Meet the Author: Meg Pokrass and Angela Readman talk Flash
and Angela Readman
are two of the most original and interesting exponents of Flash Fiction writing today. They have won more awards than I've got space to list, including the Costa Award for short fiction (Angela) and San Francisco's Blue Light Book Award (Meg). Angela's books include, Don't Try This At Home, short fiction, a poetry collection called The Book of Tides and a novel, Something Like Breathing. Meg has nine collections of short fiction, including Alligators at Night, My Very End of the Universe, Bird Envy and Damn Sure Right. They are the featured authors, with US poet Jeff Alessandrelli, in a new publication, Triple 12, available here.
Angela: I'm a short story writer and poet who lives in Northumberland. I used to live in Newcastle, so it's all a bit different to growing up in a city. I was drawn to writing because I was so anxious growing up I think. I spent a lot of time alone and found myself looking out the window wondering. I guess that's what writing is for me, another window to look through, a view I didn't know was there.
Meg: I grew up in Southern California and spent most of my adult life in San Francisco. I moved to the U.K. 4 years ago to live with my partner. He was living in London when we got together, but he wanted to retire in the north country, so now we live in a small market town in Northumberland. It has been a bit of a change from San Francisco! As a kid I studied acting, and acted in plays all through my teens and early 20s, at which time I began writing poetry and was lucky to work with the wonderful Molly Peacock in NYC. I started writing flash fiction 12 years ago by taking out the line breaks in my poem and writing in what I thought of as 'connective tissue’.
2. Is there a definition of Flash Fiction that means something to you?
Angela: This quote by Blaise Pascal from Flash Fiction International resonates with me: 'The letter I have written today is longer than usual because I lacked the time to make it shorter'. That really covers it, it's a careful application of words.
Meg: Flash fiction is the art of miniature: of telling a brief story in such a way that it casts a bigger, longer-standing narrative shadow.
3. I was amazed to find that the origins of the short, short story went back into pre-history, because it seems so modern. Apparently, it's particularly common in Spanish and Arabic literature. Have either of you been influenced by writers from the past, rather than contemporary authors?
Angela: The writer who influenced me most is probably Richard Brautigan. I didn't find him until I started writing flash. I've read a lot since, but he's still my favourite. He can make me ache and laugh at the same time, that's incredible. I often feel that way about Meg's work, that the whole of life is there, with all its strange turns. It's funny, yet deeply human. I respond to that, it's an honour to be in a book with her.
Meg: Admittedly, I haven't studied much very early short-form writing. I love the work of Kawabata Yasunari who wrote Palm of the Hand stories in the mid-1900s. I've been influenced by Ernest Hemingway who wrote short fiction using the art of omission, some of his short stories are flash. Hemingway was the king of white space, and of making very brief pieces feel enormous with his brilliant use of omission. I love Richard Brautigan. Revenge of The Lawn is my favourite collections in the world. I was very much influenced by Raymond Carver, Lydia Davis, Jayne Anne Phillips.
I want to say that having a collection with Angela Readman is a huge honour. When I came across Readman's flash fiction about four years ago, I devoured it whenever I could find it. I'm a huge fan of Angela's writing. Her whimsical, quirky, beautiful stories, poetry, and her exquisite novel, Something Like Breathing.
4. Do either of you write the very short forms eg Twitterature?
Angela: I admire people who do. The shorter forms take longer than people to write than people imagine. I tend to go a bit longer than a tweet, my favourite short I wrote is 75 words:
I once saw a woman on TV who couldn't bear to be touched. It wasn't clear why. She built a chair designed to embrace her, strapped herself into pillows and leather every day after work. I think some of it involved a carjack, anyway there was pressure. I'm not sure how the show ended, I missed it, but I think of it sometimes in bed. That tender machine. I don't tell you. You'd think it meant something. (Tender Machine- Paragraph Planet)
Meg: I've written one book of extremely short prose poems, many of them were influenced by the word count on Pinterest. I would post the little pieces on Pinterest with strange vintage photos, that's pretty much how the book came about. This book won the Blue Light Book Award in 2016, it's called "Cellulose Pajamas" (Blue Light Press, 2016).
Here is an example of one of these fragments:
When the cars did start to move, he began to remember again how beautiful living near the ocean was. He remembered that he had finally grown a beard and people said it looked good on him. He remembered also that he could make a health-freak parfait for the woman with the nose cancer and that she liked it, even though it was full of flaxseed oil. All of the good things in the world, when the cars moved. The sun crept back into his face.
5. How does it differ from Prose Poetry? Some of your stories are really poetic in the way the language works, and the third person in Triple is a poet.
Angela: There's a fine line between prose poetry and flash, flash snips boundaries. Both are condensed into a sort of heightened state. Whenever I try to define the difference, say if I said flash needs to tell a story, and involve character and place, I'll read a flash that throws it out the water. I've read flash I felt were poems and seen poems some consider flash. It may be down to the reader and context. With many of Raymond Carver's poems, if I'd seen them in a different context, I'd have thought they were flash.
Meg: This is a subject which folks are interested in these days. I believe that for the most part, flash fiction tends to be more character-driven, and prose poetry more language-driven. And this is a simplification. There are no hard-and-fast rules about what designates one from the other and I honestly feel that it is sometimes what a writer or publisher decides to label it. For example, I believe that if the prose poet Russell Edson were publishing his pieces today we'd be calling his work flash fiction.
6. I know both of you write poetry, what signals to you that this material is going to be a Poem or Flash?
Angela: Usually the first line, the voice of a character tells me it's a story. Occasionally, I won't know until I write. I had a flash out at Ilanot Review last year, 'Anyone Could Have a Godzilla', that started as a poem. Only one image remained, looking at the flash no one would guess it had anything to do with poetry but without the poem I'd never have written the story. It's as if the poem was a looking glass.
Meg: I never know until a piece is done. I often shift from story to poem back to story! I'm a crazy reviser, experimental revision is what I love doing the most. I never have preconceived ideas. I come back to my work a month later and feel like I have some perspective on what it is.
7. What excites you about Flash as a form? How did you start writing it?
Angela: I started writing flash the same year as the first National Flash Fiction Day. I was fed up and wanted to try something fun. It worked as a tonic that made me excited about writing again. It felt like the difference between reading literature you think you are supposed to read and tearing through a graphic novel to reach an ending that makes you fist pump.
Meg: Twelve years ago I became fascinated with writers of the short form, such as Amy Hempel, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Lydia Davis. The magic of their tiny pieces! I didn't think I could do it. I became obsessed with trying my hand at flash, wrote my first collection, Damn Sure Right (Press 53, 2011) in under a year by giving myself 5- 10 random words that I'd have to incorporate into a story every day. I'd grab those words from anywhere: newspaper, magazines, shopping lists. I also turned some of my poems into stories. I'd say it was the second time in my adult life that I knew I could be very good at something I loved doing. It was so exciting to me.
8. What are the problems of structuring a narrative arc in something so short?
Angela: When I've judged competitions, a problem I've come across is a sense that nothing hangs in the balance. Nothing has changed, or too much changes so fast it doesn't convince us. There's a juggling act between concrete detail that makes us feel we are there, and not so much detail we're in a longer story. Getting that right can be tricky.
Meg: I don't consciously think about structure when writing a story. Narrative arc in flash and micro is often so quiet it's hard to pinpoint, and yet it must be there in some fashion. There is often, with successful flashes, a sly, eccentric narrative arc. Since the essence of flash is experimentalism, reinventing the form every time one writes it is part of the charm! As with traditional short stories, something often shifts in the way a character sees something in their world, but overall the idea of narrative arc and story structure is best when it comes about intuitively.
9. Most of your pieces have a narrative - but I've read some Flash that has the feel of a vignette. Do you think it's important to have that narrative feel, or is it okay to just capture a 'moment in time'?
Angela: Flash is so versatile. It can span years, or just 60 seconds. What you do with that minute makes the difference. Something simple like, say, a woman making toast, may feel like a beautiful painting in a vignette. We'd see the kitchen, crumbs, sunlight bouncing off chrome, we are there. There may be no sense of why the woman is here or life beyond breakfast, which is fine. A flash, using the same subject, would be different. The woman may still be making toast, but there'd be a sense of danger. Someone's in another room, it's the last piece of toast she'll ever make, the toaster is demonic- whatever. The urgency creates a story that carries us beyond.
Meg: Anything is okay! Flash is more active and tends to hook the reader hard. Vignette writing is gentler, more passive. Like a still life painting. The novels "Mr. Bridge" and "Mrs Bridge" by Evan Connell are great examples of what can be done with vignette chapters. It's as if the reader is peaking in the window of the Bridge's house, looking at accumulated, intimate moments. The layered effect of these snapshot portraits leaves us with a feeling that we have known these people intimately.
10. How much do you leave to the reader's imagination?
Angela: Probably more than I should sometimes. One thing someone pointed out is a lot of my characters don't have names. I hadn't even thought about that! They are right though. In my flash Girly, we find out a lot about this girl, what she wears, when her birthday is, what the kid who sits next to her doodles on his notebook, but she never says her name. I like to think that's OK, we still feel we know her, the reader can christen her.
Meg: This is a great question. Some stories benefit from detailed information juxtaposed against the intentional omission. In this way a writer might show what a character is thinking about vs. what they are avoiding thinking about. What is said and what isn't will tell us so much about a character's emotional life.
11. You both have some really succinct and witty last lines. How important are endings?
Angela: The last line can make the difference between a good flash and an astounding flash. Equally, it can kill a decent flash and spoil the whole thing. There can a temptation to fade out like the end of a record, or just stop dead leaving the reader flicking the page looking for the end. I like last lines that stick, last lines like a flavour that sticks in your mouth after you've finished the sweets. Meg's endings are fantastic for that. There's a story in the Ravena book that ends, 'The thing about otters is they're hungry animals. I thought, aw hell, here it comes.' Yum.
Meg: Endings are one of the most important parts, I'm afraid. Endings are so very hard to conquer! Can take me months of thinking, rewriting, experimenting… to get an ending right.
There is a story in Triple #12 by Angela Readman that ends:
“My mother's crazy”, Amy said, pretending a bull got loose outside Esso's. Not in a way that left bruises, just in a way that involved falling in love every few months.
The way she leaves us with this wild, bullish feeling of undefinable love. Magic.
12. Some of the stories are quite surreal. They seem to exist in another dimension. Are either of you attracted by surrealism/magic realism? I'm thinking particularly of Angela's 'The Night Life of Wives', and Meg's 'The Sting'.
Angela: I love surrealist art, like Dorothea Tanning, Leonara Carrington, poetry like Pascale Petit, or stories by Murakami. I'm attracted to work that captures a feeling we may have difficulty giving a name. It's the only way to get to a truth sometimes. 'The Night Life of Wives' is like that, it's a product of years of insomnia, living with a guy who always sleeps like a baby. The story makes night a whole other world, which is how it feels.
Meg: I love Angela Readman's surreal flash, she does gently surreal better than anyone I've read. Funny you mention my story 'The Sting'. The Sting is loosely based on a real experience! So, I guess that tells me something. Real is often quite surreal, once investigated emotionally…
I love surrealist art and film. I'm thinking of Yellow Submarine. Beatles music. The Beatles teach us how to write, how to let go and dream. In terms of magical realism, I'm crazy about the short stories of Aimee Bender.
13. Who are your favourite flash fiction authors? Mine include - Amanya Maloba, Grace Paley, David Gaffney, Lydia Davis.
Angela: Richard Brautigan, Etgar Keret, Lydia Davis, Meg Pokrass, Kathy Fish, Ken Elkes, Tania Hershman, Sandra Cisneros and Jayne Anne Phillips. They all blow me away, but honestly there are far too many to name!
Meg: Grace Paley, Sandra Cisneros, Richard Brautigan, Jayne Anne Phillips, Angela Readman, Frankie McMillan, Kathryn Kulpa, Aimee Parkison, but there are so many more.
14. Who would you recommend if you wanted to get people started - apart from yourselves!!!
Angela: Starting out, it's inspiring to find something you relate to and everyone's different, so I'd go with an anthology. It helps to read widely. I'd recommend Best Microfiction, Best Small Fictions, the Norton Flash Fiction books, Smokelong Quarterly, New Flash Fiction Review, the Bath flash anthologies, it's all good.
Meg: I'd sample flash writers by reading highly regarded anthologies such as The Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction (disclosure, I'm series co-editor) New Micro (WW Norton & Co., 2018) and Flash Fiction International (W. W. Norton & Co, 2015). Wigleaf magazine is wonderful and they have a prestigious Top 50 List every year. And I love Electric Lit's The Commuter, which publishes flash.
15. What question would you like me to have asked?
Angela: I've been reading Meg Pokrass lately, with our chapbooks being in the same book. In lockdown, I've also been curating celebrity dinner party lists to stave off the boredom, as well as thinking more seriously about being a writer, how to keep going, what it means to be in the arts. I've missed artists’ dates, doing something for a few hours a week to look after our inner artist. I think of mine as a sad child who needs little rewards & encouragement sometimes. So, I guess a question I'd love would have been: Where would you take Meg Pokrass on an artist date? I'd make a flask of tea and take her to the zoo to see the spoilt racoons, Suki and Bert.
Meg: What becomes more and more clear to me is that I must keep at it, keep it personal, writing it and publishing it, simply because it is what I love. I wouldn't feel like me if we weren't writing it. I believe that writing flash fiction (writing anything you love!) is a sustaining way to live one's life in this difficult time and increasingly fragile world.
Admiring the work of a writer as brilliant, kind and special as Angela Readman, and then sharing such a project with her, has been one of the most meaningful experiences I've had thus far.
A big 'thank you' to both writers for their frank and fascinating answers!
Triple #12 also contains poetry by US poet Jeff Alessandrelli. It's a good introduction to the work of all three authors.
You can get Triple #12 from Amazon.com on this link.