It's been a while since we've had an author visit along with the accompanying 100 word prompt response. I hope you'll enjoy this conversation with Susan Tepper and Robert Vaughan — both prolific publishers of, and champions for, great flash fiction.
Susan Tepper is the author of four published books. Her most recent is a collection of linked-flash-fiction titled “From the Umberplatzen” (Wilderness House Press, 2012). It's a quirky love story set in Germany. Tepper also hosts the Monday Chat interview column on Fictionaut, and a reading series called FIZZ at KGB Bar in NYC. www.susantepper.com
Robert Vaughan lives in Milwaukee where he leads roundtables at RedBird RedOak Writing. His prose and poetry is found in numerous literary journals. His short stories are anthologized in Nouns of Assemblage from Housefire, Stripped from P.S. Books, and Exquisite Quartet Anthology 2011. He is fiction editor at JMWW magazine, and Thunderclap! He co-hosts Flash Fiction Fridays for WUWM's Lake Effect. His blog.
Q: I've had a love-hate relationship with flash fiction. At times, I adore it and at times, I read some and think, what? You call that a story? The flash fiction I admire most hints at something before and after the scenes we get — for me, the reader is engaged in the piece in large part because of what it evokes. You two are making a huge, well-deserved splash in the flash fiction world. How would you describe flash fiction for someone either unfamiliar with the form, or, perhaps ambivalent?
Susan: I adore writing and reading Flash Fiction. I think good Flash Fiction can almost eclipse “normal” sized stories, because Flash has to make every single word count. So what happens with Flash is that you have a story that starts out very strong, and keeps the plot tension going, then ends with a strong finish. So there's no time to dilly-dally around and contemplate your belly-button (if I may act silly for a moment)! Because a lot of stories “fail” when the writer fails to realize that there cannot be a let-down in the story tension. It has to keep moving along at some sort of pace (be it movement-pace or emotional-pace). Otherwise the reader will get bored and put the book or story down.
Robert: Flash fiction is like Disney on acid, it's like a joyride without the joystick. When I riff on a great flash, it's as if the world doesn't exist, all falls away. Writing it can feel entirely daunting, scary and subtly powerful. I try to go with the first draft, find a voice, or a point of view that sticks and zoom away. But it always needs tweaking. For instance, the Windy City prompt has endless directions in which to cast the net…is it Chicago? A literal place, an emotional metaphor? Or even more abstractly, I pondered a bull in a china shop on Michigan Avenue as protagonist. To those who say “nay” to flash, I also agree. Not everyone loved Gone With the Wind or Doctor Zhivago.
2. I'm thinking you two met on Fictionaut first? Have you met in person and what was that like, to put skin on a cyber-friend?
Susan: I met Robert on Fictionaut and was drawn to his work right away. Then we met for real this past September when he came to read in my FIZZ series at KGB Bar in NYC. We met beforehand at a little cafe near the KGB. It was as if we'd known each other a lifetime. I had on these crazy fake diamond earrings that kept coming apart, and as soon as we hugged the earring fell apart and rolled across the cafe floor! We started laughing, and gossiping, and it was all so great! Then the rest of the gang arrived and the fun was amped up even more.
Robert: I think Susan and I met on Fictionaut, a cyber writing network, although I grew even more familiar with her work initially through a writing collective called 52/250, edited by Michelle Elvy, Walter Bjorkman and John Wentworth Chapin. We originally were to meet over the summer of 2011, but the KGB reading was postponed to October. It was a stellar event, and Susan had the whole gang of readers (Danny Goodman, Christine Vines, and Meg Tuite) meet prior at a cafe around the corner from where I lived for years in NYC's East Village. The entire experience was like a dream- Susan and I are family, in every sense of the word. Instant recognition, and comfort. So lovely.
3. Susan, I've only started From the Umberplatzen, and I'm loving it. It strikes personal chords for me since I lived in Germany for a year. When did you know these pieces would become a connected collection of flash stories? What did you enjoy most about the process? Least?
Pam, I loved every moment of writing From the Umberplatzen. It was a totally inspired writing time for me. Like you, I also spent a considerable period in Germany, so it was familiar. But in the course of writing, the Umberplatzen became something more than trees and a park to my characters, M and Kitty Kat. It became a place of deep longing and fullfillment. They shared a great love for each other. The book is a story about a great love. But not in a sappy kind of way. And it's also about a love for this strangely mystical place they named The Umberplatzen. Every little story revolves in some way around the Umberplatzen, yet each story is quite different from the others. Each starts and ends on a single page, yet they make up a unified whole. That's what prompted Robert Olen Butler to call it: “a mosaic of a novel.” I knew I had a collection when I was unable to stop writing these stories.
Robert: This is Susan's novel, From the Umberplatzen, although I have to chime in and say I LOVE THIS BOOK! Have anyone who does not think a novel can be told in flash stories, read this! Also, I interview Susan for The Lit Pub about this book and so much more, coming soon to a theater near you!
4. Robert, it's been thrilling for me to look at the authors included in your new anthology Flash Fiction Fridays from your monthly Flash Fiction Friday program on WUWM. I'm SO tickled to see so many friends' pieces, including some previous visitors to PamWrites, like Kim Suhr, Christi Craig, Mary Jo Thome and Sara Lippmann. I imagine selecting the pieces is both challenging and fun … true? I'm curious about how you determine the monthly themes … do they bubble up from submitted pieces, or do you start with theme ideas and see what you get that fits?
Robert: Flash Fiction Fridays, the radio program, always feels spontaneous and completely off the cuff. Of course, it isn't, and Stephanie Lecci, my co-host, is a fantastic editor, not to mention a brilliant partner-in-crime. All of the pieces are pre-selected from submissions, and usually I have an idea of who I would like as the “international” writer- which Susan, Sara Lippmann, Meg Tuite, or some of the other writers were in 2011. I try to alternate between a male and female writer as best I can. Then, I pair that piece with the best local submission possible, either new or stored. The themes tend to come into place once I have read the two (or in some cases three) works as a cohesive unit, that is not always easy.
For our writing prompt, we each responded to: The Windy City? Bull, the air hung like…. And, as always, our goal was to stay as close to 100 words as possible. Enjoy!
Act III, by Pam Parker, 110 words
The Windy City? Bull. The air hung like dusty curtains on an abandoned stage. From his bed, he waited for leaves to dance outside. Not a shiver, a quiver or the tiniest glissade. Somewhere in his lungs, fear rose, bumping his ribs. It had come to this. Frightened of the air, like the pause on opening night after delivering the last line. Would they like it? On his pillow, positioned to view the active world, movements and speech had long since exited his life. The only motion for him was a pulsing echo in his mind: the wind must move; the wind must move. The air couldn’t die before him.
My Stint as an Elevator Operator, by Susan Tepper, 150 words
The Windy City? Bull, the air hung like cotton-sugar, he said. I answered that he was insane. I said the wind off the lake was so cold I felt paralyzed. He told me that I'm a cold fish. I told him to divorce his wife. Watch me warm up then. He said she spent her days in their bedroom. Doing what? I said. He said he didn't know, actually. I said: And you don't want to know. He suggested a short trip to Chicago. A pretend-business trip. I told him about the woman in the Hilton elevator, the one who told me to Press 6, because I had on a navy-blue suit. My stewardess uniform. I went along with it and pressed 6. My stew friends all laughed. The woman nodded and thanked me upon exiting. Take your wife to Chicago, I told him. Get her out of that bedroom.
Forget It, by Robert Vaughan, 93 words
The Windy City? Bull, the air hangs like I’m giving blood on Valentine’s Day. But I’m still in bed and if I just lay here, will you lie with me? Show me a garden under this float of ice. Let’s forget what we’re told. Lie before we’re too old. Too late for that? Because all that I ever was, all that I am: is draining out onto these sheets, veins running red in the streets. And the city, windy, will always be here, near or far. It’s not who we are.
Hope you enjoyed this chat with and the writing from Susan and Robert — If you will be attending AWP, they will be there, along with Meg Tuite, on Thursday, doing a book signing at Connotation Press Booth # 811 (from 9:30 am thru 11:30am).
Then the big Connotation Reading just a few blocks from the Hilton, starting at 2:30pm. They'll be at other off-site readings and venues too. Pay attention to your facebook announcements and/or visit Google U.
Thank you again, Susan and Robert!
Happy #writing all — let my guests know what you thought of their comments and/or writing in the comment section.