Interview: Robert Swartwood

May 8, 2015

Today, we are pleased to feature an interview with Robert Swartwood, who coined the term hint fiction and edited the anthology Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer. Swartwood talks about his inspiration for the form, his experience editing the anthology, and some common hint fiction mistakes. We hope this interview will inspire you to write some hint fiction of your own.

Interview_robert swartwood

You coined the term “hint fiction” just a few years ago. In your anthology, you provide this definition of the genre: “A story of 25 words or fewer that suggests a larger, more complex story.” This is a very precise and fitting definition. How did you arrive at it? Are there other common characteristics that you see in a lot of (successful) hint fiction, or is part of the beauty of the form its freedom? 

I’ve always been a fan of Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” Some argue that it’s not a proper story because it has no characters, no conflict, no setting, etc. But I’ve always seen it as a story, and I loved the idea of telling a story in as few words as possible. I even came up with a few of my own, which ended up being stories of just one sentence. But I’d also published a one-sentence story that was 500 words, so it seemed as if there had to be a better criteria than just calling the stories one-sentence stories. There are also things called drabbles and dribbles (I have no idea where those names came from, but drabbles are apparently stories of exactly 100 words, dribbles of exactly 50 words), so it seemed the obvious digression in word count would be 25 word stories.

For me, a successful hint fiction story stands by itself. It’s not a first sentence or random sentence plucked out of a much larger work. In many ways, it has a beginning, middle, and end.

What was the experience of putting together Hint Fiction like? The anthology is remarkable in that it includes pieces by heavy-hitting authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, Ha Jin, James Frey, and Benjamin Percy, as well as several contributions by emerging authors. Did you solicit stories? What were you looking for in submissions? 

I don’t mean to be trite, but putting together the anthology was certainly a once in a lifetime opportunity. After all, it wasn’t just any anthology. This had never been done before. In many ways the book would be defining what hint fiction was and could be. So there was a lot of pressure, though maybe I put most of the pressure on myself.

I did have to solicit some of the stories. That was one of the things Norton requested when they offered to publish the anthology. So I ended up contacting a bunch of writers. Many got back to me, either with yeses or nos or maybes, and some didn’t get back to me at all. One prominent literary writer had absolutely no interest in the project and thought it was a terrible idea; this is what that writer’s agent told me, at least, and it was funny because he said he actually thought it was a great idea and suggested I contact some of his other clients. So it seemed the very idea of the form was divisive for some, and made the purpose of the anthology so much more important, which was the question of when does a story stop being a story?

You received over twenty-four hundred submissions for the hint fiction anthology. What are some common hint fiction “mistakes”? In other words, were there some pieces you saw that weren’t pieces of hint fiction at all, or pieces that failed to resonate for a particular reason? 

As I mentioned earlier, for me a successful hint fiction story stands by itself. Oftentimes the stories that were submitted came across as more first lines of stories or random sentences from larger works. It was that . . . “wholeness” I ultimately wanted, stories that stood by themselves. Yes, those stories could be expanded into larger works, but so could any story, or even novel. Another interesting thing was that many stories went for shock value with violence and death. And because the stories were so short, many of them ended up becoming redundant.

In your introduction to the anthology, you mention many stories that qualified as hint fiction, far before it was a formal term. Lydia Davis is the contemporary writer I think of first; she’s very well known for her powerful, miniscule stories. Are there any other contemporary writers who you think are especially notable for their work in this form? 

Etgar Keret comes to mind for very short works, though I’m not sure if he’s ever written anything under 25 words. One online journal that I enjoy is Nanoism, which is basically Twitter fiction. The difference between Twitter fiction and hint fiction is that Twitter fiction doesn’t have a title. And to be honest, I much prefer a title. A good title adds an extra layer to the story. Some of the best hint fiction stories, in my opinion, are those that can be taken different ways. Readers put so much of themselves in the stories, because they have to fill in the blanks, that readers with a certain background or sensibility may see one thing, while other readers with a completely different background may see another. One story from the anthology that especially comes to mind is “Progress” by Joe Schreiber: “After seventeen days she finally broke down and called him ‘Daddy.'”

You are also the author of many bestselling novels. Has working with hint fiction affected the way you approach your longer work? Has working in such a condensed form helped you to hone your technique? 

Whether it’s working on a novel or a short story or even a hint fiction piece, I always try to follow one of Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Of course, as every reader is different, it’s impossible to know just what most readers will skip. But I always try to ask myself why a particular chapter is there, or scene. If I can take that chapter or scene away, does it hurt the story? If not, then it doesn’t need to stay in. The same can be broken down to a paragraph, or even a sentence, just as in hint fiction it comes down to single words. That’s the way I’ve written even before hint fiction, but I guess I’ve found a new appreciation for ensuring that every word matters.

And, really quickly: Do you have any future hint fiction projects planned? Could there be a second anthology in the works? Another hint fiction contest?

As of right now, sadly, there are no future hint fiction projects planned. Will I host another contest? Most likely. But it could be in another year, or two years, or even three. The reason is because when I did three contests back to back from 2009 to 2011, it seemed as if the majority of the stories were becoming formulaic, and so I wanted to take a break and then hosted another contest in 2014 with Benjamin Percy. As for a second anthology, none is in the works. I believe the original anthology was successful and that the publisher was happy, but even if they came to me and asked if I’d like to do a second, I’m not sure what my answer would be, as I wouldn’t want the second anthology to simply be a copy of the first. I’d want to try something different, though I have no idea what that would be, and so I try not to overthink something that probably will never happen.

Interviewed by Sadye Teiser

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