So You Wrote a Book? Robert Scotellaro

Robert Scotellaro has been a treasure of the flash fiction community for many years. Back in 2015 I said of his work, “Scotellaro demonstrates that the more we understand our stories, the less we have to explain them. Often the journey of an artist is a journey of learning what to leave out: Rothko’s complex surrealism eventually matures into single or double colored canvases; Picasso’s realistic drawings mature into simple thick lines and shapes—and writers such as Scotellaro say even more with even less… His work takes the leap into mastery, zooming in on the subtle moment at hand and letting that one drop of water tell the story of the entire world.” Now, with the release of his new collection, What Are the Chances? we get the opportunity to take another step on this journey with him.

Author Robert Scotellaro

Nancy Stohlman: Welcome, Scotty! First, and in the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in 6 words:

Robert Scotellaro: Flash exploring the vagaries of “chance.”

NS: You are widely considered a master of flash fiction, and deservedly so. Talk a bit about how you found the form—or did it find you?

RS: Thank you, Nancy.  I think the form found me.  I was always innately drawn to brevity in literature: poetry, the short story, flash and micro fiction.  Reading the work of Emily Dickenson as a teenager opened me to a level of compaction that (ironically) seemed borderless in its ability to express the intimate doings of  inner and outer worlds with such clarity, emotion, philosophical sensibility, and power.  That was an early eye-opener.

So I started out as a poet.  In the seventies I also wrote fiction (including a short novel in 1971) that incorporated what I called “segments”—what now might be considered microfiction.  It was surreal and reflected the times.  (A joint prior to reading was required.)  Most of the full-length stories I wrote subsequently were comprised of those “segments.”  It was natural for me to write that way.  I guess I was always a sprinter rather than a marathon runner in terms of lit.

After a time I was writing short-short stories regularly.  When I discovered the anthology Sudden Fiction by James Thomas and Robert Shapard I was elated.  The very short form was being showcased (taken out of the shadows of “filler” status in magazines).  Then came the iconic anthology: Flash Fiction (72 Very Short Stories)by James and Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka, and many such books by W. W. Norton were to follow. 

In 2018 I went full circle and Norton published New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, an anthology co-edited by James Thomas and myself.  I remain as excited as ever about exploring the limitless potential of the genre.

NS: What are the Chances? is very cinematic—in fact I read all your stories almost as if they are mini movies. Does that description resonate with you?

RS: It does.  I think many of the stories I write are not so much language pieces, but rather characters interacting in various settings and situations which lend themselves to those visual possibilities.  Scanning What Are the Chances? one finds characters in a hot tub, an Uber car, a commune, a cave, on a fire escape, a carousel, in a subway car, behind a rectory…  I view the stories in that cinematic way as I’m writing them.

Plus I like creating different characters (delineating them) and letting them interact on their own, as opposed to an “author-recounting.”  Perhaps this adds to that cinematic element in my work.

NS: In the title story, “What Are the Chances?” there are two techniques that I love: the deliberate use of repetition and the way you strategically manipulate your title. Can you let us in on some of your other “masterclass” writing techniques, particularly around flash fiction?

RS: I’d like to do more stories using various refrains in that manner.  They create a kind of rhythm, a word-tumble of sorts, to the finish line.

Far as titles (I almost always) don’t think of them until a story is completed.  In the case of the title story: “What Are the Chances? I was taken with how timing, chance, and random happenstance can alter a life/lives, and that all of these elements were contained within that piece.  I felt this title served the collection, highlighting that occasional theme which runs through it as connective tissue.

Not sure about the “masterclass” part, but what I feel is essential to writing flash, is the “telling detail” (replete with implication).  Perhaps several that create an allusion to something bigger— more at stake upon reflection—after the last word is read, providing a kind of lingering resonance.

NS: Yes, “refrains” is the right word, I think. For example, in Nothing Is Ever One Thing published earlier this year from Blue Light Press, you have a series of “Micro-Fables” that thread through the other stories. Love this idea—can you talk about the inspiration?

RS: With Nothing Is Ever One Thing I wanted to “mix things up” a bit, bend/blend genres.  There are also four “P.S.” stories throughout.  I sought to incorporate lots of tempo/tone shifts.  The micro-fables are prose poems—microfiction’s kissing cousin.  I am, at this point in my career, fascinated with the notion of investigating  form.  Forms within the very short form.  I have a chapbook’s-worth of such stories recently completed and a full-length manuscript I’m finishing up devoted to “like” forms.  And I’m finding infinite possibilities for variety within them.  I’m pretty excited about this new direction.

NS:  As soon as I read “Mr. Nasty” (in What Are the Chances) I had a flashback: I chose (and loved!) this story for a Fast Forward anthology over a decade ago! My, how time flies. Which goes to say you’ve been writing flash fiction for a long time. Tell me: How has it changed in the last decade or more?

RS:  I liken it to a music concert where a performer plays new tunes, but adds a dash of “oldies” that have stood the test of time.  That mix well.    

Fast Forward was a terrific venue for flash.  I think I published four or five pieces in various volumes.  If I’m not mistaken your co-editor, Kona Morris, read “Mr. Nasty” on a Colorado radio station.  You all contributed so much to short form lit with those anthologies.

Far as changes—good lord!—so much has evolved with the genre since then in terms of popularity, expansion, and status.  Flash fictionis no long consigned that “sub-genre” category.  It is its own genre now.  Officially.  Standing on strong legs.  Now you can hardly find a magazine (including the major ones with The New Yorker on the list) that don’t publish flash.  And there are a plethora of personal collections by outstanding authors continually finding their way to print.  There are important anthologies by W. W. Norton and many others in America as well as internationally.  And now there is even a significant Flash Fiction Collection housed at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin.  Flash is thriving.

NS: Which leads to the exclamation of wonder that you published not one but TWO books in 2020, a year in which publishing has been challenged like everything else. Can you talk about how these two books are different/complementary to your oeuvre?

RS: Actually Nothing Is Ever One Thing was published in 2019.  What Are the Chances? was accepted in 2019 as well, but Kevin Morgan Watson at Press 53 didn’t want them bumping heads (promotion wise) in the same year, so we waited for a 2020 pub date.

I think both collections tread that territory between misplaced intentions and a quest for connection, solace, and redemption, with humor/irony close enough at hand to grab onto.  Uncertainty, of one sort or another, is perhaps the biggest thing that trips us up.  I like exploring that, and how we stumble or correct to find peace with it. 

Nothing Is Ever One Thing is more experimental because of the genre shifts (prose/prose poetry).  However, with What Are the Chances? I’ve welcomed examining challenging subjects (still at a slant) and in a variety of ways.

I think Kevin was right about waiting.  It’s allowed each collection to breathe a bit.

NS: I agree. What’s it been like to publish a book in the Year of Our Lord 2020?

It’s been a sweet counterbalance to these dark times.  I so miss the hugs of friends at readings, other gatherings, my daughter many states away, dinners out…  But it was so great working with Kevin at Press 53 and his editor, Claire Foxx, on this book and with Diane Frank at Blue Light Press before that, with my previous collection in more stable times.  I’m so grateful.

NS: Advice for writers working on a book?

RS: When you have enough stories for a collection to assemble, see which of them rub together in interesting ways.  Sometimes similar themes side by side with fresh approaches work well.  Sometimes it’s tempo shifts that are more interesting.  Read the stories out loud.  Sometimes that clanking sound in the machinery is what makes the movement more compelling.  Sometimes it’s the smooth purr of words you’re after.  Don’t look over your shoulder.  It’s important to make the process as organic as possible, maybe even fun.  Finding a publisher is something else entirely.  Too bad there isn’t something like a dating service for publishers and writers.  You’d probably learn all you needed to after the first drink. 

NS: That is perfect advice. And I love the publishing dating service! Anything else you want to add?

RS: In terms of writing that book/those stories: show up!  Be bold!  Writing is all about mystery and discovery.  Never let the blank page or screen intimidate you.  You cannot have the reward of discovery without the mystery. 

NS: And this is why you are a master. It’s been such a pleasure getting to pick your brain! Can you share the links to the book/books and other promo links.

Robert’s work can be found at: www.robertscotellaro.com

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

What Are the Chances now available from Press 53!

Robert Scotellaro has published widely in national and international books, journals and anthologies, including W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International, NANO Fiction, Gargoyle, New Flash Fiction Review, Matter Press, The Laurel Review, and many others.  His stories were included in Best Small Fictions (2016 and 2017) and Best Microfiction 2020. He is the author of seven literary chapbooks, several books for children, and five full-length story collections: Measuring the Distance, What We Know So Far (winner of The 2015 Blue Light Book Award), Bad Motel, Nothing Is Ever One Thing, and What Are the Chances?  He was the recipient of Zone 3’s Rainmaker Award in Poetry. He has edited, along with James Thomas, New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction published by W.W. Norton & Company. He is one of the founding donors to The Ransom Flash Fiction Collection at the University of Texas, Austin.  Robert lives with his wife in San Francisco. Find him online at: www.robertscotellaro.com

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.

HandinHandAuthors
Randall Brown with collaborator Meg Boscov for their latest book, Hand in Hand.

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?

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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.

“The Rapture” in Open: Journal of Arts and Letters

Read original in Open: Journal of Arts and Letters here:

Artwork: “The Unknown God” by Gary Van Haas

The Rapture

by Nancy Stohlman

a_-the_unknown_god_2001-1

When St. Joe, Missouri was announced as the Best Place Ever to watch the rapture, the people felt chosen. Not since Lady Gaga had come to Kansas City had they felt so special.

No one was exactly sure what would happen. Some thought it would be a fiery ball dropping from the sky, or ash blocking out the sun until they all choked, or floods, earthquakes, hurricanes or volcanic eruptions. As the day of final judgement drew closer, Motel 6 jacked up its prices to 800$ a night, the porn shop repaved the parking lot, and gun shops ran out of both guns and ammo. Red Lobster, the nicest restaurant in town, put gluten free items on the menu. Dunkin Donuts, overwhelmed by it all, just said fuck it and shut down.

Half a million people descended upon St. Joe. They came with rapture glasses, rapture t-shirts (prepare for the rapture with Pepsi!), and rapture key chains, booking out the KOA and every hotel room in town. When the grass was all claimed the people started pitching tents right on the concrete; rooftops became prime real estate. Dan Rather showed up in a RV. Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Lawrence were spotted raving about “untouched Americana” and eating a hot dog for the first time ever.

The day of the rapture everyone was ready. Some had UV glasses, some had hazmat suits, some were naked and meditating. Some boarded up their windows and the tornado sirens sounded for good measure and everyone waited outside, watching the sky. Crowding the streets and waving fireball pompoms and trying to shove rapture pancakes in their mouths.

As the rapture was about to begin the sky became covered in thick black clouds. It will blow over they assured, twitching. Then a rumor swept through the town that Beatrice, just one hour north, was a much better place to see the rapture. People dropped their pancakes mid bite and fled to their cars and flooded the highways, which became gridlocked almost instantly for 40 miles in either direction, leaving St. Joe like an exhausted whore.

Some that remained put on their UV glasses anyway just in case and they were lucky because hundreds of people went blind without seeing a thing.

 

About the writer:

Nancy Stohlman is the author of the flash fiction collection The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories (2014), the flash novels The Monster Opera (2013) and Searching for Suzi (2009), and three anthologies including Fast Forward: The Mix Tape (2010)which was a finalist for a 2011 Colorado Book Award. She is the creator and curator of The Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series and the creator of FlashNano in November. She teaches college in Denver and Boulder. Her newest book, Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities, is coming in the fall of 2018.

Image: “The Unknown God” by Gary Van Haas. Van Haas was born in Los Angeles. In his paintings, he combines an illusionary vocabulary with non-objective subject matter as a way to impress color and collage, which instead of relying mainly on imagery, responds formally and expressively to the illusionist idea of surrealist space and time.