Smoking With...Chad Simpson
by Randall Brown
Chad Simpson lives in Galesburg, Illinois, where he teaches fiction writing at Knox College. His stories have appeared in several magazines, including McSweeney's, Sycamore Review, The Rambler, and The Sun, and have received awards from the Illinois Arts Council, The Atlantic Monthly, and the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers' Conferences. He sometimes keeps up with a blog.
You were the "selecting editor" for Wigleaf's Top 50 [very] short fictions of 2008. What a cool gig to have. What thoughts about flash fiction came to you as you read through the 200 or so stories Series Editor Scott Garson forwarded to you?
It was definitely a pretty cool gig to have. One thought that came to me as I was looking through the stories was how many venues there are right now publishing flash fiction. I'd heard of and been to most of the websites, but a few were utterly unfamiliar to me.
At first, when Scott said he was forwarding me the list of the top 200 [very] short stories published in the previous year, some part of my brain was thinking, How many [very] short stories were published online last year? 300? 400? After hopping around to some of these new websites, as well as revisiting the more familiar ones, it became clear that Scott had read a lot of stories.
And that leads to the other thing that continued to come to me as I read through the stories: The myriad forms and ways of using language that writers use to tell these stories. I'm not sure a "conventional" flash fiction exists in the world yet, but the sheer variety of the work made reading the stories nothing but pleasurable.
So many of my favorite flash writers appear on this list: Elaine Chiew, Kim Chinquee, Myfanwy Collins, Elizabeth Ellen, Kathy Fish, H.A. Fleming, Jeff Landon, Kuzhali Manickavel, Mary Miller, Darlin Neal, Mary Lynn Reed, Claudia Smith, Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau, Joe Young, and Shellie Zacharia, to name more than a few. What do you think it means to writers to appear on such a list? What would you say to those writers left off it?
I suppose at its most base, it means that people are reading and enjoying their work. Scott read through, I'm guessing, about 1000 stories over the course of a year, and each story on that list of 200 did something to cause him to remember it, and to make him want to share it with whomever his selecting editor was going to be.
For those who were left off of it--either the long short list of 200 or the Top Fifty--I'd say that there was only room for so many stories. I really liked pretty much the entire 200 stories that I read. And I really really liked about 75 or 80 of them, but I wanted to narrow the list down to as close to 50 as I could manage.
In the end, of course, subjectivity plays a part in reading. We teachers have a hard time admitting that sometimes, but it's true. In the classroom, I'm pretty good at setting aside my "preferences" and looking at a piece based on what I feel the author is trying to do with it. Then I'm able, most of the time, to offer constructive words to the author, provided I'm reading the piece the right way.
But when it comes to choosing any kind of "Best Of" list, either we are drawn to something or we're not. And if we're not, then there's always the next story that a writer is going to write, and the one after that, and so on.
If a writer were to use these top stories as a study in how to write flash fiction, what are some things that a writer might discover through such analyses? What did you discover?
Hmm. I'm not sure what some writer might discover. I discovered things about structure, and voice, and metaphor, and language, and conflict, and image, and humor, and sentiment, and drama, and just about everything else having to do with making stories.
I discovered that there are ways to get entire worlds, or maybe just a slice of an entire world, onto a page in very few words. And that writers were capable of doing this in a variety of ways, while making me care about their characters and the stories they were telling.
In looking at the work of writers you already knew, what were you hoping to see? Confirmation of what you already felt about their writing? Something surprising? And what did you end up finding in the work of those writers?
Since I was already familiar with a number of the stories on the list--I'd even linked to a few from my blog over the course of the year--what I did was re-read each of them cold, alongside all of the other stories. What I hoped was that I would trick myself into looking at them anew, and I think it kind of worked.
I was surprised, or moved, or delighted all over again, but as if it were the first time.
What does this list of top stories reveal about Chad Simpson?
That's a good question. I tried not to think about that too much while I was choosing the stories, and I honestly don't want to think about it too much now, either.
One thing that I have always and will always love is image. In her book What It Is, Lynda Barry, in one of her writing exercises, encourages writers to "stay inside the image." To look all around, really explore the image. I always react well as a reader when this kind of thing is done well. When a writer can present me with an image and then really explore it, show me some part of it that I wasn't expecting to find.
So, I'm betting there are more than a few stories that do something like this.
And if I have one thing that kind of turns me off when I'm reading, it's the "punchline," or "twist" ending. There are some pretty good "punchline" stories, but they are, in my opinion, few and far between. So, I'm betting there aren't to many of those kinds of stories on the list.
So much time and work and thought clearly went into such a list. Why, Chad? Clearly not for fortune, fame, profit. What is the drive behind creating such a list?
The credit here clearly goes to Scott. He's the one who handed over to me a list of 200 pretty incredible stories. All I had to do was read through them and choose the ones I liked best for the list.
I'll say this, though: Because I had three or four months to winnow the list down, I went through the stories patiently. I gave each of them a chance to win me over and read them from the first word to the last.
In the end, what I hoped to do was bring attention to a list of 50, err 55, really great stories and their authors. Because both the stories and the authors deserve that attention.
What role do you see titles playing in a flash fiction piece? How important are they to your feeling about and/or sense of a piece?
I'm guilty on occasion of not even reading titles--or of forgetting them by the time I am two sentences into a story. Sometimes I'll feel like something is missing in a piece, and then I'll look at the title, and say, "Ah, that's what's missing." I'm not a huge fan of that kind of thing, though. For me, first sentences and second sentences and third sentences are lot more important to my feeling or sense of a piece than the title is.
Talk about the importance, as you discovered while reading through the final stories, of (1) openings and (2) endings.
Brady Udall once said in a workshop that the most important sentence in a story is the first sentence. And the second most important sentence in a story is the last sentence. I've pretty much believed this ever since he uttered it.
The first sentence, of course, sets the tone. Or establishes character or place or dilemma, all that. And the last sentence is, literally, the final word. It's what we're going to take away from the piece.
Since I read through many of the stories more than once, it was kind of fun, my second time around, to see what all I could remember about a story based on its first sentence. Often, I would vaguely know where the story was headed but that final image or sentence would still blow me away.
Anything you found missing in flash fiction world as you read through these? Any place you'd like to see flash fiction writers take the form in the future?
Based on the variety of the work, I'd say that if something is missing, I'd like to know what it is, so that I might try it out.
Really, though, I think the form will continue to evolve and that writers will continue to find new ways of telling [very] short stories, but we'll have to wait until next year's list to see what they come up with.
I love that you use flash fiction in your writing classes. What are the advantages of introducing your students to contemporary flash writers? What has been their response? How does it differ from their reactions to more traditional texts?
I'll begin with why I teach flash fiction early on in just about every writing class I teach. It's a bit cliche, but that whole "every word counts" maxim is never more true than when it comes to flash fiction.
There is a quote from Grace Paley in the Editors' Note to James Thomas and Robert Shapard's Flash Fiction Forward: "When [a story] is very short--1, 2, 2 1/2 pages--[it] should be read like a poem. That is slowly. People who like to skip can't skip in a 3-page story." So, what I'm trying to do is get students to read closely, so that eventually their writing will become more precise in general. I'm trying to prevent them from reading work for class the same way they read those big, 700-page novels with multiple sequels.
As for my using contemporary flash fiction writers: The response tends to be fairly mixed. Many students seem to feel quite liberated by the texts. The different authors' use of language, or their choice of subject matter, really excites these students, sends them running for their keyboards. Other students, and I see this a lot in the literature classes I teach as well, don't know what to do at all with anything that's contemporary. They've been trained to think of Homer and Shakespeare and Jane Austen as literature, and when they are assigned to read excerpts from Ben Marcus' The Age of Wire and String, or Junot Diaz's Drown, or an issue of elimae or SmokeLong Quarterly, they resist, because it's like nothing they've ever read before.
What I'm trying to do is expose them to as much as I can fit into our ten-week class, so that they can see what all people are doing with words, how they're going about telling stories. And in the end, most of them appreciate this, I think, even if they're a little resistant at first.
Could you talk a bit more, in greater detail, about how you introduce and continue to use flash in your classes?
One of the things that I begin with when I have my students read flash fictions is this quotation from Richard Bausch, also from the introduction to Flash Fiction Forward: "When a story is compressed so much, the matter of it tends to require more size: that is, in order to make it work in so small a space its true subject must be proportionately larger." So, we try to figure out, based on the large sample of stories we read, whether or not this maxim holds true. We argue about it a little, but in the end, most of the stories we read--and most of the stories in the Wigleaf Top 50--are larger than their containers, so to speak.
We also compare and contrast how differently the stories go about becoming "large"--whether the stories are merely a single scene, or they use flashbacks. How much time and space is devoted to characterizing people or place. What the details evoke. What details are maybe left out but that we can infer.
One of my favorite stories to teach, and though it's not less than a thousand words it is certainly very short, is Elizabeth Tallent's "No One's a Mystery." The story is a brief scene: an adulterous man and his young girlfriend. Tallent describes the man's boots and his jeans and we get some dialogue from him. I like to ask my students, "What do his wrists look like?" There is nothing in the story about the man's wrists, but we can usually come to a type of consensus about what his wrists might look like, because of how strong Tallent's other details about the character are.
I think that the best flash fictions do something similar to this. They might not answer all of our questions, but if they are good, they will point us in a pretty good direction toward some answers, and leave us with something indelible.
How, for example, might you use the stories in the wigleaf list?
Elizabeth Ellen's "What Was Meant" from Storyglossia: The narrator takes this cold, questioning tone throughout the story, which for me is how it creates its meaning. So I would say, "How does EE create this tone? What do the sentences themselves look like? How do they act?" And my imaginary students right now might say that EE uses a lot of flat, declarative sentences. They might say that parts of the story read almost like a newspaper article in the way they report this particular event. And then I might ask: How does this tone contribute to the narrator's character? What is she like? And so on.
Kathy Fish's "Wake Up" from juked: I might ask my students: Why does Fish choose the song "My Cherie Amour"? How does this particular song, this detail, and eventual image, contribute to what's going on in the story? How might the story be different if Fish had chosen AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long"? Or Eminem's "Lose Yourself"?
Elizabeth Gumport's "The Pool House" from Conjunctions: There are ghosts in this story. For most of us, ghosts are fantastical. So, the story is operating slightly differently than the world around us does. I want to know: What details does Gumport use to ground us in a world we can all recognize? Why does she do this? What is the significance of these ghosts, in the end?
Peter Markus's "The Singing Fish: Revisited" from Double Room: Actually, I would be scared to teach Markus, because he's someone whose work makes me want to merely admire it for its genius. I like his stuff so much that I worry if I were trying to teach it I might just start saying over and over again, "You see you good this is, don't you? Don't you?" But with this story we might look at his use of repetition. At the music this repetition creates. At the words and phrases that get repeated. And we might look for a place where things don't quite repeat themselves in the same way. And we might think about what that might mean.
How might you answer a student's general question regarding how to write flash fiction?
If a student were to ask me, "How do I write flash fiction?" I would probably say something generic like, "Any way you want." This wouldn't be very helpful, of course, but I think it would be a little truthful.
One of the things I stress, like all teachers, I assume, is the importance of significant and striking details. I remember reading several years ago in one of those Novel and Short Story Writer's Market editions, some advice for potential submitters from an editor of Indiana Review: Find all of your descriptions and change every one of them. I think I'm paraphrasing a little, but the advice was extreme in this way. Now, I mention it often when I teach, not to encourage students to change all of their details but to encourage them to pay attention to why each detail matters. What is it evoking? Is this consistent with other details? Is it inconsistent in a good way--because it makes a character or a situation more complex? Is it necessary or is it merely suggesting something that another detail might have already suggested?
While this advice applies to fiction writing in general, I think that details in flash fiction are tremendously important, because they often have to do more work.
Another piece of advice that doesn't necessarily follow from the above:
Though I said above that I believe flash fictions should be "larger" than their containers, I think this kind of advice can be counterintuitive for beginning writers. So, I usually have them start small, with a simple scene in which there is conflict. Maybe somebody has something that someone else wants. How does the person go about trying to get that thing? Then, once there is some scene on the page, some struggle, I have the writer think about what "large" thing they may be writing about, even if it isn't yet on the page. What's really at stake here? What "big" thing is this story getting at? Or: how could the story eventually get at that "big" thing?
What would you say is the unique challenge of reading [very] short fiction?
To rehash (and paraphrase) what Grace Paley said: You have to pay attention to everything.
And maybe, too: You have to surrender your own prejudices and expectations about narrative. You have to be open to the story the author is trying to tell, and to the way in which she is trying to tell it.
This can be a difficult thing to do, especially since most of us have been reading stories since we were kids, but I think flash fiction offers its own unique and very satisfying rewards.
Again, thanks, Mr. Simpson. I love what you and wigleaf are doing--and did--with the top [very] short fiction stories. Very, very cool.
No problem, Mr. Brown. Thank you for having me. And thank you for bringing a little more deserved attention to the work that Scott and all the authors who were selected for the list of 200 did.