An interview with founding collectors Robert Shapard, Tara Lynn Masih, Robert Scotellaro, Pamela Painter and Tom Hazuka.
Tara L Masih: I have many rare flash collections and texts on my bookshelves after doing research for the historical introduction to the Rose Metal Press Flash Field Guide. I was planning on donating my collection to the Seaborne Library’s Flash Collection at the University of Chester, headed by Ashley Chantler and Peter Blair (theirs is the first curated flash collection), but realized that it could be a hardship for many students in the United States who might want to do flash research to visit a library in the UK. So I reached out to some fellow anthology editors and professors who had vast collections of flash and prose poetry, and asked if they would like to join me in starting an archived collection in the States. All said yes. We had to limit the pool of contributors, knowing that libraries are often starved for space. So this small group was formed to get it established.
Robert Shapard: I give Tara the credit. Many graduate students have written me and others of us over the years – especially Pam – asking where they could research flash or very short fiction. There was never an easy answer though we could recommend a few books. I’m glad Tara noted the Seaborne – they showed it could be done.
The Ransom Center does worry about space, as I think most research libraries do. The Flash Collection can’t become a warehouse for all flash ever published. I’d like it to be a gem – a most useful collection of flash. The collection may grow modestly over the years. Just how is still under discussion with Megan Bernard. Anyone can ask questions or make suggestions by using the Contact in the Ransom Center website. They have a small staff but do read incoming and respond.
Robert Scotellaro: Thank you for these excellent questions, Michelle, and for your interest in getting the word out about the Ransom Flash Fiction Collection to a wider audience.
As Tara mentioned, the Seaborne Library houses the first curated flash fiction collection located at the University of Chester, England. This collection was amassed by two professors: Ashley Chantler and Peter Blair. Years ago I worked directly with them, furnishing long lists of American flash fiction books they were not aware of. I have an enormous collection of flash and micro books and was delighted that such a way of housing/honoring the genre (preserving it for research) was occurring. Though at the time I strongly wished there was such a collection in the States. When I heard of this project from Tara, I knew immediately this would be something I’d be eager to be a part of.
What links the five of us is, in one way or another, is our devotion to and involvement in the very short fiction form. Our bookshelves and careers reflect that. Robbie is the one who was the conduit that led us all to the Ransom Center where it is currently housed. I am enormously grateful to him for that, and couldn’t be more pleased with where this representative holding has landed.
Pamela Painter: I think I was the last. The idea was already taking shape, and I was delighted to be a part of the project. I am thrilled that the Ransom Center’s recognition of flash fiction has put it firmly on the literary map.
Tom Hazuka: That’s funny—I thought I was last! It’s amazing how murky these things get. Just goes to show how important point of view is in storytelling, even in nonfiction.
Masih: As mentioned, we were challenged in finding a place to house it due to space reasons. So we are extremely grateful to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas–Austin for working with Robbie [Shapard] to structure, compile, and create what we hope will be the starting point of an eclectic and necessary archive for this genre in the US. I particularly want to thank Megan Barnard for all her time and hard work on this project, and Robbie for helping to make this possible. And, of course, my fellow Founding Contributors for giving up some of their most beloved books!
Shapard: I live in Austin and knew the Ransom Center to be a remarkable world class research library and a beautiful place. I introduced myself by email, sent over sample flash books, and went in person for a long talk with Megan Bernard, who heads acquisitions. She is a brilliant and welcoming person and loved the whole idea of flash fiction and its significance. They wanted us right from the start. Tara’s right, she and her staff put in a lot of work. If you want to check out the Center, they have great website: https://www.hrc.utexas.edu/. Megan’s brief article on the collection, and Ransom, is here: “Flash Fiction Collection established at the Ransom Center” April 27, 2020 by Megan Bernard. k Finally, there’s another excellent very short article on the collection by Christopher Allen, editor Smokelong Quarterly.
Painter: Michelle, I love that you think that our collections were planned. I didn’t think of my shelves and shelves of flash fiction as a collection until Tara’s invitation sent me to those shelves to have a look. There it was: my collection.
Shapard: For a haphazard collector like me the books that end up staying on your shelves are usually books you use a lot or you couldn’t part with because you loved the stories and the writing. And there are a few you discover that make you think why did I keep this one? Here are a few that stand out for me: El Boom de la Minificción by Lauro Zavala (Mexico); This Is Not the Way We Came In: Flash Fictions and a Flash Novel by Daryl Scroggins (US); A Thousand Morons by Quim Monzó (Catalan); The Book of Embraces by Eduard Galeano (Uruguay); Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata (Japan).
Scotellaro: Such a great question. Much has changed since those early short-short story collections. I think early on short-short stories were mostly smaller versions of traditional mainstream short stories (in many cases, “fillers” for magazines). What is more prevalent now is a good deal of “literary” fiction that is being published. The O’Henry-like twist endings are absent. There is more experimentation with style and story arcs, language and narration, more things left unexplained but rather implied – they are no longer rudimentary. And, perhaps very importantly, there is more space in the blank spaces for the reader to imagine (co-author, in a way) various possible nuanced outcomes. And of course now, there is a sense of resonance after the last note is struck. Writers that I feel were ahead of their time regarding this were Jayne Anne Phillips (Sweethearts and Counting), Richard Brautigan (Revenge of the Lawn), Hemingway (In Our Time), and William Saroyan (The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze). Also, many poets/prose poets (especially with microfiction) have added their contribution to the canon. Two flash stories by poets that quickly come to mind are Richard Shelton’s “The Stones” and Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel.”
Masih: There’s definitely a divergence. Most of the early works were not considered literary. They followed, as Scotty suggests, the more popular O. Henry style that asked for a final twist. They needed to appeal to the magazine audience. Except for some early stories (Hemingway, for example), the short short has for sure become more complex, experimental, and nuanced, with far more artfully talented writers taking up the form and specializing in it.
Shapard: Tara and Scotty are right. The length diverged, too. The old commercial magazine short-shorts ran to 2,000 words. Flash fictions today mostly run maybe 1/4 or 1/3 that. In James Thomas’ and my first anthology, Sudden Fiction (1986), the stories were mostly flash fiction length (we even considered “flash fiction” as a title but we got a lot of negative feedback, so ditched it for the time being). Some of the stories were even micro length – less than a page. The longer stories ran up to 1,500 words, but they were nothing like the old short-shorts (we used short-shorts as a subtitle, and wish we hadn’t, but it was familiar). I did most of the research on that first anthology and as a result noticed fiction changed, or the strategies of fiction did, below a thousand words. It was hard to describe – fiction is so various and complex – but you could certainly sense it. The old short-shorts used novelistic strategies (standard scenes with summary connections, for example); flash (or at that time, sudden) disobeyed the rules and discovered new ways of seeing. A better pre-cursor for flash would be the TriQuarterly “Minute Stories” issue of 1976. Pam may note that Playboy was publishing very short stories all along, though maybe not so much the experimental ones.
Painter: I’d been aware of the form for some time because my husband, Robie Macauley, as fiction editor of Playboy had been publishing short shorts in the 60s and 70s in addition to editing Playboy’s Ribald Classics, also very short stories. (Ultimately, Playboy published three collections of Short Shorts.) I do agree with Tara and Robbie, however, that the stories tended to use the strategies of longer stories. And then along came Sudden Fiction, and Flash Fiction, and Robley Wilson’s Four-Minute Fictions which really shaped the forward trajectory of flash fiction.
Shapard: I got my copy of Four-Minute Fictions from Robley Wilson. We were in friendly competition; our anthologies came out almost at the same time. His NAR stories seemed different in style and substance from our flashes – but that’s another discussion. We found flashes for our anthologies through massive research in journals, books, bookstores, libraries, word of mouth. We found nefarious ways of copy copying thing, maybe like the samizdat circulating in oppressed Eastern Europe. Also many things came to us from authors and those books ended up our shelves. I’m sure that’s true for Tara as well. James and I and fellow editors have gone about all our anthologies the same way. On the last one, we had eyes on 10,000 stories. As we narrowed those down we went to stapled-together booklets of photocopies, which we sent to about a dozen great associate editor/readers who rated the stories. That’s the fun stage. Finally James and I made the final selections. I did the “flash theory” sections in our first anthology (“Afterwords’) and our last (in Flash Fiction International) – either through corresponding with authors or research.
Painter: My collection grew out of the pleasure of reading, and then those books served as an important resource for my Emerson workshops devoted to flash fiction. Robley Wilson included a story of mine in his Four-Minute Fictions, but only the first half of the story – and made it into a short-short.
Masih: Speaking for myself, I turned in the Liberty Magazine issues. I found them on eBay while doing Field Guide research, as mentioned above. I was lucky this man was selling a huge pile of them, so I bought many all at once. Even though they’re reissues, they’re an important part of the history of flash. I still recall the excitement of finding them, getting them in the mail, and then opening them and viewing those early short shorts with reading times listed. It’s a special feeling to hold history in your hands.
Hazuka: I had hardly given a thought to very short fiction (the term “flash fiction” didn’t exist yet, at least as far as I know), until 1983 or so when I started writing one 250-word piece a year to enter Sun Dog’s World’s Best Short Short Story Competition. After I helped Robbie Shapard and James Thomas decide on selections for Sudden Fiction (1986) and Sudden Fiction International (1989), and edited Flash Fiction (1992) with James and Denise Thomas, my casual relationship with flash fiction had turned serious. I was always on the lookout for books that might contain stories suitable for new flash anthologies. A favorite collection from those early days was Barry Yougrau’s Wearing Dad’s Head.
Masih: I grew up writing condensed work, as that’s how I was taught to write fiction in high school. Later someone gifted me with the first Sudden Fiction anthology. I was enthralled. I felt like I had found my tribe, thanks to Robbie and James.
Shapard: I loved reading literary magazines when I was in the PhD program at the University of Utah. I started seeing more and more odd, very short fictions in those literaries, gathered a bunch in a sort of manuscript/booklet, took it to an off-campus workshop, and ask what are these things? Why are we seeing them now? James Thomas was there; we were newly acquainted. It turned out he’d been teaching short short fiction in his university writing classes because they were perfect for a single class. We went in together and ended up editing seven volumes of flash for W.W. Norton.
Painter: I remember hearing a bartender talking about his annoyance with people who take over a restroom for sex or drugs, and how one night, he used a wedge to “lock” two people in. In “Help” I invented a young bar-back to tell that story, which reminds her of a time when she couldn’t get out of a ladies’ room. I abruptly swerve at the end of this story, which felt like a gift from the gods.
How to approach writing flash fiction: with the realization that anything can be a story as long as it has a slight movement forward, and every word counts, especially the words that usher a story to its inevitable but astonishing end.
Scotellaro: For me, as a reader, I was completely taken and absorbed with short stories. I wrote many and read thousands. I guess the eighties was a golden age in that regard – so many excellent writers lending their talents to the short story form. But there were also anthologies like Fifty Short Shorts (1945) edited by Mary Anne Howard (one of the books I sent to the Ransom Center for historical context), The World’s Shortest Stories (1960) edited by Richard G. Hubler, The World’s Best Short Short Stories (1967) edited by Roger B. Goldman, and Playboy’s Short-Shorts (1970) edited by Robie Macauley. These offerings, along with several other anthologies, intrigued me. I began writing short-shorts in the late seventies.
When I first came upon a copy of Sudden Fiction (1986) edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas, I felt a kinship to the very short form that has remained unbroken since. I feel fortunate to have published five collections of flash and micro fiction in the years following and a book of prose poetry. I’ve also co-edited a collection of microfiction with James Thomas, New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (2018). I’m delighted our flash/micro fiction collections have found a home at the Ransom Center, and that there is such a broad sampling of the genre.
Scotellaro: As a writer I feel equal comfort with both forms. Since the story dictates the length, post facto, I don’t know how long it will be until it’s written. But that being said, I feel a particular affinity for microfiction. I do not find it more challenging than flash. I think all my years of writing poetry have tutored me regarding brevity and getting to the heart of what is at stake – to not feel constrained by word count borders, but rather to understand that they are permeable. The trick is to find ways of allowing the reader to feel that way as well. And, to realize so much more is occurring in the piece, in the life/lives of the narrator/characters than appears at first glance. There is an allusion at play, a hint, a whiff, an unseen tug that seizes your attention, a detail that resonates, an elasticity, something that is not brittle and bends with the wind – that is a wind.
When I co-edited New Micro, I was in a repeated state of awe at how many strategies and approaches there were in navigating that brief territory, and when exceptionally well-crafted, how many times I wanted to reread it/them again and again. There was not slight-of-hand being performed, but rather, something wondrous, akin to magic.
Masih: I’m not sure I’d call them more urgent or important. I think they have just found their place in the literary cannon. When I first published the Flash Field Guide, I was trolled by a young professor who sent me hostile posts and called flash a “circus act.” I wonder if he would still call it that today, with books by Stuart Dybek, Amy Hempel, Amelia Gray, Diane Williams, Lydia Davis, and others who command great respect publishing recent collections and garnering much recognition.
Shapard: Julian Gough, the Irish novelist, says the way we receive information these days affects how we read fiction and therefore how we write it. I think all the genres influence each other, though it can be hard to define. (I think of Fred Chappell saying Kawabata’s novel Snow Country is full of haiku, in prose form; maybe it’s one giant haiku, in a sense. And Paul Theroux has said of the very short story, “In most cases it contains a novel.”) Stephen Minot, among many others, has said flash or very short stories are a true subgenre of fiction, along with the novel, novella, and short story. Based on that, I see flash as growing beyond a shelf but as another room in the house of fiction. There are “flash novels” – those I’ve read don’t seem successful, though the authors are great. “Flash novellas” can work – Betty Superman by Tiff Holland is a wonderful example.
Hazuka: Probably the biggest change is the sheer volume of flash stories now, and relatively easy access to them, thanks to a little invention called the Internet. Obviously, most of those stories are not wonderful. That’s certainly judgmental, but it comes with the editorial territory: only a small fraction of stories considered for an anthology make the final cut and end up in the book.
With quantity comes experimentation; the flash fiction form has definitely been pushed and expanded since we were collecting pieces for Flash Fiction. European, and especially South American, writers were often at the forefront of that experimentation, but American writers soon joined the party. Humor has also become more common in flash fiction, which is a very good thing.
Painter: When I began teaching in the 80s, I remembered what John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, that writing is a matter of “catching on.” He goes on to say, ”When the beginning writer deals with some particular, small problem, such as a description of a setting, description of a character, or a brief dialogue that has some definite purpose, the quality of the work approaches the professional.” I realized that each flash story is a particular “small problem” and that students’ short short stories could be publishable. Each semester, students write one or two stories a week, contribute to a class anthology, do an artists’ book, and assemble an individual collection. Numerous students have published flash fiction, been included in the Norton anthologies, and won major competitions.
In addition, quite a few Emerson students went on to make a name in publishing, most notably Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Roony who began Rose Metal Press, and published an important chapbook series, Tara Masih’s widely used Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, and hybrid forms of fiction. Jenifer Pieroni launched Quick Fiction, and Rod Sino and Rusty Barnes published “Firebox Fiction” in Night Train.
Emerson admissions published four students’ stories on postcards to be sent out to people interested in our MFA program. One story had been published in Dave Egger’s Best Unassigned Reading. Finally, my co-author Anne Bernays and I included a section of flash exercises, and several flash stories, in our widely-adopted textbook, What If: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, now in its third college edition.
One assignment in my workshop is for students to put their stories in an artist’s book. Some of these collections are extraordinary. One veteran from Iraq found an old Army book on Iraq and interlaced his stories in the book, along with photographs from Abu Ghraib.
In short, John Gardner was right that writing “short” lends itself to perfection.
Scotellaro: What a pleasure it was, Michelle, getting to meet you and your daughters, and spending a bit of quality time together.
In practical terms, I am extremely grateful knowing that there is a place (a worthy home for our collective contributions) in a university setting where scholarly research can happen. Here, visitors can discover and appreciate the power in these small literary creations.
On a more symbolic level it is a validation of the form as complete and lacking nothing. It is a well-earned nod from academia that flash and micro are not the trendy products of short attention spans, any more than a poem is, because it is not an epic. It can be short and be epic. It is the first collection here in the US of this sort, but my hope is it will not be the last. There is now the understanding that not only will the genre endure (drawing on the talents of many fine writers) but continue to evolve and flourish.