Wed 24 Aug 2011
In Randall Brown’s “Shades,” Every Day Fiction‘s top story for July, readers are taken into the confined work space of an awning cutter as his demanding boss Mr. Watts struggles to determine why the awnings have come up short in spite of the cutter’s precise measurements. The awning cutter, who is also a philosophy student, travels with Mr. Watts to visit the seamstresses — described as “two old women, blind” — to solve the mystery.
It is a work of less than 1,000 words, but long and tireless novels have been written about the same subject that “Shades” lyrically addresses: the weakening of the human spirit as it operates within the confines of a lackluster, brow-beaten work-life. Flash Fiction Chronicles interviewed Brown about “Shades” and his outlook on technique and flash fiction.
FFC: Some of the most compelling pieces of fiction have subtlety. They are the pieces that make you think; make you connect the dots. When I read “Shades,” that’s what I thought about. Although there is a place in fiction for blatancy, there is something truly unique about subtle undertones, yet many beginning writers struggle with achieving that. As both a writer and teacher of creative writing, why do you think it’s so difficult, especially for novice writers, to trust themselves and their readers to understand the story they’re trying to tell?
Brown: I think there are different aesthetics and philosophies regarding “showing & telling,” as well as differing views on how much of a story is/should be created by the writer and how much by the reader. For example, in writing a piece, I approach the creation of an image pattern by splintering words from some central ones, as in the idea of “shade” in this piece; that splintering takes the form of shade related to the awning itself, to darkness, light (watts), to shadow selves, to death, and so on. I’m not thinking that much about what that patterns means; I’m more focused on the pattern holding together, of finding interesting new connections, of creating a web of connected threads. However, a reader encountering the image pattern might be more focused on figuring out its meaning, on what it all adds up to, of the subtext, of the significance it all.
So, as a writer, I have the desire very much to control that construction, to have every single choice be purposeful and surprising and engaging, but I have less desire (none at all really) to control the reading of those choices. Definitely as a new writer (and I still feel like one more often than not), I wanted more to control the reading of the story, to have the same exactness in the process of creation be at work in the reading of that final product. But I let that go eventually, but still, isn’t it wonderful when someone gets it in a precise way, and isn’t it equally exciting when someone discovers something unexpected and surprising, too?
FFC: A compelling line: “He had asked me about philosophy of all things, as if that mattered here.” It’s an ironic phrase, which is what makes it so compelling. Do you think the awning cutter has made any connection to what he’s learning and what’s happening in his actual life?
Brown: There might be something existentialish going on in the story. Andy Warhol, according to the Internet, said, “Being born is like being kidnapped. And then sold into slavery.” What matters—those “twenty years of schoolin’ ” or the “day shift” (to quote Dylan)? The idea of “shade” conjures to me something that comes between the sun and the earth. There is something in “Shades” (perhaps) that comes between what he’s learning and what’s happening in his actual life. At the end of Frost’s “Birches,” there’s that image of the birch-boy swinging between heaven & earth; maybe there’s something of that in here too, a kind of balancing act.
FFC: Another fantastic line from the story: “He felt like shade turned to rock.” Metaphors, similes and analogies have long been a staple of good fiction, but they are far from fail safes. There are many strong examples of word usages in Shades (“…. strips dangling from her hand like tentacles” is another great one). In what ways can metaphors, etc., strengthen a story and what makes some work and not others?
Brown: My son’s love of rap has introduced me to the quite remarkable world of rap similes and metaphors, such as these two: ”Call me Dwight Schrute the way that I eat beats” (Das Racist) & “I just knew that she was fine like a ticket on the dash” (Drake). And Lady GaGa: “Hot like Mexico.” “Bluffin’ with my muffin.” “Leather-studded kiss.” In flash fiction, I think there’s a lot of pressure to be original, to describe things in fresh, surprising ways. The simile/metaphor is one way to rise to this challenge; I think I often go a bit astray when the figurative language has a random feel to it, when there doesn’t seem to be some connective thread among the language choices.
FFC: What do you find uniquely satisfying about writing flash fiction versus other standards?
Brown: To say every word counts in flash fiction is a bit of an exaggeration, but I do like the extra weight of each word. I love the challenge of finding the perfect word for the perfect slot, word after word. I like the experience of writing it all down urgently, of the desire to end rather than (in longer forms) to draw things out.
FFC: What will become of the awning cutter?
Brown: There’s something very appealing about certainty. I think that desire might cloud his thinking, that desire for endings, for periods rather than ellipses.
Randall Brown teaches at and directs Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. He is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live (now available as a reprinted deluxe edition from PS Books), his essay on (very) short fiction appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field, and he appears in the Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction. He has been published widely, both online and in print, and blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net. He is also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.