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August web exclusive is up! Read our interview with author Randall Brown

1 Aug

Y’all know what time it is? That’s right—it’s time to introduce the latest story in ASF‘s web exclusive series! This month, we’re pleased as punch to present to you Randall Brown’s “Like An Original Response.” It’s a compact yet evocative story that’s as smart as it is fun to read. It’s an exemplary piece of flash fiction, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we do. You can read the story on the ASF website.

Below, Randall shares his thoughts on writing (both flash and longer fiction), teaching, and what he’s looking forward to reading next.

 

1. Tell us about the genesis of “Like An Original Response.” Where did the idea for the story come from? What kind of evolution did it go through from the first draft (part of which can be read alongside the final, published version) to the version you submitted to ASF?

During a student’s presentation in my graduate flash fiction workshop, the student mentioned the idea that a writer could give a character an odd or interesting job. She asked the class for some ideas, and someone answered, “A pirate.” Another student responded, “Or a pirate’s parrot.” The class laughed, and when I went back up front, I said, “I really like the idea of someone’s job being a parrot.” The class looked at me, as they often did, as if I were out of my mind.

So I wrote that story and showed it to them. They kind of hated it, but liked certain aspects. I took their advice, revised it over a break, and showed them the new version. I think the extensive rewriting surprised them the most; the revised story looked only a little like the first version. Instead of the sense of my telling Hedy’s story, the new version had that feeling, I hope, of Hedy’s story originating in her consciousness. Having Hedy tell her story led to her exploring more of her own interior landscape, and I think gave the story an entirely different sense and direction.

Then it went through more revision as I worked with ASF, especially in developing the idea of the cage and its place in the story throughout. That process—getting a clearer sense and vision of Hedy in her cage—gave the story the specificity of detail that might allow a reader to believe in her surreal situation.

In short, at each crucial point, someone arrived to help me take the piece to that next stage of development. Yay, someone!

2. In the case of this story, your students lent a hand in a very direct way. In what other ways do students and teaching help you with your writing?

To me, teaching is so humbling, and I so rarely get things right with each student in a class. It’s like that desire, in flash fiction, to control things, always to have the perfect word for the perfect slot, to have the one thing that happens be the only action possible for that story. I want that to happen for each student—for he/she to receive the exact teaching needed to realize his/her professional and artistic desires.

Students continually challenge my own views of what works. Rather than allowing me to cling to rules—such as main characters cannot be passive—they force me to go deeper, to see what is behind the rule; e.g., passive characters might not be interesting, and readers might feel that such characters don’t earn their endings. In the above example, students have led me realize that the challenge might be to make a passive character interesting to a reader, to make whatever ending that character gets feel like one that works. Therefore, instead of avoiding the passive-character story, they might push me toward it, to take on that challenge and try to rise to it, the way I ask them to do in their own writing.

3. I’m sure you read a lot of flash fiction—but I imagine you have favorite longer works as well. What do you think a writer of flash fiction can learn from studying longer forms? What do you think flash has to offer those who typically write or read longer stories?

Having, the dozens of times before that I tried to write a novel, only gotten to seven pages before stopping, I am proud to say that I’ve reached seventy-five pages on my ongoing, recent effort. So, I’m beginning to have something to say, a bit, about the experience with longer forms.

As soon as it begins, flash desires its ending; the novel, on the other hand, desires to be drawn out, to continue. While in flash (defined by word count) every word counts, gets remembered, lessens the opportunity for other words to appear in the story, in the novel words seem to exist to be un-remembered, and each word opens up opportunities for other words to arise to remind readers of what they’ve just read. At least, that’s how it feels to me. I’ve learned from this process to pay more attention to readers, to how they might be experiencing the text when they encounter it for the first (and likely only) time.

The drawn-out “act and fail” of the short story might be but one way to engage readers and find meaning in a piece, so I think flash offers writers the chance either to compress that process or find an alternative to it, to find stories that would not or could not be told without a compressed form to contain them.

4. One of the things I love about this story is that it walks the line between playful—a woman pretending to be a parrot—and more serious: it asks some pretty complex questions about the nature of love and relationships. How do you navigate that boundary, especially when you don’t have a lot of space in which to do it?

You had me at “I love.” Douglas Glover has an incredible essay about short story structure in his newest offering of essays Attack of the Copula Spiders: Essays on Writing. Every time I try to paraphrase such essays, I get it wrong, but here’s something I learned, or think I learned, from Glover’s about story structure. I see three challenges for the writer: to meet the demands of the form, to meet the demands of the reader, and to meet the demands of the craft. The form demands a story that returns again and again to the same idea, obsessively and supernaturally, each time trying to go deeper, becoming more complex. But the reader demands to be engaged with freshness, newness. If indeed that’s the challenge (I’ve chosen to believe that it is) of writing short fiction, then I’ve found that I meet that challenge of engaging readers by turning to the kind of odd, surreal, almost absurd, rarely seen situation or setting. And I turn to the challenge of compressed narrative with that obsessive focus on the ONE, the one word, image, space of time that defines the all of it, whatever it might end up being.

Recently, a student in my flash fiction workshop had an interesting theme about attraction at work in a story, but he set the story in a bar, and so the story, to me, felt too familiar. I suggested he revise by creating a setting that he’d never before seen in a story. In his revised version, he set the story in a woodworking studio but pretty much kept the conversation intact. To me, the revised story felt brand new.

5. As a veteran writer of flash fiction and editor of Matter Press’s Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, you must get asked a lot of questions about the nature of very short fiction. What’s one question you wish you were asked more often?

I don’t see why you have to prattle on for 300 words. Why don’t you write shorter fiction?

6. What are you working on now? What’s up next for you?

Oh, the same old, same old. But I look forward to seeing the published version of Aaron Teel’s Shampoo Horns from Rose Metal Press. I read it as a contest judge, and I loved, loved, loved it. Matter Press also has work forthcoming from Carol Guess, Karen Dietrich, and Tara Laskowski. And there might be something in the works for Matter Press in conjunction with the fabulous flash journal SmokeLong Quarterly.

Interview with Randi Ewing, Our July Web Exclusive Author

3 Jul

With summer’s heat now fully upon us, it’s fitting that our July web-exclusive story, by Randi Ewing, is titled “The Swimmers.” But this is not your typical summertime tale of sunbathing and beaches. No, “The Swimmers” tackles something more magical even than that. Rendered in language that’s both intimate and vivid, “The Swimmers” is a story about our relationship with the landscapes around us, the secrets they hold within, and the larger-than-life wonders of the natural world. More than anything, “The Swimmers” is a mystery, one that reveals itself in a way that’s every bit as pleasing as a dip in the icy blue ocean.

Enjoy the story on the ASF website, and read our interview with Randi, below.

 

1. Tell us about the genesis of “The Swimmers.” Where did the idea for the story come from?

A writer friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook of a hand sculpture in the Chilean desert. (Don’t all things come from Facebook these days?) I sent her a picture of the Uruguayan hand. There are actually several of these hand sculptures in South America. I’m not sure why, but the Uruguayan one has always been my favorite. It is right on the beach, and with the sea behind it, it gives the eerie impression that the hand is going down, not coming up. My friend sent back a message saying that I should write a story about that hand, and another friend and I agreed to each write a giant hand story by a certain date. This is mine. I suppose because of the original image of the hand being on the beach, I always associated it with water, but it actually took several starts to realize that the bodies were swimming.

2. In a sense this is a story about the human reaction to a strange geologic event. At the same time, by the end of the story, I found myself quite drawn to the Swimmers themselves, who (though perhaps once living) are inanimate. It’s an interesting dynamic you’ve created, in which humans and the natural world both demand our attention and compassion. Can you talk a little bit about how you accomplished this and/or what you were trying to achieve?

From the beginning, I was interested in the tension between the size of the Swimmers and the size of everyone else, particularly in how the Swimmers’ enormity changed the way people felt about themselves. I recently found an early draft of the story that deals much more with the general human reaction to that event—media coverage, religious fanatics, society-wide behavior changes. It’s more comic, but also much more sarcastic and less personal. By the end of that draft, a narrator had emerged with her own questions, and the story became her story and her responses to the Swimmers over time. The Swimmers are enormous, but what surfaces of them are single, individual body parts. I tried to describe the bodies as intimately as I could, because I wanted them to be more than just their unassembled parts. Even though they lack individual personalities, I wanted them to suggest certain ordinary movements like grabbing something or stretching or breathing. It was important to me to have the narrator see something of herself in the Swimmers and, ultimately, understand something about them, and herself, that she didn’t before. I was very interested in the idea that the natural world in the form of the Swimmers would give the narrator the sense of awe that comes with realizing that there are things bigger than us, even if those things are simply the events of our lives.

3. Creating landscapes that are as compelling as any human characters, as you’ve done in “The Swimmers,” is one of the hallmarks of great travel or place-focused writing, it seems to me. Who are some of your favorite authors who write about place? What fictional landscapes have you found inspiring as a writer?

I’m in Argentina right now and in addition to reading Borges, I’ve been reading a couple Argentine fiction writers who have been able to capture two versions of Buenos Aires—the actual city and one where unusual, fantastic things happen. To do this as a writer, I think you have to not only inhabit a place, but let a place inhabit you. Then the place becomes as subjective as any person and just as pliable. For me, place can mean a city or a house or a kitchen table. It’s not just the place itself I’m interested in, but the possibilities of that place, what mystery or secret lies at its heart. I love stories that mine places not just for physical beauty or location, but also for their hidden potential to show the reader something marvelous or fantastic. I like writers who don’t see a place or the history of that place as static. I’m thinking of people like Lewis Nordan, who used the history of the South to find new ways to write about the South, especially in Wolf Whistle. And Rick Bass, whose descriptions of the natural world allow for such strange and interesting turns.

4. “The Swimmers” has us traveling all over the world—Uruguay, Russia, Kentucky, Australia. Have you visited any of the places named in the story? How is it different to write about places you’ve been versus those you’ve never seen?

When I’m not traveling or visiting family, I live in Kentucky. The scene in the story with the woodworker is based on a friend’s home in western Kentucky, and his house is the closest I’ve been to any of the places in the story. I have been to Uruguay on a day trip from Buenos Aires, but I’ve never seen the hand sculpture in Punta del Este. For me, though, this whole story takes place in the narrator’s kitchen on the day that she finally sees the Russian Swimmer. So in that sense, it was easy to describe these places I’ve never been to, because I was thinking of them as images on TV, as places that are known and unknown at the same time. I felt comfortable writing about them in that way, because the place from which the character was viewing them was very familiar to me. It also didn’t hurt that most of the landscapes in this story are of the human body. But in general, I think the most important aspect for me is to understand not just the layout or boundaries of a place, but to know the feel of it, even if that knowledge is individual and would likely vary from person to person. It’s that feeling a place gives me that guides my descriptions.

5. This is that wonderful sort of story that holds out on the reader, that cracks open only at the very end. Can you talk a little bit about the pleasures and/or challenges of writing a piece with this particular structure?

This is my favorite type of story. I like a story that builds toward something and reveals something. I like what it does to me as a reader and as a writer, because I’m forced to adapt along with the story and recognize that what I thought was going on maybe wasn’t. The challenge of writing a story where something is withheld is making sure you hold the right thing back and for the right reasons. It’s tempting to want to keep too much from the reader, to hide some piece of information for hiding’s sake, not in the service of the story.

6. What are you working on now? What’s up next for you?

I am just finishing up a year in South America, most recently Argentina, and I’m headed back to Kentucky this month. This is my fifth visit to Argentina and it has provided plenty of fodder, both for stories and, it seems, a novel. I’ll be tackling those as well as the job market as soon as I get home.

Casey Hannan, June Web Exclusive Author, Talks Bourbon and Flash

1 Jun

If our June web exclusive were a cocktail, the recipe for it might look something like this: Start with one good sentence. Add bourbon, water, ghosts. Measure carefully, with control. Pour over ice and enjoy, savoring each word. This month’s feature, “Ghost Water” by Casey Hannan, is definitely a story to be savored. Sharp yet sweet, rich with complexity and heart, and brimming with precise, graceful language—it’s one you won’t want to miss.

We asked Casey a few questions about “Ghost Water,” writing flash fiction, and his favorite bourbon. Read more in our interview below. You’ll find his story on the ASF website.

 

1. Tell us about the genesis of “Ghost Water.” Where did the idea for this story come from?

I’ve been telling the same story for the last two years about men meeting and connecting. They haven’t been love stories for the most part. The men get to be themselves and there’s sex, of course. The men are part of the world and outside it. That’s my life now and the life I was waiting for when I was a teenager. There weren’t any stories like that for me growing up. I mean, they existed, but I didn’t find them. I found MTV.

“Ghost Water” has love, though, and the characters have known each other forever. I started with their shared love of bourbon and as I wrote, I realized these men share everything.

2. I recently listened to a Late Night Library interview with Roxane Gay in which she mentioned you as an emerging writer to watch and called you a “master of flash fiction.” That’s a great compliment, and one that I definitely second. So, let’s talk a bit about flash fiction. Why write short? What does very short fiction offer you—as a writer or as a reader—that perhaps longer fiction can’t?

First, a little about Roxane Gay. She’s one of my good friends. She sent me boots in the mail. When she said those things about me on Late Night Library, I got scared. I can never live up to all that, but I’ll try. I’ll probably die trying.

Short fiction offers control. I believe language is one of the few things we have any actual control over. We get to choose our own words. I can’t imagine wasting the opportunity and saying too much. The longer a story gets, the more I lose control.

3. Roxane praised your stories for being intricate, surprising, and elegant—all adjectives that certainly apply to “Ghost Water.” People often ask what ASF is looking for in submissions to the magazine, and I’d say that the qualities Roxane names are a pretty good place to start. What do you want from the stories you write? What do you want from the stories you read?

I just want to read stories and not cringe. I want that from the stories I read and the stories I write.

4. One of the things that’s important to me as a reader is really beautiful sentences. And “Ghost Water” definitely delivers on that front. Amy Hempel has talked in interviews about assembling stories sentence by sentence rather than focusing on the overarching plot. Is that a process you relate to? 

Sentences are the story to me, especially in short fiction. I can tolerate reading a novel with bland sentences if the plot pays off in an exciting way. I can’t tolerate the same thing in short fiction. In short fiction, I don’t care what’s told, I care how it’s told.

I get working on a story if I have one good sentence. The sentence that got “Ghost Water” going was the sentence after Lee puts ice in the glasses of bourbon to mellow the taste. “As if you can shoot the wood out of a tree.” The rest of the story spidered out from there.

5. Speaking of bourbon. . . I’m guessing, from its appearance in a couple of your stories, that you like bourbon. What is your favorite kind and what’s the best way to drink it?

Oh yes. Bourbon. I do like bourbon. My favorite right now is 1792 Ridgemont Reserve. I was in Kentucky last year, and my friend took me to this bourbon bar. She picked out six or seven bourbons she thought I’d like, and we sat there and tried them all. I’d only ever had cheap bourbon with ginger ale, which I still like, but now I like my bourbon with just one cube of ice.

Lately, though, I’ve been experimenting. I’ve been taking bottles of bourbon and infusing them for a few days with cardamom, cumin, and cloves. Then I take a good ginger beer and mix it up in a big jar with the infused bourbon. I can drink that and write the early parts of a story and not be too bad about what I’ve written the next morning. I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten a good sentence out of being drunk, but I have gotten good emotions.

6. Place is important in this story. The town, the river, the heat—they’re completely inextricable from the characters’ relationship. Can you talk a little bit about the role of place in your writing? How do the places you’ve lived find their way into your writing?

I am from Kentucky. I came to Kansas City for school and fell in love with a man. I’m still in love with that man, and that’s why I haven’t left Kansas City.

Place is important. It’s important because it’s where the writer and the reader come together. I’m an adult who’s writing, and my audience is adults who are reading. I’ve been places and they’ve been places. I don’t have to get too detailed about a bar. The reader is going to picture whatever bar they want to picture, and that initial image is going to stick with them no matter what else I say.

That said, place is more than just physical place. It’s what certain places do to people. Because I’ve lived in Kentucky and Kansas City, my characters have too. Part of the work is accepting that and part of the work is hiding it. All my characters are part of me, but I don’t want them to be all of me. That separation is difficult.

7. Can you tell us about the image you sent to accompany this story?

Yes. It’s a photograph of me as a boy. Every summer for over 20 years, my family has gotten together at Lake Gaston in North Carolina for a reunion. I’ve never been far from the water. My hometown is on a river. Kansas City is on a river, too. Large bodies of water calm me down with how big and deep and scary they are. They’ve always made me think of ghosts. When I was a kid, I used to fall into this trap of thinking about the water I drank. I would think about how the water was part of someone else before me and how it would be part of someone else after me.

8. What are you working on now? What’s up next for you?

I have a collection of short fiction forthcoming from Tiny Hardcore Press in early 2013. I’m working on the last few stories for that. But when I’m finished, I don’t know. I just want to keep writing and see what happens.

 

May Web Exclusive Author Salvatore Pane on why fiction is like basketball, and more

1 May

Just in time for NBA playoff season, our May web-exclusive story, “John Starks” by Salvatore Pane, is here. And what a story it is. “John Starks” is a basketball story. It’s a tale of competition, regret, forgiveness. Folks, this is a story about NBA Jam and dunking in the face of life’s adversities. In other words, this is one you don’t want to miss. Read “John Starks” here, and check out our interview with the author below.

Bonus feature: Not familiar with John Starks and the 1993 Knicks v. Bulls NBA playoffs? Here’s a video to get you up to speed.

1. Tell us about the genesis of “John Starks.” Where did the idea for the story come from?

At AWP this year, I was leaving a bar and I ran into Ben Tanzer—a writer I very much admire—and we got to talking about the New York Knicks. I don’t meet many NBA fans, and I pretty much never run into any Knicks fans, so I talked his ear off about my feelings on Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire and the squads I really loved back in the ’90s. Afterwards, I just kept thinking about our conversation, and I thought it might be cool to work on a project where each story is named after one of the Knicks and involves them in some substantial way. “John Starks” is the second one I wrote. I knew from the beginning that I wanted a story where Michael Jordan returns to torture the Knicks via a glitch in NBA Jam, and I’ve always felt that out of all the Knicks, Starks and Ewing hated him the most. Starks is more volatile, a kind of lovable lunatic. He’s the perfect fit for a story about obsession.

2. Was this a typical story for you, process-wise? Does your process change from story to story, or do you have certain strategies or rituals that come into play no matter what you’re writing?

My process stays mostly the same from project to project. I try to get up early and write every day until lunch time. I don’t write every single day, but I try to, and I usually feel bad about myself when I don’t. It’s easier to do when I’m in a novel, because there’s not a lull between projects where you have to come up with new characters and situations. From day to day, you know at least a little bit of what’s coming. Usually, I like to spend about five days a week generating new material, and two days on revision, but that depends where I am in a given project. Because “John Starks” is on the shorter side, I was able to knock out a draft in two days. But I easily spent triple that revising. I’m a big reviser. I never trust my first drafts.

3. The move the story makes at the very end—the sudden intrusion of tenderness—is unexpected, really wonderfully so. Did you know when you began writing that this was where the story was headed, or did the ending surprise you, too?

I was completely surprised. I don’t like to go into fiction knowing how it all ends. I think it robs the characters and the narrative of a choice that feels so vital in powerful fiction. All I knew when I started was that I wanted John Starks playing NBA Jam, and I wanted him to have found a way to make Jordan appear. I didn’t realize he was going to be an old man when I started, and I had no clue he was going to physically confront Jordan. The end was one of those really nice surprises you’re lucky enough to have once in a while as a writer. Starks confronts Jordan with this somewhat murderous intent, but I knew as soon as I arrived at that moment that he wasn’t going to go through with it. It didn’t feel right. The character of John Starks surprised me by opting for tenderness and nostalgia. I know that sounds weird, but I really believe you have to let the fiction and the characters lead you; it can’t be the other way around. Otherwise the fiction feels lifeless.

4. Imagine that you were commissioned to design a video game in which writers competed against one another in basketball, NBA Jam style. It’d be called AWP Jam. . . or something. Who would you want on your team? You can choose writers who are no longer living, if you like.

Wow. The first person I would not want is me. My dad coached my team growing up and we lost every single game for four years and I scored five total points. Total. If I had to pick I’d go with Ben Tanzer, Brian Oliu—he knows his basketball, and his chapbook Level End proves he’s got Nintendo skills—and Geoff Peck first. Peck has a bunch of really good publications, edits the lit journal Floodwall, and played basketball on the D1 level for Vanderbilt. Junot Diaz would probably make a good enforcer because he’s always cursing during readings, and then you’d need an unpredictable wildcard. How about Alice Munro?

5. True or false: writing is a lot like basketball.

True. With basketball, the people who make it are the ones who totally dedicate their lives to it and practically live in the gym taking a thousand free throws a day. Writing’s the same. I’ve seen so many really talented friends and students just stop over the years because they can’t put in the time. If you do something long enough, you’re eventually going to get better. Also, with basketball, it’s so much a confidence game. You can see it in games when players get on hot streaks. They just really believe they’re the best player on the court and that every time they shoot the ball it’s going in. I’m thinking of somebody like Kobe or ‘Melo. You need a bit of that swagger as a writer. One of my first fiction teachers told me writers are all egomaniacs because they’re the type of people who look at all the amazing books that have been written over the years and think, “No. That’s not good enough. I have something unique to add.” Now what he didn’t say is you also have to learn from criticism and be humble, but to an extent, I think he’s right.

6. Can you tell us a little bit about the photo you sent to accompany your story? 

For my birthday one year, my parents took me on a bus trip from Scranton to go see the Knicks play the now defunct Supersonics in Madison Square Garden. I’d been obsessed with the Knicks for a few years, but I’d never actually seen an NBA game live before. It was pretty stunning. I was in Knicks gear head to toe. There’s even a Patrick Ewing jersey under the Starter jacket. At one point, the video screen above the court said “Happy Birthday, Sal!” and that was probably my all-time favorite birthday moment ever. Like I said, I don’t know many people at all who really enjoy the NBA, but that moment solidified my status as a lifelong fan.

7. What are you working on now? What’s up next for you?

I’m really busy. I’m finishing edits on my novel Last Call in the City of Bridges and my chapbook #KanyeWestSavedFromDrowning, which are both forthcoming this fall. But I’m spending most of my time writing my second novel which is about a fallen superhero love triangle set in the summer of 2001. In my spare moments I write a web comic you can check out at www.montyx.com. Oh, and I’m getting ready to move to Indianapolis in August. So if you live there and want to listen to me explain why Reggie Miller’s the worst player in the history of the NBA, hit me up.

Web Exclusive Interview with David Schuman

2 Apr

What can I say about our April web exclusive, “Squirrel” by David Schuman? I might say that it’s that rare sort of story that conveys with equal grace the featherlight details of daily life and the ponderous mysteries of this crazy planet. I might say that it’s beautifully written, with sentences that’ll cut right you right open. But maybe I should just let the author speak for himself: “there are other stories besides ours, and of course in the end these other stories are part of our story, the big one, which will end someday.” Oh, yes. It’s a good one, y’all. Read more about “Squirrel” in our interview with the author below. You can read the story on the ASF website.

1. Tell us about the genesis of “Squirrel.” Where did the idea for the story come from and what kind of evolution did it go through to get to us?

I was walking around one day and there was this squirrel in the grass, just like the one in the story. I got up really close to it and it didn’t budge. The squirrels on campus are really tame, which is why this one didn’t run away, but it did start to freak me out a bit, and I changed course to veer away from it. I’d been bested by a squirrel, which for some reason put me in a story-writing state of mind. On the drive home, I wrote the first couple paragraphs in my head, which I like to do since repeating the lines over and over again to commit them to memory establishes a rhythm that often carries me through a story. Once I had Dolly, the story just kept going. I had intended to end the story back on the beach, inside the narrator’s point of view, but then I became interested in making the point of view sort of elastic, and then I wanted to see how far I could stretch it.

2. When I first read “Squirrel,” I had just finished Paula Fox’s novel Desperate Characters, and I found some really lovely echoes of Fox in your story. Both begin, for example, with an animal bite. In our initial email exchange, you mentioned that one of the ways in which you see “Squirrel” diverging from Fox’s novel is that your main concern was to tell a story that was as much about animals as humans. Can you expand on that a bit for us? Certainly, the turn the story takes at the end gestures in a really provocative way at the wildness of the animal world. 

Desperate Characters is great because it’s a relatively small story concerned with these gigantic things. In some ways I feel like Fox predicted the modern world as she chronicled the erosion of sixties earnestness and innocence in the seventies, the ways in which the ideals of that era were co-opted by the capitalism-loving world of the eighties and beyond. The couple in the novel are like pre-yuppies, and I think the main character is struggling with just what she is, what she can call herself. There are issues of class and race boiling beneath the surface, but in the end it’s just s story of a woman who gets bitten by a cat. I wanted my story to be about the natural world—maybe my own fascination with it and my particular set of fears about things that are happening. There’s something wrong, I know that, birds falling out of the sky, bees disappearing, frogs, everything. I don’t understand why these things are happening. I keep asking myself about them. So I let the natural world enter this story through an animal bite. I was thinking about this as a zombie or lycanthrope story in a way—you get bitten and you’re infected. Other “infected” animals kept appearing—they’re infected by the world in some way, and so are the humans in the story. Fiction is mostly human-centric, but there are other stories besides ours, and of course in the end these other stories are part of our story, the big one, which will end someday. Writers I admire, like Joy Williams and Kathryn Davis, never let you forget this. And hey, Jaws also begins with an animal bite, but you didn’t ask me about that one!

3. Can you talk a little bit about literary influences? You wrote me that, while you had read it, Desperate Characters wasn’t on your mind when you wrote “Squirrel.” It’s interesting, though, to think about the ways in which the authors we read influence our writing, even in oblique or unexpected ways. Where do you see the authors you love showing up in your own work? How do you learn from and absorb great writing while still staying true to your own voice?

I can’t imagine doing anything without all of the stuff that I love and admire and hate and can’t understand informing it. For me it’s exciting to make something that’s a reaction to something else, a tribute or a continuation of some sort. Things bubble up as I’m working. This is what I love about writing, these surprises. I understand that some of this is going to come from the writers I’ve read who have lodged themselves in the crevices, and some of it is going to come from other stuff that’s stuck in there.

4. I absolutely love the way you write the father-daughter relationship in this story. The father approaches Dolly with this love that seems to be equal parts tenderness and curiosity (bewilderment, even) almost as if she were some exotic species of animal herself. Do you have children, and, if so, how does that affect your writing?

I am a father. I’ve got a four-year-old daughter who I approach with tenderness, curiosity, bewilderment and, often, paper towels. She’s got a fresh pink brain it’s great to have access to—the other day she told me, “Sharing is when you take something away from yourself.”

5. What are you working on now?

I’m always working on stories, and right now I’m writing a novel. Dolly from this story has a part in it now. She seemed like a keeper.

 

Interview with March Web Exclusive Author Ravi Mangla

1 Mar

Ladies and gentlemen, the time has come to present our March 2012 web exclusive: “Outlander” by Ravi Mangla.

We love “Outlander” for its quiet mystery, incisive language, and slow-working charm. It’s a mere slip of a story, but one that lingers, enchants, stays. So, go on—read “Outlander” on the ASF website, and check out our interview with the author, below.

 

1. Tell us about the genesis of “Outlander.” Where did the idea for the story come from and what kind of evolution did it go through to get to us?

It started as a few sentences on a bar napkin and slowly evolved into a fully formed story over the next several days. The story wasn’t nearly as problematic as some (for which I am grateful), so it didn’t take too many drafts to arrive at a finished product. I wish I had a more interesting origin story to share (maybe something with a radioactive spider), but mostly I just pieced it together as I went along.

2. In its simplest outline, “Outlander” is about a short-lived connection between two people, and the (literal) traces that the relationship leaves behind. One of the things that crossed my mind after I read the story was that the maps the woman leaves behind are a bit like what one is left with after reading a great piece of fiction—you may not be able to recall every word, but the shape of the thing is imprinted on your brain. A good story always leaves something indelible behind. Is that an idea that resonates with you? What stories or books have made a lasting impression on you?

Absolutely. Ideally, I want readers to connect with the work on such a deep and personal level that they feel compelled to quit their jobs and watch me from a distance: carving my face into bars of soap, sending me cryptic notes scrawled in crayon, etc. But I realize that’s asking a lot of the reader. As far as books and stories that have left a lasting impression, there are far too many to name. That must be why so many writers have filed restraining orders against me. (You may have won this round, Judy Blume. . .)

3. The best flash fiction stories say a lot—without saying a lot. You do this so well in “Outlander,” like when you describe a town as a place where “cats wear sweaters in the cold season.” Can you talk a little bit about your writing process for a piece like this? How do you know what’s essential?

I read several essays and interviews early in my writing career that filled me with romantic notions about the sentence. Since then I’ve tried to let the language dictate the shape and tone of my stories and trust that the words will organically configure themselves into something resembling a narrative arc. I’ll only put down a sentence if I feel confident about its place within the sonic framework of the story, and because of that I usually end up with little in way of excess. The approach is a somewhat rigid, but it tends to work pretty well for me (most of the time).

4. As is the case in this story, maps often tell us as much about their creators as the places they depict. What would we learn about you if you were to draw us a map of your hometown? What would be some of the most important landmarks, for example?

The map would tell you that I spent much of my childhood outdoors. I did a lot of prancing and frolicking, sometimes in parks, other times in fields, and occasionally in the woods.

The Erie Canal is such a fundamental part of the region, both historically and aesthetically, and I would likely be banished from the city if I failed to mention it. With the exception of a few bad apples (you know who you are), all Rochesterians are well-versed in canal lore. I spent many afternoons walking and biking along that gorgeous bluish-brown water. Other landmarks of personal significance: Mendon Ponds Park (great hiking trails), Wegmans (the finest supermarket in the country), Pontillo’s Pizza (the finest pizza in the country. . . or at the very least, the finest pizza in the county), and Pittsford Sutherland High School (my old stomping ground).

5. Can you tell us a little bit about the image you sent to accompany the story?

John Dermot Woods was kind enough to lend me one of his drawings. I thought the whimsical nature of the piece would serve as a good complement to the story. I highly recommend checking out some of John’s other work. He and Lincoln Michel collaborated on this excellent series of comics last year: Animals in Mid-Life Crises. And his fictional “atrocities” have appeared all over the web.

6. What are you working on now? What’s up next for you?

I spent most of last year working on a long novella (or as I describe it in cover letters, a “short novel”), so right now I’m taking a few months off to recharge my creative batteries before embarking on a new project.

 

Something About Love: An Interview with Web Author Venita Blackburn

1 Feb

What’s the best way to start off the shortest month of the year? By reading a short-short story, of course! Lucky for you, our February web exclusive is here, and it is excellent.  “Scars” by Venita Blackburn is a funny, fantastical, touching story about the wounds inflicted by life and love, and what it takes to carry us through. Oh, and also superpowers. “Scars” may be short, but it definitely packs a wallop. Read the full story on the ASF website, and be sure to take note of the accompanying artwork (a new feature for our web exclusives this year). The photo, taken by the author, depicts a one-legged seagull—exactly the kind of  “damaged, but resilient” creature that captured her imagination in this story.

Plus (there’s more!), below you’ll find our interview with Venita, in which she shares a little about the inspiration for this story, some scars of her own, and the world’s worst superpowers.

1. Tell us about the genesis of “Scars.” Where did the idea for the story come from and what kind of evolution did it go through to get to us?

This particular story did stem from an idea unlike most of my story ideas that look too much like my own life or came from a news headline or something funny a friend has said. I wrote “Scars” in the summer of 2011 along with a few other short shorts that had a very specific idea behind them. I wanted to write about people with the worst superpowers imaginable and see how they would cope and/or thrive. There was one with a boy that could dream the past and future but only when he was very, very sick (immune system clairvoyance). There was one with an elderly woman suffering severe dementia that could recall her life only by touching certain items. Then there came “Scars” with two sisters that have enhanced memory and sensory perception only when in extreme pain. I hope this doesn’t mean I’m a sadist, but I really felt connected to that idea.

I am a low-key comic and superhero fan. The X-Men franchise—or empire or however it should be described—had a television cartoon series that aired during my preteen and early teen years. In X-Men there are mutants, genetically enhanced people, that can fly and turn into steel or change the weather, etc., but they all look stunning and beautiful. In the show there was this other group of mutants that had powers, but they could not blend in with ordinary society because there powers were physically deforming or just too harsh for the average Joe or Jane to process. Anyway, these mutants were called Morlocks (very literary) and lived in the sewers. They could be squid-faced, acid-sweating walking disasters. I always had a lot of empathy with the Morlocks for some reason. I thought for sure if I had powers, I would be underground with the tentacle-armed kid and the lady that talked really, really loud (I mean, just “hello” could be devastating). Those were my people. Ultimately, the sisters of “Scars” represent that part of my psyche, I think.

2. The real gem of this story is the narrator. She is such a joy to read—she’s fierce, fragile, innocent, wounded, precocious. . . all at the same time. Can you talk a little bit about how you conceived of this character?

I have a bad habit, a really bad habit, of rewriting stories in various POVs just for kicks and giggles, especially if something tells me the voice just isn’t working. I hear my characters speak in a way that I can’t really explain. When they sound real to me, I just tell the story as they would. Luckily, the narrator of “Scars” is a character I liked listening to. I’m flattered that she seems so “fierce,” but she is definitely wounded. In that we are a lot alike. She suffered the loss of her most supportive friend/fan (her father). I know what that feels like. For a long time I’ve been inspired by things and people that take damage but keep going no matter how unappealing the future seems. There is a resilience there that thrills me. I wanted the narrator to be that, just a little bit.

3. What’s challenging or fun or different about writing from the POV of a child/young person? Any inspirations for finding the right voice?

The best thing about kids is their honesty. Most kids, if they aren’t shy, will tell you what they see as they see it. I love that about very young people. I always talk to children as if they’re real people. That opens up a lot of funny moments even though I’m sure I sacrifice some authority in the process. I’ve always been described as a very honest person, especially in workshops. Lying takes a lot of energy. I worry sometimes that it might seem rude, but I’ve never been told that I’m “too honest,” so I run with it. Having a young narrator is sort of a license to speak plainly, truthfully. There is no room for enigma—well, maybe a little if a writer is really clever. In “Scars” I liked the narrator’s openness to these new and often hurtful experiences. There is something really primal that happens when a child feels something profound, good or bad, but they don’t have the words to articulate it. All they can say is this happened then this happened, and then they’re either slapping their legs with laughter or balling on the floor. That purity of emotion gets pressed and baked and locked away as we get older. I do hope that when I write adults they bring a welcome level of complexity. Writing younger voices though is freeing in special ways.

4. As you say, these sisters possess the “superpower” of super strong memory and perception. Memory and perception, of course, are among a writer’s most important tools. I’m wondering what (if anything) you do to tap into your own powers of memory and observation. Are there any experiences or situations that you find help bring back memories, or that heighten your senses and help you tune in to what’s going on around you?

I’ve always believed it is much easier to recall the traumatic experiences, but I have a pretty selective memory. Most of the trauma gets stored neatly away. I let the dust settle. Even so, I keep a journal that I don’t write in regularly, but I try to write in it when there are big moments in my life or I just can’t sleep. Both seem rare enough. I recently read through a few entries that were several years old, and I was shocked at all my griping and melancholy. Embarrassing. I’m fortunate enough to have some really smart and funny friends that I can share experiences with, and that really helps keep my mind and perspective alert.

5. A scar with a good story behind it is the best. So much better than, like, “I cut myself shaving.” Do you have any notable scars or scar stories you’d like to share?

I love “I cut myself shaving” only if it’s not the truth. My injuries have been more emotional so far. I’m so careful with my body that I rarely get a paper cut. I’ve never broken a bone. I hope that stays true. My childhood was really good and safe and I attribute most if not all of it to my mother. She passed in 2008, and I lost my best friend and mom. That’s a scar I can’t deny and certainly is something reflected in “Scars.” She was definitely very supportive of all my whims growing up. I took martial arts for two years (won two tournaments, by the way) , then suddenly didn’t feel like it anymore. I was in Cadet Corps in middle school and slid down a hill with my battalion in army fatigues. I got a pretty good gash on my leg there. I remember going to Jack in the Box after that and my mom took a picture of my face with all that war paint. Then I got to high school and turned apathetic and literary minded. Ha. Those are my scars for now.

6. What’s up next for you? What are you working on now?

I’m always revising my old stories for this collection I’m working on. Simultaneously, I’m writing a longer thing about the dangers of ideologies, the risk of believing in anything and the rewards therein. I haven’t given up on my stories about the worst superpowers on earth yet. Not yet.

Interview with Bess Winter, Winner of Our 2011 American Short(er) Fiction Prize

1 Dec

This month, we’re bringing you a very special edition of our online fiction series. Our December story,  “Signs” by Bess Winter, is the winner of ASF’s 2011 American Short(er) Fiction Prize and is featured in the Fall 2011 issue of ASF.  We’re excited to offer you this special sneak peek inside our print magazine, and even more thrilled to present Bess’s work. Complex, surprising, and provocative, “Signs” is an exemplary piece of flash fiction and a stand-out story of any length. Check it out on the ASF website; we promise you’ve never read anything quite like it. Plus, below, we talk with the author about her prize-winning story, the joys and challenges of writing flash fiction, and the allure of animals wearing clothes (among other important topics).

1. Since “Signs” is the winner of ASF’s Short(er) Fiction Prize, I thought I’d start by asking you a couple of questions about short(er) fiction. What do you enjoy about writing flash fiction? What do you find challenging about the form?

I love its versatility. You can fit the arc of a short story or even a novel into a piece of flash fiction. Or you can focus intensely on a sliver of plot, an object, a turn of phrase. To me, writing flash is very different from writing a short story, because the form of flash, itself, seems to be the question at its heart. That’s also the challenge of it. There are lots of times where you might think a certain topic or idea would make a great short short story, and when you sit down to write it you find out that the form just doesn’t fit the content: that you need a good 20 pages to do this particular idea justice.

2. What makes a very short piece successful, in your opinion? Do you have any advice for other writers?

A successful short piece, to me, is a map to a user experience. The fewer words there are on the page, the more a flash piece asks of a reader—and most successful flash seems to be about the reader in a very direct way. The flash pieces that stick with me, and that I enjoy reading the most, begin with a scenario that’s entirely unique to the story and quickly reach out and go straight to the core of the reader, implicate the reader in some way by touching on a fundamental human truth. I guess my advice for writing flash is to allow that process to happen. Go where your mind wants to go. Also, if you have a really weird idea that embarrasses you and a strong idea that you feel totally confident about, always go for the weird idea.

3. Tell us a little bit about your process for writing “Signs.” Where did the idea for the story come from and what kind of evolution did it go through before it reached us at American Short Fiction?

First I wrote a terrible workshop story that had no redeeming qualities besides the fact that one of its characters was named Koko. One night I was wrestling with revisions on this terrible workshop story, and to avoid dealing with this story I became fixated on researching Koko the gorilla. Turns out Koko’s had a fascinating life. She has actually dated online, with little success (smart women have it so hard). She’s very astute, very sensitive. She was also indirectly involved in a sex scandal, which is what gave me the idea for “Signs.” At the same time I was writing “Signs,” I also developed this new personal rule about how the only writing that was worth anything came from the heart. I hadn’t really been speaking from that place for a while in favor of experimenting with ideas and structures and so on. So, the idea for this story was: a) Koko the gorilla, b) workplace sex scandal and c) listen to my heart. It took about three or four days to write. After that, it went through some trusted readers and some small changes. The last change was made at my good friend Jess’s kitchen table. Then we drank some wine, I submitted the story, and we spent the rest of the evening playing Beatles Rock Band.

4. “Signs” stars a gorilla and is concerned with, among other things, the relationship between humans and animals. Weirdly enough, the story that won second place in our contest is also about animals—ducks—though, of course, in a very different way. The contest results got us thinking about animal stories, and why people love them so darn much. Do you have any thoughts on that? What’s the appeal of animal stories? What was fun or different or difficult about writing about Koko?

Maybe people are just fascinated with the idea of animals acting like humans. Or of humans’ true natures being revealed by their being cast as a particular animal. Personally, I love animal stories like The Jungle Book, where the characters are closely linked to animal archetypes, but The Wind in the Willows is even better, because those animals wear clothes. That sounds funny, but it feels like the only thing people love more than stories about animals is animals mimicking humans. We like to be reminded that we’re animals, too, and all indications to the contrary are just illusions. So, a toad in a jalopy and driving gloves.

In terms of writing Koko, she was easy to write about because, as a character, she had no guile. Dr. Thomas and the researcher’s reactions to Koko were harder to get at. But it kind of felt like Koko was the one calling the shots.

5. “Signs” is ASF’s final web exclusive of 2011, so it feels like a good time to ask about your year in reading. What story or book or journal really blew you away in 2011? What’s on your to-read list for 2012?

The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje, is the best book I read this year. It’s so slim and so beautifully crafted and full of whimsy—the work of a true master. There was a story published in Fence—and featured on their website—that I read many times: “A Film That Will Make the Audience Feel Pure Joy” by Jacob Wren. There’s also a great story in the new issue of the Mid-American Review called “The Evasive Magnolio” that I loved when we read it in our editorial meeting. I’m so glad it made it into the journal.

Hopefully in 2012 I’ll read the new Murakami book, Michael Czyzniejewski’s Chicago Stories, Lydia Davis’s The Cows, and Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time.

6. What’s up next for you, writing-wise? What are you working on now? 

I’m finishing putting together a collection of short fiction, and am in the middle of writing something longer. It appears to be a novel. It’s actually, in an oblique way, an animal story.

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Want to read “Signs” and the rest of the amazing stories in the Fall 2011 issue of ASF? Click right here to get your very own copy.

Want to read more fantastic flash fiction online? Check out our web exclusive archive.

On Ritual: ASF Contributors on Their Writing Routines (Today: Ted Thompson)

15 Oct

Today we present more of our findings: the routines and rituals—or lack of them—of one of our ASF Summer ’10 contributors, Ted Thompson.

Ted Thompson (“The Woolly Mammoth Carried Me Home,” Summer ’10) on ritual:

I read somewhere that Salman Rushdie won’t even brush his teeth before he sits down to write in the morning. Someone else told me Marilynne Robinson writes longhand, in bed, while lying on her side. A friend of mine used to only write on the subway, riding back and forth to Coney Island while scratching her novel into notebooks. Another friend won’t edit. He writes the story over, start to finish in a blank document, every time he works on it.

Comparatively, my rituals are pretty tame. I write in the morning: 6:30 to 9:30 is the sweet spot. I compose first drafts on a manual typewriter (I know, I know). Coffee is essential. If I continue into the night, I like bourbon, but only from a particular glass with muskets etched into its side. I can’t work next to windows. I prefer lamplight to overhead. Generally no music, though there have been periods when I’ve become reliant on a certain album and then music is a must. When I finish a page it’s numbered, in black pen, at the bottom edge. For two years my office was in a closet and that was perfect.

For a while I was the kid at readings who asked about ‘process.’ Figuring out how writers physically worked seemed as though it could explain the mystery of how they actually did it. But my own writing rituals are really about repetition, about creating the space for work to happen. Often so little about writing feels in my control so I constrain everything around it down to the dishware. I make sure the push pins in the bulletin board are clear and that I never shower until I’m done working for the day. It’s all arbitrary of course, but even arbitrary rules provide some certainty.

* * *

Ted Thompson was raised in Connecticut. His stories have been published  in Tin House, The L Magazine, and Best New American Voices. He’s received fellowships from the Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He lives in Brooklyn and is finishing a novel.

*If there’s an ASF (or other) author whose rituals you’d like to hear about, comment below. We’ll report back soon.

On Ritual: ASF Contributors on Their Writing Routines (Today: Lucy Corin)

9 Sep

Today we present more of our findings: the routines and rituals—or lack of them—of one of our ASF Summer ’10 contributors, Lucy Corin.

Lucy Corin (“Madmen,” Summer ’10) on ritual:

Photo by Sara Seinberg

“I used to think I couldn’t write without a scotch and a cigarette and one of the scariest things about quitting one then the other was the idea that I wouldn’t be able to write.  Well, I quit and I write.  That’s more about addiction than about writing.  Then I thought I couldn’t write without my dog nearby, but my dog passed away and I still write.  One day this summer I wrote in a room full of people in bathing suits cooking bacon.  Not for long, though.  How to get out of bed and get my coffee without waking up too much before I start writing is a big deal for me.  I don’t like to eat until I’m incredibly hungry when I’m writing.  I don’t write with music, but I don’t mind ambient sound.  I like to be near a window with not a lot going on outside.  My current study has a window that is completely filled with hedge and sometimes birds poke around in it.  Perfect.

I don’t write every day.  I wait until I can’t bear it and then I write, or I write because I can’t wait to write, or I write because there are nuts I want to crack.  I was a kid who made ice cream last.  I don’t believe in letting writing time be agony.  I don’t believe in letting insomnia get me, either.  I get up or I take a pill, no thrashing around.  The bed needs to be a beautiful place, and the desk does, too.  If writing is some kind of agony, I should get over myself and do something nice for the neighborhood.  I do ritualize everything, though.  I need to because of whatever kind of brain I have.  So whatever my writing situation is, I ritualize it, I’m just learning that I can make a ritual out of anything, and it’s not the ritual so much as the ritualizing: making some kind of rhythm in a way that makes something some kind of sacred.”

Lucy Corin’s work has been anthologized and also appears in Ploughshares, The Southern Review, Conjunctions, and Tin House. She  was a Walter E. Dakin Fellow at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2006 and a Margaret Bridgman Fellow at Bread Loaf in 2008. Her latest book, The Entire Predicament, was published in 2007.

*If there’s an ASF (or other) author whose rituals you’d like to hear about, comment below. We’ll report back soon.