This month Flash Frontier‘s Rachel Fenton bows out of her role as Features Editor and inter[e]views Frances Gapper, author of The Tiny Key. Also this month, poet and short fiction writer Valerie Sirr leads us through a blind criticism and flash enthusiast David James recommends his favourite shorts by other writers. We end with a piece about craft from flash editor Jamez Chang.
Inter[e]view with Frances Gapper
FF: As an introduction, and an experiment, I typed “The Tiny Key” into Google and got (besides a link to your collection of the same title, your website and other stories and works) a link to a computer game turned “life-size puzzle” called Escape the Room, which requires players to find a tiny key; an article in The Telegraph about “The Tiny Keys to Immortality”; and links to the Tiny Inconspicuous Handcuff Key. I thought these search results in keeping with some of the themes in your stories in The Tiny Key, so it’s in the spirit of “Confused got Tom” that I’ve formulated my questions.
[Despite the flippant approach, I have, I hope, treated the subject matter of your stories with utmost respect, and certainly it is not my intention to offend you but to echo the dark humour of some of your fictions and bring the very moving and poignant content of your work into sharp relief for readers of this interview].
Escape the Room
FF: There are twenty-six stories in The Tiny Key. For the purpose of this section, let’s think of them as rooms, making The Tiny Key a sort of Puzzle Mansion. Hidden somewhere in each room is a key to the next level.
Houses or homes feature in thirteen of the stories/rooms in The Tiny Key: “Tolls”, “A Very Dark Day”, “Unmade”, “Strange Wedding”, “Edge” (appeared in The Guardian), “My Mother Hides Things”, “Slippery”, “Cat Truths”, “The Hermit”, “A Bee in Winter”, “Snow Globe Triptych”, and, though less centrally, in “My Porcupine” and “Pleased to Meet You”, functioning, I felt, as a metaphor for the brain. Reading this way, the stories/rooms, then, represent memory. Or do they?
In “Unmade”, the reader is presented with a kind of puzzle. The narrator, a fifty-year-old woman, details her mother’s transition from “early-stage” to “severe” dementia. The mother refers to her daughter as “Mum” and is convinced her child is her parent. Throughout, the narrative reflects this confusion: “I’m being taken apart like a jigsaw. I’m being dismantled, a redundant structure,” the daughter remarks, expressing her complex feelings with poignant clarity. In “Tolls”, after “[t]he house exploded”, directions to a new home are given as “[a] square containing a rectangle and two squares”. The childlike simplicity of the imagery contrasts with the adult anxieties and emotions, the irony of the “home” metaphor driven home with devastating effect.
In “Moon in a Box”, the narrator’s mum is taken to a playground in an “Escape Lite” wheelchair and in “Slippery”, a “helper to a housebreaker” promises not to die of the lung cancer he has, but his partner leaves a window open for him; outside is presented as a freedom from house and other interiors that seem to represent only the message detain me.
Can you talk to us a little about the themes in your work?
FG: Thank you, Rachel. I love the idea of a tiny inconspicuous handcuff key! Something to keep by you at all times, in case you’re unexpectedly handcuffed… One of my own ‘tiny key’ associations is the key that Alice opens a tiny door with – finally, after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, growing and shrinking – in Alice in Wonderland.
Houses or homes have for me been the focus of much love and loss, but I think my final position is summed up by the girl in “Lucy” who mends the narrator’s computer, despite knowing nothing about computers herself. “It’s just a box, mate. That’s what you’ve got to keep in mind.” This applies to computers, jobs, houses/flats/homes and much else.
Dementia, however, raises all sorts of questions of identity. If what we are can so easily be taken from us, then who are we? This question has probably become my main theme. In “My mother hides things”, the mother starts by hiding small things and by the end she’s hidden everything in the world, including the ground under the daughter’s feet. What’s left as a gift – a somewhat puzzling gift indeed – is a tiny key. But what’s it a key to? Since everything else has disappeared, it must be a key to something that doesn’t (yet) exist. A gift of future meaning and understanding.
The Tiny Keys to Immortality
FF: Your fictions are lyrical and often ambiguous, but a sense of foreboding built as I read The Tiny Key. Your brother, writer Paul Gapper, described your flash fictions as “like dark poetry”. The first story I read is called “Poet’s Biography”. It’s only seven short sentences in which a woman’s life events are told seemingly out of order. It was only on a second reading that I realised the final line, “In hospital she asked her friends to bring those up to the waist and down to the toes things, meaning tights”, represents the final event in a linear chronology; that old age in the context of this story means regressing to childhood.
The structure of this story, events that happened years apart, placed beside each other as succinct sentences in a single paragraph, lends itself well to comparisons with poetry, so I wondered if the lyricism in your work is a side-effect of structure, mean edit, or if poetry is an influence and or intentional outcome. Could you tell us about the function of structure in The Tiny Key?
FG: Although I’m not a poet, often I write in a very condensed and elliptical way. Short stories tend to be more ‘poetical’ than novels and flash fiction in turn more poetical than short stories – at least, that’s how I see it. “Poet’s Biography” (by the way) is about Stevie Smith and the enchanting description of tights is hers.
If endings are also beginnings, then beginnings are often endings – in ways I haven’t begun to think about. But middles will always be middles. And you could say (Claire Keegan says) they’re the most important part of a short story. Flash fiction tends to leave middles out entirely.
Tiny Inconspicuous Handcuff Key
FF: In “A Very Dark Day” the narrator tells the reader “It’s a mix-up, night and day.” Like “Tolls”, it’s a story of mother daughter role reversal, and it begins with an encapsulation of its whole. Just as in “Poet’s Biography”, the implication of this inconspicuous little sentence passes almost unnoticed, but is, on reflection, startling in its obviousness. Again and again in your stories, you give the reader deceptively simple openings that later transpire to be keys to the whole story.
Poignantly, “A Very Dark Day” ends with the mother exclaiming “It’s a very foggy day!”, a mutation of a phrase the daughter used as a child, echoed back with the warp of age, the way a child sees reflections in a misted-over mirror, a likeness of their parent in their own ageing face. This story, along with the collection as a whole, describes how dementia robs not only the patient of their memories but also the patient’s children of their memories and in this way their childhoods.
FG: Most of the stories in The Tiny Key (now out of print) were written in the years before I went to live with my mum and care for her, and then had a breakdown myself. Stuff about the breakdown (and life with Mum) can be found in my 5,000-word hybrid fiction “In the Wild Wood” (Short Fiction 7, UPP). That’s where it really does get dark.
Thank you, Rachel, for taking an interest in me and my work! It’s been a great pleasure to have you as a friend on facebook and a co-contributor in Short Fiction 7 – and of course, to learn more about your work too.
FF: The Tiny Key is a collection of tragically beautiful and affecting stories told with empathy, insight and dark humour. It’s a heart-aching privilege to read. Thank you, Frances.
Like “A Very Dark Day”, “Tolls” begins with the ending: “The house exploded”. Let’s end there.
Frances Gapper’s flash fiction booklet The Tiny Key was published in 2009 by Sylph Editions and Absent Kisses, a story collection, in 2002 by Diva Books. She has stories in two issues of Short Fiction (UPP), in the Summer 2013 issue of The Moth and in the London Magazine online. Her tiny story Bluebeard’s Daughter won a competition run jointly by Creative Industries Trafford and the Manchester Literature Festival in autumn 2013. Other flashes appear in an anthology published in 2014 by Illinois-based Twelve Winters and in the Reader’s Digest.
We asked short fiction writer and poet Valerie Sirr to critique a piece of flash by an author who would remain anonymous to her until this issue went live. Here’s what she contributed to this month’s feature page…
“Kone”, like all good flash fiction, makes skillful use of suggestion, amplified here by manipulation of tenses. We immediately apprehend from the salient details of “top-floor office”, “double bourbon”, “leather armchair”, “close-shaven” that Kone is a company executive. “Sits” grounds us in the present, then seamlessly merges with another real-time moment, this time in the past: “young boy squatting”, as if no division exists between present and past, which, for Kone, is true, since in that moment, eyes closed (a well placed detail) as if dreaming, he occupies both present and past.
The language here is spare and in flash fiction every word must earn its place. Perhaps “ground” could be more precise (yard? somewhere in the grounds?), but “circle in the dust” is resonant, symbolising time, which subtly shifts again with “had” in the penultimate line, separating Kone and us from that earlier moment. By the end of the final line we realise that the boy was Kone and that Kone, the adult, is somewhat altered by communication, through reverie, with his boyhood self.
There is a bit of magic in these final lines. We sense, without explanation, that Kone’s intuition is heightened; by accessing a fantasy from boyhood imagination, symbolized enchantingly by those twitching whiskers, his resolve is strengthened. The best flash fiction builds with incremental detail to an illuminative moment like this one, not just for Kone, but for the reader too, inferring that the powerful instincts of our childhood selves remain a vital part of us, serving us well, if only we pay attention.
“Kone” was written by Sylvia Petter and was first published in Microfiction Monday Magazine.
Sylvia Petter is an Australian based in Austria, but she really lives all over the place in the space of a mind where she writes short and long, serious and fun stuff.
Valerie Sirr’s debut collection of short stories received Arts Council funding under the title-by-title scheme. It will be published soon. Her short stories, flash fiction and poems are published in Ireland, UK, US, Australia and Asia. Honours include Hennessy New Irish Writer Award, Arts Council of Ireland literature bursaries and other national and international literature awards. She holds an M. Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin.
In this new feature, we asked David James to recommend his favourite short fiction in as few words as possible. Here’s what he shares…
Over the past five or six years I’ve found myself drawn more and more to flash fiction. To me, flash feels like I’m tossed into the middle of a story and my challenge is to try to figure out how the story got started and how it might end. Below, I’ve flagged a few that I particularly enjoyed.
Brad Watson is a favorite author and I like his work in the various genres in which he writes.
Barry Basden tells fine stories with such spare, crisp prose.
Meg Pokrass is probably my favorite flash writer and this is my favorite of her stories.
Bret Rosenblatt also writes excellent flash as Bret Garcia Rose. This one is a favorite, from a series of six flashes, five of which are on various places on a plane.
Steve Gowin’s story is a part of his “Rwanda Suite” series which I hope he turns into a novella in flash.
Gloria Garfunkel’s flash stories are often based on Jewish experience and sometimes include Holocaust-based episodes.
James Claffey’s work has seemingly exploded in the last couple of years. I love how his talent draws me into his always interesting stories.
Jake Barnes is a favorite writer on Fictionaut. If he’s submitted his stories, I can’t find them in a journal. If he submitted they would surely find home(s).
David James resides in Atlanta, Georgia, and upon entering the third trimester of his life he finds himself reading a lot and staring at walls. He has had two previous pieces picked up and published by Camroc Press Review. Another piece was also picked up by an editor and published in Apocrypha & Abstractions.
He maintains a couple of magazine-type blogs.
Good Flash: Do I Care if She Gets Caught? by Jamez Chang
It’s sometimes difficult for readers to sympathize with a protagonist in a flash piece. After all, he’s only just met you 500 words ago. That’s why establishing emotional resonance through breath-felt craft is key. The grime that’s too hard to etch off the resin bowl. As editors, we look for that kind of confidence — in voice. A quirky elevator pitch lip-synced in a bathrobe, a necessary clarity, as if Molly Millennial were explaining the Oculus Rift to her grandfather. Because Christmas. And because sometimes you do get a Turnip in your stocking. Best present ever! (See Randall Brown & Pamela Painter’s “Turnip“, CxP, Nov. 2014).
When the trailer’s better than the movie. That’s good flash.
Also worth the price of admission: if the piece is in the vignette form, the writer’s language really needs to take the lead, gorging a hole of myth and motif fo’ aforementioned res-ensconcing purposes. Emotion rules all. Kim Peter Kovac’s “‘clipse” is a recent vignette piece that comes to mind—a very balanced thin-slice. (CxP, July 29, 2014)
When a stranger starts a conversation on the train—and you don’t change seats?…That’s good flash. When the prose is clipped and condensed like a Hokidachi bonsai tree or Dandelion Wine. That’s good flash. Like catching moment in mason jar. It’s Ray Bradbury co-starring in Karate Kid III. Reboot.
We’re looking for that spark-moment of anticipation, true investment in character’s crisis, where clear-and-bright combs through. And the mod-podge thought stakes a claim in her mind: butterfly caught?
Jamez Chang is a hip hop artist, poet and editor living in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Underground Voices, FRiGG, PANK, Thrush Poetry Journal, Bartleby Snopes and Menacing Hedge. He is working on an album, Lit Hop, in which he fuses hip hop with literary text and the voices of poets and writers. He currently is the editor of flash fiction at Counterexample Poetics.
For this month’s story page, themed no regrets and guest edited by Owen Marshall, please go here.