Our featured interview for February is with Pamelyn Casto. She is twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, Abstract Magazine, and OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters. Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in the four-volume Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading. Her latest 5,000-word article is the lead essay in Critical Insights: Flash Fiction (2017). She is Contributing Editor for Flash Discourse at OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters.
Thank you for joining us, Pamelyn.
Q: Most poets would sell their first-born into slavery to get a Pushcart nomination. You’ve had TWO. How do you feel about that?
A: Both times I was totally stunned. And pleased and honored beyond belief. I will always be grateful to the editors at Mindprints and Better Than Starbucks who saw fit to nominate my work. What honors those nominations are to me.
Q: The term “Flash Fiction” implies a definition or descriptive limits. Could you define FF in, say, three sentences?
A: I feel it should be left without a decisive definition. We can come up with some useful working definitions but the genre is always inventing and re-inventing itself. Flash fiction is protean and it refuses to remain in one shape. About as far as I’m willing to go is to say it’s short, up to 1,000 or 1,500 words (although the upper limit seems to attract the label of sudden fiction). And it often provides an important and satisfying insight, an “Aha!” moment of understanding for the reader. Beyond that it’s up to creative writers to show us what it is and what it can do. For the most part I tend to agree with E. M. Cioran who says “To embrace a thing by definition, however arbitrary . . . is to reject that thing, to render it insipid and superfluous, to annihilate it.” We don’t want that to happen to protean flash fiction with our too hasty and too easy definitions.
Q: To most readers, the term ‘fiction’ implies a story that has a beginning, middle, and an end or completion. Would such a description apply to FF?
A: Flash fiction certainly can have a beginning, middle, and end, but flash fiction can also tell a story without that traditional structure. Many fine flash fiction pieces are plotless, and rely more on tone or mood or character depiction than plot. Some flash fiction makes use of the Freytag pyramid (but begin the story at the mid-way point). Some use a Moebius strip structure or a Stations of the Cross structure (and other structures). Some use a Q & A interview structure. Some stories are done as lists and one of my favorite list stories is Opal Palmer Adisa’s “Fruit Series” which tells nine micro stories using nine different fruits. See that interesting piece here. The creative and inventive writers of flash fiction determine the method and technique of delivery.
Q: Flash often has a twist ending but should it also contain a deeper message, rather like good poetry?
A: The twist ending story is one of the more difficult pieces to place in today’s literary publications. That’s because they’ve been done almost to death. O. Henry is known for such stories and during his time these short-short pieces were something new and worked well in the feuilleton section of newspapers. But their day has pretty well passed. Now stories usually need more than a “gotcha” ending to succeed. Many exceptional flash fiction pieces have several twists within the single story. An example that quickly comes to mind is Lon Otto’s “Love Poems” which provides one fine twist after another. See that tiny and loaded story here.
Q: What are the most common mistakes made by new writers when writing flash fiction and what advice would you offer to help overcome them?
A: Mainly to be aware that exceptional flash fiction takes exceptional effort. There’s so much misinformation on the ‘net about it. I’ve often seen it described it as fiction that can be written in five minutes—in other words written in a flash. But that’s a writing exercise and usually results in little more than a beginning idea, a rough draft. Good flash fiction takes as much inspection and revision and polishing as good poetry. Like good poetry, it doesn’t arrive in a flash, directly from the flash fiction muse. Plus, it usually provides something worth thinking about and many times causes readers to question their usual perceptions.
I would say the best advice for learning to write flash fiction is to read as much of it as possible and explore how the various writers have put the stories together.
I’m currently Flash Discourse Contributing Editor at OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters and through my essays in my A Close Reading series I’m hoping to help aspiring writers explore various outstanding flash fiction pieces and their storytelling techniques. So far my essays have explored Dino Buzzati’s “The Falling Girl,” (see the essay here, Fielding Dawson’s “The Vertical Fields,” (see it here),and Molly Giles’ “The Writer’s Model” (click here). Very soon, maybe even before this interview is published, O:JA&L will publish my latest essay, A Close Reading of Milos Macourek’s “Jacob’s Chicken,” a marvelously funny story on a serious topic– about how we educate or mis-educate our bright, creative school children.
Q: In flash fiction would you say the tone, the style or the story is the most important?
A: All three can be important– even equally important or individually important with different emphasis on one over the other. To quote from Irving Howe’s introduction in Short Shorts: An Anthology of the Shortest Stories, in outstanding short shorts “We see human figures in a momentary flash. We see them in fleeting profile. We see them in archetypal climaxes which define their mode of existence. Situation tends to replace character, representative condition to replace individuality.” Whether this flash is accomplished in tone, style, or story depends on the goals and techniques of the various writers.
Q: Cormac McCarthy’s style in his novels is often characterized as intensely ‘poetic’. Could chunks or sections of his books be extracted as examples of FF in their own right?
A: I’m not familiar with much of McCarthy’s work so don’t have a good response to the question. If the chunks of his book stand alone, are complete stories in themselves, then they could likely be viewed as flash fiction (or perhaps prose poetry or poetic prose). The key is the completeness, the stand-aloneness of the individual segments. Many writers of flash fiction are now writing and publishing novels composed of stand-alone flash fiction pieces.
Q: As a writer, I find myself trying to accomplish just one thing. So, from my perspective, why does “Get You Dirty?” have a twist ending? That seemed like two things.
A: That little story (see it here) has drawn lots of comments. My goal with the story was to show how our relationships with books can be so deeply intimate. Some of us are even comparable to lechers, sexual reprobates– hence the tone and language of my story, the attempt to sound like a sexual predator, a soulless user of women. But the ending shows that the narrator is actually a user of books. I wanted the reader to discover, with the last line, that this is not about relationships between people but about a person’s relationship with books. I wanted the “flash” of understanding with the last line to be the realization that the character with this lascivious language and attitude is actually an avid reader and book purchaser. The ending sentence is the punch line to the joke I set up in the monologue.
Q: What do you think writers of longer genres can learn from writing flash fiction?
A: Writers of longer genres can learn, through flash fiction or poetry, the importance of paring down, the importance of choosing the right details, and the importance of condensing thoughts and ideas. Here’s what William Faulkner said about writing different genres: “I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.” In Faulkner’s hierarchy, I guess flash fiction would fall between poetry and the short story. It’s certainly not easy writing.
Q: Do you think that shorter fiction allows us to emotionally detach ourselves from the characters?
A: To me, the good flash fiction pulls us in exceptionally close sometimes, especially when a writer effectively employs second person address—a direct address to me, the reader. Longer work cannot pull off second person nearly as well as flash fiction can. Plus, flash fiction often works with a universal theme. Many characters have no names because their generic titles of Mother or Father or Son or Daughter work just fine and helps the reader quickly identify the familiar and familial relationships. Those are close relationships and the reader is often drawn into that closeness due to his or her own experience with those relationships.
Q: Good FF, like a good poem, can stay with you for the rest of your life and will make the reader bring much of themselves to the story. Would you say FF requires the same writing skill sets as good poetry, more so than it requires the skill sets of writing longer fiction?
A: I think it requires the skills of both the poet and the writer of longer fiction. Yes, some particularly poignant stories can stay with us the rest of our lives. So many have remained with me because they tend to be quite “sticky” and cling tightly to our thoughts and memories. We can’t usually memorize them as we can poetry but we can recall being touched by so many of the stories. Some tiny stories that have had that lasting impact on me are Yasunari Kawabata’s “Love Suicides,” (here), David Foster Wallace’s “Incarnations of Burned Children,” (here) and Octavio Paz’s “The Blue Bouquet” (here). Along with several others.
Q: The condensed form Flash fiction often reminds me of poetry forms likes senryu/ haiku/ monoku. How do you feel about those kinds of comparisons?
A: Those types of comparisons can be quite useful. I often experience a feeling of what I perceive to be wabi-sabi when I read some flash fiction. Just as the tiny texts of a haiku or senryu expand after reading or after meditation, so does a lot of good flash fiction. Some view it as American haibun and it’s sometimes compared to Zen koans and to the movements made in sonnets and ghazhals.
Q: How would you distinguish FF from a narrative poem?
A: Sometimes I can’t or don’t want to make a distinction, they can be so close. Sometimes it’s a matter of whether there are end lines or not. In some work, if you remove the end lines, run the poem together in margin-to-margin text you often have a short-short story. Let me throw Ovid’s epic narrative poem Metamorphoses into our mix. While this work is generally viewed as epic poetry, the translated pieces read like wonderful stories. So I don’t think a distinction is always appropriate or necessary.
Q: Knowing that you write both flash fiction and poetry, and knowing that the two forms can over-lap, how do you determine if a piece is poetic prose or prose poetry? How do you decide if it’s a story or a narrative poem?
A: Sometimes a piece just feels more like one more than another. But there are other pieces that don’t necessarily sort easily. For my own work, sometimes it’s a matter of exploring market guidelines to see where and how my own work might fit. I will call it what the editor wants it called (just as I follow other editorial guidelines). A few years back a particular press published author collections of outstanding pieces that tended more toward prose poetry than short-shorts. However, to maximize sales they called the work in the author collections short-short stories to draw the interest of those readers who are not fond of poetry. Further, at one time another publication held an annual contest and the writers themselves decided if their work fell into the category of prose poetry or flash fiction and could enter the contest accordingly. Often editors themselves aren’t always eager to say which is which.
Q: Are there similarities in style and intent between FF and, say, “Spoken Word” or “Performance” poetry?
A: I can’t speak much about that. Unfortunately I’m not a follower of Spoken Word or Performance poetry. I imagine the shorter pieces of flash fiction can be similar (perhaps the drabbles and the microfictions) but good and literary flash fiction takes time to read, time to comprehend, time to feel that often quite subtle moment of understanding that likely requires private meditation time.
Q: As a writer, are you in a different creative mode when you write FF as opposed to poetry?
A: I usually am in some sort of different mindset when I write poetry or flash fiction. Or a prose poem. But I often try the idea out in all three genres. There will be changes with each one and the changes help me decide which might be most effective way to tell my story.
Q: Does FF employ a lot of poetic devices and techniques?
A: Quite often it does. It’s not unusual to find careful use of metaphor and simile and symbols, careful and deliberate use of language rich in auditory effects, and carefully worked out images and sight devices. Flash fiction often uses poetic devices because, in the words of James Dickey (who is speaking of poetry),” it’s not an attempt to recreate the experiences of the writer but is instead “an awakening of the sensibilities of someone else, the stranger.” Well-employed poetic devices can help the flash fiction writer achieve that awakening of the sensibilities in the reader, the stranger.
Q: What writers inspire you?
A: I admire several flash fiction writers. I have three of Lydia Davis’s collections and she never fails to deliver. She can speak volumes in a tiny space. I also admire the short-short work of Jorges Luis Borges. Oh, to be able to write like Borges. I also treasure Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm-Of-The-Hand Stories. Oh, I also love the work of W.S. Merwin. His The Book of Fables is a combination of his work published in his earlier collections: The Miner’s Pale Children and Houses and Travellers. Merwin manages to artistically blur the lines between the poem, the essay, and fiction in his short-short work. The latest writer I’ve fallen in love with is Eduardo Galeano, one of Latin America’s most distinguished writers. His work is mesmerizing, stunning, and genre-defying. I particularly love his Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone and his Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History (these are snatches of history like you’ve never heard it and delivered in powerful short short form).
Q: Every month writingforums.com have a contest for 650-word fiction. If I was a judge, are there any preconceptions I should set aside?
A: Mainly the idea that flash fiction has to have a beginning, middle, end. It doesn’t have to have that structure. As touched on earlier, flash fiction can also be a tone piece or a mood piece or a list story that doesn’t require the structure that comes to mind for general fiction. Plus, good flash fiction doesn’t spoon feed its readers. It doesn’t always tell all. Often readers must co-create the stories because the outstanding writers of flash fiction understand what to leave out to draw in the reader as fully as possible.
Q: What are your hobbies and interests?
A: I also love writing essays. One of my greatest writing thrills was when writer friend Geoff Fuller and I decided to approach Writer’s Digest with our co-written essays on flash fiction writing. They accepted three of our articles. Not only that, but they also had two other magazines going at the time and they reprinted our articles in those too. So our articles on flash fiction had legs, so to speak. I’m grateful to Fiction Southeast for re-publishing those articles and you can see them at the links below:
“Turn Your Anecdotes Into Flash Fiction” (see the article here)
“Giving Your Tale A Twist” (see here)
“A Short Course in Short Short Fiction” (here).
Q: What do you think flash fiction contributes to society at large that longer fiction does not?
A: I would say its biggest contribution is time. It’s getting tougher and tougher for most of us to read lengthy novels. There are so many distractions nowadays, so many demands on our time coming at us from every direction. Flash fiction doesn’t take long to read. But like good poetry, the good flash fiction can involve the reader in hours of thought after the story is put away. Many stories resonate that strongly. Humankind still seems to need stories to help us make sense of our lives. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it: “A man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were telling a story.” Flash fiction can give us these important stories but in a less time-consuming form.
Q: What are your hobbies and interests?
A: Besides writing, I’m mostly fascinated by all the gods of the world. I have two large curio cabinets stuffed full of them, from all cultures and all times. I’m presently working on a collection of poems and prose poems about my curio gods because all my gods and goddesses are demanding they each be recognized. I’m also an amateur coin collector. When my dad passed away I inherited part of his collection and since then I’ve studied up on collecting and have added a little more to dad’s collection. I have discovered that coins can carry interesting stories too.
Our thanks to Tim Murphy, Clark Cook, Bean McGrath, Jennifer Christie Temple, Emma Sohan, Carole Hill, Darren White, and Cindy Adame for providing interview questions.