You are the Managing Editor of the New Flash Fiction Review. How has editing affected your writing routine and the way you write?
I suspect my favorite effects of editing a journal on my writing are unknown. Like I can feel their presence but I can’t name or describe them. What I can say is obvious, but editing a journal helps a lot. Maybe the biggest change is what I think about Beginnings. I wrote a little about that for NFFR here. Basically, I believe a story should drive its own existence. That creation itself should be something the reader can’t help but feel. There should be a big bang. It shouldn’t just get to drop into our minds and commence sentencing. It needs to demand attention. This can still be quiet. I’m not sure I’m describing this right, but when you find that pop in the queue you know it.
I don’t think editing changed my routine at all. My routine is to find ways to be excited about thinking. That can come from reading. Listening to music. Drinking a beer or two.
What draws you to flash fiction?
I started doing it accidentally before I knew it was called that. I would just write stuff in the composition journal that I took with me everywhere. I had written poetry in high school and college (late 80’s early 90’s) and my work morphed into short narratives that weren’t full story. I went to City Lights in 1989 and bought a copy of the City Lights Review (I still have it) and got into experimental form and these pieces that we would now call segmented flash. In 1991, I bought a book by Joyce Carol Oates called The Assignation. (Still have that too) Besides tweeting weird pictures of her feet, I think she also recently tweeted something that threw shade at flash fiction? Maybe I’m making that up, but the Assignation is totally flash fiction. It’s 45 stories that are generally 1 to 3 pages. I loved the way it worked and I knew it was “reachable.” I could let go of the self-imposed pressure to build a world as cool as The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy or Cat’s Cradle. That time for me was also a lot of Gen X slacking. I wasn’t committed. I would write when I had the right charge going but I could also forget about it for months or even years sometimes. Around 2007, I started putting flash pieces up on my Blog Nobody Ever Read and then I started sharing them with my Facebook friends which was a big deal for me at the time because previously I had never really shared my writing much. I stumbled on the Flash Community around 2013 and eventually Literary Twitter and that’s such a huge part of it. The collective energy and trying to keep up with the superstars. That’s definitely a charge too.
Rock n’ Roll too. Some of my favorite albums and songs are flash pieces or flash collections too.
What are some recurring themes in your work and can you tell us why?
Good question. Maybe these: Life is absurd and painful but also infinitely beautiful. We should think about things and not just do them. Religion is a mystery that makes people do funny shit. Failure isn’t necessarily weakness.
If those are “my” themes it’s got to be because that’s the way I experience life. It’s the way I think about things. It’s the stuff I like to read. I love that bit of advice that floats out there about how you have to write about your weird obsessions. Whatever it is you find yourself thinking about all the time? That’s IT. That “IT” is a funny deal. It can be so big in our lives, but we ignore it sometimes too. Is there something in the core of being an animal that wants you not to be self-aware? We might not realize we’re even obsessing over it. We might not think it would be story material. We have to knock that kind of thinking off! That’s IT. I think we’ve found each others “IT” on our weekly Flash Monsters calls because we’ve heard so much of each other’s works now. I love it.
If you were stranded on a desert island which of your characters would you least want to be there with you?
A couple times Flash Monster Lucien Desar has commented about my characters that he loves reading them but he wouldn’t want to come across them in real life! I think I would want them all to be there even if some of them might beat me up. Even if some of them would want to tell me some disgusting stuff. Even if some of them would think I wasn’t cool. I am more interested in which ones wouldn’t want to be with me! I think I could get along with all of them because we’d at least have some of the same thoughts about navigating life and a deserted island might require a lot of different approaches too. I might need them all.
You live in Iowa. What part does place play in your stories?
I don’t think it plays a huge part. Now, is that telling us something about Iowa? Hmm….I have always rebelled against the limitations of place. That might come from Iowa and finding out what people think about Iowa. I had a Californian cousin ask me one time: Why would I come to Iowa? He wasn’t trying to be a jerk either. He was seriously confused as to how there could be an actual answer to that. He was convinced there was no reason to come to Iowa. He eventually came to my father’s funeral in 2020 before the world turned to shit. We took him around downtown but it was shitty rainy cold March Iowa and I had to partially admit he was right. But he’s still wrong.
The guitarist from the Cowboy Junkies was talking to the crowd in between songs at a concert at a lovely little theater in downtown Des Moines. He said something like, yeah, you guys have a couple skyscrapers. That’s not a downtown so quit pretending. I get kind of what he’s saying. He’s been lots of places. Ok. I guess he thought that was funny. But it also strikes me as a strange limiting way of looking at the world, a strange limiting way of his experience too. It’s also a weird model to insult your customers, but what do I know?
I think I’m just more interested in people and ideas than place. And yet I just riffed two stories about place. Hmm…
I read your chapbook, Off the Resting Sea, which was wonderful and now congratulations are in order for your next publication, The Tony Bone Stories. This is a runner-up in the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award, and will be published by Adhoc Fiction. Can you talk a little bit about how you wrote this novella-in-flash?
Thanks Francine. I love the novella-in-flash form. It’s like recording an album. It’s a concept album, maybe even a double album. Concentrating on that form the last three or four years has gradually converted me to a longform mindset. I want to hang out with my characters a little more. I want more than the “one” spark of an individual flash piece. With the Tony Bone Stories, I had the character first and that really opened up unlimited possibilities for me. I could have (and still might some day) just gone the traditional novel form with Tony. The concept of Tony Bone is kind of a meta-narrative that fits in with your question of the deserted island scenario. Tony Bone is a name my wife and I hear on the news and I immediately know I have to turn him into a character. I have to write his stories. So I do. And I got to read them each week to the Flash Monsters and it was one of the best artistic experiences of my life. I wrote them week by week and I mostly let him show me the way. I hit a strange momentum near the end. It was like going over a waterfall or down a roller coaster. But it was also like going down the drain, lol. I know it definitely was something taking me more than me taking it. It felt awesome. I wrote the last two or three stories in one furious session. I don’t know if I succeeded entirely, but it’s probably the closest I’ve ever come.
Thanks for those questions Francine! She also asked me to include a story here, possibly one from The Tony Bone Stories, but I like those ones sticking together and am looking forward to it coming out later this year. I thought instead I would include one I’ve liked that I wrote to a prompt from Patricia Q Bidar, but it never found a home for it until now!
I Can Hear the Ocean by Al Kratz
Carson McCullers once wrote that there is something about a dark cold night that makes you feel close to someone you’re sleeping with. When you talk it is like you are the only people awake in the whole town.
I don’t think this is to say that it’s always bad to be alone. Sometimes you can still feel close to silence, wrapped tightly in a warm comforter.
I think there’s something deceiving about the bright winter sun. There’s no warmth. It only tells lies in January, February, and March. But if you look at the word deception as counter to perception, it isn’t as malicious as it sounds. Lots of things can be deceptive.
A friend of mine told us how his roommate at MIT jumped out their tenth-floor dorm window during an intense acid trip. What we thought was a story of loss, our friend thought of as a beautiful experience. He said his friend was more alive dying than most people were living.
A kid at a party in college pulled me aside and asked me how did I do it? It was a strange question, but it made some sense. He was in his first month of college, and I was in my second year. He thought I had something figured out. What didn’t make sense was how being asked the question made me aware of what I didn’t know. It took me several years to recover from that one question.
Another kid in a similar moment in the dorms asked me what good was I? What was I contributing to anything? I ignored that kid. He was just being an asshole.
I once told a friend of mine that it shouldn’t be that difficult to fall in love.
One time in college, my girlfriend told me she wanted to try seven hits of acid at once. Or maybe ten. She was trying to find a way to make the most intense experience seven or ten times more so. I told her I thought she was making a mistake. I don’t know if she ever did it. If she did it, I don’t know if she ever recovered.
My first wife was inside a shop getting us coffee when a guy waiting outside told me he had caught his roommate doing something sexual with his cat.
When my first wife was shopping in Kansas City, a homeless man told me how after the police beat him up in the park he discovered if he hocked up enough snot, he could place it on his syphilis, and it would be healed.
My first wife had an affair with her co-worker. We went to marriage counseling, but I never once told the counselor about the affair or how it had made me feel.
One time in a meeting with three other people, two managers asking us loaded questions about not being done with a project, my co-worker took it all in and said, I hear what you guys are saying, but all I have to say about it is go fuck yourself.
At my ten-year high school reunion, a friend asked me if I thought she was making a mistake getting married to a friend of mine from high school. I told her I thought she was making a mistake. They are still married more than twenty years later. They still might have made a mistake.
I once had to be reminded that it was safe to fall in love again.
When I was engaged to my second wife, she taught me the value of counseling. I told my counselor everything this time around. He told me to stop being so hard on myself. Not everything was about being right or wrong. Not everything was about being mistaken.
Still, I feel like some of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in my life have been around failing to forgive. I have since forgiven myself for making such a mistake.
We got married and flew to Arizona for our honeymoon. On the way back, my ear popped and it never un-popped. I ended up getting a tube in it. Now when I put my head down at night, I can hear the ocean.
Every morning before work, I’d carry my Boston Terrier downstairs to her kennel. I’d stop at the mirror, hugging Trixie face to face, and I’d see her looking at our reflection while I told her that I loved her.
Many things that are heavy at night are surprisingly light by morning.
I taught my wife the beauty of the Sunday Rule. The Sunday Rule is easy: no significant life decisions shall be made on Sunday. If possible, they shouldn’t even be talked about on Sunday. If possible, they shouldn’t even be thought about on Sunday. There is always Monday.
I believe Carson McCullers was on to something. A dark cold night can make you feel close to someone you’re sleeping with. It can be like you are the only people awake in the whole town.
But there is also something about a dark cold night that makes me just want to sleep without caring what anyone else in the whole town is doing or what they might have to say about the world. I just want to close my eyes and ease my mind. I just want some sleep.