Interview: Tara Laskowski on Bystanders
Highlight on Books: Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan discuss RIFT
People From Our Pages: Martin Porter, Michael Botur and Northland Flash
Clean Linen, Dirty Linen – Rachel Collier
Love Birds – Rita Shelley
Dead End – Claire Matravers
Size does matter – Anna Williams
National Flash Fiction Day Preview: Colours
Interview: Tara Laskowski
Eileen Merriman speaks with the author about her new collection, Bystanders.
Eileen Merriman: You have recently published Bystanders, a compelling collection of thirteen short stories. These cover a range of themes, including a woman who becomes obsessively sympathetic to the driver involved in a hit-and-run; a new mother whose baby monitor shows her a chilling truth; and an investigative reporter whose alias likes to ‘ruin other people’s careers’. How did this set of short stories originate? Why thirteen? And do you see them as linked, or serving as disparate glimpses into thirteen different realities?
Tara Laskowski: The stories in Bystanders are about what happens to people when something bad happens to someone else. So, it’s this idea that violence around us can cause us to alter our own behaviors and attitudes. While the stories aren’t linked in any direct way, many of the characters deal with some sort of trauma or crime indirectly—murder, betrayal, fistfights. This act of violence forces them into action. By the end of each story, my bystanders aren’t bystanding anymore.
As for the number 13: I always knew that I wanted 13 stories. It’s my lucky number.
EM: It strikes me that there are uncomfortable truths in many of the stories in this collection, suburban realities we can all relate to. We’re curious about the line between fiction and reality for you as a writer. Does fiction take priority when you are writing? Or does reality? Do they struggle against each other, or do they work hand in hand?
TL: So for me, if I rely too heavily on reality then I start to feel that struggle you mention. I think I often start with some kernel of truth – a tidbit someone told me, something I see on the street, a dream, etc. – and then riff off that. I try not to base characters too much on real life people or situations because it can veer the story in a direction it shouldn’t go. I also think if I get bogged down in what’s ‘real’ it also cuts down on the playfulness that I enjoy in writing. That said, it’s always a struggle to shut off your internal editor, isn’t it?
EM: In ‘The Monitor’, crossed signals from a pair of new mothers’ baby monitors lead first to jealousy, and then to fear. What was the trigger for this story, and how did it develop from there?
TL: When my husband and I got a video baby monitor for our son, it always struck me how creepy people looked in the camera. I actually used to freak myself out wondering what I’d do if I was looking at it and saw someone in there that shouldn’t be there. That idea still totally scares me. My husband and I were talking one day about how video signals can get crossed and how weird that would be and I said it would make a good story. He said he thought it would be funny if the couple in the monitor had a really well-behaved child that the main character was jealous of. I took it from there. It’s the only story in the collection that veers into the supernatural. I don’t normally write that way, and it was great fun to experiment with it. It’s also the story, so far, that I’ve gotten the most feedback on from people who’ve read the book.
EM: In ‘There’s Someone Behind You’, the story gradually unravels, and then ends abruptly, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps – and this is where the true power of the story lies. Can you comment on how this applies to writing in general, and in particular to flash fiction?
TL: My mom always tells me that she doesn’t love my endings because they seem to stop in the middle. Fair point, I guess. I don’t often like to wrap things up neatly. I think that’s why I’m drawn to flash fiction, because you can start right in the middle and end there, too. I’m not a fan of epilogues, I guess. In the case of ‘There’s Someone Behind You’ Ruthie, who’s in a relationship with a married man, goes to his house to check out his wife. I think the story ends on the moment when she’s realized exactly what role she plays in her boyfriend’s life. She’s literally in the shadows, and she’s, frankly, tired of it. I actually think it ends on a moment of empowerment.
EM: In ‘The Oregon Trail’, depicting a couple and a baby on a road trip, the story seamlessly weaves past and present together, and successfully uses setting to reflect the moods of the characters. How does the shifting landscape of the road trip impact the way you write a story like this? And how does setting connect to character, in your view?
TL: Road trip stories are always fun to write because you’re pulling people out of their comfort zone. Car rides, like airports, are liminal spaces – and in these weird in-between places things start to happen and unravel. There’s a sense of vulnerability about it because you don’t always know where you’re going. And in this case, the characters don’t quite know where they’re going to end up either. So the trouble they get in is heightened by all that. Plus they’re new parents, so they’re dealing with all the uncertainties that go along with that. I liked the idea of putting them in the desert, the mountains, of the American west because when you’re out there in those vast, undeveloped spaces it can make you feel very small and unimportant. You look over at all the rugged, rocky, barren land and you think, “Holy hell, what would happen to me if our car broke down right now?” You don’t really think that when you’re in the city; you never real feel that kind of vulnerability and fear. Or rather, if you do, it’s a different kind of vulnerability and fear.
EM: And speaking of setting, where and when do you like to do your writing? How does this influence the choice of setting in your stories?
TL: I have a four-year-old son, so I do my writing wherever and whenever I can, and it’s never enough time. Most of my writing these days is on the commuter train to and from work. I would say that it doesn’t influence my writing at all, but I did recently write a flash fiction piece about a woman on a commuter train, so…
EM: In ‘Other People’s Houses’, you tell the story of a house-hunting couple whose relationship has recently been tested by an affair. Two things are striking about this story: the use of alternating points of view, and the use of the present tense. Can you tell us how each of these factors into this story?
TL: Oh, yes. Present tense. So, I’m kind of a sucker for present tense. I know some people hate it. It’s like second person POV like that. But I LOVE it. I think I love it because it makes everything feel so much more urgent. In the case of this piece, because the story is unfolding in what feels like real time, I think it helps put us in the mind-frame of these two characters who are very uncertain about their future together, even as they are also tied together in pregnancy. It feels to me like what’s happening to them is inevitable, and we’re right there along with them.
The alternating points of view came more organically. I actually originally had the real estate agent’s point of view in there as well – or rather, what Hannah’s imagined idea of the real estate agent’s point of view was – but I scaled back on that because it all got too cluttered. Derek, her husband, is probably the more dominant voice in this story, but I wanted Hannah in there as well so it wasn’t just another ‘I’ve been wronged’ story. When a betrayal as big as an affair happens, we tend to hear about the fallout from the point of view of the person whose been cheated on, but the aftershocks can be just as strong for the guilty party as well. I wanted both of those voices in there.
EM: Can you tell us a bit about your writing background? How did you come to be a writer interested in short story? And what other forms capture your imagination?
TL: I’ve always been better at the small moment. Stories come to me in bits, not in whole long tales, so I guess the short form is a natural fit. The problem is that now I’d like to write a novel, and I have no idea what I’m doing!
EM: Beyond Bystanders, do you have any other projects in mind? What are you currently working on?
TL: I am about halfway done on a novel draft of a story I’ve wanted to tell for a very long time. It’s gone through several total rewrites, and I’m hoping this is the last one. (Fingers crossed.) The novel follows a group of friends through their high school years and through several decades and takes place in my hometown in Pennsylvania. It is bookended by two devastating floods, and there are some ghosts and some newspaper strikes and some other crazy stuff thrown in between. We’ll see what happens.
EM: You are the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, an on-line journal that publishes outstanding flash fiction of up to 1000 words. From the website:
The term “smoke-long” comes from the Chinese, who noted that reading a piece of flash takes about the same length of time as smoking a cigarette. All the work we publish is precisely that—about a smoke long.
What attracts you to flash fiction? Can you share some of your favourite pieces of flash fiction (links to these would be great, if available), and tell us why you like them?
TL: As I said above, I’m very interested in the small moment, and flash does that well. There doesn’t have to be any set-up. We can go right into the action and then we leave quickly, too. I also like the experimentation in flash. You can play with white space, move stuff around, shift time, try new styles and voices. Sure, you can do that with other forms as well, but it seems to fit flash fiction better. I also like the attention to language and words in flash fiction. The good ones are teensy little masterpieces.
Here’s one of my favorite stories we’ve ever published at SmokeLong: “Belly of a Fish” by Rachel Mangini. This story cuts you open. It’s only, what, like 200 words? Maybe even less. But it captures teenage heartache in such a fantastic way. I must’ve read it a hundred times and it just gets better.
EM: Can you give us your single most helpful tip for those wanting to write great flash?
TL: Have fun with it, be original, make us feel something.
The editors thank Eileen Merriman and Tara Laskowski for this exchange.
Legacies of violence and tragedy haunt the thirteen stories in Bystanders. From a vicious newspaper strike that rocks a small Pennsylvania community to an unpredictable road trip in the vast desert of the American West, the book explores the ways in which terror and uncertainty both consume and invigorate us – and yet reveal our strengths. When the unexpected happens, these bystanders – who are not always innocent – come face to face with their own choices and fates. Published by Santa Fe Writers Project.
Highlight on Books: Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan discuss RIFT
This month, we invited Robert Vaughan and Kathy Fish to share a little about their collaborative collection, RIFT (Unknown Press, December 2015). We’re excited to see writers working together like this – another way that flash encourages experimentation with content and voice. Robert and Kathy worked for nine months on the story collection, which includes 72 stories (36 each), all written separately then pulled together into four distinct sections. They took turns posting a weekly prompt, then one piece each weekly in an online writing group, the Night Owl Café. Kathy and Robert also met in person twice, and exchanged their manuscripts two times, in July and September. The book evolved into its current content throughout the northern hemisphere autumn through extensive telephone calls and e-mails.
Many thanks to these writers for sharing their experiences. Take it away, Robert and Kathy…
Robert Vaughan and Kathy Fish: Thanks so much, Michelle, for asking us to showcase RIFT at Flash Frontier and to talk about writing more generally.
Kathy Fish: So Robert, let’s talk about the final product of RIFT. How do you feel about it? Did anything surprise you? Did your early vision of it match how it turned out?
Robert Vaughan: I’ve been really proud and quite astonished with the book, since its release in December, 2015. I think the layout that Bud Smith/Unknown Press developed, and even the feeling of the cover (we already knew that stunning wraparound image), is surprisingly cool. I try not to envision much beyond the stories for which I am responsible, and so because this was a collaborative effort, I had no idea how the thread-through would work, overall, from story to story or section to section. This seems monumental since we’d worked so much on this in the book’s final stages.
KF: I feel the same way about how the book came together so organically! It surprised me, too, how much the stories worked together even though we hadn’t made that conscious effort to force them into cohesion. I also love how the cover turned out and just how the book ‘feels’ as a whole. It was such a blast working intensively toward that deadline and maybe that worked to our advantage.
RV: What influences did you draw from, Kathy, while creating RIFT? Were there any differences from your typical ‘go to’ ones? How often did you write while you were creating the book?
KF: Of course, I have to credit your influence, Robert, and Bud Smith’s and Michael Gillian Maxwell’s, as we worked together in the Night Owl Cafe. You all write with such verve and boldness and originality! I felt freed up to push my own limits as a writer. Even though I’d written a (very) rough draft of “There Is No Albuquerque” prior to our workshop, I don’t think I would have had the courage to pursue it had it not been for you guys. I also very much credit the long-time influences of writers I adore such as Kim Chinquee and Pia Ehrhardt and writers I don’t know, but admire so much: Lydia Davis, Joy Williams, Marilynne Robinson, William Maxwell, Stuart Dybek, Ron Carlson, Michael Martone, and more.
I was writing every day as we were putting the book together. I loved the urgency of that. The feeling that I must write every day. I’m astonished, being normally such a slow writer, by how many new stories I ended up with.
Robert, you strike me as so prolific and hard-working. Was your process any different in the creation of RIFT than it normally is? I’d love to hear about your own influences as well, both in general, and in the writing of your stories for RIFT.
RV: Thanks, Kathy! I try to write every day, even if I have to sneak it in between other commitments. Because we had the prompt writing once a week online group, The Night Owl Café, I drew most of my inspiration directly from you, Michael, and Bud, and the kick-ass work you all created week to week. It was like a hardcore generative workshop that lasted the better part of 2015, and most of the pieces in RIFT came about because of it. I am influenced by nature, being outdoors, and music, as well as writers I admire and cherish like Len Kuntz, Meg Tuite, Karen Stefano and so many more: Sara Lippmann, Amelia Gray, Ben Loory, Margaret Malone and many of those you mentioned.
Can you tell us what you’ve been working on since RIFT was published, Kathy? Do you typically write one project at a time, solely working on that? How do you think RIFT assisted you in your trajectory as a writer overall?
KF: I’m attempting my first novel! And it’s going…okay. I have difficulty writing long, not surprisingly. But I’m excited to be taking a novel workshop with Jenny Offill this summer which I hope will be both instructive and inspiring. Anyway, I’ve heard she’s a great teacher. And yes, I’m really a one project at a time writer. I think at one time I was able to juggle a lot of different things but not anymore. I like to focus deeply on one thing at a time.
I’m pondering my ‘trajectory’ – as a writer. Hmm. I think it always helps to have something new out. Opportunities arise just from getting your name out there again. I’m very grateful for that! I’m happiest when I’m growing in some way – writing and learning and trying new things. Working on RIFT really opened up my writing and creativity. So I’m very happy right now.
Robert, what are your five favorite stories that you wrote from RIFT and why? Also, I’m eager to hear what’s next for you.
RV: ‘A Box,’ for its personal references to my cousin John, and because it was chosen for Best Small Fictions 2016. ‘Literary Savant’ because it was so much fun to write. ‘Keep it Curt’ is such a flippant break-up piece and it’s really fun to read publicly, ‘Too Much Oxygen’ has gravitas and deep stakes and ‘What Lies Ahead’ is cinematic, has that one-sentence deep rolling essence.
I’m currently working on two projects, Fun House (due near the end of 2016), and a possible chapbook of epistolary irreverent materials, heavily influenced by the artist Ray Johnson.
KF: Both of your current projects sound amazing, Robert! I look forward to reading these new books.
I also love your choices for your own Top 5 stories. Those just may be my own favorites! And I’ve heard you read ‘Keep It Curt’ and love both the story and your perfect delivery.
RV: Kathy, if you could choose three people you’d want to read RIFT (who possibly have not yet), who might they be?
KF: Wow, what a great question! My first reaction to this was a tinge of sadness that caught me off guard. There are so many people I wish would read RIFT (and my other stories and books). I guess beyond friends and extended family, in the writing world, I would love for some of the writers I admire so much and have learned so much from would read our book. But I don’t want to put anyone on the spot. : )
It’s been such a blast for me, this journey with you and RIFT, Robert! I’m so grateful for everyone who helped create the book, blurbed it, read it, reviewed it, interviewed us, etc. What have been some of the highlights for you?
RV: You are so kind, Kathy! I love that you and I had the chance to read together in the Denver Flash Bomb series in January, 2015! Also, the experience of being interviewed together with Brad Listi on his Otherppl podcast during AWP in Los Angeles was a highlight of our RIFT publicity journey thus far.
KF: Yes, those were both so fun! I also really enjoyed our podcast with Levi Andrew Noe for Rocky Mountain Revival when you were here in Denver.
I wonder what you think of book trailers, Robert? Or small films to showcase books, sort of like Bud Smith did with I Am From Electric Peak. I think RIFT would be great material for a series of short films, don’t you? Have you ever thought of adapting your work to film?
RV: I think book trailers are a terrific idea! One of my friends told me his favorite piece of mine from RIFT was ‘What Lies Ahead’ because it reminded him of a Quentin Tarantino short film. I’d love to get some of these adapted, whether we do it, or a screenwriter comes into our lives magically and transforms RIFT into film, sort of like Robert Altman did with Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts. Any folks out there with connections, please let Kathy or me know!
KF: Yes! I was thinking of Short Cuts, too. Something like that. I love the idea of film and adapting for film. Seems like a hugely fun challenge. I agree about “What Lies Ahead” and so many of the stories in RIFT that seem like they’d work so well as short films.
RV: One last question, if you were not a writer, what other careers might you (have) pursued?
KF: I’m actually not suited for anything else. But I’m very drawn to science, you know, in an amateur sort of way. I took a lot of anthropology and psychology courses in college. And French. Maybe I could live in Paris and translate anthropology and psychology texts for a living. I think I could make that work.
RV: That sounds like a fun plan: France and scientific translations. I’d probably end up in the healing arts somehow. Opening a spa, training massage therapists in all sorts of worldly modalities.
KF: I think you’d be great at that, but I’m personally very glad you’re a writer. And this was so much fun. Thanks again, Michelle, for having us at Flash Frontier.
Book cover design by Casey McSpadden.
People From Our Pages: Martin Porter, Michael Botur and Northland Flash
New Zealand has developed a unique English writing style and tradition, echoing its development from the early European migration, the national identity forged by two world wars and the creation of a sophisticated mixed-nation democracy. Northland, the spear of land thrust into the Pacific at the top of the country, is an essential part of this history, and so it is not surprising that it has its own breed of writers.
Poetry has been an important part of this tradition, but recent years have seen the development of a community of flash fiction and micro-prose writers. Five years ago, the Whangarei library service generously provided support for what has become an annual Northland Flash Fiction Competition. The competition offers an opportunity for the distinct Northland flash fiction voice to be developed and heard.
The first competition attracted a wide range of entries, with a vibrant awards ceremony and panel discussion. From this grew a monthly meeting of flash fiction writers at the main library. The first winning entry blended issues of migration and forced movement with everyday Northland culture. Since then, the winning entries have explored different aspects of society, ancestry and self-discovery to provide an insight into the culture that exists in contemporary Northland.
The competition this year attracted over thirty entries from across the region with a population of just over 150,000. The competition was judged by two previous winners, Michael Botur and Martin Porter. The judging this year resulted in joint winners, the first time this has happened, with two stories of contrasting style. Third and Fourth prizes were also awarded.
The prizewinning stories are shared below. Enjoy! And congratulations to these Northland writers!
First Equal: Clean linen, dirty linen
Salvaged wrappings topple out of the linen closet – a crowd of shrewdly detached tissue-paper, foil and gloss.
I feel for the first ledge and find a secure footing on the soft flannelette to my right; my left foot slides on Mother’s satin pillowslips. Reaching for the top shelf with my fingers, I momentarily position my toes on the second ledge, before hauling myself up.
It’s a snug hideout, cushioned by the mending pile, fragrant with the mothballs that lavish the ivory christening gown, one shelf below. The wool box sits beside me, crammed with odds and ends in assorted ply, only suitable for mending or Peggy squares.
The box also contains Mother’s needles and hooks: stout, skinny, long, circular. My precious French knitting doll, with her lengthy sleeping bag, naps, carefully tucked-in beneath the scraps.
“Absolutely NOT,” my mother’s voice echoes down the hall.
I snatch up my doll and a hook and begin working carefully, winding and twisting; lifting the lower loops over the nails, over and over again. I’m building up a rhythm when suddenly something smashes.
My mother’s voice is emphatic: “Only the FIRST born – that’s the rule. This is NOT your first born though, is it?”
I crane my neck (an ‘eldest and only’) to spy in-between where door meets mount. Aunt Susan looks straight at Mother and says: “You better not ruin this for me Ava.”
I grab the top of the door with my finger-tips and pull. The salvaged wrappings crumple.
When the front gate bangs, my index-finger accidently slips on a nail head; the blood trickles down between the boards.
On the day of the christening Aunt Susan is suitably radiant; my mother is remarkably quiet; and the heirloom gown – curiously white.
First Equal: Love Birds
Jeff had suggested the movie. Usually they just talked for hours.
Even as shadows lengthened, the pavement radiated the day’s heat. They passed block after block of once-grand buildings with stone lions and courtyards.
City kids, they welcomed the long walk to the theatre away from their cramped apartments. Jeff, 14, read insatiably. He oscillated between stuttering and delivering speeches like an orator twice his age. Cynthia never tired of listening. She, too, was 14.
Jeff had just read The Birds and was curious how Hitchcock dealt with the story. Jeff was paying. For once he had money. The butcher had finally paid him for the deliveries he made after school.
“Is this a date?” Cynthia wondered silently. “Do I want it to be?”
The lobby was almost empty. Corn popped seductively but they chose Bonbons, chocolate-covered ice-cream balls, heaven in a box. The walls of the auditorium were painted with vines and ancient statues. Stars twinkled on the ceiling. Cynthia shivered with the overzealous air conditioning and Hitchcock’s terrifying scenes.
Jeff was so close Cynthia could smell the detergent in his shirt. She wondered if he might take her hand. Maybe she would take his? But all hands remained frozen in place.
They walked into a wall of steamy heat as they exited the theatre.
“I hope we don’t see any birds,” said Cynthia, almost joking.
“I won’t be around tomorrow.”
“Helping your mum with the shopping?”
“There’s a new girl in my class. I promised I’d help her with chemistry.”
About Rita Shelley…
Third: Dead End
“Oh, come on!” Steve thumped the steering wheel as we snail-paced along the country road in heavy traffic.
“What’s the hurry?” I asked, holiday mode kicking in. “We’ve got all day.”
“BUM,” Tony yelled in triumph from the back. He was looking for three letter words on number plates.
“JAW, HUG.” Stephanie, his younger sister, was not to be outdone.
The pace was becoming tedious even for me, and I was glad when we reached the motorway. There, Steve was able to put his foot down and drive at the speed limit.
“Wow,” he said, glancing in the rear view mirror. “Look what’s coming up behind us. What I wouldn’t give for one of those…”
A BMW sports car glided past us in the fast lane.
“D-B-L-Oh-seven,” Tony said, reading the number plate. “That’s Phil from work! He thinks he’s James Bond in his Z3.” There was a note of envy in Steve’s voice.
The speedster wove in and out of the traffic, passing everything in sight.
“Nice car.” I watched it accelerate into the distance. “But you couldn’t fit two kids and a pile of luggage in that, could you?”
“True.” Steve sounded wistful.
Would he rather have a car than his family? I kept my thoughts to myself.
A police car screamed past, lights and sirens going.
“It’s probably after Phil!” Steve sounded gleeful. It was closely followed by another one. “And that one too.”
When an ambulance sped by, equally noisy. He didn’t say a word.
The traffic started to slow. We crawled past the emergency vehicles. The wrecked car lay in the ditch. All we could see of it were the wheels in the air. And the number plate.
“D-B-L-Oh-seven,” Tony said in a small voice. In the ensuing silence, Steve reached for my hand.
About Clare Matravers…
Fourth: Size does matter
She’d always been reluctant to date a man shorter than her. So awkward to be looking down at him when they talked. Would she always have to wear flat shoes? She’d hate that. Stilettos and platforms were her passion. And what if she went to put her arm round his waist and it ended up round his shoulders? Totally embarrassing! It just wouldn’t be right.
He was talking to her boss one day when she entered the lunch room and they invited her to join them. She was introduced to John. He was short, but had warm eyes and a lovely smile. She felt the flare of attraction. When her boss left, she and John chatted over lunch. She decided she really liked him. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad that he was short. She’d make the best of the situation. Even if it came to wearing flats and stooping a bit when they were together.
She took a deep breath and asked him if they could meet for dinner one night.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Are you seeing someone?”
“No, it’s not that. I don’t mean to sound rude but I never date anyone taller than myself. It simply wouldn’t feel right.”
About the 2016 Northland Flash Competition judges
National Flash Fiction Day Preview: Colours
This month, we congratulate these frequent Flash Frontier contributors who made the Short List of the 2016 NFFD competition. We asked them: If you had to sum up your 2016 short-listed story with a colour, what colour would it be, and why?
This is what they said.
Sam Averis writes short fiction.
Nod Ghosh works as a medical laboratory scientist and is writing a second novel – but keeps getting distracted by the desire to write short stories.
Trisha Hanifin, an Aucklander whose roots are in the South Island, writes flash fiction, short stories and non-fiction, and has a novel awaiting manuscript assessment.
Heather McQuillan writes poetry, short fiction and children’s stories, and juggles her role as tutor at The School for Young Writers with studying towards a Masters of Creative Writing, Massey University; she also juggles.
Zoë Meager writes flash fiction and short stories.
To hear the winners of this year’s national competition, pleased join us June 22! Details at the NFFD site.