Earlier this week, we published Jeff Martin’s prize-winning “Whale Song,” chosen by K-Ming Chang in the Flash Fiction category of our 2023 Spring Small Fiction Awards! Be sure to read this magnificent story first, then check out our interview with the winner below.
What sparked this story, or led you to write this piece? Magical intersection of a number of things—door, Mrs. B, aftermarket during pandemic, irritation, etc.
Sometimes, like with this piece, you just get lucky and get your bat on the ball with absurdly little effort. It was a strange intersection of a few things: for months I’d been listening to cars with aftermarket exhaust systems roar around my neighborhood; I was wiped out from a tough summer job; and for some reason I had whales on the brain. One night I opened the closet door, the hinges sang like a whale, and I understood I had a story. It’s magical when that kind of thing happens; it’s also really rare. But every 3-5 years it seems to occur, and I’m always grateful.
This story is written in first plural. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to that choice for the piece, and why? Maybe I’m way off-base here (and obviously there are some famous examples that are counter to my claim), but I feel like I see first plural most often in flash pieces and other shorter fiction forms – is there something about the point of view that lends itself to this particular space?
Great question. I’ve written a number of stories in first plural—and not just flash—and what I like most about it is the utterly unique psychic distance. It’s first person, so it seems close and personal, but it’s also plural, and who are these people? It’s hard to follow just one person around in first plural, so there’s a mystery there about the narrator(s), and that mystery creates a distance between the speaker and the reader. You can do a lot in that space: you can make really broad strokes and really fine strokes at the same time, which may be why it attracts flash fiction writers. The word counts are exacting and offer little room to work with, so you have to create the room yourself.
Flash fiction (and all its various subgenres, as we highlighted in this contest) by definition requires brevity. There’s not quite room for fully-built scenes with a ton of description, nor an allowance for all that much setting/world-building, and character is almost pushed to the side with this choice of POV, and on top of that this story is running through so much time in the moments we do see—even in less than 1,000 words, there are so many balls to juggle in this piece. On one hand, I’m asking as impressed reader (and jealous writer of usually way-too-long stories), how do you pull all that off so efficiently? On the other hand, I’m interested in the ways that flash forces or allows us to build narration perhaps without some of our normal storytelling devices. Feel free to answer either/or/none/all of the half-questions in here.
Thanks! I genuinely like the challenge of formal constraints. I get uneasy when I’ve written more than about 8,000 words, because it means I haven’t written well—I haven’t been precise enough with my language. I want my stories to be one-round knockouts—they should hit fast, and they should hit hard, and then they should leave. That’s not to take anything away from folks who write long, of course. I read novels all the time, and the art of sustaining stories and characters across that distance is impressive. I’m guessing much of it is temperament. I want to be sharp and precise in my writing. Why? I’ll probably never know for sure, in the same way I’ll probably never know for sure why I like much of my music to be short, fast rock or punk. I don’t have time for jam bands; I want them to get to the point. The first novel I wrote (unpublished, if anyone reading is interested, nudge nudge) is 86 chapters that are all 500 words or less. That was part of the constraint I set for myself, and I loved it. It’s probably how any novel I ever write will likely turn out.
I’m that annoying guy at the reading that always wants to ask the super-cliché questions, so apologies in advance. First, can you tell us a bit about your writing routine? (mornings with coffee pecking at the keys; ten hours in front of a keyboard every day; chunks when inspiration strikes, et cetera?) And the story process itself: are you a seventeen drafts before even your first reader sees it kind of writer, or does it all flow brilliantly to fountain pen on first thought without stopping (someone someday will reply yes to that, I’m sure), or do you write a single sentence a million times until it’s perfect, or…?
I’m generally a night owl, so I often don’t start writing until around 9 p.m. I’m very perfectionistic about the first sentence and the first paragraph, because I want the foundation to be well set before I light into the rest of the story. That means an hour or two getting those squared away, or not squared away—I may have to come back the next night and the next before I feel comfortable enough to proceed. I don’t write every day, and I’m finally at peace with that. I know many well-established writers argue you have to sit down every day regardless of health or mood or circumstance, and I agree that may work for many people. It used to work for me, too, in my twenties and thirties. Now I find I can accomplish a lot in one hour and then stop in the middle of a sentence and set it aside for the night. In the end, I don’t think we manage time so much as we manage energy. You can grind it out for three or four hours when you’re spent, and it’ll produce something, but you’ll be miserable. Or you can work for an hour with energy, and it’s astonishing what you can do.
And finally: what do you view as the function that literature plays in the world, and how do you feel your work exists as part of that function?
The older I get, the more ignorant I realize I am about so many things—most things, really—so literature is essential for helping me bridge some of those gaps. That’s a vital function of literature—to make us more aware of the world we’re in. Another is create empathy from that awareness. There’s simply not enough empathy right now, and we’re all suffering for it.
Interviewed by Brandon Williams