Jen Knox | CR Stories Interview

Niya C. Sisk interviews author Jen Knox


NIYA: Detail, detail, detail. You are a brilliant seductress of story and your weapon is image detail. But you also balance what you weave with intimacy of scene and time. While I don’t want to say, “How do you do this?” I have to ask how do you recall becoming this type of writer stylistically? Or anything at all you’d like to say about this observation?

JEN: I often begin a short story or essay by meditating on the day-to-day details of life. This could be as simple as observing a child laughing loudly in the milk aisle at the grocery; smelling sausage, maple syrup and pancakes on a cold morning; or catching glimpse of a particularly insincere smile between two people at a coffee shop. In these moments are the material for complex and vibrant stories.

Because my writing begins with detail, I try to sustain the vivid nature of that original image. As I revise though, I often realize I didn’t even come close. So detail is not only the catalyst but what I look to add after a first draft is complete. Where follow-up scenes feel flat, it is the senses that bring them to life; so as I revise, I try to slow down and imagine each scene, injecting it with as much concrete detail as I can.

NIYA: Is Alice Munro an influence? And others that are significant you could talk about a bit?

JEN: I listen to and read Alice Munro’s stories often. She’s an amazing writer and so precise. What I love, as a reader, is her characterization. Munro’s characters do not feel airbrushed. I read them and believe that they are flesh and blood; their everyday dilemmas become as large as my own. I once tried reading Munro as a writer. I was all set to take notes and look for specific technique, but the reader in me took over. I was sucked in. That’s great writing! I like to think writers, such as Munro, influence me through mere consumption. Other authors I read and love include Joan Didion, Edwidge Danticat, Tobias Wolff, James Thurber, Flannery O’Connor, and Donna Tartt. I just began reading Tartt. In fact, I’m still reading The Goldfinch, my first book of hers, and it is one of the best books I’ve read in a while.

NIYA: I am impressed by how you take us through time, aging people and their stories in juxtaposition with the pug in “After the Gazebo.” I felt I knew the pug intimately simply by the first description of his skin. And then I began to see the pug as watcher; a gatekeeper of time and of age. Can you speak to the genesis of this story? It’s excellent and so powerful for our theme this fall.

JEN: I love how you phrased that, a watcher and gatekeeper, because that is exactly how Prince seemed to come to me. He was a device on surface—the one factor that set so many things in motion that could arguably have led to the unnamed couple’s fate—but things are never that simple. A single decision may set others in motion, and this was the guideline of the story, but I wanted to show that perspective allows for what the obvious does not. The beauty and heartbreak in life is often brought on in degrees and in deep feelings that extend beyond belief to transcend our reality. Prince is a survivor, and he is a watcher, yes. He goes through the motions of his role, but something deeper motivates him and that thing may transcend life and death. I suppose that part’s up to the reader.

NIYA: In “The Prize at the End of This” I didn’t feel bad for the main voice/character in this piece. I thought I would. Instead I felt inspired and wanted to sit in pow wow with her — learn from her philosophies in life. How do you suspect you accomplish this neutrality/peace when taking the reader into our deepest fears of  a life well lived by the end of things?

JEN: This piece actually arrived at a real-life failed attempt to write a bucket list. I figured it would be a fun exercise to write this list, but it turned out to be quite difficult. I began putting it off as I might an unpleasant chore. As fun as it was to fantasize about zip lining over beaches in Haiti, I realized what was scaring me was that I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to do. To distance myself, I began to write about not being able to write. I realized that seeing the end may offer some perspective, and I began to write a story. In this way, I attempted to examine not just the fear, but the nature of fear, which is often not logical yet so utterly consuming.

NIYA: CR Stories is privileged to have your voice in this edition of the magazine. Your pieces are moving and very rich. The language, pacing and ground you cover is remarkable. Why did you choose Curly Red Stories?

JEN: I remember arriving at Curly Red Stories and reading Joshua Mohr’s interview then his dynamite second-person narrative some time ago. I too am a natural (curly/wavy) redhead, so the name stuck, as did the impression from Mohr’s work. Later, I retuned and read more. And later, more. I read a lot of good work online, but it is less common to find a lot of good work in one place, so I’m thrilled when I do.

NIYA: What are you up to? What’s next for your fabulous career? Your goals as a writer in the next year or more?

JEN: I have a short chapbook forthcoming and a short story collection completed. I have also completed a novel. (Funny how that works: nothing is complete for so long, then all of a sudden it seems all the ends tie together.) The novel, We Arrive Uninvited, is about a girl who believes her grandmother’s schizophrenia is a misunderstood gift. As she learns her grandmother’s story, it is up to her to decide what is real. A portion of it is excerpted at WIPs. I’m very happy to be completing this novel. In many ways, the story surprised me but only in positive ways. Also, the subject matter is important to me, which makes the completion all the sweeter. I am also working on a novel that is more magical realism and odd. This one’s fun, and I have yet to title it.

NIYA: Thank you, and is there anything else you’d like to add?

JEN: Thank you, Niya. I’m a fan of Curly Red Stories, and I’m proud to be a part of your literary community.



Nathan Alling Long | CR Stories Interview

Niya C. Sisk interviews writer Nathan Alling Long.


N.S. Two things that strike me immediately as I read your pieces, “In China” and “Flies,” is your range with unifying elements and stylistic efficiency. “Flies,” for instance, was humorous while not one word too many to convey the twists and turns of action and emotion in that scene. Do you aim to hit us right between the eyes with truth in the subtle crafting of elements or do you just have a very sharp editor’s knife?

Nathan: I’m not sure, though I think my writing process is really like everyone else’s, a bit of inspiration on the first draft, and a willingness to go over it with a comb.  I’ve come to believe though that I owe my writing practice largely to being dyslexic. Several writers are, such as my literary hero, Samuel Delany, and Richard Ford, who commented once that the pleasure of this disability was that a sentence always looked different each time one came across it—it never entirely settled on the page.  For me, it meant getting used to spending hours rewriting papers in college to make them passible; from that, I got comfortable with the idea of revision.

N.S.  The tension you create in the piece, “In China” is stunning. The detail in the breath patterns of the dying person. The heartbreaking loneliness expressed in the comfort of bad news. And again, the efficiency of words. Volumes are spoken. I would imagine flash fiction is your first art. Is that true?

Nathan: I suppose it’s true, in the sense that my flash publications outnumber my longer stories five to one.  Perhaps the more appropriate way to say it is that I struggle at getting any of the other forms right.  I worked on a novel for almost five years, but it was too large of a thing for me to get my brain around.  It was like carrying fifteen bags of groceries at once; something kept slipping out of my grasp and spilling all over the place.  I also have about a dozen long stories I’m working with at the moment, some of which I’ve worked on for ten years.  I don’t give up on them, but they seem to grow as slowly as children—they might well be eighteen or older before they finally seem ready to leave the house.

But flash I think of more as an experiment, a thing I do for fun.  That takes the pressure off; it invites me to play, since, if I fail, the consequences are smaller.  My computer is a big workshop, with all kinds of failed projects.   If I have fifty flash pieces published, I have twice as many that will never see the light of day.

N.S.  Who are your influences? Are they writers mostly? Or are there other artists, thinkers, people who have helped shape your writing style and motivations?

Nathan: I love what arists and musicians do for my writing.  Really, anytime I’m in the presence of an amazing artist or scholar, even at a lecture or reading, I walk away inspired to write.
That said, I have to thank the English Department at the University of Maryland, where I earned my BA years ago.  The authors I read there have really stay with me, particularly the European writers– Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Franz Kafka, Margaret Duras, Virginia Woolf, Herman Hesse, and Rainer Rilke.  On this side of the Herring pond, I’d say Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, James Baldwin, Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Lethem, Ron Carleson, and Antonya Nelson.  My favorite living writer is probably Haruki Murakami.
N.S. You are already very accomplished, but what do you think about as your ideal life as a writer? Your hopes and dreams?

Nathan: I always wanted to be a writer, but was too intimidated.  In college, I took one creative writing class, but I stopped because my writing was full of technical flaws, as well as other issues.  Then someone told me that if you write seriously for ten years, you’ll start publishing. You mean it’s only a matter of trying for a long time? I thought.   It was a relief.  And so I wrote, while doing other things, and eventually got into an MFA, and started getting published.  I kept writing and published, but I’m a slow writer.  Perhaps that’s why flash is good for me as well.  Anyhow, now I have enough material for a collection of stories, a collection of flash, and a collection of essays.  My goal is to get at least one of these books out in the world.  I’m more interested in a good-natured press than a big named one.  And the one thing I have is patience.

N.S. What’s in the works now?

Nathan: Just working on fine tuning those three collections, really.  That, and raising my story children.

N.S. CR Stories is so thrilled to have your talent. Strong prose with layers of flavored truth, like a great Pinot is my experience of your work. But why CR? And, what about the theme: Paper, drew you in?

Nathan: I always look over a journal before submitting.  I really loved the layout and the range of writers, old and new, and the attention you gave to each—allowing us to experience two pieces, to read their bio, and then to learn more with the interviews.  It was also a plus that CR accepted previously published stories, which few journals do.


I’m always fascinated by paper, the way it waits patient and still for words to come to it (not like a curser and a bright computer screen), the way it can hold secrets, the way it can be crumpled or burnt.  I was talking to some young writing students the other day about postal mail, trying to convince them of how lovely it is to get a real letter, to hold it, to look at the stamp and the handwriting, and then open it.  Even the act of deciphering someone’s handwriting adds to the slow pleasure of reading a postal letter, as does holding a piece of paper that was once in the author’s hands, esp if they are far across the world, or no longer living. Paper holds all that in a way an email or text can’t.  I think that’s why many readers appreciate signed copies of books: the maker of the book actually touched the copy you own.

N.S. Thank you for the interview Nathan. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Nathan: Thank you for such generous question !  Nothing more to say; I’ve probably said too much already.

N.S. Nah, never!

Rich Larson | CR Stories Interview

Niya C Sisk interviews twenty-year-old-too-young-to-be-genius? think again!
Rich Larson from Alberta, Canada.

N.S. You take risks. I get super excited when I’m confused in a satisfying way. I feel like I’m in the presence of deep art. For instance, in “Monstrously Unfair” the last line makes my brain explode. This story could be so many things. It doesn’t make the mistake of being a simple scene — it turns to story with that last line. Imagination is thrown. Nice! For some, the mystery would create too much of an itch. I’m curious what feedback you’ve been given with your particular style in this regard?

Rich: A friend and reader once compared reading a short story of mine to being dumped into open water and expected to swim. Some people love that; others hate it. It’s a balance I’m always trying to strike: thrusting the reader into a busy world and often a plot in media res, but never completely alienating them.

N.S. It takes quite a listener of life to capture the inner and outer landscape of story so eloquently — a micro version of big transformation detailed with efficient use of language. What grounds you, inspires you to engage your poetic voice in story making?

Rich: What I write is often inspired by my own life. Conversations I have, things that I see, people I meet. The world’s a very interesting place if you give it a chance, and for me trying to capture it often means blending poetry with prose, particularly in flash pieces like these.

N.S. Influences? Poets, fiction writers? Your efficiency and clarity of emotional arc reminds me of Carver. Transformation is very alive in your work. But tell us more.

Rich: I have an eclectic taste in poetry and am generally hard-pressed to pick favorites in fiction, but a few names that always come to mind are Kenneth Oppel, Graham Gardner, Megan Whalen Turner and C.S. Lewis.

N.S. Seems to me you aren’t far off at all from paying your bills with your writing. What then? What are your passion plans/desires for your career?

Rich: My dream is to live off novels and make enough money to travel often. In the near future I’m hoping to go to Spain, France, and West Africa. I definitely feel I’m too young to settle down in one place already.

N.S. What are you working on now?

Rich: Too many things. I have about a dozen inchoate short stories, a play, and a sequel to my last novel currently in the works. I’m also considering releasing another collection of short stories / flash pieces for Kindle via Amazon.

N.S. Why Curly Red Stories?

Rich: Initially I was impressed by the aesthetic of the site—books/covers comment goes here—but as I clicked around through the stories and interviews, and realized the depth of quality writing and the breadth of talented writers being represented, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

N.S. Change and transformation. Such a powerful theme for any writer. We are thrilled to have such a natural talent embrace this theme. Anything else you’d like to add?

Rich: Change is often at the heart of what I write and is often on my mind. Can people affect true change, and to what extent? Can people change who they are? Can better beginnings come from bad endings? It’s something I grapple with in my own life and something I know I’ll keep exploring in the future through my writing.


Jackie Davis Martin | CR Stories Interview

 Niya C Sisk, Founder of Curly Red Stories Interviews Jackie Davis Martin, Author and Creative Writing Teacher in San Francisco Ca.

N.S.  Right off the bat, I must ask, do you write stage plays? In particular, tragedy? I wasn’t surprised at all to see your reference to Shakespeare in your bio.

Jackie:   I’ve never written a stage play unless you consider the play I wrote for my girlfriends in 9th grade.  The characters were the four of us, grown up, with careers, conflicts, and exotic names.  I’m very much interested in drama, though, and attend many plays in the San Francisco area, as well as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  I like interior monologue and most plays don’t allow it.  Well, Shakespeare does, and a few others.

N.S.  While our theme this publication is “Place”… I love how your fictions transport me to places in the heart very quickly while beautifully grounded in physical description. The strength of your work is in the immediacy of emotion. Raw and delivered without self consciousness. I’m curious how you got that brave? Normally, I wouldn’t ask such a question, but I think you have the courage and self-awareness to answer it in full color. : )

Jackie:   Am I brave?  Maybe I am braver than I once was.   I remember in a workshop I took with Ron Carlson at Tin House that he urged us to “let go of the wheel.”  I also ask myself, What is this [story] really about?  I guess, in addition, I try to write what I would like to read, and I appreciate others taking emotional risks, or creating characters who are flawed or vulnerable.

N.S.  Why is Shakespeare such a strong influence? Other authors that you are influenced by and why?

Jackie: It seems silly of me to describe Shakespeare as a writer who understood so much about—for lack of a better term—the human condition.  Even his minor characters are real people; his major characters can pierce to the heart:  Hamlet, Othello, especially King Lear. And of course there is his use of language that is so beautiful and concise.  I also have always loved Dostoevsky: he seems to start at one level and then dig deeper and then deeper still.  That to me is bravery.  Alice Munro takes details and turns them over and explores them and makes them fit into other details; she’s a wonderful observer of the complications of the simplest life.

N.S.  How does San Francisco (your “place”) affect your process as a writer?

Jackie:   San Francisco is both calming and exciting.   The calm comes from the beauty of the place: it is a peninsula surrounded by the bay, the ocean, and hills and mountains.  The houses are many-colored and tightly packed create an intensity that I feel promotes introspection.   Then there is the excitement of the arts: the S.F. Opera, the S.F. Ballet, the S.F. Symphony.  I mentioned the plays before, and they are abundant and good:  Marin Theater to the north, A.C.T. right here in the City, Berkeley Rep across the Bay, as well as a host of smaller theaters and productions.  Also, there are good writers in San Francisco and a strong writing community.  One doesn’t have to search far for a competitive and supportive group to belong to, and can discover such fellow writers, as I did, through classes and workshops.

N.S.  Your voice in your prose… well, it’s very clear and strong. Was there ever a time when you realized you are a writer and committed fully to it? Or, was it a natural geography forming slowly in your soul and your life?

Jackie:   It will sound trite to say that I’ve been writing all my life.  I have boxes of old journals that I sometimes tap into (What would one feel in that situation, really?).   In high school my best friend (who is a published writer and teacher and still my best friend) and I exchanged writing.  In college I took writing workshops and classes.  Then, like many others who raise children and teach full-time, I was not able to create stories very often.  Now, teaching part-time, I focus on writing.  I still keep journals, but I don’t consider “journaling” (a word I dislike!) to be writing.  Writing has to be shaped and thought about.  I try.

N.SWe are thrilled and honored to have your work in our spring showcase. Is there anything more you’d like to add?

Jackie:   I’d like to say that I’ve read a number stories published in Curly Red Stories and I love that I am now among the contributors.   I thought that your questions were provocative and I thank you for asking them, for caring about all of us as writers.




Beth Bates | CR Stories Interview

NS: Two things get under my skin as I read your work. Design and Insight.Your set up, description, the emotional tension, story arc, character intimacy and design of your narratives is excellent! I even want to say, perfect!  “Change of Plans” stayed with me for two days after I read it. This is a sign, for me, of a writer who ‘delivers’. 

My inquiry is about your penchant for intricate psychological prose. Clearly you’ve had some ‘experiences’ in your life. Really, anything you want to say about what you are up to here, I want to hear.

Beth Bates: Oh gosh, perfect is a stretch, but thank you for kind words. Any technical feats you see in these stories I attribute to the rigorous instruction I’ve received in the Butler MFA program (with some effort on my part-see question 5). Working as a psychotherapist for seven years is one source of my tendency to focus on painful internal processes. About experiences, they’re all grist for the mill, right? I do think it helps to put a lot of distance between transformative life events and any serious attempt to produce a meaningful expression from those events. I mean, go ahead and journal, write a draft, but your creation is going to contain more texture and insight if it has time to cure. Like a list I recently wrote about my dad. I’ve tried writing about his death in the past, but this thing seemed to write itself in about an hour in a way that *poof* materialized out of the ether. But it didn’t take an hour. It took one hour and sixteen years to write in a compelling way.

NS: Authors you love who have influenced your work?

Beth Bates: What a fun question. Pinch me.

I’ve had a long-term relationship with emotionally naked literature. When I was ten, my mom gave me Angel Unaware, a memoir by Dale Evans Rogers (don’t judge me). That book and a collection of comic books about (I’m not making this up) Christians imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps for harboring Jews sealed my abiding affection for nonfiction, memoir in particular. Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr, Dave Eggers, and Jennifer Lauck send me. I admire John Robison, the overlooked older brother of Augusten Burroughs, for his breathtaking memoir that nails complex psychological dynamics with minimal exposition and sentimentality. Anne Lamott I adore for her gloves-off personal transparency and spiritual irreverence.

I just realized it’s your question 1 “intricate psychological prose” that connects my favorites, even on the fiction side. Michael Dahlie’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living, Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, even The Road—they all kill with their sticky, lovely layers of subtle psychological complexity. (Wow, I never made that connection till now. You’re like a James Lipton for writers.)

NS: Love your bio, how you weave your dreams into it. I wish more bios read this way. Say more. What plans do you have for your future as a writer and life design to support it. I ask this purely selfishly as I’m working on this aspect myself. And many writers I know are as well.

Beth Bates: For the next year I will sponge as much writing mojo as I can from my MFA program, which may or may not involve developing “Change of Plans” into a novel for my thesis. After that, as my bio suggests, a Curtis Brown agent will snatch me up and incite a bidding war among the Big Publishers, after which Hollywood studios will battle over movie rights. Once all that is settled my husband will retire. We will home school the children and divide our time between modest green-built homes in Telluride, Marin County, and the north shore of Kauai where I will frolic with my family and write more bestsellers and an Oscar-winning screenplay. That’s Plan B.

Plan A is to keep slogging away at my laptop. I will continue to ignore my family, write daily, submit work to obscure literary journals, and piece together a book every four or five years. I’d be grateful to find work ghostwriting, editing, teaching—any scenario that offers enough flexibility and financial stability to support the writing life. Publication would be icing, as would a new MacBook.

NS: A scene from your childhood when you knew you were a writer? Or, you look back on now and it makes sense?

Beth Bates: Hm . . .

All of Dick Gigax’s kids were expected to master the art of well-constructed business correspondence, but a writerly epiphany? I think there was a moment in high school several months after the baby episode. The cool sociology teacher assigned a socialization essay. We were to show a person’s development from birth through adulthood, and I inserted as the subject this kid I’d given up the right to watch grow up. It was healing to write the baby’s life into reality in the context of what for me was a creative nonfiction exercise, and the essay grabbed my teacher’s attention. On one hand it was cathartic, but the real juice came from watching a person respond to a story I wrote. Fireworks. You know the feeling, eliciting an emotional response from a reader, and then you’re hooked. Snap, crackle, when’s my next fix?

NS: On subtlety, precision, insight in your writing. You have it.

How did you get there? You display some real skill in your writing. Lots of practice? Lots of coffee? Love, pain, laughter?

Beth Bates: Ha! Thanks. All of the above, and more. Any evidence of skill is the result of thousands of dollars, brilliant professors in killer workshops with peers I trust and respect, beers with friends, time spent reading, and hours and hours of rewrites.

I hit a hole-in-one on my first round of golf—ever, I kid you not—and my husband says my standard line should be, “Of course I did, it’s where I was aiming!” I’m just aiming for a substantive story that contains conflict, action, and living, breathing characters who sound authentic without producing some saccharin counterfeit that’s embarrassing to read aloud. Occasionally, when the stars align, I hit it.

NS: It’s an honor to have you at CR Stories. Powerful work! Anything more you’d like to share?

Beth Bates: Thank you. It’s an honor to be included, Niya. Writing flash fiction (and non-) has stretched me. “Change of Plans” started as a ten-page short story, and submitting to Curly Red Stories challenged me to slash all but the essence. “Poser” was 1,000 words, and it seems to hold up at 300 (and now I’m never touching it again I am so over it). I appreciate the platform you provide for experimentation. You ask intriguing questions and offer a novel forum for writers and readers in search of refreshment. Nice work.

NS: Oh this is the best thing you could have said. And the most ideal way to conclude the interview. The slash and burn you did, brilliantly I might add, is so difficult. But getting your story to it’s essence was so rewarding to read. And I think your readers will think so too. 

Sugar in a bag is a lot of sugar. But burned down is caramel to creme brulee. Thank you for a delicious dessert!

Niya Sisk, CR stories founder

Harmony Neal | CR Stories Interview

NS: Your work intrigues me.
You tackle the hard stuff in a visceral way while leaving me awed by the beauty of our humanity. What leads your hand as you take us into difficulties like being misunderstood, mute, derailed, shaking through it all, and noting everything beautiful along the way?

HN: Um, wow. Errrr.

First of all, you have to notice the beauty or you might as well shoot yourself now. As for the rest, I try to capture experience in my genre bending work like “Little Orange Pills,” which is why it necessarily ends up as hybrid work. It’s not a poem or an essay or a story, but it draws from all of those. I guess it’s most like a poem, except I’m too long winded to be a poet. I don’t want to boil it all down: I want to expand it out while using images and cadences that reflect the experience.

I suppose I do it by being honest, as honest as I possibly can be with my words.

NS: I personally fall madly in love with poetic prose. It never ages. And your work has it droves. Can you say a bit about your poetic voice, especially in “Littel Orange Pills”?

HN: I started writing genre bending work like “Little Orange Pills” while in graduate school, and the poets declared I was one of their own. I laughed, but it’s probably true. My prose used to be flat and lifeless. I could not write a good sentence. I especially failed at description of any sort. During my second semester in graduate school, I started writing flash fiction as a way to focus on the small details.

Honestly, I surprised myself with my poetic voice. Once I started writing pieces I wanted to write in the way I wanted to write them, without worrying about genre and what’s been done before that has already been declared acceptable, the poetic voice appeared.

My genre bending work is generally more poetic that my fiction and creative nonfiction. The words present themselves to me in a different way when I’m not worried about traditional elements of plot. Ideas flow differently. The writing is more like how I actually sense and interpret the world and think without the filter we have to use in daily interactions. I guess I’d call it “raw,” though I do craft those pieces. I am a very passionate person, but I typically display a put-together and tough façade. The poetic pieces are me without my armor.

NS: Your work intimately conveys the human body again and again. Sometimes graphic but mostly just apt. Did you study medicine at one point in your life or is it an innate ability?

HN: I am not comfortable having a body. I could never practice medicine. Bodies upset me a great deal of the time. I was single for a long time because the idea of a stranger touching me would make me throw up in my mouth.

NS: Does your dog help you? ; )

HN: Yes. Milkshake has given me a lot of purpose and stability. I was always a very suicidal person, but then my mother had another child when I was 24, so I ended up removing suicide from my list of possible life choices. After that, I had to figure out how to live my life and have it be better than miserable. I got a dog so I’d have an external obligation that would force me to get out of bed. Since getting Milkshake, I have consistently gotten up early in the morning, gotten more exercise, and been forced to talk to strangers. My writing productivity has been higher than I thought possible, and I’ve been publishing like crazy. He is also very loving and cuddly, so I don’t feel a strong need for a girlfriend or boyfriend, which helps keep my time my own.

NS: How does place influence your writing? Detroit or other places?

HN: Place haunts and intrigues me. I’ve lived across the country. I’d like to have a home, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. During my final semester at UIUC, I started working on a novel set in a generic town. I didn’t work on it for a few years. While it sat, I kept hearing about Detroit, the artists moving in and the opportunities. I realized my novel should take place in Detroit, then I started working on it again. I went to Detroit and fell in love with the city. I scrapped what I had already written and started over. I am now in love with my own novel, which I think is pretty necessary for taking on such a terrible task. Seriously. Writing a novel is awful, but it feels a little good, so I keep doing it.

NS: Are you studying creative writing now? What are you working on?

HN: I have an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I graduated in 2007. My focus was fiction, though my thesis was a mix of fiction and nonfiction. A year after graduating, I went into another MFA program for Creative Nonfiction, but I was no longer in student mode, so I left. I currently teach Creative Writing through a local community center, or I will if anyone enrolls. I’m working on essays, always, like six of them. I’m also writing the Detroit novel. I tend to juggle a dozen or so projects at once. I’m just that way.

NS: Hopes and dreams? Film or fiction or both? Or something else?

HN: My middle name is Hope. My name used to be Cocaine Comfort Neal, but when I was 8, my parents changed it to Harmony Hope Neal. My sister is Rose Love. I pushed for Rose Redemption or Rose Revival, something with the alliteration, but those were kind of lame, so I said, fine, “Love” is fine.

I don’t really believe in hopes and dreams. Any old schmo can dream of being a princess or President. Anyone can hope for true love. I believe in serious work. I have goals and aspirations: an essay collection, the novel, a professorship.

I do words. Film is outside my purview. Two of my flash fictions are being made into short films, but that is all on someone else’s end. “Sarubobo” is going to be freaking amazing when it’s done. I’ve seen the rough cut and thought it was great, so great that I forgot I wrote the original story. The films being great have little to do with me and everything to do with the skill and vision of Kyle Broom and Alexandra Spector and the wonderful actors and actresses they hire. I simply hand over my stories and tell Kyle to go for it.

NS: Thank you Harmony. Happy to have your work here. It’s alive, true and fresh. An honor indeed.

Matt Stauffer | CR Stories Interview

There is a timelessness to your writing. You span age in human beings in a way that mirrors nature. In ‘Bandon, Oregon’ for example, “His arthritic fingers manipulated the old fish head…”. And you go on and break my heart here, “whose eye stared back at us, as if asking for one last story before bedtime.” Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to nature and aging?

Aging is one of nature’s cruelest tricks. Growing old allows us to become so wealthy, both materially and intellectually, but every day we grow older is one fewer day we have to spend that wealth. One really needs to find some perspective to balance those competing desires: nobody wants to live poor, but we don’t want to die rich, either. I think the solution that comes out of “Bandon, Oregon” is recognizing the value of our elders. They have a huge transfer payment of wisdom to give us, and since they can’t take it with them, we may as well take it so it isn’t lost forever when they go.

Are you a bit of a cowboy poet? Your prose, especially in ‘Discovery Bay’ extends itself from the present to history and back again to excruciating detail about life, nature, death. Quite zen; peaceful. What themes do you find yourself naturally exploring? And do you have any sense of why?

I like to write about stuff that people know but that they don’t necessarily think about consciously. That’s the essence of great stand-up comedy–the ability to make your audience say, “Oh yeah, I know exactly what he’s talking about!” I try to create that effect in my writing as well. Obviously I approach my writing from a male perspective, so I tend toward male issues or interests: the outdoors, male relationships (father/son, brothers, best friends, etc.), death. They don’t always make for great stand-up, but they are issues that are relatable, which I think is an important element of good writing.

When did you begin writing? What did you write about? And, how did you write? Handwriting in a blank book? Or, typing or computer? Talk a bit about your practice.

My biggest problem is I’ll get these great ideas, and I’ll spend about two weeks just thinking about what a great idea it is. Then when I actually sit down to write it, I realize there’s no way it can ever live up to what I’ve built up in my head, so I’ll get discouraged and put that idea on the shelf where it usually stays. If I can convince myself that first drafts are never good, then I’ll put an outline down on paper, which is easier to mark up than on a computer, and from there I can type out a first draft. This whole process means I’m not a very prolific writer when it comes to actually putting things down on paper, but my mind is always churning. I’m constantly taking notes throughout the day; if I’m really on my game I’ll have my Moleskine notebook handy, which helps me channel Hemingway without the alcoholism or the violent streak.

What impassions your writing today? What genre, form? Where are you taking it next? What excites you today?

One of my heroes is Gordon Parks. He was such a talent across a range of media–journalism, poetry, stage, screen, novels, photography–and I really admire that flexibility. I’d like to be like Gordon Parks one day. I’ll never be black, but the writing talent is something I aspire to, so I write across a range of genres and media as well: poetry, short fiction, expository essays. I find it also helps my writing process to switch back and forth between projects. If I’m stuck on a poem I’ll switch to an essay, and when that gets stuck I’ll work on a short story. It keeps me from getting burned out on any one thing. I’m polishing up a screenplay right now which will hopefully make it to production some day, and shopping some other projects, but if all I do is write a letter to a friend I consider that a good day.

Thank you for your brilliant work. What made you choose CR Stories to showcase your work?

It sounded like a lot of fun. It’s such a challenge to tell a story in flash fiction style. You really learn to appreciate the luxury of unlimited words.

Anything else you’d like to add about your work or about writing in general?

I had an English professor once say, “Writers hate writing, but love having written.” I’ve found that to be true more than I’d like it to be. There are definitely times in the middle of a piece that I just feel lost at sea, unable to see land in any direction, but once you find it, you realize how far you’ve come.

Zachary Fishel | CR Stories Interview

NS: You have this way of encapsulating the world through the eye of the writing (vs. author), which is quite something to pull off. There is a great book called The Object Stares Back where the author considers how the world changes as you give your attention to it. You do this very well in both of your pieces. It’s true flash fiction. Unselfconscious and true to form. Can you let us in on how you see the world, what inspires you to write in such a densely narrative fashion that transforms the reader?

Zach: I try to see the world in its subtleties, the ones that stare us in the face most often. I find myself more and more jotting down the way bubbles look in the first cup of coffee after a hangover, rather than focusing on the headache. Those are the things I try to target in my writing. There is always a metaphor, but I think that if as writers we can twist it an extra turn, it will stand alone and we won’t need to support it with extra lines. Specificity is the key or at least what I shoot for. I like to think I key in on things people miss sometimes.

NS: How much does writing drive you in your life? How do you incorporate it?

Zach: I write every day. Sometimes I manage to sit down and write three or four poems or maybe a short piece from my day, a lot like keeping a journal. When I’m busy, which seems to be more often than not, I write down things when I see them, and then later try to find them in my books or the back of my hand and compile them into a folder that I use as fodder for piecing things together. So writing is my thing, and I get quite anxious sometimes if I can’t get anything on a page. It’s a priority to everyday living for me.

NS: When did you first know you were a writer? What quirky things do you want to share about what inspires you to write?

Zach: I realized that I had a love for writing as a junior in high school, but I wouldn’t say that I felt like a writer until my sophomore year of college. I wrote poetry and performed it with a slam group on campus, and when I started getting approached the day after shows and thanked for saying something important it really hit me. That’s a major compliment to hear from a stranger, so I took it serious from then on. I find inspiration from two of my friends more often than not. They are just great people and we take road trips or hangout with a couple of six packs and talk about how life would be if we were in the fifties with the beats. I get a lot of inspiration from thinking about what other people see, so I people watch a lot, but I’m not a weirdo. I just place myself in their shoes and let it take me for a walk.

NS: What are your hopes and dreams of writing? 

Zach: I’m split between two major goals. One is to earn my PhD and work with a creative writing program teaching creative writing. The other is to own my own press or journal and publish writers and take them out on the road to tour and sell books. I think living on the road touring would be such an awesome and enlightening experience, which would surely fuel more to write about and prove that poetry isn’t dead.

NS: What compelled you to submit to CR Stories?

Zach: I was prompted to look CR up by a professor and mentor of mine, Laurie Cannady. After reading the winter and spring issues, I wanted to send in because the people who have written left something in my mind, and I wanted to be part of something that leaves that mental footprint. That is powerful writing, and thank you very much for including me in such a great caliber of writers. There is a certain simplicity in CR that sticks out and refreshes you I think, and that’s an awesome feeling.

NS: Authors you love and why?

Zach: My first poetry love was Charles Bukowski, I think he was strong as I began to develop as a writer. He is easy for anyone, even nonreaders to get into and he talks about real life situations. Jack Kerouac is my favorite novelist. They are both tattooed on me actually. My favorite present day poet is Derrick Brown, that guy is incredible and the way he writes makes me want to dance.

NS: Your writing pulls me in the way Henry Miller’s writing does. It has a pithy texture and a healthy strong heart. Anything you want to say about that?

Zach: There is nothing without heart. And I will be reading more Henry Miller now, thanks.

NS: Anything else you want to add?

Zach: Thank you so much for everything, I am really humbled and honored to be part of CR. I cant wait to see where the road takes me next. I plan on touring through the year while preparing for applications to Grad school. Other than that I just want to enjoy each day as it comes.

Debra Gordon Zaslow | CR Stories Interview

NS: 57 Chevy. Something that fascinates and draws me into your prose is the feeling of being in a richly textured world with hilarious, straight talking characters. Can you say a little about your use of language; visual detail in contrast to the story your characters tell in blunt tones?

Debra: I couldn’t have created a more fitting name for our tract subdivision than “Storybook Lane.” I think the details of glossy chrome fins and repetitive floorplans reflect the air of unreality that we breathed every day in that whitewashed “utopia.”  But the sun couldn’t wash out the truth of the families in the houses.  Going back as a writer, though, the memories take on a heightened quality. I wanted to contrast my grandma’s negativity with our updated lives, so the scene with Bonnie on the porch was born. I wish I could say that I plan every detail to create an effect, but I think it’s like painting, you go in with an open mind and what wants to come out, emerges. Oh, look—this is turning out to be a picture of me stuck in the middle of two worlds.  I had to shorten the piece for your word limit, which ultimately made the piece stronger. When you take out extra words, the visual details and dialogue emerge more sharply, and then they tell the story themselves.

NS: Please tell us a bit about when you connected to ‘story’ as a part of your life and what that means to you now. I feel a deep culture of family and connectedness as I read your work. I want to hear a bit more about those roots.

Debra: Before becoming a writer, I was, and still am, a professional storyteller– telling oral stories to audiences. I started with folktales, progressed to stories of strong women, and have ended up telling Jewish spiritual stories, often blended with my personal stories. I can’t seem to avoid mixing the archetypal with the personal  in both my storytelling performances and in my writing . They seem to want to jump out and embrace each other, so I just let them.

Writing memoir became a way to further discover the ancestral stories that live in my bones.  No matter what I sit down to write about, the stories of my family that have shaped me, still want to be explored.  I can sit and meditate for hours until the voices  and stories in my head are quiet, but when I sit down at the keyboard, they come up for a heyday. Since my memoir, Bringing Bubbe Home, is about taking care of my 103 year-old grandma in the months before her death, I’ve had to take a close look at the roots of my family, especially the way the toxins and gifts have flowed down through the women. A warning about writing memoir, though: It can be very uncomfortable when you re-imagine family stories in detail. Ouch! Hopefully the result is that you make it into art, and that transforms how you feel about it.

NS: Richfield. This one has a nice surly tone to it. Again a sense of grit and another mention of the San Fernando Valley. I almost feel though that you grew up in some marginal desert town. Can you say a bit about the way your work touches upon the banality of various character? You get very close to these people in your image detail. I’m fascinated.

Debra: Well, how about a marginal orchard town? When we moved to the valley in ’56 it was just after the orange groves were bulldozed to make room for the suburbs. So there was sun and warmth with a palpable sense of agriculture lurking under the dichondra lawns.  The spray-glow patina barely coated the humans, though– just  rub gently, and there were those characters. I was drawn to the people  on the periphery of our world, who lived in their bodies and had sweat and sex. There was a sense of class differentiation that we couldn’t talk about, but I looked at our gardeners and mechanics, and it seemed like they were having more fun than we were.

NS: Your favorite authors and why, what touches you specifically?

Debra: I’d like to say some classical authors that I started out on, but actually I’ve almost forgotten them. Since MFA school, I’ve been reading a  lot of memoir. I’ve especially liked Kim Barnes, who writes in an earthy, but lyrical way about growing up in the west; Mary Karr, who makes a dysfunctional family so engaging with her hilarious scenes, and Abigail Thomas who writes so sparely that it’s a zen experience. Each of them is unique in their style, but they all move me with their experiences seen through a woman’s eye.

NS: Your ability to convey the visual in your work is really strong. Are you also a painter?

Debra: No, actually, but I do think in visual terms. I’m a bird-watcher, always going out with my binoculars and getting very excited about the stripe on a bird’s wing or the shape of the ring around an eye. Sometimes I wonder, though, how much of the detail I remember in writing is accurate, or my imagination.

NS: What you are up to now and what do you have planned for 2010 for your writing career?

Debra: I’m still spending time looking for an agent to champion my memoir, although I’ve slowed down on that a bit. In the meantime I’m writing short pieces and hoping to get some published so I can get paid for writing!

Calder Lorenz | CR Stories Interview

NS: You have a knack for endings. Is this something you aim for in your writing? I was especially intrigued by Buffalo Park, fabulous ending for a short fiction piece.
• • •
The short answer is yes. Definitely. Endings are elusive as all hell but endlessly satisfying once you nail them down. It is what you leave your readers with, your offering. I like writing that leaves you with questions. That literally has you turn the page to find the absence of print. That keeps your mind in motion, immersed with the characters long after it is all said and done. I like endings that do not falsify and contradict the very world they inhabit, like our history books and our social narratives tend to do. Endings can be redeeming or comforting or even happy but they do not work unless they stay true to their framework. I think all too often writers believe that they must save us from having to experience complexity and the raw emotion of uncertainty. As if we would crumble under the weight of a story that doesn’t have the characters rescued from their environment. And, damn it, I think readers should do a bit of work.
Buffalo Park was one of those rare stories where I knew the ending before anything else, and yet, the final sentence was only written after I had edited it about ten times. Meaning, I understood the mechanics of where she physically would end up but the imagery had to be drawn out over a period of time. I guess, the key to a good ending, from a drafting standpoint is revision, revision, revision. Knowing when to step off the stage.
NS: What plans, hopes, dreams do you have for your writing?
On a very basic level I’m planning to complete my novel sometime in this century or the next and then follow it up with a book of short fiction. In terms of hopes and dreams: well, I don’t know about you but I’d love to have my work banned. I mean, Jesus, what more can you ask for? Then again, Harry Potter has been banned in parts of this country so at least for the moment, in America, the bar is not very high.
Of course, enjoyed and respected would be nice as well.
But I also hope to keep improving and evolving and learning. Over time I’ve learned a tough lesson about storytelling. I learned that if I wanted to change the world on a literal level, well then, I would have to create change through my actions outside of my fiction. I grew frustrated because I had very clear intentions for the stories I wrote and yet my characters refused to cooperate and conform to my will. I had become a dictator of sorts. I was so concerned with the distribution of my own opinions and sociopolitical views that I lost sight of my characters and what they needed in order to be fully realized and sound on the page. I thought that I needed to have all the answers and yet I had removed the process of discovery, which is such an integral part of why I write in the first place.

It’s something along the lines of what Milan Kundera once said: “I invent stories, confront one with another, and by this means I ask questions. The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything.”
I’d say that that is pretty sound advice.
NS: Genre and form that you enjoy the most?
I’ve never been that concerned with genre. I’m pretty sure that a great read can exist in the realm of magical realism or fantasy. Although I would say one of those is much more prone to disappointment, but I’ll leave that for you to decide.
Form is something I spend more time with. I am a huge fan of short fiction of any size or shape. I always love to read long fiction that reads like short fiction. That’s probably why I love story cycles. They work like a Fatih Akin film. Story cycles are character heavy and many times you are dropped in the midst of action that precludes the past and future. You begin somewhere with a level of disorientation. As each chapter builds, the list of characters grows and time can shift through past, present, and future. At times you may feel disconnected. However, there is always a current raging through each section, an arc, and in the end the plot unfolds so that by the final page you realize that you have been privy to a complete and satisfying narrative, perhaps at times dysfunctional but interwoven and complex.
NS: Authors that have influenced you? I felt a tinge of Marquez, less florid, but no less romantic.
Marquez is a lofty compliment and certainly, without a doubt, a writer I’ve learned from and love.
It’s hard to say without going into a long big old list: my short fiction influences come from Nadine Gordimer, Raymond Carver, and Eduardo Galeano. But where would I be without James Baldwin, John Kennedy Toole and Edwidge Danticat? Every few months it seems I discover a new writer, and I say to myself, how could I have missed this? I think I’m influenced by what strikes me at the moment as impossible to put down, as invaluable. And then I try to figure out how that writer elicited such a powerful emotion or response within me.
I truly believe that the more diverse you are as a reader the stronger your own writing will become. But I believe just as strongly in the power of satire; and its ability to elicit laughter. I gravitate towards writers with a trenchant sense of humor, especially when they wrestle with topics that tend to overwhelm and puzzle us all.
I’ve also had the pleasure of learning from one of the writers featured here on Curly Red Stories, Joshua Mohr, and I would include him as an invaluable source of knowledge and invention and laughter.
NS: Are you a painter as well? Your fiction has strong visual elements in it.
I’m the son of a painter. I grew up around art in various forms. There was never a shortage of paint and canvas and drawing material in my house. And I think it is safe to say that I was influenced by the power of visual creativity. In almost every case I cannot write a scene unless it plays out in my head. I have to be able to visualize my characters and the settings they will act within. 

At one point, when we lived in Ohio our house was filled with very large paintings. The entire collection of these paintings was one narrative divided between I believe twelve framed pieces. These paintings were not your everyday farmhouse with a blue sky and birds or whatever. They were huge subversive collages with text and in one case a giant nude man who was in the act of crushing a city beneath his feet. When we first arrived his penis was the talk of our very small town but in the end my house was the place to be, where everyone hung out. It may have been the only place in that part of town where you would see a three hundred pound football player seated and lounging casually under what he thought he feared the most. Perhaps, unknowingly, that is where I learned about the power of choosing just the right image.

NS: Anything else you want to add?

This was fun. I appreciate that you took the time to ask me questions.

••• You are very welcome! NIYA

Raphael Cushnir

NS. As an author of applied humanics (sorry, bad habit of making up words) was this book a welcome freedom for the wild, wise Raphael to write in essay, philosophic form?

RAPHAEL: Yes! I was able to blend my artistic self with my teacher self, playing more with metaphor, turns of phrase, full circles, and intuitive leaps and bounds rather than having everything follow a more step by step path.

NS. Which essay is your favorite and why? Is there one in there titled: Dado?

RAPHAEL: Today, right now, I think Fairy Matching is my favorite, maybe because it stars by stepdaughter.

NS. What readers often wonder is, how did this author get here, writing book after book, supporting his family as a full time writer. Is there any snippet of this story you share?

RAPHAEL: If you took all the working hours, including not just the outlining and writing and rewriting but also the marketing and promotion and just generally keeping on top of things and staying in touch with those interested in my work, it’s probably a 60 hour a week, minimum wage gig. Not meaning to be a downer, just a truth teller. I love it, but I’d also love some more breathing room and less work. I intend it…and hopefully here it comes!

NS. Your life is very full now as a father and writer. Do your children help you write in odd inspiring ways?

RAPHAEL: Yes, in the sense that they always provide great material, and reinforce my curiosity by making everything new again as they experience it for the first time. Plus, they always think they know what they want, and what’s what, which is ridiculous, so it helps me stay hip to my own ridiculousness.

NS. Tell us a little about what is now and what is next in your career.

RAPHAEL: I honestly can’t tell. Part of me is ready to write another movie. Another part wants to work the Internet to full effect. Another is a little panicked about the economy and just spins. But I’m also ready for some breathing room and less work. I intend it…and here it comes!

NS. Anything else you’d like to say?

RAPHAEL: Thanks, Niya, from one fairy cockroach to another.

Joshua Mohr

NS. How old are you, what is your shoe size and did you battle acne in high school or younger? Just kidding.

JOSH: You said “just kidding” about this question, but I’ll happily answer it. I’m 32. My shoe size is 12. And no, I didn’t battle acne, but I did have a late growth spurt, so my freshman year of high school, I was 5’1″ with a size 12 shoe. I looked like I had massive clown feet for my height, something beyond ridiculous, another classification entirely in which teenage boys and girls are sent to occupy planet earth from a distant orb of awkwardness. Plus, I usually had Twix bar stuck in my braces. Rough look, rough times. Thank Christ I finally grew.

NS. The title of your book, and a bit about what moved you to write it, and when it will be out.

JOSH: The title of my novel is “Some Things that Meant the World to Me.” It’s due out June 1st of this year (that’s 2009 depending on how many bong hits you’ve had). The book’s ideas started from several tendrils that I assumed would be independent short stories. Over the course of a few months, maybe six or seven, I noticed a similar personality driving all of the narratives, which meant
a) I was inadvertently using the same voice in every piece I was completing
b) These seemingly sovereign pieces were connected, even if only on a germ level in my brain or
c) I’m a complete hack who was writing the same story over and over, incapable of producing work that had any uniqueness whatsoever.

A and C both seemed like terrible options to choose, simply due to their inherent indictments, so I ran with the idea of stitching these different threads into a larger fabric. I knew I wanted to have the protagonist’s inner-child show up in his life and tell him to burn down their childhood home. And I wanted the novel’s flashbacks to render a broken home in a compelling way so I decided to literally break the house: its rooms drifting away from one another like the separating continents. Once I put these two components together, once I understood how odd and surreal and contorted the novel’s “rules” and space-time would be, that was when I really found my point of entry.

NS. In ‘Our Skies’ you bump up against the outlines of repression and cultural crunching and conditioning in a fascinating way. The character is literally imploding into song. Is this type of tension something that recurs in your characters in other works? Or mostly in your flash fiction?

JOSH: Repression interests me a lot. I like to play with characterization through innuendo and inference. This may be apocryphal, but someone told me that Paul Bowles said that all good stories are detective stories. I really believe that to be true. Bowles isn’t saying that all books should have main characters with two-day stubble and drinking problems who chain-smoke as they unravel mysteries. He’s advocating, at least in my interpretation, for turning the reader into the detective, for immersing the reader into a world in which she/he will have to decode the clues, unearth the secrets and preoccupations of the characters–reader not only as detective but also archaeologist.

This leaves a lot of space for repression to be an integral part of that process. What a character doesn’t say, or doesn’t let her/himself think about, these become humongous indicators into their nature: these can heavily influence a reader’s understanding of who the character is. It certainly isn’t a paradigm of psychological realism, but there is space for an affinity to develop between reader and character, a space that is vital not only in flash fiction, but all genres. I don’t like it when writers dauntingly explicate why characters are doing the things they are doing. I, as a reader, like to put the pieces together on my own; I like writers who follow Bowles’ advice and trust their readers enough that they’ll succeed in configuring the “bread crumbs” in a thoughtful way.

As for cultural crunching and conditioning, office ecosystems both mesmerize and terrify me. I’ve had weird corporate jobs over the years. Of course, I either quit or get fired after a couple of months, but there would always be people who’d been there for years, tolerating or anesthetized to the oppression, the ennui, the anonymity that can rear itself in office-culture. “Our Skies” was an exploration of what might happen if someone who wasn’t in a particularly satiating point in his life lost this job and felt the need to retaliate. I never had the sense, as I was drafting the piece, that the character knew exactly what he was trying to get back at. It was more a vacillating, delusional angst, which made his revenge scenario really fun to write.

I do think this kind of tension recurs in my work: the disillusionment and malaise of 21st century tedium. In this case, it was a corporate scenario. In the novel, it’s the collision of past and present, the way dormant emotion can still be volatile, unconsciously squealing directions and steering our lives. I enjoy examining people struggling with emptiness, nakedness; it’s people lacking purpose or feeling fettered by a certain status quo they never aspired toward but rather occupy out of habit or stagnancy or obligation.

NS. I notice you play in the realm of imagination and language quite comfortably. I want to know more. When a piece comes to you are aware of the impulses leading it or you?

JOSH: Imagination… isn’t that what it’s all about? If writers are trying to elicit emotional responses in total strangers… if I’m trying to make a man in Tuscaloosa or a woman from Seattle feel something–whether it’s pathos or joy–there are only so many emotions to choose from. Writers are recycling these emotions, which puts an exponential pressure on individual authors to find new images, new metaphors to say things other writers have already commented upon. This can be precarious, almost atrophying if you dwell on it too long. It’s been my experience that it’s best to force a few pages out, even bad pages, usually bad pages at first, and then hone and sculpt from there: sift for the image that can render anger or ambivalence in an exciting, totally original way. We have to select the image to modify the story’s emotional stakes.

I have the attention span of a weimaraner on crystal meth, so for me, one of the struggles is to keep my stories or novels in scenes with unusual, often unpredictable scenarios unfurling. I like to put my readers in visceral and macabre scenes, never for shock value, always leading toward a thoughtful conclusion, what Margaret Atwood called the “unexpected inevitable.” And hopefully I’ll tell a wild story along the way.

NS. You teach a lot of classes. What are you teaching and where? Do you have a favorite?

JOSH: I teach at the Writing Salon in San Francisco. I run a Sunday night fiction workshop, which is really fun. Always a great group of people. Most of the time we focus on student work, but if I see similar issues creeping through multiple submissions, I’ll do mini-lectures. But more often than not, the emphasis stays on students’ stories and peer feedback. We laugh a lot in those classes. I always teach from the vantage point of revision, the idea, as William Gass astutely said, that a rough draft is just the words that will lead you to the right words. Once you accept that rough drafts are by definition crappy, I think there’s a liberty in that. You give yourself the space to renovate stories that have problems.

Also, through the Salon, I teach classes geared more toward honing specific aspects of story telling. For example, starting in February, I’m teaching a 5-week course just on dialogue, which I employ congenitally in my own work. I’m really excited to see the synergy that develops in there.

I teach an Intro to Fiction class through UC Berkeley’s ASUC studios. These are 6-week courses, and we tackle a different element of story telling each session. It’s a nice way to “get your feet wet” if this odd, fiction thingie interests you.

NS. On language… how you pack it in, its mesmerizing and affects my sense of time in the piece. You speed up time and you slow it down in ‘Our Skies’. It reminds me of Tobias Wolff, ‘Bullet in the Brain’ — which you brought to my attention in the writing class I took with you. Is Tobias in the top five favorite writers of yours? And has his work been an influence?

JOSH: I think anyone who loves American short fiction has a place in her/his heart for Tobias Wolff. He’s a master story teller, one of the original dirty realists. I go back to his stories and study them when I feel my plots are convoluted or I’m trying to describe something in too complicated a way. I admire his pared down prose, his humor, the way he carries his imagery through from a story’s beginning to its conclusion; really, though, it’s his mustache that I most admire. If I stopped shaving today, it would take me 30 years to grow something that facially hegemonic. It’s really wonderful.

Specifically in terms of “Our Skies”, yes, I enjoy rushing through certain situations and then suddenly making things more syrupy, delaying gratification over paragraphs, maybe pages. Plot drives flash fiction, but so does character, and it’s the intangible balance between these two elements that makes exciting micro-fiction. All fiction, really. It’s putting the right character in the correct sequence of events and vice versa; if either is off the piece won’t work. But in flash, a writer doesn’t have the necessary space to delve into psyche and history.
These details must be compressed, which is where innuendo can be so powerful. It’s where imagery has to address the emotional stakes of the character. In a sense, the imagery facilitates the reader’s experience, as it chips away the paint and reveals what’s underneath.

And who knows? Maybe someday, I’ll have a kick ass mustache of my own.

Lyssa Tall Anolik

NS. I’ve noticed in your writing such acute attention to detail, to the physical world, there is a sensuous quality in your writing. What do you feel pulls you towards this detail, what is evoked for you?

LYSSA: I worked as a park ranger and taught environmental education for ten years before I began to write “seriously.” As a naturalist, I learned to acutely observe and notice the smallest details in the physical world–the shapes and venation patterns of leaves and insect wings, the texture of tree bark, animal tracks in mud and snow. This ability seems to have spilled over into the rest of my life.

NS. Recently, you injured your right wrist and you can’t type with this hand without a lot of pain. What has left handed writing affected for you? Have you noticed a difference in style or content?

LYSSA: Only the words that absolutely must find their way onto the page make it out of my pen. The resulting work is much more concise and possesses an uncluttered, razor’s edge clarity that my previous writing did not. The thoughts are coming from the right side of my brain, so it’s as if I’m channeling a subconscious language. Here’s one of my favorite left-handed lines: “Only in this clean and holy light will we recognize the stranger in ourselves.”

NS. What compels you to write?

LYSSA: The desire to surprise and delight myself, to discover, to play. I believe I’m a little piece of the universe trying to figure itself out through an outpouring of creative expression.

NS. What do you dream of as a writer for your work?

LYSSA: That other little pieces of the universe will be surprised, delighted, and discover something new as they read my work.

Ben Garlow

NS:  Do you, or did you have formal training in writing?

BG:  No. Well in college my minor was in English. Can’t you tell?

NS: What about language inspires you?

BG: The first time my mom yelled, “time to eat”, and the most important question in the English language, “how do you like it?” It’s gotten me through many awkward situations.

NS: When did you start to write about things that mattered to you?

BG: When I learned how to create my hard-ons. That’s to say that I began to write poetry to young women I was interested in. Of course they loved the attention but had no idea what I was trying to say. Then I met a woman who understood, and didn’t laugh. She was my first love, and eternally so.

NS: Do you write everyday?

BG: That’s like asking me, “do you like pain everyday?”

NS: Writing is painful for you?

BG: I consider it unkempt activity

NS: Name some authors that inspire or you feel a kinship with.

BG: John Steinbeck, Richard Brautigan, and Jim Harrison, my literary troika. Also a beautiful redhead turned me onto Sherman Alexie, the best short story writer around today.

NS: No women writers?

BG: Is my gender showing? Beryl Markham wrote one book, “West with the night” a masterpiece, and not arguably so. Plus I’m a tadpole; please be gentle with me.

NS: Thank you for taking these questions seriously, and your responses.

BG: My pleasure. But let me ask you one question. Are you the reincarnation of C.S. Price the painter?