It’s been a few days since we published our first-place-winning flash story, “Homecoming” by Kathryn Phelan. If you haven’t read it yet, be sure to check it out now, and then continue on to our newest installment in our Interview with the Winner series below:
First, congratulations! “Homecoming” was published on Monday as the winner of our 2019 Flash Fiction Contest. Kathy Fish, our judge who selected the piece, commented on the story’s atmospheric quality, likening to a quiet, deeply moving short film, which is completely accurate. “Homecoming” tells us so much about the these two characters in a short space, and like all great flash stories, we get the sense that these characters have fully-realized lives outside the space of the story. Kathy Fish also pointed to the great, evocative details you chose to tell this story, and the first one I want to hone in on are the fish in this ending. “…For a while it surprised no one to see perch and bowfin flopping in the streets, gills straining for the water that stranded them there.” What a powerful concluding image. What inspired you to end here?
One thing I love about flash fiction is that sometimes you have to end before you want to. You just run out of words. You have to get off a stop too early. I love what the does to writing—it can render catharsis into something more artistic. And I talk too much, so it’s also a productive exercise in restraint. In longer pieces I’ve sometimes cut entire pages just to finish at an unobtrusive line, before the writing becomes an attempt at conclusion. In this case, not to oversimplify: I had to write 500 words, and I was getting close, and this was the point I’d reached. But I was happy to leave it there because I relate to that tension and perversion of missing, ferociously, something that screwed you over in some way.
As a writer and an editor, I’m always fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of other people’s writing processes. A peer of mine recently told me she writes in layers, adding scenes after she’s laid out the bones of the story, so to speak. What does your process look like?
Ah, I knew you were going to ask this! I really see the value in being disciplined and process-oriented in writing, but I’m not wired like that. I’m Type A about a lot of things, so I think part of the appeal of writing for me is that it’s such a creative blitz. It’s a 3 a.m., nonstop, bad-posture-on-the-couch type gig. It’s usually when I’m increasingly anxious about something, or someone, and that buzz reaches a critical mass and I have to get it down on paper in a way that I recognize, and then I feel better. It’s almost like a purge. Then, unless I have a deadline, I’ll often close the file for a couple years before returning to edit it (usually also in the middle of the night). Does that count as a process? Making a living as a writer like this would obviously be a challenge.
What advice have you received that you’ve found particularly useful that you apply in your writing?
I refer often to something Mary Morrissey said in workshop: ‘Take out the parts that are for you.” I half-hate this advice because it’s such a challenge for me, especially in nonfiction, but of course she’s right. It’s a better telling if you can ditch the excuses or explanations or justifications—or whatever details mean something to you but weigh down the narrative. We had some good one-liners at Trinity. I think it was also Mary who said, “Put in as much as you can, and then take out as much as you can.” Finally, a slightly cynical one, delivered with good humor by Carlo Gébler: “The short story is a missed mortgage payment.” I remember this mostly because I thought it was funny—but it does help to keep things in perspective when you’re pitching to the black hole of magazines and newspapers and publishing houses and you think you’ve created something brilliant but no one responds to your emails.
Any great influences? Who are the writers you always turn to when you need something great to read?
I read Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies a few years ago and still can’t stop thinking about it. I’m really inspired by lyricism in writing—writing that listens to itself, that makes you stop and go ‘Ahhhhh,’ is so emotionally precise that it’s almost frustrating (in the best way). Case studies: “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith, “OCD” by Neil Hilborn, “Exactly What to Say” by Kim Church. I adore Frank O’Hara. I love Colm McCann, Nicole Krauss, Lorrie Moore. But honestly most of what I read is nonfiction, memoirs or travelogues or essays. Peter Fleming is a favorite. I’ve just started on E.B. White’s essays, and I have been laughing out loud.
Interviewed by Cole Meyer