Len Kuntz placed second in the String-of-10 FOUR Flash Fiction Contest sponsored in February 2012 by Flash Fiction Chronicles. The contest challenge was to use four out of ten prompt words in a 250 or fewer word story. Those words were: JAR-MOSS-GRAVITY-EDGE-CAST-STAND-ORGAN-TIRE-BITTER-WAGE. An aphorism was provided for inspiration, but not necessarily to be used in the story. Here is the one for this contest: “Freedom is a possession of inestimable value.” –Marcus Tullius Cicero.
To find out more about the contest, go to String-of-10 FOUR Guidelines.
fiction by Len Kuntz
veryone—all of us—sins,” the pastor said, and the girl believed him.
So she prayed. Her pillow became Lord. She gave God false confessions, however, because she’d learned to mistrust the things most people took for granted—breathing, gravity, sunset.
One day the girl’s mother accused her of sinning. Her mother might have responded any number of ways. She could have set a leather belt on the table and waited for the man to arrive.
Instead, the girl’s mother used barbershop trimmers, the buzzing thrum a shock itself next to the girl’s ear. Locks dropped like leaves. “He always wanted a son, you know.”
The girl knew. The wage of her very existence was this constant reminder.
“It’s called a Dutch Boy.”
The girl’s hair was a blunt bowl shape. It made her look mannish, accentuating her tire-iron jaw.
She studied her mother’s moss-colored eyes, the candy corn teeth that chinked jar-like whenever the man was silent too long.
Her father favored the girl’s new look. He stopped coming to her room at night. Instead of Roberta, he called her Bobby, then just Bob.
He taught her how to fish, cast, hunt, and skin, how to kill. In addition to animals, she must have murdered her father a thousand times.
“You don’t have to wear your hair that way anymore,” her mother, a very old woman, says now. “He’s dead.”
The girl—a woman herself–stands, light as gossamer, surprised by gravity’s resiliency.
Interview with Len Kuntz
by Gay Degani
Len Kuntz’s story, “Dutch Boy” placed Second in FFC’s String-of-10 Four Flash Fiction Contest held in February. A writer from Washington State, his work appears widely in print and online. You can find him at People You Know By Heart.
Flash Fiction Chronicles: I love “Dutch Boy.” So much life—sad life—in so few words. It is deftly done. Please tell us how you approached this challenge? Did you have a plan once you went through the words? How did this story evolve??
Len Kuntz: I’ve always loved prompts of any kind both because of the challenge they provide but also for the way they nudge you into creative realms you might not venture into otherwise. The String of 10-FOUR had some rich words to work with, especially the words “gravity” and “jar.”
While I don’t directly specify it, the protagonist in the story is trapped by a certain gravity—that of her situation, and she’s essentially withheld inside a jar-like existence at the hands of her father. So that was the frame for the piece thematically. I tethered that to this picture I had of the girl, who affects another identity in order to essentially escape her situation and subsist by any means possible, and that’s where I got this image of a tomboy in overalls, with a blunt, bow-cut hair style.
FFC: I like the way you used the words “gravity” and “jar” to lead you into the story, the strongest for me was how everything is framed by gravity, her loss of innocence in learning that things we count on cannot always be counted on: breathing, gravity, sunset, to start with. Then there is the gravity of her situation as you mention, the gravity that weighs her down, and the reminder of that gravity in the last line: “The girl—a woman herself—stands, light as gossamer, surprised by gravity’s resiliency.”
This ending felt to me to be ambiguous in a good way. I don’t know if that was your intent or not, “resilience” of gravity making me think perhaps she isn’t yet completely free. How do you work endings? Are you more inclined to ambiguity? What about endings in general, what do you like and don’t like?
LK: I’ve had very clear cut endings and others that were far less so. It depends on the piece, of course. I tend to favor slightly open-ended conclusions because though a particular story is finished, the characters and what’s happened to them never really ends. In that same vein, then, the protagonist is “freed” from the forces that kept her bound (her father’s death does this) but she’ll never completely escape because she has to live with the memory of what has happened. What I was trying to convey in that last line is that gravity will always keep her/us tethered to our past.
FFC: “Tethered to our past.” What a terrific theme. What kinds of themes do you find yourself drawn to? I’d love to share links to stories that are good examples of your writing: thematically, stylistically, in terms of content.
LK: My themes almost always revolve around loss of some sort, characters that are wounded, sometimes to the point of decimation. I’m kind of the Union Stewart for people who’ve been wronged, who’ve been taken apart by either circumstance or another person. And it’s not that I get some kind of cathartic thrill out of writing about their plight, but rather I try to shine a light on the suffering to bring it out of the darkness. Though we might not admit it, we’ve all been damaged in some way. Stories that speak to this reality have always rang the most true to me.
Here are some examples:
“You” from PANK:
“The Sky, the Sky, the Wide Open Sky” from Cricket Online Review
“Missing Chance” from Elimae
“Skin” from Word Riot
FFC: So putting a spotlight on the wounded is something you do. What challenges does writing compressed fiction give you when dealing with such universal and difficult content?
LK: It’s about urgency really—immediately striking the proper mood and setting, getting the reader to clearly sense that something dire is happening, or has happened. It’s not necessarily about blurting out the specific matter of the situation, but rather casting an appropriate tone by selecting choice adjectives, choosing the right sentence structures and striking the correct cadence. Each word has to matter or else it should be stripped away. In these ways, the writing somewhat resembles both the mechanical framework of poetry, as well as the poetry’s aggressive fluidity.
FFC: Last question. What advice would you give anyone who is thinking about giving flash a try? It’s a great way to practice the skills of writing, but it isn’t easy to do it right. Or is it?
LK: I would read other flash writers, the ones that, after you’ve absorbed their work, makes your gut churn, your heart feel steamed. Three years ago I didn’t even know what flash was. I sort of happened upon it, online mostly. I discovered Kim Chinquee, xTx, Roxane Gay, Brandi Wells, Kathy Fish, Meg Pokrass, Jayne Anne Phillips, and other superbly talented people like that. I read them avidly. I devoured anything of theirs I could find, printed their work out, and read it repeatedly. So, study the writers that move you.
Also, there’s a great instruction book on the flash craft, edited by Tara Masih, called Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction that is a gem. Read that, too.