Interview by Rupert Dastur
Hi Mark, thank you for speaking to us TSS Publishing.
My pleasure. Thank you for giving me this opportunity.
Let’s jump right in and ask what it is you love about Flash Fiction?
People cite brevity as a main attribute of flash fiction. On the surface, it’s the most visible attribute, but to wit, it’s not its soul. Brevity alone is never enough. Otherwise “I want sex” or “Let’s eat” would be shining examples of flash fiction. So what I love about it, is its contradictory nature: by accepting an apparent handicap (length limitation), flash fiction writer achieves the intensity that rivals only poetry while having an edge over its rival thanks to its narration. It’s like Ginger Rogers “doing everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.”
Like most fiction, short and long, a flash is based on what I call a tripod: plot, characters and language. Remove one leg of the tripod, and the flash will collapse. Except that flash is a small tripod. Think tabletop but not a celestial telescope support.
What, for you, are the main features of Flash Fiction and are there any less obvious don’t-dos?
All too obvious brevity aside, it’s intensity. Not only every word counts, but an extraneous word subtracts from the impact. A writer ought to test each word. Can the sentence survive without it? Can the story live without this particular sentence? Most importantly, can a reader survive without this story?
The second most important feature is desire. The protagonist must want something badly.
As for the don’ts: don’t be clever. Tricks are for Halloween. For example, aliens that look like Persian cats are fine, but there better be a compelling reason to bring them into a story; a reason that no other character can fulfil.
Don’t be obscure. Don’t ask the readers to scratch their heads. Clarity is a virtue.
Don’t mince words. A flash fiction writer is not a meat grinder.
You are the founder of Vestal Review, the oldest magazine for Flash Fiction which was set up in March 2000. What were your initial plans when you established this magazine and has your vision changed much in the last sixteen years?
Originally, there were very few outlets for publishing flash. So my co-editor and friend Susan O’Neill and I hope to give a venue for this genre. Now, flash fiction magazines pop up daily at every corner, which is a good thing. Competition breeds progress. It’s good to stay competitive.
What are the major challenges that editors of literary magazines face and how do you overcome these difficulties?
Keep the unpaid staff motivated. Keep the publication relevant, technically up to date and financially solid. Attract the best writers. Deal with the rejections without offending too many people.
There are an increasing number of online literary platforms – which are your favourite?
I love The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts; its editor Randall Brown does a commendable job.
Has your experience running Vestal Review affected your own writing?
I read significantly more flash fiction now than at any point in my life. I can see the flaws in my own writing. I learned that I am not perfect. Reading others teach me humility.
You’ve been published widely and I wonder if you can tell us a little about your approach to writing Flash Fiction. Do you write a first draft as quickly as it can be read, as some writers such as Calum Kerr have suggested?
Great question. My writing starts with an image, with a phrase, with a sentence. Often, they come to me in a dream (I am not smoking anything; I swear). I can’t write anything too fast, even the first draft. I stop and pause, I trip over my own words. I am not satisfied with them. My greatest fear is: maybe someone else had already written this in the millennia since the invention of the alphabet? My other fear: How can I, who writes in my second language (my mother tongue is Russian), compete with the native English speakers? So I write multiple drafts. Story, StoryN (for new), StoryNN (for new, new), and so on. By the time I am at StoryNNN, I look back at Story with horror. Who wrote that? It wasn’t me for sure.
Do you actively seek writing prompts or do you wait for inspiration to strike?
I love prompts. Prompts are, most obviously limitation to artistic freedom. But we, writers, turn our limitations to our advantage.
Do you have a writing routine, a writing retreat, and a mood you like to create before putting pen to paper?
My bed and my shower (in this order) are my greatest writing retreats. I come up with my greatest ideas at those places. If I forgot the idea after I exited the shower, it wasn’t a good idea anyway.
What advice would you give writers approaching Flash Fiction for the first time?
Have fun. Though writing flash is hard, so is good sex. Skilful work and fun are not contradictory. Don’t rush. The story won’t run away if you take time to handle it properly. It will get only better with practice.
Having written Flash Fiction for a while now, I wonder if you are aware of particular styles or techniques which you slip into when you’re writing Flash Fiction – even if this isn’t something you consciously do to begin with. Could you, for example, place your numerous Flash Fictions into categories?
This is a difficult question. I would be hard press to categorize my own writing, but I think that a majority are either whimsical or somehow exaggerated, being larger than live, like my To My Love, (or significantly smaller, like my The Amazing Adventures of Macro-Microbe).
Why do you think Flash Fiction is becoming increasingly popular? Is it simply to do with the speeding up of people’s lives (something which writers have been saying for at least a hundred years) or is there something more fundamental going on here?
A perceived instant gratification for the readers. Flash fiction is the only genre of literature that can compete with the speed-crazy digital world attractions. Only when the readers delve into the story, they would realize that it’s too complex for perusing. But it would be too late. They’d be hooked.
Could you point our readers to your favourite Flash Fiction writers and offer a line or two on what makes each one special to you?
This is an excerpt from my all-time favourite flash fiction story:
Take a story from real life, one you are having trouble focusing. Cut the story in half. Cut it in half again. What you’re left with is the essentials of the story you will be able to see more clearly.
They have said nothing to each other for weeks except what matters to the day, the children, the budget or the dog. He is upstairs at his office window. She is reading in a chaise longue in the shade some book her recently widowed mother gave her. She sighs, he imagines, at how it was an easy mistake for a young girl to make, a less likely error, perhaps, for a man so much older.
Who remembers mostly a white dress, a waist your hands could fit around, the scent of Juicy-Fruit and Noxzema. When he asks what’s wrong, she always says she’s happy; the only thing is, if he were sometimes a little happier a little more often too…
What she thinks of him now he doesn’t even know, but fears it’s so much less than what she thought at first, when he was what he can’t imagine now, and obviously isn’t to her now, and why and why? In the grief of his fifties, hard liquor sits him down to pray.
They treat each other as tenderly at least as they’d treat a relative or friend, a needy stranger or the obligatory guest. Whatever it is they might be discussing escapes to the underside of the birch leaves in the gathering breeze. The lights across the river are brighter and seem more distant than the stars. The swallows give way to the bats and a tiny spider spins at the ruined screen a web someone less desperate might be tempted to take as a metaphor.
And then the author, Bruce Taylor, cuts the story in half. And again.
Finally, do you have any parting words about writing, editing, reading, or life in general, that you would like to share with our readers?
Writing is like everything else. Rules are for fools, but only amateurs break them for no reason. Most of the time it’s not a good idea to run the red light, but if someone approaches your car with a gun, you will. So show no tell unless you have to tell. Never open a book with weather* unless the weather is critical to your story. Use images fresh enough to have an effect*, unless you need a rotten image. In other words, be bold but respect your reader.
*My thanks to Elmore Leonard and George Orwell for coming up with the rule to break.
Thanks again for your time, Mark.
Mark Budman’s writing has appeared in American Scholar, Huffington Post, World Literature Today, Daily Science Fiction, Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine (UK), McSweeney’s, Sonora Review, Another Chicago, Sou’wester, Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, the W.W. Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward, Short Fiction (UK), and elsewhere. He is the publisher of the flash fiction magazine Vestal Review. His novel My Life at First Try was published by Counterpoint Press. You can visit his website here.
Rupert Dastur is a writer, editor, and founding director of TSS Publishing. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and is Associate Editor at The Word Factory, a leading short story organisation based in London. He’s also Events Coordinator for the Society of Young Publishers (London) and Curator for WritingCompetitions.org. His own work has appeared in a number of places online and in print and he is currently working on his first novel.
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