by Michelle Reale
Michelle Reale: Len, first of all you are one of my favorite flash fiction writers. Second, you are extremely prolific—lucky for your readers! How do you manage this?
Len Kuntz: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. I’ve wanted to be a writer since age nine, so it’s very flattering and humbling to have someone like my stuff. I’m very lucky, because I retired from the corporate world about six years ago and now I write full time. I try to write every day. I try to get 2,000 to 4,000 words down, but that doesn’t happen very often.
Even though most people call me prolific, the truth is I’m kind of a slacker and should be writing much more than I do. Honestly. I mean, I have the ability to write all day, every day. I just fight what all writers fight—that subconscious which will have us doing almost anything—yard work, dishes—but write.
Michelle: How did you start writing flash fiction?
Len: I didn’t even know what flash was. I started writing seriously about two years ago. They were all 4,000 word short stories. I sent them to the traditional lit journals via postal mail—it was arduous, archaic and, I eventually realized, idiotic. Then I learned about the online literary community. I was fascinated.
It sort of blew my hair off. People like Kim Chinquee, Brandi Wells, xTx, Roxane Gay, Matt Bell and Meg Pokrass—they were the early ones who really inspired me, and I basically just studied the hell out of them, trying to learn the craft by reading everything they wrote and submitting to the places where they got published.
Michelle: You are a poet, as well. Do you write in both forms concurrently or do you tend to concentrate on one over the other for a certain period of time?
Len: Actually, it just depends on what I’m reading at the time. Whenever I read poetry, I feel this huge surge to compose poetry. Same with flash. Same with novels. When I write a novel, however, I have to consciously stop reading flash and poetry or it’ll pull me too far away from the bigger story.
Novelists are my heroes. Teachers, soldiers and novelists.
Michelle: Which form do you believe expresses what you want to say, best?
Len: Flash is my favorite. I like something sharp and tight, like getting a bullet to the heart, so that the person walks away shaking their head, feeling a sting for the rest of the day, if not longer.
Michelle: One of your predominant themes seems to be the body, which fascinates me. Stories such as “Thoroughly Modern Families,” “Skin,” “Motion Sickness,” and “Medicine and Meat” are incredibly inventive and vivid. How do stories like these come about?
Len: You picked some of my more bizarre pieces there! For longer stories, I usually have a theme or idea in mind. With poetry I find a line I like and just start writing. But I never really thought I had a fixation with “the body.” Maybe I do. Usually my central themes are about broken people, damaged families, abandoned or wounded children. All of the pieces you mentioned above cover those subjects. “Medicine and Meat” is a tough story (“You wouldn’t expect a little girl like me to have such a big penis inside her panties, but I do…”) about rape and vengeance. The body parts are sheer symbolism.
Michelle: Your micro piece “A Parent Your Own Age,” hit me in my solar plexus. I read with an eye towards poignancy. If there is suffering, I am sure to find it. I don’t want to pick apart the piece so much that the mystery and magic is laid entirely bare, but please talk about the writing of this piece.
Len: I wrote that at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop this summer. We were doing days of free writes. One day we were given a selection of titles, so I picked “A Parent Your Own Age.” Without saying too much, I know someone like the woman featured in the story, and so I tried to imagine what her life might have been like—all the raw tragedy—that eventually brought her to the polished, steely sort of way she ended up being as an adult. I think we all have had bad things happen to us, dark secrets and whatnot. I like to bring that to life. I don’t know why, exactly, but it’s the stuff I’m drawn to and that I find interesting. Happy stories don’t do a thing for me.
Michelle: “Happy Campers” made me squirm. You so nailed those types of conversations where people who love each other often have: passive aggressive with anger pulsating just beneath the surface. Does the “chick squirrel” really want the “red-faced curmudgeon” to choke to death in the woods?
Len: Maybe. Well, yes and no. Some spouses have that love/hate thing, don’t they?
Michelle: I have been fortunate on many occasions to receive incredibly kind kudos from you on my work and encouragement to go further. You are a wonderful presence on Facebook and you always have something nice to say to everyone—you are incredibly supportive. Tell me how the online writing community of flash fiction writers inspires you and how it has changed and/or influenced your writing.
Len: Well, Michelle, you’re a fantastic writer. Really, you are, so it’s easy to tell you that. As writers, we’re so lucky to have this incredible community to associate with. It makes the world small. And I love all things writerly. People like Sara Lippman, Meg Tuite, Robert Vaughn, Nicolette Wong, Cheryl Gardner—they’ve really gone out of their way for me and what’s impressive is—with the exception of Sara—I’ve never even met them. I always feel compelled to tell someone when I admire their work. It’s actually a thrill to be able to connect with other authors (remember, I love all things writerly.) Plus, I know how good it feels to have someone say, “Nice job.” It can get very lonely, this writing thing we do, to the point where you go, Why even bother? So, a kind, honest word from someone goes a long way.
Michelle: Who are your flash heroes and why?
Len: There are so many. Here are some I haven’t mentioned yet: Aubrey Hirsch nails it every time. Julie Innis—she can be incredibly poignant or remarkably funny, often at the same time. Riley Michael Parker writes with razor blades. Brian Olio paints gems like “she’s a name you once knew, the death of a star.” Kevin Sampsell says the things we’ve all lived. Barry Graham makes an overloaded ashtray seem sexy. Ben Loory—every one of his stories is a fable with loads of depth. And Sam Pink—I don’t even know if this guy is a real person, but he once wrote a 50 word story about a Jolly Rancher that was brilliant.
Michelle: Give your most sage advice to flash writers new to the form.
Len: Read lots and lots of flash. Write every day. Find a mentor or two. Learn to ask good questions. What do you do when you aren’t writing flash? I read a lot. I’m a runner. Plus I love movies and great TV like “Dexter” and “Six Feet Under”.
Michelle: Time for Michelle’s “Flash Challenge!” Here are your words should you choose to accept: Exhibition, bombast, fingernails, spirals, turbulence, plasma, barrage, conjecture and , last but not least, guts.
Len: Here you go…
She could be anybody’s monster, but she’s mine to tend. One day my wife says I have to choose and so I do. “Really, Len?” she says. “Really? You’re choosing her?” When we were very young kids, my sister was still happy. She had a filmmaker’s imagination. Then Mom remarried and Sis’s stories got darker and darker. Each night she told me a story about a monster that lived under our bed, how this part-wolf part-serpent would fly the neighborhood at night, searching bedrooms for young children to eat. “You don’t have the guts to leave me,” my wife says with bombast. But I do. I leave. *** At my sister’s, the proof is everywhere–her shredded fingernails, pupils pulsing like copper spirals, the tang of tar hanging heavy yet strangely invisible in her apartment. “It’s not what you think.” She’s a thin sheet, bones, limp flesh and cloth. When we were kids our stepfather used to beat her for no reason, with a barrage of blows. Sometimes he made up reasons to be ruthless. “What?” she asks, smearing a pink plasma of mucus across her cheek. It’s not hard to conjecture how we’ve gotten here, to this moment and this place on the planet, but it doesn’t make this any easier. I make for the door but she blocks the way. “I thought you loved me,” she says. Her hair is a mop of tangles, her skin pale as curdled cream. “I do,” I say. “I do, but I can’t.” “You promised.” Her voice is jagged, laced with desperation. “It’s not too late to start fresh.” She cackles, filling the air with spiced turbulence. “Well, I’m not going to do it. No way. I can’t.” “Fine.” “Call the hotline.” “You’re my hotline.” “I’m not going to kill you. Not a chance.” “It’s not me, you’ll be killing. You know that.” “He died last year.” “No,” she says, jabbing her chest with a finger. “He never died. He’s here and I can’t stand it.” “Please.” “The monster’s still here.” *** That night we sleep under a full moon staring at us with its one, voyeur’s eye. Her head is curled under my arm. “Thank you,” she says. “I mean that.” The pillow doesn’t seem thick enough, my hands don’t seem strong enough, but I’m wrong. I’m wrong about this.
Michelle: Awesome, Len. Thanks for offering insight into you process and for such a great flash piece!
Len: Thank you so much, Michelle. Your kindness means a great deal to me.
Len Kuntz lives on a lake in rural Washington State. His writing appears widely in print and online at such places as Elimae, The New Verse News, Red River Review and also at lenkuntz.blogspot.com.
Check out some of Len’s stories mentioned in this interview: “Thoroughly Modern Families”, “Skin,” “Motion Sickness,” “Medicine and Meat,” and “Happy Campers.”