paperback.
Also through Barnes and Noble as a paperback or NOOK book.
UK readers can order on-line through Amazon, Gwales or any branch of Waterstones.
Cath Barton’s prize-winning novella The Plankton Collector is published by New Welsh Rarebyte. Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published by Louise Walters Books in September 2020, and her short story collection, The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Retreat West Books in early 2021. Cath is also active in the on-line flash fiction community and is a regular contributor to the online critical hub Wales Arts Review.https://cathbarton.com/ @CathBarton1
So You Wrote a Book? Charmaine Wilkerson
Charmaine Wilkerson’s prize winning novella-in-flash, How to Make a Window Snake, is a spinning constellation that orbits one family’s grief, circling around and around what cannot be said…or forgotten. Her narrative is crisp, dense and deep–the entire iceberg under the water. Paired with the two runners-up for the Bath Novella-in-Flash award, A Safer Way to Fall by Joanna Campbell, and Things I Dream About When I’m Not Sleeping by Ingrid Jendrzejewski, How to Make a Window Snake is a trifeca of a book and an incredible showcase of the form.
Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, describe this story in 6 words.
Charmaine Wilkerson: Loving family. Menacing lake. Fake snake.
NS: Talk about the novella in flash form. How do you see it as different than, say a flash novel? Or not?
CW: The magical thing about the novella-in-flash is that each chapter can be read like a stand-alone piece of flash fiction, even though the parts add up to a larger story. By contrast, I tend to think that a flash novel can be more loosely structured, especially if it runs two or three hundred pages, as long as the chapters are short and pack the same sensory or emotional punch that I expect from a piece of flash fiction. Your own Monster Opera does that. And, in my mind, the term flash novel could be applied to books like George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
NS: I absolutely agree (and thank you!) Was this story being written already or did it happen as a result of the form? Chicken or Egg? Have you tried to tell this story in other ways?
CW: Chicken, definitely. Actually, this story was more like a bunch of baby chicks, fuzzy little mini stories, dashing back and forth across the same dirt yard, pecking at different themes here and there, until one day, a mother hen waddled over and said, Hey, you chicks, you’re all part of my brood, so get on over here! I didn’t try to tell this story in any other way, though I did write other flashes in this series that were not included in the novella.
NS: My very favorite thing about this story is your use of repetition—each story stands alone but echoes the previous stories—circular rather than linear. But the repetition feels necessary, not superfluous. Talk about that choice.
CW: Thank you. Finally, someone who doesn’t complain when I repeat myself! Seriously, I do tend to come back to certain words or phrases or rhythms when I write, though not always. In this novella, the repetition emerged naturally but I took time to sharpen the pattern during the final editing stages. I saw this as a way to strengthen the connections between the chapters, since the narrative goes back and forth in time and skips from one character’s point of view to the next.
NS: I find it interesting that the family in this story is circling around their own griefs—what do you think the story/form says about grief?
CW: One aspect of the human experience that continues to intrigue me is how, despite the power which grief has to alter us, we may still be able to love and play and have meaningful and satsifying lives. I found that writing about these different characters in short passages made it easier to mix these dimensions and, also, introduce other issues which they were facing.
NS: Are there other books whose form inspired you as you were creating this?
CW: One book I can recall going back to while writing this story was My Very End of the Universe, an anthology put out by Rose Metal Press with stories by five masters of the form. The authors’ accompanying essays held great resonance for me, especially Meg Pokrass’s discussion of creating a narrative from “scraps” and Aaron Teel’s discussion of “mimicking memory” through flash fiction. It felt as though these two essays were speaking to what I was writing that year.
NS: How to Make a Window Snake won the first Bath Novella-in-Flash award and was published in one book with the runners up, A Safer Way to Fall by Joanna Campbell and Things I Dream About When I’m Not Sleeping by Ingrid Jendrzejewski. How do you see these novellas playing off of each other?
CW: I am immensely grateful to the Bath Flash Fiction group and Ad Hoc Fiction for embracing this form of expression. It was very exciting to see such different stories selected by one judge, Meg Pokrass, and published together. The language used from cover to cover ranges from chatty to poetic to surreal. What I think these novellas-in-flash have in common is an intense gaze, heightened by details that leave a trail of emotion in their wake.
NS: I found it extremely unusual that none of your stories were published before the manuscript was submitted. How wonderfully risky! Your thoughts around publishing excerpts vs saving it all?
CW: The decision to share excerpts beforehand should be determined by the individual writer, based on their objectives and how those aims fit with the requirements of the magazines and book publishers on their wish list. In my case, not publishing individual flashes wasn’t really a risky move because they were all such new stories, anyway. I did submit a couple of the flashes to other outlets but soon received word that I had won the Bath competition, so that was that.
NS: What is your best advice to someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
CW: When I write fiction, I don’t think of it as a book. I think of it, first and always, as a story, or just an idea that needs to be captured. And I don’t always write what I’m thinking. I might take a snapshot or record natural sound on my mobile phone. I have a lot of recordings of water—the sea, a lake, a brook. The sound helps me to see things. Someone else might prefer to sit down and plot out everything ahead of time. What’s important is that you allow yourself to do whatever works for you in the drafting stages of a story, whatever helps you slip into that creative stream.
NS: Thank you for playing, Charmaine!
To buy How to Make a Window Snake: https://bookshop.adhocfiction.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=65&products_id=182
Charmaine Wilkerson lives in Rome, Italy. Her stories and essays have appeared in various anthologies and magazines, including Best Microfiction 2019, 100 Word Story, The Common, New Flash Fiction Review, FlashBack Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Bending Genres, Reflex Fiction and Spelk. Her novella How to Make a Window Snake won the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award in 2017 and the UK’s Saboteur Award for Best Novella in 2018.
So You Wrote a Book? Vanessa Gebbie
In Vanessa Gebbie’s new chapbook, Nothing to Worry About, the body really is a wonderland! Gebbie’s brand of surrealism hinges on bizarre manifestations of the physical body—a wife turns to metal; a wife is dropping “pieces” of herself all around the house; a wife’s body becomes a flock of birds with her heart at the center. It’s deceptively light-hearted but hints at deeper metaphors around identity—are we our bodies? Or are they just fleshy appendages with their own agendas? Gebbie manages to get at the heart of this paradox with a wry little smirk on her face.
Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in 6 words.
Vanessa Gebbie: Fun, off the wall, slightly worrying…
NS: I love your weird sensibility. Did you always write weird or was this an evolution?
VG: Not an evolution but just a way of seeing things. I always see life sideways, I’m lucky like that. However, I’d not let myself collect together the stories that came out sideways, believing that maybe a ‘serious’ writer wasn’t meant to be funny. Now, I’m a bit wiser. Funny is often a stage on the road to understanding sadness.
NS: Humor is touchy. Is British humor different than American humor?
VG: Well, I don’t know… I used to watch Friends with my son and wonder what the hell was funny when he and the audience were falling about. Quite often comic situations either side of the pond are at someone’s expense, aren’t they? Example: The clown trips over her shoes, treads on one end of a plank and gets hit on the nose by the other end. I never understood why that was funny, either. But ordinary life… its twists and turns, misunderstandings and non sequiturs … can be unintentionally hilarious. I think it’s when people try too hard to be funny that it isn’t. Or they aren’t. (eyes to heaven intentional!)
NS: What makes weird work and when does it not work?
VG: I don’t know the answer to that. All I know is, if a weird situation makes sense for that character, within that story, then that’s fine. It’s the joy of flash, or one of them, for this writer. Flash can sustain irreality neatly, whereas a longer story might labour the point too much. Is that it?
NS: Who is your favorite weird writer?
VG: Golly, loads of fantastic writers write marvellously strange worlds, don’t they. Adam Marek comes to mind… but also, I’ve just read a marvellous flash by Tania Hershman on Smokelong. Her portrayal of human interactions, with their marvellous fractured patterns and frequent blind alleys, are a kaleidoscope of images and half-sense meanings. The effect is that the reader gets what’s happening without ever having anything spelled out. Which makes me ask what is ‘weird’ anyway? Isn’t it just ‘normal’ seen through a prism?
NS: “The Door” is one of my favorite pieces in this book, and I read that it was written for and performed at Stand Up Tragedy at the Leicester Square Theater in London. Performed by you or others? How do you see the intersection of writing and performance?
VG: “The Door” was a commission, and just for one performer: me. I’d never thought of myself as a performer, and still don’t – the word conjures up performing sea-lions rewarded with fish. But I guess, when I write anything, , I ‘hear’ a piece in my head, and always always listen to it read out loud when I think it’s finished. It never is. Reading out loud to myself is an integral part of the editing process, so maybe reading it out loud for an audience isn’t that far removed? Is that the intersection? If it sounds OK to me, maybe it will sound OK to others.
NS: Speaking of performance, I’ve seen you read your work before, and you are quite hilarious. I especially remember hearing you read “Selected Advice for Strangers.” Does reading your work to an audience come naturally? Where did you get so funny?
VG: It is nice to make people happy. No idea where being funny came from, unless it’s a necessary balance to being serious? Mind you, I used to read stories to my school friends a long while back, and make them either squirm with my horror stories, or giggle… I prefer the laughter.
NS: This is not your first book—you also have several books of fiction including the collections A Short History of Synchronised Breathing, Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures, Words from a Glass Bubble, and the highly praised novel, The Coward’s Tale. How does Nothing to Worry About build on your previous works?
VG: It’s my 9th or 10th depending if you count different editions as two. I’ve just finished the first messy draft of 11 (or 10), another novel. Nothing to Worry About collects together strange, irreal, often funny pieces. It came out at the same time, or nearly, as a collection of longer short stories, all equally weird. Funny but with more than a grain of truth behind the laughs.
NS: Nothing to Worry About is published by Flash: The International Short Story Press. Can you talk about your road to publication?
VG: Sure… my road to publication began back in 2002 when I decided to write. I always had, as a young person at school and college, then stopped. So it was time to kick start creativity again. I wasn’t young.
I concentrated on short form fiction, despite teachers at university telling me that I was better off writing a novel. I didn’t feel I had all that time to waste… and short forms were so much more satisfying, doable, yet challenging.
My first book was a collection of prizewinning short stories. Words from a Glass Bubble (Salt) came out in 2008. It was followed by a text book on the art of the short story , for which I was commissioning and contributing editor. Since then it’s been a book a year. I’m lucky, I write across boundaries- so have three short story collections, two flash collections, two poetry collections, two editions of that text book, and a novel. I’ve just completed a first draft of novel number two, the first work that is not based on shorter fiction forms. It will take a lot of editing, but it’s been fun. A great mix of humour and violence.
NS: In addition to your many books of fiction, you’ve also written several editions of a book on the craft of writing, Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story. The first edition of that book came out 10 years ago, in 2009. How has the form changed since you first started writing and teaching it?
VG: Interesting things have been happening… I think boundaries are breaking down, definitions are loosening. Hybrid works, fascinating works of art comprising prose, poem, dramatised scenes, non fiction, anything… exciting times. The rise of performance opportunities too… short forms are perfect for that.
NS: What is your best advice to someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
VG: You want to write a book? First ask yourself why. Be honest. There is a difference between ‘I want to be a writer’ and ‘I want to write’. We’ve all met the ‘want to be a writer’ types. They dress the part, usually in black, always look ill, and talk endlessly about writing, but what else?? Do they actually do it? Probably not. Avoid! The writers I know don’t look like “writers”.
So you really want to write? Good for you. Then read. Read more. And more. And write. Write more. Learn as much as you can, try everything, let yourself make mistakes. Seek the company of, and feedback from others who understand what you’re trying to do. Offer them your honest feedback too.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
VG: Enjoy the ride. Keep reading.
Never think you’ve learned it all. You never will.
And if you want to buy my book, please support publishers or independent bookshops.
To buy Nothing to Worry About from the publisher:
So You Wrote a Book? Jayne Martin
Kicking off Season 2 of So You Wrote a Book? is the one and only Jayne Martin and her debut flash fiction collection, Tender Cuts!
From my blurb: “Tender Cuts is about seeing and not seeing, what we are blind to and what’s right in front of us. In this debut flash fiction collection Jayne Martin’s writing is compact, dense, often heartbreaking, always illuminating, and woven with a strange nostalgia; she has a way of reconciling the child with the adult, the pain with the beauty of tragedy, the tragedy still seeded with hope.”
I’m so excited to welcome Jayne Martin!
Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in 6 words:
Jayne Martin: Tiny tales for the time challenged.
NS: This is your first book of flash fiction but not your first book—you also have a book of humor essays, “Suitable for Giving: A Collection of Wit with A Side of Wry.” Talk about how you have changed as a writer from that first book to Tender Cuts.
JM: All that’s changed really is my focus. I still enjoy writing humor, though little of it finds its way into my flash. In the humor essays, I reveal much more of myself, while the stories in “Tender Cuts” are 100% fiction. I’m probably a much better writer, but you do this stuff long enough you can’t help but get better and I’m into my fourth decade now. In “Suitable for Giving,” I could be self-indulgent. Flash has got to be tight. Get in, get out, and keep it moving. I have a keener eye for edits now and much less resistance to “killing my darlings.”
NS: Your stories are accompanied by illustrations by Janice Whitby and Indigo Roth. The style of the illustrations almost seem like doodles, the kind you would find carved into desks or doodled onto notebook paper. What was your vision for including images with your stories?
JM: There are so many collections out there. It’s hard to make yours stand out. I wanted to give the readers another way to experience the story. The drawing for the title story is a heart with a crack and a bandage over it. The heart motif continues throughout to reinforce the theme of cuts or wounds that the characters experience. The “doodle” style was chosen to add a bit of whimsy because many of the stories are quite dark.
NS: Julie Sue is a reoccurring character in this book. She first shows up as a young “pageant princess” and by the end of the book she is a mother with her own daughter. Where did the character of Julie Sue come from?
JM: Julie-Sue originated in your November 2016 Flash Nano from the prompt “winning a prize.” It went on to be published in MoonPark Review’s first issue. When I was assembling the collection, I knew I needed a spine to hold it together, so I wrote the three additional Julie-Sue stories, which have not been seen until now. Once I had those, I had a structure for the book. And I owe it all to you. 😊
NS: Awww, you are too kind, Jayne! I’m thrilled to be part of your process. Now your stories tend to be really short. Always or is short a continuing evolution?
JM: Miniatures appeal to me. Micro has a lot in common with bonsai. Having said that, unless I’m writing for a particular word-count guideline, it’s rarely my intention to write so short. Most of the time the story just ends and I’m as surprised as anyone else. Occasionally, the Cosmos will bless me with a sentence that blows me away. At that point, I say, “Well, it ain’t gonna get better than that.” But mostly, when it’s done it’s done.
NS: You used to write for television (your credits include “Big Spender” for Animal Planet and “A Child Too Many,” “Cradle of Conspiracy” and “Deceived By Trust” for Lifetime.) How has television writing helped you as a flash writer (or not)?
JM: It’s helped enormously. Movies for network television, even more so than big-screen, are regimentally structured to fit a 93-minute time slot. Each has seven acts to accommodate six commercial breaks, and each act has a defined number of scenes. As in flash, the writer must enter the scene late, move the story along and leave before it’s resolved. This is especially true of act breaks where the audience has the power of the remote so you better leave them wanting more.
NS: Love the absurdity in your story “Lobster in a Laundromat”—it’s simple but brings up a deeper truth of how we all want to be desired and “seen”, even by a lobster and even in my blurb I say your book is about the many ways we are seen. Talk about this theme in your writing? Is in intentional or unconscious?
JM: Thank you. “Lobster” came out of a Meg Pokrass workshop on writing the surreal. Most of my stories sway heavily toward realism and I wanted to stretch. As soon as I had the first line, I had the story. It was a fun write. I’d say the theme you mention is more unconscious than intentional, but then I never know what a story is going to be until it’s written. I try not to overthink the process, because my best works have always been happy accidents.
NS: You won the Vera Prize for “When the Bough Breaks,” which appears in Tender Cuts, and you have also won or been nominated for various other prizes. How important do you think contests are for a flash writing career?
JM: Receiving an award or a nomination is a lovely thing. In an industry that most often rejects us, it’s a wonderful validation, a boost of encouragement. As to importance in terms of a career, I don’t really know. It looks nice on my bio, but I don’t think any journal has ever published me just because I won a Vera. Every day is a new blank page. Every day you’re Sisyphus at the bottom of the damn hill and you have to prove yourself all over again. Maybe it matters more when one is looking back over their accomplishments at the end of a career.
NS: Tender Cuts is published by Vine Leaves Press. Can you talk about your pathway to publication?
JM: I’m a big believer in the power of intent and its ability to bring about the means to achieve a goal once that goal is clearly defined and infused with energy. You can’t just say you want something and then sit on your ass and do nothing. The Universe rewards action. With that in mind, my clear intent was to find a publisher and failing to find one was never a consideration. I’m a Taurus. What can I say?
I started by approaching publishers who had published other collections by writers I admire. I also utilized Poets & Writers database, combing through site after site. I’d gotten several of my blurbs already and I included those with my query letters. I think all together I submitted to six publishers. Vine Leaves Press used to publish Vine Leaves Journal, which solicited what they called “vignettes” and I call micro-fiction. I got an offer from them in three weeks and I could not have found a more perfect fit for the book. They’re a dream to work with.
NS: Your best advice to someone writing a book?
JM: I didn’t set out to write a book. The 38 stories in “Tender Cuts” were gleaned from a folder of stories going back to 2010. In 2017, I finally saw a through line in terms of a theme and the collection began to take form. In terms of setting out to write a book, I can only draw on my experience writing screenplays. You need a story compelling enough to drag you along because the time commitment is huge. Something you have to write because you can’t shake the damn thing any other way. I can only imagine it’s that way for a book, as well.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
I often hear the flash community express frustration about the lack of attention from the larger publishing world: “When are they going to notice us?”
We flash writers tend to be an insular bunch. Sometimes it seems like we’re writing more for each other than to entertain an audience. We all submit to and read the same journals and buy each other’s books, but few “civilians,” those non-writing folks who just want to escape into a good story, have heard of any of those journals or any of us.
That brings us back to the aforementioned description of my book in six words: Tiny tales for the time challenged. I’ve heard it said that it’s insulting to the genre to describe it that way. I disagree. Having put the sweat into writing the book, now I’d actually like to sell a few copies, and recognizing that people experience a constant demand for their finite amount of time is part of that effort. So is writing stories that don’t require an MFA to understand.
Getting the attention of the larger publishing world may just be a matter of inviting them into ours.
Jayne Martin lives in Santa Barbara, California, where she rides horses and drinks copious amounts of fine wines, though not at the same time. She is a Pushcart, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfictions nominee, and a recipient of Vestal Review’s VERA award. Her flash fiction collection, “Tender Cuts,” from Vine Leaves Press, is available now by visiting her website: www.jaynemartin-writer.com.
Preorders are available now from Amazon U.S. & U.K, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s. Links on Jayne’s spiffy new website!
Jayne Martin lives in Santa Barbara, California, where she rides horses and drinks copious amounts of fine wines, though not at the same time. She is a Pushcart, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfictions nominee, and a recipient of Vestal Review’s VERA award. Her flash fiction collection, “Tender Cuts,” from Vine Leaves Press, is available now by visiting her website: