Interview with Robert Scotellaro, with his new book Bad Motel
Flash Frontier: Your book opens with:
pleasure in the form of a black dog. The spider’s
red insistence collaborates with a yellow sponge
to form the morning’s art.”
– which is like a Rorschach presentation of sorts: here’s something small and unexpected: what do you make of it? The opening story continues with this theme, and we see it time and again. Do you see that as a way to set the mood for this collection? Is this a commentary on how your days begin? Take a peek at the oddest things; see what you find…? Seems a wonderful way to think about writing micros…
Robert Scotellaro: I agree. Epigraphs can set a tone for a collection, or in some small way, speak to at least a feature of the stories overall. For me, Christopher Kennedy was getting at a way of seeing/appreciating art in the everyday. A kind of awareness that art can be found (untrumpeted) in the most unexpected places.
When one is writing with so few words, there are many ‘empty spaces’. Spaces a reader can fill selectively – a Rorschach, as you say, perhaps. There is a quote I like a lot, and I think applies here, by Andrew Wyeth:
Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.”
Often with very brief works of fiction the reader ‘imagines’ what might lie beyond those narrow borders.
FF: Where do you find the images that come to you, besides in the pizza’s melted cheese?”
RS: Usually it is a scrap of something that I feel has a spark, or a line of dialog, a new slant on something I find interesting… For instance, in the first story ‘Pareidolia’, I read that a slice of toast, with a perceived image of Jesus in burn marks, was being bid upon. The phenomenon is called ‘pareidolia’ (seeing iconic images in unlikely places). I take prodigious notes, and added ‘pareidolia’ to one of my notebooks. When I referred to my notes, I used that word as a starting point and went from there.
There’s a favorite term of mine that I think speaks to my writing process (the process for most writers, I’d imagine). It’s Latin: terra incognita. It means unknown or unexplored territory. I truly enjoy taking that small spark of an idea and extrapolating. Seeing where it will lead me. Writers, generally speaking, are explorers – inside and out.
FF: Continuing with this idea of the Rorschach. These small stories seem to contain transformations, like the things communicated by cigarette smoke, or a swastika turned pinwheel, or the way ‘What We Carry’ ends: “Yeah,” he said, running a finger through a wet circle, turning it into something else.” And there’s mystery with the transformations, too. Do you think micros lend themselves to mysteries, to the unknown?
RS: Yes, ‘transformations’ occur. We are all continually transforming into the people we are, from the people we have been. I think change is a major component in fiction. Also, ‘allusion’, especially in flash/micro. Alluding to something perhaps bigger or further reaching/deeper than just the ‘facts’ of a piece, its literal actions or descriptions.
FF: Your writing is punctuated by the fragmented sentence. The story ‘So They Said’ is a wonderful example of this. Do you think fragmentation lends itself especially to writing micros and flashes? And do you ever find yourself wanting to express yourself in longer sentences?
RS: I think the fragmented sentences are a carryover from my many years of writing poetry. Line breaks highlighting/having a line stand on its own, sans the formal connective tissue feels right to me. It is a style I think works particularly well with 100-word stories.
FF: There are wives and fathers a plenty in this collection. Memories from childhood, karaoke bars. A hooker here, a tattoo there. Do you tend to draw on real life as inspiration, or do your stories come out of the blue?
RS: Paradoxically, perhaps, some of the more quirky details in my work come from real life. The personal. For instance, there really was a gangster who lived down the hall from us, who had a hit man come up a fire escape (five stories up) with a rifle wrapped in a blanket. He tapped on the back window of our tenement building in the middle of the night. He said through the window, “Whitey said it was OK!” (the actual name of the gangster). My mother let him in and the rifle was kept under my bed for a time till Whitey showed up at our door with a fist full of bills and retrieved it: the story became I Got Something’.
But more often it is that terra incognita where imagination flourishes, at times rising up from the depths, real details commingled with fictive constructs/context. I’m ever absorbed and intrigued by the process of not knowing where I will be taken/will take myself with a piece of creative writing.
Let’s talk about structure…
FF: Three sections make up your collection – What We Carry, What Remains and What If? The sections create a kind of natural rhythm (for me, anyway) – a movement in the first section, a looking back in the second, a looking forward in the third. Do you see them as a kind of past, present, future way of thinking about the stories in the collection? Or is there something else going on here?
RS: Yes, you’re right about the three categories I’ve divided the collection into. But, they are not rigid categories. Only ones I felt, in some way, worked as fitting placements. It was an organic process for me to separate the stories that way. I think past/present/future describes the groupings well. They just seemed to ‘fit’ together under those headings. I had a good time trying out various stories that were interchangeable, but found a home in one category over another.
FF: How did ‘Bad Motel’ come to be the name of the collection as well as the story? Tell us why that one is the one.
RS: I think a pervasive theme of the collection is the difficulty we all have with acquiring/negotiating/maintaining relationships – all sorts of relationships. It is what drives us. A mainstay in literature. ‘Bad Motel’ (the title story) speaks to one small aspect of that struggle. In another time the book might have been called Bad Motel (and Other Stories). What I like exploring are the varied and elaborate ‘adjustments’ and ‘creative repairs’ people make under the weight of daily living.
FF: These stories resolve – or don’t – quite often in unexpected ways. How do you know when a story is finished? Or, perhaps better put: how do you know to stop, sometimes in the middle of it all? And then there’s the ending of the collection – a moment of connection and then a vanishing. For readers who are interested in the rhythm of a collection like this (the editing, the culling, the placing, the ordering), could you tell us about selecting the final story?
RS: My stories, each one, end in their own way. There is no pattern I follow. It either feels right or it doesn’t. Sometimes open-ended seems fitting, or a disjunctive detail that opens another door. Sometimes it is a closing of a door behind you, and so on… The last story of the collection felt appropriate because it had a metaphor of domino dots imprinted in the backs of two lovers, vanishing before they could count them. An allusion to impermanence. So, in that instance, the ending was open-ended – as life is most often.
About shadows and moods…
FF: There are moments of wonderful optimism in this collection, mixed in with obvious darkness. Do you know when you set out to write a story whether it will be light or dark? The What If? section opens with a story that begins “Imagine…” and ends with “Hell yes!” There is such exuberance in this small story, which seems, somehow, a little rare. The clear air up there on the top of the Ferris wheel… Did this story explode forth, like it does on the page? And meanwhile, shadows lurk at the edges of some of these micros. I can’t help but notice the contrast between color and shading in many of your stories. Do you see the worlds you paint mostly in color, or in black and white?
RS: No, I do not know whether a story will be dark, or funny, or filled with light – colorful or in black and white. I think there are currents on any particular writing day (below the surface) that dictate much of what will surface. The story you cited about the young lady on a date atop the Ferris wheel just came out that way. I had a snippet of dialog in my notebook about trapped air in underwater caves. Found it intriguing when I saw a documentary once about divers exploring underwater caves. That was my launching point. The rest just flowed out that way. Again: a relationship. In this case, a mismatched one. And, in this instance, the trapped air is a metaphor. The free wind in her face as she thinks about being high above the waves in a convertible with another man more to her suiting is the optimism you feel. A better match – a way out – an unfettered freedom. What we all crave in one form or another.
Sometimes the crayon I pull out of the box (without looking) is black – and there will be shadows, noir. Sometimes I have a handful of colors. I use what feels right, whether I’m coloring inside or outside the lines. Whether in color or black and white. I think what I feel is most important to me, is to relinquish preconceptions when I write – to let each piece create its own environment and tone/mood/color, or lack of it.
About compression in general…
FF: On the New Zealand NFFD site, you state: “I find, in flash fiction, a glorious paradox: a form that is physically compressed yet endlessly expansive.” How did you come to this form, and what keeps you here? Is it the challenge of physically writing small, or the process of editing down to the bones, or the fun of the hint, or something else entirely? And, finally, why 100 words?
RS: I love the challenge of writing 100-word stories. The paring down process for me is a bit like diamond cutting – getting to the essence: the glittering center which best reflects the light it was meant to capture and release. I find them satisfying – the many strategies for composing them ever compelling and diverse.
Writing flash/micro is in many ways an extension of what I had done as a poet. I wrote relatively short poems. I think some writers are natural sprinters. I am one of them. Writing short-short stories, as well as poetry, was an early passion for me. A natural fit. I find there is the potential for great impact and resonance in the genre. And, ironically, I find plenty of room in those tight spaces, not just in what is said, but in the breath and expanse of what is not said.
Interview with Laurie Stone, with her new book My Life as an Animal, stories
Flash Frontier: This is a collection of interlinking stories. The chapters revisit themes, characters, and locations. Did you set out to write such a collection, or did the idea occur to you when you discovered your stories were overlapping?
Laurie Stone: I don’t write individual stories with the idea of building a book, and yet a book has to be something different from a bunch of pieces arranged next to each other. Once I had a critical mass of writing connected to leaving and returning to New York and to falling in love, I began to move the stories around like puzzle pieces until a structure emerged. Each piece earned its place by either making something strange feel ordinary or by making something ordinary seem strange. Really, I do not think the order matters as much as the consistency of the narrative voice. I like to imagine a novel as a bowl you smash against a wall. The shards are these stories.
FF: The stories reflect different kinds of ‘dislocation’. Tell us more about that. Why is dislocation compelling for a writer? Is it compelling for you as a woman?
LS: The narrator of the stories, like the author who wrote them, lacks a sense of home in physical locations. She likes being a guest, a visitor, while looking for the next bed (preferably in a hotel room). The streets of New York City come closest to being a home, but more often “home” is people she loves. I do not know if dislocation is compelling as a subject for writers, but I think arrivals and departures provide plot elements. That and bond-and-betrayal. I don’t know too many plots. I am happy when I can seize on any.
FF: Humour runs through the stories. When for example the narrator goes to the hospital to see her mother for what will be the last time, she writes, “When I enter the room I see a pile of sticks. She screams, ‘Get away’. Her voice is so loud the woman in the next bed pleads with me to stop her. ‘How’? I say, ‘I’m open to suggestions’.” What is the role of humour in your writing?
LS: I work with Mel Brooks’ definitions of comedy. He says, “Tragedy is when I have a hangnail. Comedy is when you fall off a cliff and die.” He says, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” I like to dramatize contradictions that cannot be resolved. Human beings desire to be in two places at the same time: here and somewhere familiar we have never seen before. I am on guard against writing stories that portray a hero and stories that portray a victim or a victim-hero – the most common form of the memoir. These are stories, in essence, that flatter the narrator. My narrators need to be vulnerable and limited. Comedy is about limits. Tragedy is about transcendence. I do not believe in transcendence. I am pretty sure a story has shaken loose the human’s needs to look good and show off when the story generates laughter.
FF: Tell us about your title. Did you come up with it before you’d written the stories?
LS: I mostly use one-word titles for my stories, and the titles are descriptive, i.e. ‘Catch’, ‘Dog’, ‘Happiness’. I do not want to suggest meaning for the reader. The job of the writer is not to organize meaning. That is the job of the reader. The job of the writer is to seduce the reader into thinking the story is about the reader. In other words I try not to tell the reader what to make of anything on the page. I only want to keep them reading. The title “My Life as an Animal” seemed descriptive of the narrator of these stories, a person who feels herself an animal riven by a brain that allows her to think about “not here” and “not now”—the tenets of language and of symbolic thinking.
FF: You recently had a story published at Blue Five Notebook. There’s sparseness in that story that we’ve seen frequently in your writing. You even go so far as to write in that flash about what was not said (reflecting the oft-quoted truth about flash, that the essence is often in what is not there). How does writing flash fiction differ, for you, to writing a set of stories like these?
LS: The process of writing longer pieces does not differ much from writing very short pieces because I work at the level of the sentence in everything. I work as the end of the pen or the finger tips on a keyboard, meaning a strong, sexy sentence conveying ambivalence or beauty leads to the sentence that follows it. For me there is no pre-writing. There is no outlining. I work with layering. Something happens in a sentence. The narrator tells the reader about the narrator’s reaction in the moment of that event, and the narrator also tells the reader about how the narrator feels now, looking back, from the vantage point of time passed. There are always two time frames at work: the immediate reaction (the present) and the reaction that has probably changed in looking back. The look back could be 5 minutes later or 25 years later. It does not matter. The story is not really about what happened. It is about what the narrator makes of what happened, that quality of thought and speculation and memory and joyous discover and make it up, sentence by sentence. Sometimes you get the job done in a few sentences. Sometimes you need thousands of words to exploit the possibilities your sentences have stirred up. It’s all invented in the moment, and it is all fiction in that the world you have produced is entirely composed of language.
Edited by Zoë Meager
This month, we are glad to share this zine from the 2016 NFFD celebration in Christchurch, which frequent flash fiction and short story writer Zoë Meager produced as a gift for the speakers at the 2016 NFFD event in Christchurch.
In its pages readers will find familiar names such as James Norcliffe, Nod Ghosh, Sam Averis, Doc Drumheller, Helen Lowe, Zoë Meager and more.
Click the cover below to dive in.