Interview by Rupert Dastur
Tino: Thanks for having us back!
You’ll both be editing the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology this year – what are you looking for in submissions?
Meg: The theme this year, “Life As You Know It” is a springboard to writing the story only you can tell us. Tell us about something that feels both urgent and true, in a way that nobody has ever written it. Your way of seeing (and writing) belong to you. This is what we want.
Tino: Editing an anthology is a difficult task, but one way authors can make it easy for editors is by submitting us stories that demand to be read – not only by the editors, but by all of our readers. I’m looking for stories that are unrelenting, that leave me without words, that refuse to fade into a distant, forgotten memory.
Above all that, I want diverse voices and characters. Flash is overflowing with variety, and National Flash Fiction Day has always encouraged and supported authors regardless of who they are, their background, or where they live. I feel that this theme more than any other opens up the possibility of a huge variety of different types of stories from different types of authors.
Would you be happy to expand upon what you mean with the theme “Life as you know it”?
Meg: Worries are swirling around us these days. Politically and environmentally the world is undergoing serious change. People are vulnerable. This is what inspired our decision to make the theme “Life as You Know It”. We meant it be an empowering challenge. Many of us feel that there is too much at stake. It’s hard to care, but caring is what makes life worth living, and what makes our stories worth reading. Using what you know is the best way to do it.
Tino: When deciding on a theme for this year’s anthology, Meg and I thought about how much there is going on in the world. There’s a lot of pent up energy in people, and it sometimes feel like we live in a world that isn’t listening. We wanted a theme that would provide the opportunity for people to make themselves heard, to give our readers an idea of the world as only they know it. We want authors to give us stories that show us what life is like for them or for their character(s), and to show us experiences that will help others understand the world through this lens.
Is there anything that should be avoided? Well-worn tropes or styles that might turn you off?
Tino: Though sad stories are important, everyone loves a funny story. Dare to make us laugh! There are certain topics we always receive stories about, such as death, illnesses, crumbling relationships, murders, drunks or smokers having a whiskey in a bar. The key is, if you really want to write one of these stories, you have to reinvent it. You need to present death in a way that has never been done before. If I feel like I’ve read a story before, then I probably have, and that doesn’t excite me.
I’m open to stories of any style, but there is a difference between a type of style being essential to telling the story and style for style’s sake. The former brings new light to the story, the latter is just a gimmick. Feel free to experiment, just make sure that whatever you do works the way you intend it to, and that there is a story behind it.
Meg: Creating specific, unusual detail is the way to avoid the trap you describe here. In flash, the writer’s words act like an emotional microscope. The way in is through sensory detail.
Chekov said: “Don’t Tell Me the Moon Is Shining; Show Me the Glint of Light on Broken Glass.” When the writer makes us care about characters, it will not matter how familiar a story is, it will feel new. A long while ago I worked as an editor for a magazine who had this rule: “We won’t read bar stories”. I found this view to be reductive and cynical. Tell us a bar story, but as Tino said, reinvent it.
What Flash Fiction are you reading at the moment?
Tino: I’ve just finished reading Etgar Keret’s memoir-in-flash The Seven Good Years, which is funny, sad, and uplifting in equal measure. I’m currently reading The Vixen Scream and other Bible Stories by Nancy Stohlman, and I love what I’ve read so far. I’ve purchased a copy of To Carry Her Home, which is the first volume of flash fiction published by Bath Flash Fiction Award which contains winners, short-listed, and long-listed stories from the first four contests.
Meg: I recently finished reading and rereading all of the Christopher Merkner’s flash fiction I could find online after completing his collection from Coffee House Press “The Rise and Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic”. Merkner is a genius with both flash fiction and traditional length stories. His work is demonically funny, unexpectedly tender and terrifyingly dark. Nobody else writes like him. He makes it new.
You’ve both released Flash Fiction books recently (reviewed here and here). Could you tell us what the process was like?
Tino: Exciting and unexpected! I had been developing a small collection of stories about perceptions and connections/disconnections, which was a theme that I noticed threaded together a number of my published and unpublished flashes for about a year. Then last year Spencer Chou, editor of The Nottingham Review, approached me to say he was setting up The Nottingham Review Press to publish chapbook-length collections of prose, that he liked my writing, and he wondered if I’d be interested. I’d almost finished deciding on which stories to include, so everything kind of fell into place. Spencer is a fantastic editor to work with, and I thoroughly recommend that people read The Nottingham Review if you don’t already. Dots and other flashes of perception has been published for six months now, and it still doesn’t quite feel real.
Meg: That’s a great question. There’s nothing as exciting as sending your manuscript it to a press you admire and having it accepted. The process is thrilling, especially when the press is supportive and enthusiastic. It’s like giving birth—scary and wonderful and life-changing. The first press to publish one of my collections, 6 years ago, was Press 53 in North Carolina. When Kevin Morgan Watson accepted my collection I swooned. He took a chance on me. What a feeling.
BTW, since we’re on the subject—I do wish there were more presses accepting full flash fiction manuscripts (not just chap books). There aren’t many, which is surprising to me considering the meteoric rise of the form.
Which is your favourite story from the collection and why?
Tino: They’re all a little special to me. Some, such as ‘Corrections’ or ‘Shelf Life’ I love because they’re light-hearted and funny, and I enjoy reading these stories at events, and others, like ‘Introductions’ and ‘Calls for Ronan’, really set the precedent of what this collection is about and what it means to me. If I had to pick only one though, I would choose a funny flash: ‘I’m Growing My New Boyfriend in a Petri Dish’. This story was originally published in Flash Frontier for a science issue that was guest edited by Tania Hershman and Kathy Fish. I love the writing of these two authors so much, and knowing they selected this story for publication will always mean a lot to me. It’s one of my favourites to read at events.
Meg: Well, from other flash collections, “Scandamerican Domestic” (title story) of Christopher Merkner’s collection. My favorite writers of flash fiction are Jeff Landon, Robert Shapard and the late Richard Brautigan. Robert Shapard, who co-edited the Sudden Fiction series, has an older chapbook out called “Motel & Other Stories”. It is wonderful, as are his new stories that have been appearing online over these last few years. With Brautigan’s flash, my favorite, though it is hard to pick one of so many tresures, is “Pacific Radio Fire” from his collection “Revenge of the Lawn”. When Brautigan was writing flash there was no name for it. Shapard’s stories, like Landon’s, Merkner’s and Brautigan’s, are both funny and sad. It is so hard to pull that off. As you can see this is what I love to read.
You’ve done a number of readings – does this change your approach to writing Flash Fiction? Do you write with a reader and a reading in mind?
Tino: Since doing readings, I’ve become aware of how my stories sound as oppose to how they read on the page. I find myself reading drafts aloud more and more often during the revision process, and generally I think this is a good idea. I wouldn’t say I necessarily write with a reading in mind, but I do want my readers to feel something if they read or hear my work. I think about what impact I want to have on my audience when selecting stories to read. For example, if I choose to read ‘Just Like Mummy’ from my collection – a harrowing story of post-natal depression as told through the eyes of a child – I’m aware of the type of atmosphere that story creates, so I’ll choose something funny or light-hearted to follow. I exclusively read funny stories at the last Bath Flash reading in March, and that was not just great for the audience but uplifted my own spirits too.
Meg: Ha. I used to think that I’d get used to performing my work. Now I’ve accepted that I’ll always be a bit anxious before reading my work aloud.
When performing funny pieces, the writer takes a risk. When it goes well, the payoff is tremendous. Laughter is wonderful to hear. But funny pieces can also miss. When reading serious pieces, there will be less visible audience reaction. I prefer reaction!
Meg, you recently started working with the wonderful Great Jones Street, a stylish app for great short fiction. Has this experience shaped your writing in any way?
Meg: At Great Jones Street, I strongly appreciate the gift of being able to pay fiction writers for the privilege of publishing their work. That’s how it should be. I agree that Great Jones Street is stylish and engaging. Kelly Abbott has done such a great job. I’m glad you think so too!
As far as editing, I’ve edited a handful of magazines including the wonderful Smokelong Quarterly, New World Writing, New Flash Fiction Review and Great Jones Street. I would say that being an editor does make the writer acutely aware of how hard it is to have a piece noticed, but I’m not sure it teaches us how to do that. There is certainly no formula.
Tino, you’re the editor of Firefly Magazine – how has this shaped your development as a writer?
Tino: Being the Flash Fiction editor of Firefly Magazine, as well as a First Reader for Vestal Review, are both experiences that I enjoy being a part of. I think these experiences have shaped (and continue to shape) my development as a writer because I’m a little harsher about my own work. I’ve also developed an understanding of what editors do, how much work is involved, and that editors really don’t like rejecting work. Every editor wants to say yes; they want work they and their readers will fall in love, but you have to give them reason to. It is still a learning curve for me to look at my own work and decide when it is “ready”.
In addition, referring back to your question about things that should be avoided or well-worn tropes, reading for a magazine does confirm what people like us say in interviews about the type of stories editors receive too often. I would recommend getting involved with publications in some way because you learn a lot. Yes, magazines can’t exist without writers, but they also can’t exist without the people behind the scenes, and as most magazines rely on a masthead of volunteers, it’s important to get involved.
Aside from the Anthology, what else can we expect for the National Flash Fiction Day?
Tino: We have our Micro Fiction competition and we will be opening for submissions to our popular flash journal called FlashFlood. For those who don’t know, FlashFlood publishes a flash fiction every ten minutes throughout National Flash Fiction Day. It is one of my favourite parts about National Flash Fiction Day, mainly because I’m usually busy on the day itself helping with the anthology launch that I get to sit back and enjoy reading over 100 flashes the following day.
We normally launch the anthology in Bristol, but this year we’re launching the anthology at the U.K.’s first ever literary festival dedicated purely to flash fiction. The festival will be held in Bath on Saturday 24th June and Sunday 25th June, and it will be truly fantastic! Jude, Meg, and the other festival organisers have done an incredible job so far pulling everything together, and I’m looking forward to launching the anthology there!
Meg and Tino, it’s been a pleasure, as always!
Meg: Thank you so much for asking us to do this Rupert! And congratulations on the success of TSS Publishing. You’re doing great things here!
Meg Pokrass has authored four collections of flash fiction and an award winning book of prose poetry. Her work has appeared in 220 literary journals and anthologies (W.W. Norton, 2015). Meg won the Blue Light Book Award in 2015. Her most recent collection, The Dog Looks Happy Upsidedown was recently reviewed by TSS here. You can also read our last interview with Meg here. Meg currently works as a curator for Great Jones Street.
Santino Prinzi is the Flash Fiction Editor for Firefly Magazine, and a First Reader / Marketing Coordinator for Vestal Review. He’s the Co-Director of National Flash Fiction Day in the UK, and is now also a regular reviewer of flash fiction collections for the Bath Flash Fiction Award. His debut collection of flash fiction, Dots and other flashes of perception, was published by The Nottingham Review Press in 2016. He write flash fiction, prose poetry, short stories, and sometimes other things…
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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