Thomas Jay Rushby Thomas Jay Rush

Flash Fiction Chronicles interviewed Matt Daly about Every Day Fiction’s top story for June, “Strikethrough,” and about dealing with contradictions, bad dreams, and his future plans.

FFC: Thank you for agreeing to an interview. Congratulations on winning Story of the Month for June.

Matt Daly - Photo by Montague Films

Daly: Thank you! I’m extremely happy that it has gotten such a positive response.

FFC: I love the main character’s black hair, white skin, striking blue eyes, grey tank-top and raised red scar. All these vivid colors. All in the first two paragraphs. And then that great single-sentence third paragraph defining not what the scar is, but what it is not. I was totally hooked by the end of the third paragraph. Talk about the story’s beginning. What do you try to do at the beginning of a story?

Daly: Obviously in this medium there is an emphasis on hitting quickly. I wanted to introduce a very clear picture right at the start, to give the reader immediate access to the story. Since there’s a large amount of simple dialogue from here, rooting the scene at the start was important.

FFC: You seem to be playing with contradictions in this story. It’s hinted that a single word, written on an crumpled piece of paper, has previously played a part in the girl’s suicide attempt. But that word is negated with the sharpie pen and, of course, her scar. The tattoo, in turn, negates the scar (it’s on top of the scar and adding the tattoo makes the scar uniquely beautiful). There’s a hint that the scar is one of the things that makes the girl beautiful, as well.

This sense of contradiction and interplay between the parts of the story is what makes this story so enjoyable for me. Can you talk about that interplay, these seeming contradictions?

Daly: I think that as humans, we have a capacity to empathize to a certain point, and then we simply can’t understand one another fully, and that’s not a bad thing per se, it’s just that individual consciousness is just that, individual. We see the beauty of strangers as a type of perfection, and assume that the person must be perfect as well, but this is obviously false. We’re just projecting. The dichotomy between our perception and the reality of others was something that drove me through the story. The tattoo artist has this unique insight into part of some story, but at the same time knows that it is fictional, and so only can appreciate the person in front of him. By the end, the artist is thinking about what it’s like to wear the bandage in public again, but now it is through the girl’s eyes.

I think that part of being a man, and I’m not sure if this is a gender thing or an “American” thing, is this idea that is instilled in us as children, that women “need saving.” Our culture is abound with all of these stereotypes surrounding this subject, and it’s difficult growing up and not having some of that rub off on you. There’s a really misogynistic way to do that, but I’ve always been struck by David Lynch’s description of the film, “Mulholland Drive,” which is incredibly complex, as “a story about a girl in trouble.” That’s a tremendously reductive statement, but at its core, something I identify with, even though I know it’s a false feeling. That knowledge that this is universally untrue, doesn’t stop us as humans from falling into that mode of thinking, which allows for some epiphany in the story. The girl in the story isn’t saved by the tattoo artist, even though we might think that’s why she’s there at the start. She saves herself, and it’s an important distinction.

On top of all this is the idea of beauty, and whether our actions or attributes determine that; and the weight we place on both creation and destruction, and if they are truly opposites at all.

FFC: I understand that you studied poetry as part of your MFA degree. Your winning story certainly exhibits a poetic voice. (“Her answer is small, a hit dog, a wounded child…,” “Her eyes dominate her face…the moving ocean, a sapphire at noon.”) Does this lyricism appear in first drafts for you? Or is it something you add later? For me, if lyricism appears at all, it appears in first drafts. It’s probably different for different writers.

Daly: I graduated when I was 24. I initially delayed my teaching career to focus full-time on the program while working as an aide in a special needs school. Many of the children I interacted with over my two years there were instrumental in my poetic work at the time. The program focused such a specific microscope on my work, while at the same time introducing me to a host of like-minded people. There was scrutiny with every word choice, every metaphor, while at the same time an emphasis on clarity.

My first draft is usually as free-wheeling as possible, and I sometimes get into a rhythm of listing. Subsequent drafts are the “kill your darlings” time, where I’m weighing tone and relevance against the fancy I’ve created. For this story, I wanted to inject very vivid descriptions against simplistic dialogue, so I felt free to discuss color at a greater length, due to the subject matter.

FFC: Some people argue that Flash Fiction, because of the short word count allows the writer to present a more poetic voice. Other say presenting a complete beginning-middle-end story matters more. Probably both are true (and a hundred other things). What are your thoughts on Flash Fiction? What exactly is Flash Fiction for you?

Daly: My initial attraction to poetry was in the economy of the form. I could get in, say what I wanted, and get out. When I revised, I could weigh every sentence, and try to “perfect” the poem. It was manageable in a way longer pieces were not. The more I was writing this way, it was only natural to move into Flash Fiction. For me, it’s about capturing a specific moment. Stories this length can follow very traditional structures, and I would argue that although “Strikethrough” is a moment, a glimpse into this broader world, it still follows a fairly standard plot structure. When I started writing, it was just there, waiting for me. My favorite pieces are like that. Flash fiction also allows me to write an initial draft in one sitting, which I find incredibly satisfying.

FFC: You teach language arts to 8th graders. You say you use a “workshopping or studio” method. Can you elaborate on that? Do you use flash fiction in your class? If so, do you think flash fiction fits well in the classroom? Why? If you do not use flash in your teaching, why not?

Daly: The studio model I use is based mostly on the Writer’s Workshop model I was treated to in college. I never understood why writing in middle and high school was treated as such a chore. When I got to my creative writing courses in undergraduate, and later the MFA, the environment was so individualized and communal. I felt a real purpose and buy-in. I try to replicate this for my students, and stress to them that ALL writing is creative writing. Students in my class choose their own topics and genre, and I meet with them individually to gauge their progress through their work. There is opportunity for peer-assessment as well, and kids that have become “experts” in certain areas are asked to work with others in the room. One of the requirements over the course of the year is to create some fictional pieces, and for many kids, this is hard. Flash Fiction is a way to ease their concerns over writing longer pieces, and many of them enjoy writing in this form when they discover it. We talk about six-word stories and things like that, and it really breaks down many of the imagined rules that they have about writing.

Ironically, I require my students to attempt publication of their work in order for a paper to be “done.” They have much more care about their writing when they realize they aren’t just doing it for their teacher or a grade. I submitted my story to Every Day Fiction to show them that I wasn’t having them do things that I wouldn’t do myself. I’m very excited to show them what can happen when you put yourself out there.

FFC: In your story “New Houses” you present a pretty dark picture (made evident, perhaps, by the sentence “She asks us to bury her.”) One of the things I like about flash fiction is the sense that a story can expand in the reader’s mind way outside what the words actually say. This story certainly does that. What were you going for in this story?

Daly: It’s funny that you’ve picked another one of my pieces that I find most similar to “Strikethrough.” “New Houses” was originally a poem called “Nightmares in New Houses,” and it started off as just that, a nightmare that I had. In trying to capture it, and the vivid nature of the mound, I started thinking about the role that a suburban community can have on the families that inhabit it, the loneliness that can exist within communities. I think there is something missing in the society we live in in terms of gender roles and identity, and the willingness to go to the mound is the failure of communication in many of our relationships. Part of this idea of houses and structures being tied to our culture is at the core of my work, and the title of the blog itself. “The Country of Ghosts” is this idea that we have constructed these dwellings from dead things, chopped down trees, and animal products, as well as the people who built them and their various leavings. It makes every dwelling in our culture a “Ghost House” in a way. I’ve always been intrigued by the implications of that idea, and I think “New Houses” is indicative of that theme.

FFC: I understand this is your first published piece. Congrats on that. Where does your writing go from here? What are you currently working on? Do you see flash fiction playing an important part in your future writing?

Daly: I’m currently in a few short stories, and now that school’s out, spending as much time reading as I can. I’m very motivated now to do a better job of updating my Flash and Poetry blog, The Country of Ghosts. I’m also looking for a professional editor for my novel, “Films About Ghosts” before I attempt publication. Flash is such a great medium, I see myself using it often, and I think it’s a great way to structure chapters in a novel as well. I can’t speak highly enough about the experience I’ve had with Every Day Fiction, it has been a great couple of weeks. Thanks!

 

Matt Daly is a middle school teacher in Morristown, New Jersey. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing: Poetry from New England College. He lives in Morris Plains, NJ with his wife, daughter, and poorly behaved dog. In the probable event of a Zombie Apocalypse, he will lead his family, friends, and an army former students to safety at a predetermined location. “Strikethrough” is his first published story. Photo courtesy of Scott Montague at Montague Films

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Thomas Jay Rush has been a house painter, a carpenter, an oil well roustabout, an actuarial analyst, a researcher at IBM’s Watson Research Center, and the owner of his own software company. Then, he figured out what he wanted to do: write poetry and pick flowers like Ferdinand, which is what he does now with his wife and three children in Southeast Pennsylvania. Jay is half-way through his MFA in Creative Writing at Rosemont College.