Since emerging on the forefront of the flash fiction genre, Sherrie Flick has established herself as one of the form’s greatest authorities.
Flick is author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness, and the flash fiction books I Call This Flirting and Whiskey, Etc. Her fiction has appeared in countless journals and books, including W.W Norton’s Flash Fiction Forward, New Sudden Fiction, Ploughshares, Booth and SmokeLong Quarterly. She contributed a chapter in the landmark flash fiction guide Rose Metal Guide to Flash Fiction. She has received fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, the Ucross Foundation, and Atlantic Center for the Arts. But that’s merely a snapshot.
In this interview, Flick discusses her start in flash fiction, her upcoming book, and above all answers the question – what makes for good flash fiction? AHHR Fiction Editor, Jason Peck, wrote the interview.
First question I have to ask – How did you get into flash fiction? Because you would have gotten into it back in the days before it was really a mainstream genre.
I started writing flash fiction in the late ‘80s. There was a little balloon of popular interest at that time because Raymond Carver was publishing then, and Gordon Lish was editing and publishing The Quarterly. Diane Williams, Amy Hempel….all these people were publishing these short pieces there. Those pieces weren’t studied in academia at that time, so that was the sort of weird disconnect for me. Workshops in my undergraduate program weren’t considering short form as something we should write. But outside of academia, my friends were writing in this experimental form and getting things published. So there was a tension between popular mainstream publishing and the academic world of teaching craft.
I had a great network of friends who were writing flash fiction in New Hampshire, so I had a workshop outside of my [university] workshop where we wrote these pieces. There was a lot of affirmation in that world, the indie-rock, zine, underground-art thing in the ‘80s. So in some ways I feel like I was in sync with what was going on; in other ways, I was not approved of. But Raymond Carver was my gateway drug to flash. A friend gave me Carver and I was like, Boom! This is what I want to write. It sounds cliché now, but that’s just how it happened.
Do you feel like flash fiction has won respect yet? Or do you feel there’s still this attitude out there this this might be a shallower art form?
People have been writing in this form since the ‘20s and the ‘30s. I think we can say people have always been writing in this form in one way or another. But in the ‘20s and ‘30s in America they were publishing in well-regarded magazines. There was much discussion at this year’s AWP conference about flash fiction and the short form and how short a piece of writing could be, and the micro and sudden fiction and that sort of stuff…I see my students in my MFA program looking at flash as a short story. So in some ways I feel like it has been synthesized into the world of fiction, and it doesn’t need to be justified anymore. It’s a form that can be well-crafted. But people love to argue about it.
In the Rose Metal Guide to Flash Fiction, you wrote about how you can ignore plot when you start writing a flash piece, and how liberating this is; you can start focusing on these other story elements that don’t always take a front seat. But is plot something you have to return to in the end?
It depends on the story. This past fall I was at The Montana Book Festival where we put together a panel on place in flash fiction. And the writer Sam Ligon, when we asked him to be on the panel was like “I don’t really believe in place in flash fiction, but I want to be on this panel so I can argue with everyone.” But then we got to the panel, and by then he had realized there were these stories of his that were based in setting, and he was able to use these stories as examples; he just wasn’t thinking of them as setting when he wrote them.
So I do think you need to give the story what it calls for. Some pieces of flash call for plotting, some rise from setting, some are very character driven. There’s always a kind of resonance or change that occurs, whether it’s in the character or the reader. As the reader, we’re filling in a part of that story that’s being evoked for us.
Since I wrote that essay I feel like I know more about plot. I wrote a novel, and that was certainly helpful in learning about it. But that is my weakest craft element, but I feel that now I can manipulate it in a more complex way.
Looking at your stories, some of them don’t really appear to have a plot in the traditional sense. There’s the story “Oklahoma Men” that’s mentioned in the Rose Metal Guide, there’s the story “Breakfast” that’s often at your readings; one of my favorites is “Silver Spur Café.” It sometimes seems like you’re showing an impression of a moment. Would that assessment be fair, or is there a plot that’s maybe just way more subtle than we’re used to seeing?
I do feel that it’s subtle. There isn’t a traditional plot of “the cowboy ropes a steer and goes back to the ranch and builds a fire and meets the girl.” Some of my stories are like that [laughs], but in most cases the change is subtle, my pieces are quiet. “Oklahoma Men,” that’s a good example of a plotless story. But in the other stories, there’s a traditional change that occurs. If you sketched it out you’d see it. But it’s maybe not the scaffolding that holds the story up.
How did you go from writing flash to a novel? Are you in the same mindset, or do you have to take some time to write a different kind of piece?
A novel is a totally different kind of animal. I was almost militant about flash for many years. And then one day my mentor suggested that I challenge myself to write a novel. What was it that kept me from trying to do it? And that was a very good question.
I committed to trying the form. And in order to do it, the first thing I did was write a 20-page story. And then I wrote a 50-page story, just figuring out this longer arc. And then I wrote the novel. And when I wrote it, I was at a writing residency in Wyoming, that ended up being 60,000 words in a few weeks. That’s not how most people do it, but for me, shifting from this super-compressed form to a long, gigantic animal; I really needed to bang it out.
In doing so, my sentence structure changed. I had to learn how to extend the life of a character and have them move through space in a way that my shorter stories don’t accommodate. But my novel is very non-linear. It doesn’t go from A to B to C. More like A to Z to X to M. So in that sense, the plot is still very fractured. But that was the intent.
So that flash influence was still there?
Oh yeah. Part of what I talked about at AWP was that even if you’re not interested in flash – compression itself should be a craft element that is learned. Because if you have a character in a novel you want to get from New Hampshire to Nebraska in two paragraphs, that’s compression right? That’s a lot of time for two paragraphs, and if you want to do it in a convincing way – that’s where flash really came into play in my book.
You’ve read a lot of flash fiction as a teacher and an editor. At the risk of limiting the genre, what should be present in every flash fiction story?
I will say from reading for SmokeLong, the one thing that’s really stuck – there needs to be a strong and definitive voice. Without that voice, flash fiction tends to come off as flat. You don’t have the time to build up to anything, you only have 1,000 words. So the pieces we accept seem to always have this voice that strikes you from the get-go as someone who is really in control. Conversely, what I don’t like is when someone depends on a gimmick or a joke or a pop culture trope, almost like a standup comic.
Where do you often see flash going wrong?
It would be a writer who isn’t in command of voice. But I think also….there has to be a story. I think sometimes, people who are writing flash early on in their careers….they’re actually just writing a scene. And a scene doesn’t have resonance. It can be a very well-wrought scene, but my question would be: what is the big idea? What is the big question that you are exploring in this story? If you don’t evoke a kind of realization in your reader or your character, it doesn’t come together as a story. And I think even in more abstract pieces, there’s a larger commentary.
A great scene is not successful unless you put it in the context of a greater meaning. So working with students, they have a very well written piece, and in revision I ask, what is the big idea here? What do you want to go deeper into? And if you want to maintain this shorter form, how do we heighten that?
You do have a new book coming out. Is this a new novel, or is this a return to flash?
Yes, it’s flash fiction and similar in structure to Whiskey, Etc. in that it’s a combination of pieces of flash with longer stories throughout, but mostly flash. When I put this manuscript together, it came via outtakes [for Whiskey, Etc.]. I was culling pieces for that collection, and I had pieces left over that didn’t fit there. But they fit with each other, which was handy. They’re all a bit darker and weirder. Autumn House press is publishing the collection in Fall 2018.
Which flash fiction story do you wish you had written?
Anything that Stuart Dybek has ever written, I wish I had written. I remember reading his collection, Coast of Chicago, when I was a grad student. I think he is someone who really examines place, and change, and how a character can rise.
And then there’s this new story, “Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at that Point Fuck Them Anyway” by Gwen Kirby. It’s an amazing story. It’s a great example of everything I’ve talked about so far, because you can imagine this coming into your inbox – immediate voice, immediate innovation. Power, it’s very clever…it just charmed me. I know a lot of women flash fiction writers were reading this like “Arrgh! This is what I want to write!”
Favorite flash chapbook?
It’s kind of an impossible question. Sean Lovelace wrote this chapbook, How Some People Like Their Eggs. It’s a fresh and innovative manuscript how it fits together….there’s just something about it that’s very smart. I selected it as judge for Rose Metal Press’ chapbook competition some years back.
Of course, Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek, which I already mentioned. Also anything by Joy Williams. Her new collection Ninety-Nine Stories of God is brilliant. I also pretty much love everything Etgar Keret has written. I teach his book The Girl on the Fridge. He does a lot with black humor, so his stories are funny, but also political. And he does a lot of commentary on gender roles, but none of it is overt. I admire that. He’s able to make deep, meaningful statements through sometimes crazy, unrealistic magic-realistic scenarios. And that’s not really how I work; but we admire and want to do what we don’t often do.
Read more by Sherrie Flick on her website: http://sherrieflick.com/
Jason Peck edits fiction for the After Happy Hour Review.