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.
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.