STAFF


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 Sarah Crysl Akhtar

 Sarah AkhtarThere’s a lot of disdain these days for traditional publishing. Unknown writers look at the odds, and then at the alternatives, and are increasingly tempted to self-publish.

There are plenty of springy-looking platforms to leap off of. Anyone willing to invest a little money and a lot of time can start marketing their own work.

Should you bite that apple?

What’s so great about brick and mortar publishers, anyway?

Web-based publishers have cut overhead to the bone and many of them are marvelous. They’ve created a reader’s paradise. Even the cheapest paperbacks are largely unaffordable to people on limited budgets. But an e-book can be less expensive than a cup of coffee from the corner deli.

And web-based writers’ groups help fledgling authors build supportive audiences and markets for their work. You can be in the midst of a thriving artistic community no matter where you live.

But one of the fruits of a healthy community is a sort of self-censorship. It’s not dishonesty, but rather the desire not to wound. If we all said everything we thought, with absolute truth, all the time, life would become unbearable.

And writers’ circles or critique groups tend to form around people of similar levels of achievement. Everyone’s growing together. And everyone hopes for success, for themselves and their colleagues. There’s a powerful fellowship of encouragement.

This Eden needs a serpent.

I have never joyfully welcomed the email saying “there’s a slight problem with your story.” Seriously. Would I have sent it in if I thought it wasn’t ready?

It took me well over a year to skip the mental hyper-ventilating and get straight to revising, whenever a rewrite request arrived. I can still feel my head lowering mutinously as I read any criticism of my work.

But most of the editors I’ve worked with have helped me strengthen my own voice. Sometimes I don’t accede to every single suggestion, but I have never declined to revise a story, when requested.

That was a mistake in only one instance, but I knew at the time I was going for publication rather than the purity of my artistic vision, so to speak. So I take full responsibility for that.

Your mastery of craft is constantly growing. I’m pretty confident in my own gifts, now, but even so, it startles me to see how a beginning story from a couple of months ago, say, will seem awfully lacking today. I’ll need to rework those first few paragraphs before I can go any further.

When you self-publish, you have few brakes on that giddy road towards becoming a fine author. There’s an enticing tidbit that people like to munch on—the lists of successful authors showing how many times clueless agents and publishers turned them down, before they signed their first book contract.

Yes, it is true that genius is not always recognized in a timely way by the minions born to serve it. It’s true that very fine writers are rejected every day, and that self-publishing can be a midwife to works that truly deserve to see the light of day.

It can also make a name for you that you might wish you could escape, later. Maybe you’ve got great potential now but you’re not quite there yet. Maybe in a year or two or five, undaunted by rejection, you’ll have found that remarkable voice you always knew was inside.

Or maybe you published before you should have, and you had a brief exciting moment of seeing your stuff offered on Amazon, with wonderful reviews by everyone you know, and you never got any better than you were at that moment.

Don’t just believe the people who like you, and care about you, and want you to succeed. Think about why some of those people who’d love to have discovered the next new great talent are saying you’re not ready yet.

____________

Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

by Andreé Robinson-Neal

Andree-New

It’s time for us to take a look back over the month of costumes and candy corn now that we have stepped over the threshold into the domain of Arctic chills and turkeys. The month of October was certainly full of sweet treats and if you missed any of these tasty morsels you will want to pop over to Flash Fiction Chronicles and savor each one in full.

Susan Tepper got us off to a delicious start with her Bonnie ZoBell UNCOV/rd interview. We aren’t sure how Bonnie is able to cram all her awards and books, including her newest—What Happened Here: a novella and stories—into her home, but Susan managed to give us a nice tour of both the neighborhood and Bonnie’s writing inspirations.

Part of the fun of October is all the yummy sweets and Sarah Crysl Akhtar went back into the EDF Archive to bring us a wonderfully palatable tale called She’s a Biter. From the perspective of a child, we learn about family ties. And zombies. The story was close to receiving triple-digit votes and is certainly a perfect piece for the month of monsters.

Cameron Filas brought us back to (one of) the reasons we’re here with his piece on what to do when your accepted submission appears to have dropped off the cliff. He reminds us that we should put on our most endearing smile and send off a short note of inquiry. You might have snuggled down and expected a fright from T. Gene Davis since his article was called Hook the Skimmers, but his piece is not a Halloween tale. Rather, he treats us to his three-step method for taking those casual lookers and turning them into dedicated fans of our work.

Meg Tuite shared how she has attempted to “escape the  flesh canvas” and delights us in her honest (and not-horror-related) Why I Write Flash Fiction article. Thomas Kearnes does manage to give us a bit of a scare though: his title is Leaving Flash Fiction Behind and fortunately he added For Now to keep us from a panic. He talks of the seduction of flash and the challenge of stepping into the experience of writing longer works. And for those of us who need to strengthen our relationship with flash, Angela Rydell gave us a list of five online courses that will help us flex those mental muscles.

If your mental goodie bags are nearly full, be sure to leave room for the last few treats of the month. Sarah Crysl Akhtar circles back around to the things that go bump in the night and gives us links to five stories designed to properly inspire the chills. Jim Harrington provides a list chock full of markets ready for those polished stories, while Dr. Suzanne Conboy-Hill reminds us of what a mouthful (eyeful?) flash should be and how to properly use it to bait your hook for readers. Aliza Greenblatt closes the month with the EDF’s Top Author for September, Joanna Bressler, who shares about her multifaceted writing influences.

As you book your dental appointments and get ready for holiday shopping, be sure to stop through Flash Fiction Chronicles during the month of November. There are plenty of articles, reviews, and markets waiting for you to carve up and dig into.

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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

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.

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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.

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