by Rumjhum Biswas
Angel Zapata, a Georgia-based dad of four active young boys, is still growing up! That is not surprising, given his many interests and occupations; it’s obvious that the man isn’t really trying! Angel spent the first thirty years of his life “bouncing back and forth between Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan” before moving to Georgia where he “fell madly in love with a spunky Georgia peach and married her.”
Angel has been writing fiction and poetry since he was fifteen, for around twenty-five years, but in between he’s had an amazing range of occupations. He holds a science degree and is a nationally certified paramedic graduate. He’s worked in a stockroom, answered phones, and been an outdoor parking garage attendant, installed burglar alarms, spent ten years as an advertising account executive, volunteered as an emergency medical technician and worked on an assembly line building tractors.
Currently, Angel works as a quality technician for an agricultural company. His interests include collecting comic, pulp magazines, and mass market paperback originals, and, in his own words, “I still don’t know what I wanna be when I grow up!” Meanwhile, Angel has written and been published. Some of his fiction and poetry has appeared in The Boston Literary Review, Long Live the New Flesh, The Flash Fiction Offensive, and Nailpolish Stories. He runs and edits a magazine called 5X5, a magazine that revels in stories succinctly told. He is a contributing author of four collections of short fiction, The Best of Everyday Fiction II, Branded Words, Mausoleum Memoirs and Toe Tags and two of poetry, Collaboration of the Dead Presents Putrid Poetry & Sickening Sketches Vol 2 and The Best of Everyday Poets One.
Angel Zapata likes dark tales; stories that bite. As one of his readers ( L Miller) wrote in a review of the Trestle Press short story horror series, The Man of Shadows, “Angel spins tales of gothic darkness and contemporary horror with equal skill.” Angel also likes his stories to be bite-sized. Five lines being his favourite length. Think of a zombie that nibbles off pieces from your head and you’ll come pretty close to the kind of stories that gets Angel excited.
Visit Angel’s blog, A Rage of Angel and 5×5 Fiction for more on Angel.
Rumjhum Biswas: You seem to have a missionary zeal about “skillfully shortening the short story.” Is there a story in this?
Angel Zapata: I definitely believe in the power of very short fiction. Simply put, I think we’re living in the age of the short-short story. Everything in our lives is getting faster, shorter, smaller… more convenient. Technology, in a lot of ways, is slowly replacing the “novel length” mode of communication.
People now are quick to tweet or Facebook their statuses; short and sweet. I think this type of condensed communication has spilled into how much we’re willing to read. Getting to the point and eliminating superfluous words has become the norm. In essence, flash fiction is this age of technology’s natural evolution. Interest by readers, writers, and editors is only going to increase in the coming decades. And I want to be a part of it.
And for clarification, I’m not advocating we shun novels nor am I saying you can have the same richness of scene or character development in six words that you can have in 5,000. But the immediate impact felt by the reader can be equally as effective. Successful short fiction is like screaming “Fire!” in a crowded room. People won’t need an incentive or a back-story to react.
RB: When did you first discover that this form is what challenges you? Any anecdotes from your student/younger days?
AZ: I was writing flash fiction long before I knew what it was. In high school, there were always writing assignments with minimum word counts—say, ten pages or so—which I always felt were unnecessary. I figured why write more when less can oftentimes read more. I was constantly snipping away at words in order to perfect them. I loved how a three-word sentence could sometimes generate more force than an entire paragraph. Anyway, I got D’s in most of my classes.
College was far better for me. I had a great time in my creative writing classes. I had a supportive instructor, Mark Wisniewski, an accomplished, contemporary novelist and poet. He pushed me to edit my work and strip it down to its simplest and most provocative form.
RB: Who were the short story (as in really short) writers that you loved from the time before “flash fiction was discovered/became famous,” and why?
AZ: The earliest short-short stories— and technically they don’t qualify as flash fiction— I can recall reading were from H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. Both Lovecraft’s “Dagon” and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” clock in at about 2,000 words apiece, but they pack such an incredible punch. There’s more story in these two tales than in some novels I’ve read. I wasn’t familiar with “Flash Fiction,” the term, until I started reading small press journals back in the 90’s.
One book I stumbled upon in a thrift store about twenty years ago— it cost me about fifty cents— was Open Windows. It was a collection of short-short stories by Canadian flash fiction writers. It’s edited by Kent Thompson and was published back in the late 80’s. The stories were incredible. I had never read such stunning fiction, and the average length of each story was somewhere around 200 words. I was in awe. All I could think of was, “Hey, this is the type of fiction I write.” It helped me to realize there were other writers out there doing the same thing.
RB: Apart from Hemingway’s classic six word story, what are the other tiny stories that inspired you? Tell us about them.
AZ: Four years ago, when I sat down and decided to really dedicate myself to the writing craft, I was reading heaps of flash fiction online. Some of it was decent, some good, and some very good. One author who wowed the hell out of me was Thomas Wiloch. I stumbled into his work, “Good Samaritan” on Microhorror.com and was blown away. It was surreal, magical, succinct, beautiful, and complete. And it was only about 150 words. I think his work opened up something new in me. Two months later I was submitting my own work to publications. I intended to send Mr. Wiloch a ‘thank you for the inspiration’ e-mail when I learned of his death. He had passed away just weeks earlier. His work has left a lasting impression.
RB: What is your favourite genre in short stories and why?
AZ: I lean more toward the speculative genres, especially those containing horror. I love the idea of terrifying, disturbing, and freaking out the reader in so very few words. It’s probably the same joy people experience sneaking up on someone and yelling, “Boo!”
I also think that true ‘horror’ in stories is the most universally experienced emotion of all the creative writing elements. Most of us have never or will ever travel to the moon, slay warriors on the battlefield, hunt dinosaurs, or be knighted. But each of us has or will experience some form of horror in our lifetime. We can all relate to it.
RB: Which genre, according to you, is best suited for stories that are this concise? Is there any such genre?
AZ: That’s a tough one to call. When flash or micro fiction is done well, the genre is inconsequential. Success can be found for literary and speculative fiction writers alike and is based solely on the talent and creative ability of the writer.
RB: Have you thought of working on a variety of genres for five word and five line stories? Or a dribble? Drabble?
AZ: I created 5×5 Fiction to be as rigid in form as a Shakespearean sonnet; never wavering and always with purpose. Each tale is twenty-five words told in five sentences of five words each. And there are no genres that are off-limits to this form.
Over the years, I’ve experimented and written pieces in a multitude of forms. Everything from 6-word stories, Twit lit (Twitter stories of less than 140 characters), dribbles (stories told in exactly 50 words), drabbles (stories told in exactly 100 words), six sentence, ten sentence, 200-word, 500-word (micro-fiction), and 1,000-word (flash fiction) pieces.
They each pose their own unique challenges and, when done with expertise, are capable of exciting the mind and heart like nothing else in
RB: Tell us about your reading habits. Do you read more online? And what do you read these days, apart from submissions to 5X5?
AZ: I’m swallowing words all day and all night long. On coffee and lunch breaks during my day job, I read daily online e-zines and journals like Every Day Fiction, Every Day Poets, Flashes in the Dark, MicroHorror, The Flash Fiction Offensive, and dozens more. In the evenings after dinner, I tend to either read novels in print or off my Kindle, plus a healthy dose of comics, magazines, anthologies, and reference books.
Some of my very recent reads (and re-reads) include the first three books of Paul D. Brazill’s Drunk on the Moon series, Cult Magazines: A-Z, Carlito’s Way by Edwin Torres, X-Men: The Characters and Their Universe, the poetry collection Cow’sleap by Tom Smith, Criminal Macabre by Steve Niles, and the short story collection Nightmare at 20,000 Feet by the legendary Richard Matheson.
RB: Do you think that online readers prefer certain genres over others, as in more horror, fantasy, crime fiction etc. than literary, romance, historical etc.?
AZ: Yes, I do. And genre-specific flash fiction online magazines like The New Flesh (weird/bizarro), A Twist of Noir (crime/noir), 365 Tomorrows (sci-fi), and Flashes in the Dark (horror) are testament to that. The good news is that there are new online magazines popping up on the internet every day, so they’ll never be a shortage of work for readers to enjoy in any genre.
RB: Tell us what you think is the future of the short-short story, and where will its readers be? Tell us your vision (or fantasy) about tomorrow’s quick-bite readers.
AZ: If the attention span of my own children is indicative of children on the whole, then I definitely see a need for flash fiction in elementary and high schools. Educational focus seems to be primarily on reading novels and more traditional length short stories. It’s not until college that most young adults—to my knowledge—are even aware of flash fiction’s existence. Teaching our children to respect, read, and write the short-short story will ensure its longevity and its inherent progression. I believe it will also help many children better adapt to this era’s modes of communication and will challenge them in completely fresh ways.
RB: Where would you like to take 5X5? Tell us about your dreams about this magazine.
AZ: I’d like to put together a ‘best of’ print issue in the near future. I’ll also be looking at submission calls for specific theme issues and acquiring guest editors. I’m most looking forward to where the individual writers will take the form. I really want to see 5×5’s submitted to other online and print magazines. And I want to one day see 5×5 as a recognized short-short form alongside dribbles and drabbles.
RB: What are you working on these days? (If it’s okay with you to share, many writers don’t like talking about their future projects).
AZ: I’m (slowly) working on a werewolf novella that may eventually be part of series. And I’m in the midst of two literary flash pieces and a ghost story about a missing exorcist.
I’m also finishing up a poetry chapbook called An Offering of Ink and Feathers. It’s a collection of personal/confessional pieces from my childhood, with themes on marriage and the writing life.
At this time, there’s no undertaking a novel in my immediate future.
RB: Give us a day in your writing life?
AZ: In a word: chaos. I write on my phone, my galaxy tab, post-its; everything. I wish I could say I have the perfect environment in a room dedicated to creating the next best-seller, but I don’t. Neither do I have a favorite room, desk, or recliner to create my work. I take many notes throughout the day and then tap furiously away whenever I can, usually super early in the am or super late in the pm.
I’m a husband and have four sons— three of which are under twelve years old— so I stay active.
RB: What is your favourite haunt when you want to write? And beverage?
AZ: In general, the desk crammed in the dark corner of my bedroom acts as base of operation.
My exclusive beverage of choice is strawberry-flavored sparkling water. Ah, such tasty goodness. If I could bathe in it I would. Beer’s good too. For drinking, not bathing.
RB: Would you like to mention any current favourite authors who write really short fiction? Including your contemporaries?
AZ: These days, most of the short fiction I read is from my online and small press contemporaries. My Kindle is jam-packed with flash fiction anthologies and collections. It allows me to stay current and discover any new variations of the form.
Writers who I feel actively churn out quality flash fiction in a myriad of genres are Erin Cole, Chris Allinotte, Lily Childs, Laura Eno, Oonah V. Joslin, Jodi MacArthur, Michael J. Solender, and Nicole Monaghan.
RB: Any pithy words of advice on the short-short form for writers?
AZ: Okay, maybe not pithy, but…
Too many writers fear the restraint (myself included) of completing a story in so very few words. They let that fear override the voice of their muse. My advisement is for writers to tell their stories in as many words as it takes to complete it. THEN, condense it to fit the form you require; be it 1,000 or 25 words. Practice it. Try shortening, refining stories you have laying around on your desktop or have previously published.
We writers are often hesitant to ‘chop’ any of what we deem to be a perfect string of words. We consider our works as babies, so severing away any part of it seems an almost monstrous act. Writers need to begin to think of editing as more of a ‘grooming’ and less of a ‘maiming’. Invoking the baby analogy, refining words from a manuscript should be likened more to the trimming of hair or clipping of
fingernails and not the loss of a limb or a beheading.
Rumjhum Biswas lives her writing life at the edge of the sun toasted city of Chennai, in a corner where migratory birds cruise the sky above the din of a burgeoning IT hub and an ancient temple dips its toes into a not so ancient pond. You can also find her at Writers & Writerisms and the Polyphagous Poltergeist; the latter more occasionally.