INTERVIEWS


by Aliza Greenblatt

JeffImage

Jeff Switt is a retired advertising agency guy who loves writing flash fiction, some days to curb his angst, other days to fuel it. He lives on 80 acres of rural Texas with three dogs, 5 cats, a coop of fowl, 9 donkeys, 14 goats and his wife of 45 years. His story, Halloween Coming Out, was the top story at Every Day Fiction for October.

Aliza Greenblatt: So, let’s start off with some of my favorite questions: Why did you decide to start writing?

Jeff Switt: It was unintentional. My wife had been writing, privately, for a long time. She had expressed an interest in taking an on-line writing class but couldn’t justify the cost. For our August birthdays in 2012, I signed both of us up for an online Beginning Writers Workshop. It gave us something to do together, and we had a lot of fun with it. By the time the workshop was over, I found I really enjoyed the experience.

AG: From your publication credits, you seem to have a fondness for the very short story form. What drew you to flash fiction?

JS: After the workshop was completed, I looked online for short story sites. I soon got the feeling that short stories were the stepchildren of literature, and I was getting discouraged. Most of what I found were short stories written in traditional fiction style, simple in plot and character, lots of adjectives and adverbs, and not really all that interesting to read.

As I kept searching, I came across some sites which involved something called flash fiction, an unfamiliar term to me. The more I read about flash fiction style, and the more examples of flash fiction I read, the more excited I got.

The writing I did for my workshop was quite similar in style to what I found, although my efforts were amateurish in comparison to what I read online. In a couple of days I knew if I was to continue writing that I had found my calling.

AG: On your blog, you host a flash story competition called A Story in Three Paragraphs (be sure to check out the current contest). Can you tell us a little about that?

JS: As we often say, a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And I had the thought, likely not original by any means, why not see if there is any interest in writing a complete flash story in three paragraphs. There are numerous sites which use word counts as the structure limits. I wanted to try something similar, but different.

AG: Has curating a flash competition influenced your own writing at all?

JS: I regret to say that curating is an overstatement. I have done a poor job promoting the blog and the competition. The day my story appeared in EDF the blog registered 130 hits, and one story was submitted. I need to streamline the contents, make it easier to use. Another writer has graciously volunteered to help me. I need to dedicate some time toward that.

AG: When you sit down to write a new story, what is your process like?

JS: Often the story is already partly written in my head. In spring and fall I spend a lot of time on a tractor. I can only admire the pastures for so long until my mind starts to wander. Some story ideas come from there, from long highway trips, from grocery stores and parking lots, from checkout lines and distant memories.

When I do finally sit to write, it’s with lights off, TV off, no radio, and likely before my wife wakes or goes to bed. As I write, I tend to get what I call “all Rainman” and become each character in my stories. I have heard the term “method acting” applied to actors when they get in role. They just don’t act like the character, they become the character. That’s what I do.

AG: You mentioned elsewhere that this piece had some very specific inspirations. Can you tell us about them and a bit about how this story came together?

JS: I was at a 12-step organization conference some 12 years ago at an after-hours social. One of the attendees had been shot in the face, similar to my character, but by his wife, not in a hold-up. This was long before I started writing fiction. He was an amicable fellow, and he fit in as well as anyone else in the room. It was I who was uncomfortable. When the conference was over I felt ashamed of myself for not being able to make the effort to meet him, to treat him like anyone else in the room.

My recollection of him and that day surfaced frequently over the years. One very early morning I found myself thinking of that day and I began writing. In about three hours the first draft was written and edited. That was in September of 2013. Over subsequent months I would open the story file and edit this and that. It wasn’t until I began participating at EDF that I knew I had found the place to share the story.

Writing the story was my way of making amends to the man at the conference.

AG: Though this story has only about 800 words, it was jammed packed full of themes like overcoming fears, exterior verse interior personas, and the basic human need to feel accepted. Was it a challenge to balance all the complex emotions and themes in such a limited number of words?

JS: Thank you, but you are giving me far too much credit to think that I know all about such writing techniques. I did my share of writing during my advertising career. That, plus the 8-week online workshop, and a few “How To” writing books is the extent of my writing education. I do read a lot, and perhaps I have benefitted from some osmosis factor from that. I am grateful that you found those elements in my story. I have lots to learn.

AG: What other projects are you currently working on? Are there other stories of yours, either upcoming or published, that you can point readers to?

JS: A new story, Going Nowhere, about a carjacking gone bad, will be published at Every Day Fiction on November 30. Another story has recently been accepted at Out Of the Gutter OnlineWorking Overtime, a story about a wife taking revenge on her husband’s favorite prostitute. I don’t know the publication date. One story, Gas Stop, appeared a year ago at Shotgun Honey.

AG: Thank you very much for taking the time to chat with us. Best of luck with all your writing endeavors.

JS: Thank you for asking. It has been a thrill to have my story accepted so well and to have the opportunity to tell you and my friends at EDF something about myself.

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Aliza profile-pic-2

Aliza T. Greenblatt works in a firmly non-writing field when the sun is up and writes under a desk lamp at night.   Fueled by a sheer love of books and a tyrannical imagination, she writes the stories that appear over her morning coffee and won’t leave her alone until they are put down on paper.   She writes, raves, and blogs at http://atgreenblatt.com. and on Twitter  @AtGreenblatt

by RK Biswas

MyVeryEnd

My Very End of the Universe
Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form
Published by Rose Metal Press
329 Pages

Even to a relatively indifferent practitioner of this particular art like me, it is clear. Exciting things are happening to narrative forms when it comes to the short crisp ones popularly known as flash fiction. The excitement is not about old wine in new and newer bottles. These are genuine experiments that seem to have sprung from collective creative will. Something that Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney of Rose Metal Press realized within a few years of running their chapbook contest for flash fiction manuscripts.

Beckel and Rooney read more and more submissions containing linked flash fictions, with characters and settings spilling over even as each piece retained its stand-alone characteristics. They found manuscripts that read like single narratives, after they’d finished reading and looked back on the whole text. In 2011 their collection, which had five chapbooks chosen from their 2009 and 2010 contests, included two novellas-in-flash. These were Elizabeth J Colen’s Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake and Tim Jones Yelvington’s Evan’s House and Other Boys Who Live There. In the 2011 contest as well, they had a novella-in-flash winner—Betty Superman by Tiff Holland. And in 2012, Rose Metal Press’s guest judge, Randall Brown, chose Aaron Teel’s novella-in-flash Shampoo Horns. Little wonder that the editors of Rose Metal Press were excited by this ‘trend,’ and began to seriously explore ways to showcase the form, resulting in My Very End of the Universe and a Study of the Form, a book that according to Beckel and Rooney would be a “gripping, gratifying read and a tool for teaching and learning.”

With two winning chapbooks already in hand, they sought out three other authors who were working with the novella-in-flash form. They acquired Chris Bower’s The Family Dogs, Margaret Patton Chapman’s Bell and Bargain and Meg Pokrass’s Here Where We Live. All five authors used the novella-in-flash form in their own individual ways, as they explored complicated family relationships and concepts of home and family. The authors also included short essays that explained their ideas of the form and how they had applied them to their stories. The title came from a sentence in the story—Betty Superman—in the book. My Very End of the Universe (and I have to quote the editors because I can’t say it better) “seemed to sum up a magic particular to novellas-in-flash: the ability to focus intensely and specifically—a primary attribute of flash—on a character’s world for a sustained period of time—a key element in a novella.”

The first novella in the collection is Tiff Holland’s Betty Superman, a series of ten linked flash fictions exploring a mother-daughter relationship. In her introduction Holland writes that she finds flash “an art of pure essence—the spark, the quick uptick, the unblurred moment.” Specific to Betty Superman, Holland’s central character demanded this form, as in a novel she would have (according to her creator) grown to uncontrollable gigantic proportions, a “Godzilla.” Later as she delved into the realm of flash, she found herself being pulled in by “Betty” and her life, following her wherever she led. Holland found the individual stories forming a natural arc by themselves that lead to the bigger whole.

Betty Superman is written in the first person, and we view Betty through the eyes of her daughter. The first chapter—Dragon Lady—was written, according to Holland, like a character sketch composed as a narrative poem. At first, it appears to be just a colorful description of an interesting and eccentric character. The nuances become more apparent as one progresses into the novella, and the narrator’s voice opens up more and more about the complex relationship between the two women. The descriptions given in the first chapter also help create a better understanding of “Betty” in action and her relationship with the narrator, who confesses as she recalls her mother’s fist meeting with her future first husband, “I am a hell of a shot. Already it would have occurred to me, I could always shoot her.”As the stories unfold and the bigger story emerges, there is greater acceptance with age and diminishing health of both, though it is still there—”the floors of my childhood covered with the shards of broken knickknacks.” A clearer expression of love between daughter and mother emerges in the end. “She doesn’t rub the lipstick in the way she used to even when I was in my thirties, and I don’t rub it away either.”

The second novella, Here Where We Live is by Meg Pokrass. In her introduction, she compares novella-in-flash with stitching patchwork quilts; taking fragments and pieces to create art that is layered. Both art forms require improvising for both content and structure. As Pokrass puts it, “A novella-in-flash writer and a crazy quilt artist both become familiar in navigating incompletion and juxtaposition.” The idea is, according to her, to delve into “unlikely places” and putting together an “untraditional whole.” The stories can stand alone, and also move the narration forward.

Comprising twenty two chapters, Here Where We Live has been put together by pulling out poems and stories from the last twenty years, “from her metaphorical scrap bag,” some of which were narratives about a teen aged girl and her mother. During her search among her older work, Pokrass rediscovered the characters, the important ones, and found new ideas. She formed what was to become the narrative arc of the novella by imagining what may happen when things go wrong in a young person’s life, exploring the various ways to cope with stress and happiness, and more importantly wisdom. At the same time, her repeat journey/s through the old and apparently familiar landscapes threw up “fresh energy and new meaning”, and an “unexpected new order that ends up feeling just right.” The novella-in-flash according to Meg Pokrass mirrors life. Just as one can never visualize the narrative arc in life as it is being lived, but only after it is over, so with this form the reader goes along with the flow, relating to each piece and then looking back on the journey to understand the path it took.

Here Where We Live is the story of Abby, a sensitive and gifted child, grappling with her father’s death, mother’s cancer and her own growing up issues. Written with a poet’s eye, Pokrass takes us through a seemingly disjointed journey with Abby as she tackles their new life in Santa Barbara with her ailing mother, their grandmother’s run down house in a less prosperous part of the town, her friend Junie who shares nothing in common with her, Junie’s bother Kyle, and her mother’s boyfriend Daniel. There is sorrow, anger and a bleak landscape, because “you can’t stop mold from being itself.” Yet, through Abby’s slow and difficult steps towards gaining control of her life, her agony and deliberations and observations, her heart never loses faith—“there are very good men in the world, but like earth worms, they are not easily visible.” In the end, light shines, as warm as the hand on her breast, as she finds the right person and gets rid of the wrong one from her mother’s life and hers too; when she holds on to what is good for them both, “because they are helium balloons trying to stay down on Earth.”

Aaron Teel’s Shampoo Horns is a nineteen-chapter long novella-in-flash that at first glance gives the (deceptive) impression of a boy’s growing-up-in-the-summer story, but the shampoo horns the protagonist sports in the bathtub, in the title story, are no more innocent than the events that follow.

According to Teel, a novella-in-flash takes the best of flash and marries it with the longer form or novel, providing “space for myriad moments to co-exist, rub up against, and reverberate off one another,” turning a series of snapshots into a slide show. When creating this work, Teel took stories that followed the will of memories, not chronologically, but linked through associations, images, turning Shampoo Horns into a place for his characters to “dwell and roam around in rather than move through in an unbroken line.” To further elucidate the technique Teel uses, I quote him: “when a succession of moments has receded far enough away, the memories that remain are mixed up and weird, disconnected, out of time—they come to me in flashes. To the extent that memory is the hidden conceit in Shampoo Horns, the novella-in-flash is its ideal form.”

Shampoo Horns is a remembered past, brought to life into the present just the way the individual memories appeared to the now grown up, lanky and red-haired protagonist—Cherry (or Mathew as he was christened but never named). We know that Cherry is looking back into his past, but we never see his grown-up face. It’s as if he is the video camera, held clumsily by his reader, us, you, me, walking through the trailer park, crossing timelines in same the way one swings a leg across a chain-link fence and crosses over. The initial innocence of shampoo horns dissipates like soap bubbles when Cherry’s half-brother, Clay, enters his life, at once fascinating the twelve year old Cherry, horrifying, and even repelling him. “Clay is rebellious and mean, and I know I will never be as cool as him,” is just the tip of the ice berg. Clay has the devil’s brand in his bones, (except that this is what their dad says to Cherry) and he thinks nothing of giving vent to his anger, resentment and sheer malice upon the small and weak, be it Cherry or his best friend Tater Tot. Clay’s violent disposition can only be matched by a tornado, and one does come, ripping through their homes, turning their whole trailer park neighborhood into a catastrophic pile up of trailer vans and tossed up belongings. Teel begins his story on the eve of this natural disaster, and pulls us into the narrative, piece meal, one emerging memory at a time, and finally brings us back full circle to the beginning. Except, now we cannot but ponder about the now grown up Cherry, the kind of person he may or may not have become.

For Margaret Patton Chapman, author of Bell and Bargain, the novella-in-flash form enabled her to tell a story spanning from birth to adolescence and to flesh out characters in ways that would have proved tough in more traditional story telling forms. The small individual narratives of flash float on white space, signifying there is more to the story. In her own words, “Each of the pieces of this work came out as little bits, glimpses and fragments, each a clue to the story but each mysterious even for me.”

The longest novella-in-flash in the collection Bell and Bargain (spanning 31 chapters) is a fable, not set in mythical times. But during a time in American history when everything is roiling, sooty and grimy, harsh and cruel, reaching towards a future bursting with needs—when railroads were built, and men and women went prospecting for gold, and sharp shooting outlaws ruled and were in turn killed. When Bell is born, her mother, the neighbors and also the reader believes an enchanted child has come into the world. It is both fascinating and frightening, and initially gainful for the fatherless family. Bell’s two older brothers are as different as slate and chalk, but stay loyal to Bell in their own ways. The enchantment soon turns into a curse, especially for Bell. The story of their lives turn as bleak as the ashes left from the fire that razed their home. Yet, in the face of tragedy, when love is an ink sodden pill to swallow, Bell rings in change within her and emerges from her situation into the future. In the end, there is no promise, but hope.

One cannot say more about the story. Not because it will give the plot away, but because this story cannot be described. Bell’s story must be read and felt. Its spaces must be allowed to envelop the reader as well as be experienced as respite between one point in the narrative and the next. Because it is in the spaces that Bell’s and this novella-in-flash’s enchantment and mystery lie. As Chapman says in her introduction about her protagonist, “Bell is very much a character from a fairytale: the wished for daughter, the youngest, the magical child. Her story and character are influenced by two famously voiced and silenced young women from classic fairy tales: the little mermaid and the princess sister from a number of versions of the Swan Brothers’ tale. Both are tragic figures who give away their voices for men. Both also point to the relationship between self and voice and demonstrate how dangerous the world can be for an unvoiced woman; both characters make trades that end in barely redeemed tragedies…Bell’s strangeness does not offer explanation. The lack of it assures us that her world is not the same as ours. Perhaps the novella-in-flash also needs no explanation except that it is what it is: glimpses of secrets, artifacts and clues; a map not to but of treasures; small things pieced together into a whole.” As the novella-in-flash Bell and Bargain illustrates, so poignantly.

Chris Bower’s novella-in-flash, The Family Dogs, nineteen chapters of flash pieces long and unevenly but significantly divided into two parts, starts off with a poem, by way of introduction, which in retrospect reveals a lot more about the narrative, except that by then it is too late because the whole work has already been read! This is the last in the collection, and the most surreal; even the introduction is blurred or rather allowed to leak into the novella. Narrated in the first person, The Family Dogs may appear to be an autobiographical work at a superficial level. The autobiographical element stems from Bower’s own family anecdotes, as revealed in the introduction. If you come from a family of story tellers, where actual events and situations are added to until they “reveal a deeper truth than the truth.”

Bower says in his introduction: “In our lives we are sometimes allowed only glimpses into other people’s lives, singular moments with characters we will never deeply know. How we twist and turn what we have seen or heard or felt has always been fascinating to me. I have always loved fragments, because they give me permission to fill in the blanks, to imagine the rest, and I think the novella-in-flash was the next logical step, to take these tiny pieces, each with a stand-alone agenda and glue them into a larger story.”

So Al, the main protagonist of The Family Dogs, lives in his own world, of bits and pieces of imaginings and family stories through which we are given a picture of what his family is like, what his life among them is like. It’s a collage, pretty much complete, but with an area that is left to hang a bit outside the frame—the story told from the point of view of Matt, Al’s brother.

Bower begins the narrative with his birth, an outrageous situation that sets the tone of the rest of the flashes that follow; lays down, for the reader, the benchmark by which to judge the narrative. Some of the pieces are indeed tiny, mere paragraphs floating in an absence of words that manage to convey more. One gets the impression that Al is perhaps running down a lane, peeping into homes that house his memories, sometimes lingering sometimes as if he has snuck in through the basement window. Each home is in its own fenced in place, but all of them face the lane. There is a breathless quality, almost as if Al is impatient, even when he needs to remember his mother’s death, and will not wait to stop and see if his reader’s with him. Yet, when Matt takes over the telling, the very last piece, the pace is slower, more in control, as if he has thought it all out carefully, like he wants to make sure there is no mistake. Perhaps because he needs to share a vital piece of information about his brother Al, and the stories he needed to tell. And, like a good short story which keeps its punch line until the very end, a sentence that is not trying to create a clever ending, but is, in this case asking the reader to rethink, take his/her own personal narrative leap.

The book ends. But the stories are far from over.

Each writer in this collection has taken his/her individual idea and method of writing novella-in-flash and fleshed it out, while adhering to the theme of family and relationships. Not like the blind men who discovered the elephant, a specific part and never the whole. But as diamond cutters, each perfecting the chosen preference—round, baguette, marquis, radiant, princess, and so on—until it shines with a brilliance al its own.

I have deliberately refrained from getting into too many details about the five novellas in this collection, or at least tried to. And, instead have focused on leaving behind a scent for the reader to follow. I felt it would defeat the purpose of the review, because flash, as its name suggests is supposed to pulsate with light and not carry a long and steady beam. That is the whole charm and mystery of this form, taken to another level as novellas.

By bringing out this collection, what Rose Metal Press has, in reality, done is bring out a tome of a book for aficionados and practitioners of the form. For at more than 300 pages, the length of a good sized novel, My End of the Universe is indeed a tome as far as flash fiction goes, and will be treasured by serious as well as casual readers.

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Rumjhum Biswas

RK Biswas’s novel Culling Mynahs and Crows was published by Lifi Publications, India in January 2014. A short story collection—Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women—is forthcoming in mid 2014 from Authorspress, India. Another story collection from Lifi Publications, New Delhi in mid 2015. Biswas’s short fiction and poetry have been published in journals and anthologies, both in print and online, all over the world. Her poem Cleavage was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2006 and also was a finalist in the Aesthetica Contest in 2010. In 2007, her story Ahalya’s Valhalla was among Story South’s notable stories of the net. Her poem Bones was a Pushcart Nominee from Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writer’s Retreat Short Story Contest. She blogs at http://www.rumjhumkbiswas.wordpress.com.

 

by Susan Tepper

Richard Fulco
Richard Fulco received an MFA in Playwriting from Brooklyn College. His plays have been either presented or developed at The New York International Fringe Festival, The Playwrights’ Center, The Flea, Here Arts Center, Chicago Dramatists and the Dramatists Guild. His stories, reviews and interviews have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Failbetter, Front Porch, Bound Off, The Rusty Toque, Full of Crow, Nth Position, the Daily Vault and American Songwriter. He is the founder of the online music magazine Riffraf. There Is No End to This Slope is his first novel. Learn more about Richard at the following: www.riffraf.net, www.wampus.com, and www.richardfulco.com.

Susan Tepper: You’ve titled your debut novel There Is No End To This Slope. It’s a compelling title that could be interpreted in many ways. Does it imply optimism or the other direction for you?

Fulco_book_cover

Richard Fulco: Well, the novel shifts back and forth between Staten Island and Park Slope. Hence, “slope.” While I was working on the novel, the image of John Lenza lugging a suitcase filled with textbooks up and down the slopes of Park Slope, Brooklyn was a powerful one. For the most part, I envision John going uphill, never quite reaching the top.

>The Myth of Sisyphus played an instrumental role in the development of the novel. Whereas Sisyphus eventually rolls the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll back down, I don’t think John ever makes it to the top of the precipice. He doesn’t allow himself the opportunity to embrace the journey. Perhaps he’s so fixated on the destination, but for him there is no destination either. One must have a task before venturing out. John doesn’t know what his task is.

Some might interpret the slope as John’s descent, but he’d have to arrive somewhere first before having a drop off and I don’t think he reaches the pinnacle of anything other than his own misery.

ST: Your protagonist, John Lenza, I see as a decent guy wearing two little females on his shoulders: the angel-female (Stephanie) and the devil-female (Emma). He is man in the middle of a conundrum when the book opens. It’s cool, and grabbed me right away. It forces the reader to take a side and become involved.

RF: Thank you, but it wasn’t my intention to coerce the reader into taking a side. John idealizes his long lost friend, Stephanie. After she died, he harbors guilt for more than twenty years. When he and Emma break-up, he even idealizes her. This is what John does. It’s his modus operandi.

John is an emotionally unstable individual who is unhappy with the present, so what does he do? He delves into the past where it’s dependable, unchanging and glorified. This is the way he operates. Stephanie’s death consoles him. Therefore, as a middle-aged man he writes letters to her. His finds solace in his divorce, so while he’s in Seattle, thinking about leaving Brooklyn behind, he writes poems about Emma.

ST: In a scene between the unhappily married John and Emma, he does a silly dance in his underwear and tries to convince her to have sex with him. Emma blows him off. Internally he is thinking: Even though I was approaching middle age, the need to be needed was as intense as ever.

I found this interesting in the sense that it seems to be the driving force behind John and the life choices he makes. I don’t sense this emotional quality in Emma at all.

RF: John is not unique in his desire to be loved and needed and adored and celebrated. All of us crave these things. We all want to be superheroes. The only problem with the desire to be a superhero is that most of us are just ordinary, average blobs of flesh (and I mean that in the kindest way possible).

Ordinary folks rarely do extraordinary things, and in John’s case he focuses on external things, things that are out of his control rather than stuff that he can get a handle on such as his job, writing and addiction problems.

John needs help. He’s not willing to ask for it. He’s not willing to accept it. But he is more than willing to live in this imaginary world that he’s built in his mind. Fantasy sustains him whereas reality disables him.

ST: Despite the protagonists ‘angst’ over his dead love, and his difficult wife, Emma, there is a lot of humor in this novel. To me, there’s a Woody Allen aspect to John, in that he’s a tad neurotic about, well, a lot of things. The scene in the doctor’s office when John is getting a rectal exam threw me into spasmodic laughter. Your delivery was so deadpan, which made the scene work so well.

RF: Thank you, Susan.

I hope that readers sympathize with John Lenza and laugh with him (or at him). He’s a fool. He’s Yorick not Prince Hamlet. He’s not even J. Alfred Prufrock or Woody Allen.

He is deeply neurotic, insecure and nebbish and I can see that he is Woody Allen-esque. However, I’m not sure that John shares Allen’s intellect. Woody Allen’s character, in say the earlier films – Annie Hall and Manhattan – might be somewhat sympathetic, but by his later films – Whatever Works and Midnight in Paris – you just want to string the guy up. He’s detestable, infantile and idealistic. The same could be said, I guess, about my protagonist. By the end of the novel, I suspect most readers will be fed up with John’s shenanigans.

ST: It’s interesting to hear an author take a strong stance ‘against’ a character who is, after all, their creation. I have always felt rather close to my most vile characters. Personally, I’m not remotely fed up with what you call ‘John’s shenanigans’.

Over the course of the winter I began reading James Baldwin’s Another Country. It’s filled with pretty vile characters, but they are ‘human in their frailties’ and I believe it is their weaknesses that draws the reader. I found the same with your characters, even the most annoying such as Emma. I think you write your characters from the empathy section of your brain and that’s what makes this book so good.

RF: The truth is, I’m not the most sympathetic person in the world, so in early drafts Emma Rue and Dawn Bello don’t come across as sympathetic characters.

As I continued to hone both characters, I found more compassion for both of them. I was careful not to demonize them or John (for that matter). Frailties, flaws and shortcomings are what makes us human. All three of them do vile things, but that’s the way life works. Good people do vile things. Good people either rectify those vile things, forgive themselves and others and move on. Or in John’s case, they struggle to move on.

I hope that Emma, Dawn and John’s weaknesses are what makes them captivating characters. In the drafting process, it was extremely gratifying to watch them develop.

ST: I’m glad you seemed to like them all by the book’s end. I feel it’s a good thing to like our characters, despite how they might strike the readers

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Susan-Tepper200w

Susan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books. She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2014, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd. www.susantepper.com

 

by Andreé Robinson-Neal

Rolli is a writer, illustrator and cartoonist hailing from Canada. He’s the author of  two short story collections (I Am Currently Working On a Novel and God’s Autobio), a book of poems (Plum Stuff), and the middle grade catstravaganza Dr. Franklin’s Staticy Cat. His cartoons appear regularly in Reader’s Digest, Harvard Business Review, Adbusters, The Chronicle of Higher Education and other popular outlets. Visit Rolli’s website (www.rollistuff.com) and follow him on Twitter @rolliwrites.

Photo by Tea Gerbeza.

If you happen to run into Rolli on the street, you might want to stop him and ask the question: “What do you mean ‘working on’?” His recently published flash collection, I Am Currently Working on a Novel, is six novels in one volume. Each piece of flash is categorized within different themes and each theme is a literary work that stands on its own merit.

In Hollywood, Rolli offers multiple glimpses of the City of Angels. Where else could a serial stalker, a Mulhulland Drive murderess, and a mermaid all live in relative anonymity? The stories run the gamut from horror to comedy. Is Dracula real or a superhero? What happens when beauty dies? How can a utensil bender practice his craft when his wife won’t let him in the kitchen? And what can we do with a broken soldier searching for Hollywood?

It doesn’t stop raining in Hollywood. But this isn’t even Hollywood. I can’t find Hollywood.

When I thought it was Hollywood, I walked everywhere, but I couldn’t find the stars. I couldn’t ask anyone. I felt like getting sick. I hadn’t had water in a long time. (Dear Hollywood II)

Rolli’s descriptions are crisp and strike with a thud of reality that is as disconcerting as it is eloquent. The Golden Weekend is a Polaroid that provides moments frozen in time. The characters live in the moment and scrape the reader’s emotions raw. The narrator of I Am a Robot will keep us out of the ocean, while the voice on the other end of The Seaphone will make you want to lift the receiver of every pay phone you see. Chances are strong that you would be very thirsty like the narrator in I Have a Crusty Tongue if you too lived in a well.

It was during the war—which war, I don’t recollect—that the children came to Beige House. Twenty-four dingy, bug-eyed children, half of whom, evidently, had never made the acquaintance of a hairbrush, the other half of soap and water. (The Golden Weekend: Horrible Summer)

The Drowned Woman takes a more somber tone. Each piece is a glimpse into a bruised soul that exudes crushed spirits and broken psyches beneath facades of strength. The faces on the kitchen wall in Tears and Cake and the exclamation point-filled pronouncements in Hee Hee I’m the Toof Fairy! leave chills that are worse than nails on a chalkboard.

To prove the point, there is the following section: The Impossible Man (An Evaporated Novel), which proves the opening comment that is not ‘working on’ a novel but has, like the narrator in Vivian Jackson Bean, already written many. This evaporated tome is bursting with women and animals, sometimes alone but more often entangled in a complex dance of words.

More pages reveal more emotion. If child-like wonder could be placed in a blender with grotesqueness, curiosity, pleasure, and wonder, the result might be found in Candy Island. The story of the same name is pleasantly unpleasant. Nothing short of such a recipe could create a story like There’s a Swan in My Scrotum. Stories like Thumbs cause feigned looks of concern that hide laughter behind closed lips. And whatever you do, don’t wheel under the Bee Trees.

It seems fitting that Rolli would close out with a section titled The Graveyard. After all, that’s typically the end of things. However, sometimes death is not what it seems.

It seems funny to say, but I live in a piece of paper. It seems funny to say—but not so funny to live. It’s a great square of paper, twelve feet square, that I dragged into an alley between one art gallery and another art gallery. Every night, or in the daytime, even, when it’s cold, I roll up in it, like tobacco in an enormous cigarette. (The Great Swanzini)

At best, death means finding paradise, like the quiet room of The Poe’s Private Library. At worst, death probably means not having the money for burial and meeting The Cemetery Bird.

No spoilers here but when you reach the last page, you may desire a second chance to run into Rolli in the street. If you do, be sure to nod, tip your hat, and wish him well. Writing a novel is hard work. In the meantime, check his progress at www.rollistuff.com.

____________

Andree-New

Andreé Robinson-Neal got bit by the writing bug back in the late 1970s while watching Rod Serling and reading Ray Bradbury–both of whom are everyday inspirations; although she has worked in education for more than a quarter-century, she has never been cured of her penchant for speculative fiction. Find some of her flash fiction at starvingartist.com. She writes under the name AR Neal, who will hopefully one day be identified as a famous NaNoWriMo participant.

by Susan Tepper

Bonnie ZoBell

Bonnie ZoBell’s new linked collection from Press 53, What Happened Here: a novella and stories, was released on May 3, 2014. Her fiction chapbook The Whack-Job Girls was published in March 2013. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in fiction, the Capricorn Novel Award, and a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. She has held resident fellowships at MacDowell, Yaddo, VCCA, and Dorland, received an MFA from Columbia University on fellowship, and currently teaches at San Diego Mesa College. Visit her at www.bonniezobell.com.

Susan Tepper: What Happened Here is a captivating book title because it’s so beckoning. It is also the title of your first piece (a novella) in this collection, which encompasses so much life and death simultaneously.

What-happened-HereBonnie ZoBell: Lord knows I appreciate that, Susan. I went through so many titles over the years before arriving at this one. Briefly I liked Block Party, but then it seemed too ghoulish since the party in the book is commemorating a real-life plane crash in which 144 people died. Vessels was a little too. . .literary? Trying too hard? Before that it was This Time of Night, after one of the stories, and then Why Are You Here.

Finally, Steve Almond, who was a wonderful mentor and reader for me for this book, pointed out that often when I talked to him about the novella, I started sentences with, “What happened here was . . . ” Finally I had a title.

ST: I’ve had some personal experience with a plane crash, but nothing near what goes on in this novella you wrote, Bonnie. What makes your novella so masterful is the way you interweave past and present, allowing the current inhabitants of the neighborhood to lean into the ghosts of those who fell from the sky. At the same time respecting them, while trying to exorcise them. It’s tricky business.

BZ: Part of the reason I wrote about this crash is because I live only feet away from where it occurred thirty-five years ago.

ST: I had no idea!

BZ: Debris fell on my cottage, though it didn’t get demolished like twenty-two nearby houses did. Next door a body fell through the roof and landed on the then-owner’s home. Refrigerated trucks were a regular feature on our streets for some weeks because of the number of body parts found and the need to identify who they belonged to. I lived in this neighborhood, but on the other side of it—some miles away. I remember that morning distinctly.

ST: It isn’t the sort of thing you’d ever forget, right?

BZ: Right. But as for melding past and present together—I was writing the novella about a man who is bipolar and sinking fast, and I was living in this cottage where the crash had occurred, and they sort of melded in my mind—the trajectory of both.

ST: That’s a perfect example of the creative mind putting together seemingly diverse incidents to form a work of art. You set the story in the present time to integrate the character of the bipolar man.

BZ: Yes, most of the story is set in the present, and it was hard not to spend too much time in the past. The crash and the ghosts left behind from it inform the present story, but I didn’t want to bog the story down with too much. I took a lot of the parts about the crash out. It was tricky.

ST: I can imagine. Because such a thing is so emotionally charged. So inconceivable really. Planes are supposed to stay in the sky, not crash down onto neighborhoods. Similar to when the World Trade Center came down, people cannot let go of that, and those living in that area will never let go, I suspect.

Your character inhabitants, though it’s many decades later, have identified with the crash and can’t seem to shake it off, though some were probably not even born when it happened. Why do you suppose it has its grips in them?

BZ: It’s part of our history. And there are very physical elements still here that mark where it happened. The neighborhood is full of Craftsman-style homes and Spanish Revivalist cottages built in the ’20s and ’30s. Twenty-two homes were demolished in the crash and others were damaged, and these homes were replaced in the late ’70s and early ’80s. As you can imagine from the unfortunate architecture of those later dates, these places look entirely different than the rest of the neighborhood.

We’re reminded, perhaps more than other neighborhoods, that fate can step in and change everything in an instant. It would be like if there was a home in your neighborhood where someone was murdered. Afterward, the home will always be remembered in that way. Often-times it’s even hard to sell a house like that. This is on a much larger scale. Besides which, we have the spirits of all those poor souls still here. We have to respect them.

ST: At the conclusion of the novella, you have added ten stories to this book. How did ‘Uncle Rempt’ find his way into the storyline?

BZ: “Uncle Rempt” was written from a prompt on Zoetrope Virtual Studio. I like him—he’s an oddball of a guy, which the narrator of the story, Susan, really needs. He’s some bit of light-heartedness, needed after the novella, which did have some dark humor in it, but was a much more serious story. Since Uncle Rempt was already off to some idyllic sort of spot, I just made that be North Park, where the rest of the book is set.

Susan herself is imprisoned at the beginning, as many of the characters in the collection are, and manages to find her way out to a better life as even the macaws in the neighborhood have. She comes of age and no longer has to be beholden to her archly conservative and overly-religious father. With her foot already halfway out the door and into the dorm her father only recently let her move into at a Catholic university, it’s easier. He becomes enraged when he finds out that Susan has taken a liking to his free-spirited brother Rempt. When Susan’s father summons her back to the house, she instead takes off cross-country with her uncle to a great place in Cali called North Park. There they sell air, and Susan lets her hair fall into dreadlocks. A whole new life!

ST: Uncle Rempt being attached to North Park, where the novella is set, breathes new life onto North Park in an abstract sort of way that’s really interesting.

Your final story in this collection is titled “Lucinda’s Song” and involves an elderly woman. A kind of circling around and coming to rest. But, gently. You wrote:

But mostly North Park brought Lucinda peace.

BZ:  Glad to hear you feel “Uncle Rempt” is a nice change after the opening novella. I mean to show how eclectic the neighborhood is by placing stories with dissimilar characters close to each other. Lucinda in “Lucinda’s Song” may be an octogenarian and her story might be at the end of this collection, but she’s no shrinking violet, as she’d be the first to tell you. The story starts in her voice:

“The night Ramόn Fernández first turned up at Sunday bingo hosted by the Sisters of the Precious Blood, Lucinda Sánchez couldn’t have cared less. He and all those old hussies in attendance could kiss her eighty-year-old ass. And, frankly, it wasn’t such a bad ass. They might be surprised. “

Lucinda is finally free in this tale. Like the macaws and other stories in this linked collection, she has found a way to leave her unhappy past behind and has fallen in love and into a torrid love affair with Ramόn, so much so that when they make love, one or the other always seems to throw his or her back or hip out when they do it against the dishwasher or refrigerator.

ST: I can think of worse ways of getting injured!

_______________________

 

Susan-Tepper200w

Susan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books. She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2014, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd. www.susantepper.com

 

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