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.