Bending the Rules with Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan, Authors of Rift (Unknown Press, 2015) by Leonora Desar
Cover design by Casey McSpadden http://www.caseymcspadden.com
Rift, a flash fiction collection by Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan, is an alchemy of heartbreak and humor, lyricism and subtlety. Here you’ll meet Betsy, a former sideshow freak who falls in love; a man who blows his retirement savings; a woman who holds a graduation party in honor of her dead daughter. The stories are emotionally resonant without being cloying, with strange and wildly inventive characters who also manage to feel universal.
The stories also stand out for their language, the way that they challenge what it means to be a narrative. Fish’s one-paragraph “Akimbo” is replete with sharp, unusual imagery—“walls the color of a baby’s tongue,” a man vibrating like an “electric football game”—with the cadence and energy seen in poetry. In Vaughan’s “If You Have to Have an Ism” we have insight into a character’s world, a vivid portrait of a woman “with her border-lined hoodie and her sellout sadsack song and dance”—all in less than 100 words.
I spoke with Fish and Vaughan about the inspiration behind their work as part of the Bartleby Snopes Women Who Flash Their Lit Forum. How do you write emotionally resonant flash without being sentimental? And how far can you bend the rules?
Interview With Kathy Fish
BS: What was the inspiration for Rift?
KF: Robert was the main inspiration, for me. Once we knew we were doing a collection together, his energy and enthusiasm kept me writing, kept me inspired. It was Robert who came up with the title and the first cover image. Though we didn’t ultimately use that image, it haunted me in a way, made me see all that the idea of “rift” can be. The image was subtle but potent, of two children playing outside a house that wasn’t, but felt, abandoned. We both kept that feeling stored away as we wrote I think.
BS: How did the collaboration process work between you and Robert? How did you decide the ordering of the pieces?
Oh, that was a process! We wrote together in a small workshop that included Bud Smith and Michael Gillan Maxwell. We took turns coming up with weekly prompts and sharing our first drafts, giving feedback, etc. At this point, knowing our theme was “rifts” we would point out to each other when a new draft felt particularly suited for our book. Bud and Michael were so fantastic in helping us shape those stories as well.
When we had the stories we knew we wanted to include, then came the task of ordering the stories, giving some structure to the book itself. We had several long phone calls where we gave each other really substantive feedback on the stories, then in that process, began to see how certain stories worked together. I came up with the idea of sectioning the book by different aspects of “rift,” i.e. Fault, Tremor, Breach, Cataclysm. Then we began sorting our stories to fit those categories. Robert had such a great, intuitive grasp of how our stories paired together, so he did virtually all of that part of the book. We knew we wanted to go back and forth with our stories, like a performance, as Michael Martone described the book.
BS: Your stories in Rift are filled with vivid, memorable characters, from a girl who wants to ascend to heaven to a 13-year-old white kid who pretends he is Malcolm X. What are some things that have inspired your characters and worlds?
KF: I think people, in their imaginations, are far more interesting than we often see in their outward appearance and actions. That’s the place I love to go in fiction. The stranger the better. There’s such heart in human striving. Who knows why we do the things we do? But that oddness and need makes us kindred.
BS: Is there a story that you particularly enjoyed writing? Is there one that was more challenging to write?
KF: I loved very much the experience of writing “The Blue of Milk.” My friend David Hicks called some of us Denver area writers together for a write-a-thon in the basement of the Regis University library one afternoon. The idea was to quietly write together without stopping for a few hours. I had never done this before. At first I felt very self-conscious, but seeing the other writers so absorbed in their work, I was inspired.
Meanwhile, I’d been asked to write a piece as part of a collaborative issue of Blue Five Notebook, edited by Michelle Elvy and Sam Rasnake. I’d been given a piece of art, la lecture huile sur toile, by Francis Denis. Though I found the piece beautiful, I wasn’t sure how to begin. I opened my laptop and stared at the image awhile, then began typing. I really just let myself keep typing without any sense of where I was going. The story came to me like a dream. Something about the sound of a dozen or so other writers typing on their keyboards in that basement room put me into a creative trance. The resulting piece is very dreamlike and fluid and strange. I didn’t change much at all when I sent it off to Blue Five Notebook. It remains one of my favorite stories.
“Grip” was probably the most challenging to write. It’s extremely close to nonfiction, dealing with the death of my brother. There was so much I wanted to say. But ultimately, I cut the story to the bone, added in fictional details, and let the story end on an image. I had to trust my writing enough and the reader enough to let it just be what it was. I think it worked.
BS: I was blown away by “Everything’s Shitty at Price King.” I love how you managed to make the story funny, even though you have this psychopath holding a baby and waving a gun around. How did the story come about? How did you decide to introduce humor?
KF: Thank you so much, Leonora! I really enjoyed writing that story. I wrote it in a short story class taught by Hannah Tinti through One Story. That was such a great class. I highly recommend it. I don’t feel especially strong on the mechanics of story writing and her step-by-step process led me to this odd scene I don’t think I would have otherwise written.
The humor came into the story quite naturally. I knew my character. I knew she was hurting, but I wanted her to use humor and sarcasm to get herself through life and this terrifying situation. I think funny people tend to be the most in pain, deep down, so I wanted to work with that in the story. I had to be careful with that, but I think I found the right balance.
BS: In “There is No Albuquerque” you give us Betsy, a woman with three horns on her forehead that look like “three raised fists.” This story has so much resonance and emotional power. I especially loved the ending, where we are left with a beautiful dream that will never be. What was the inspiration for this piece? Why did you end it the way you did?
KF: Oh thanks for saying that, Leonora. This story began as a voice in my head. I heard Betsy before I saw her. I knew what I wanted the story to sound like before I wrote any words. An odd mix of sad and matter-of-fact. The struggle of someone very different to tell her own story. As soon as I gave her Mr. Kenton, the whole thing unfolded very easily. As soon as I gave her something to live for and strive for.
I ended it as I did because I wanted Betsy to have a happy ending, if only in her mind. I was kind of a weird and lonely child, so I’m always taken with outsider types in my stories. Beautiful misfits.
BS: I love how you convey Betsy’s loneliness in the story, but without explicitly stating how she feels. What are some ways that one can show rather than tell in flash fiction?
KF: First and foremost, trust your reader. If you create a strong enough character, a strong enough situation, with strong and tangible details, the reader is going to connect the dots. Better yet, make your reader feel what your character feels. The joy of reading is that connection to some emotion we ourselves have felt. That recognition, right? We have all been lonely. We have all been humiliated. We have all had times of great joy.
As a writer, you can tap into your own emotions, your past, your memories, and mine the details. I remember when my mother was very angry, she’d throw herself into housework with such intensity she was just this blur. She didn’t say a word, but we knew to stay away. Think about the sorts of things that people do when they’re feeling a strong emotion. How do their voices change? What do they focus on? A reader will connect to that and feel that.
BS: In “This is How Eventually the World Falls Apart” we have a white kid who wears an afro and preaches from a garage pulpit, pretending to be Malcolm X. What was your inspiration for this story? Why did you decide to tell it from the sister’s perspective rather than the boy’s, and how does this change our takeaway?
KF: I grew up really watching my older brothers, perhaps more carefully than my parents did. This is not a true story, but it is somewhat emotionally autobiographical. I like the dynamic that’s created from telling a story from the periphery, from an observer, in this case, the watchful sister who sees everything.
BS: “A Proper Party” tells the story of a graduation party held in honor of a dead girl. I love how moving the piece is, but without being overdone or cloying. What are some ways that one can evoke emotional resonance without being sentimental?
KF: Let some humor in. Sad situations are all the sadder when people are trying very hard to be brave. Show the struggle in that. Show people trying, but mostly failing. Mess things up.
BS: Some of your pieces, like “Akimbo” and “Vocabulary,” have the kind of emphasis on rhythm and language seen in prose poetry. What do prose poetry and flash have in common, and in what ways are they different?
KF: I love the kind of flash that straddles the line between story and poetry. I love reading it and writing it. You see this particularly in the very short, one paragraph flash. Like prose poetry, there’s that emphasis on rhythm, language, and imagery. The difference is that flash needs to have at least the sense of an arc or meaningful change (and it can be very subtle) that’s not necessary for prose poetry.
BS: What is your writing process like? What about your revision process?
KF: I’m constantly scribbling in my notebooks. I save most of it on my computer. I have documents with names like “I don’t know what this is” and every once in awhile, I go back and open up the files or the notebooks and mess around with the pieces some more. Almost everything in Rift had its roots in scribblings from three or four years ago. I’m just exceedingly slow. Also I’m a firm believer in setting a story aside for awhile before sending it out. My revision process is mostly about getting the sentences right. And I fuss over endings quite a bit. I read everything aloud.
BS: What advice would you give to a writer new to flash?
KF: Become a religious reader of all the best online flash journals. Subscribe to NANO Fiction. Read the Queen’s Ferry Press The Best Small Fictions 2015. Write every day. Write your heart out. Take one of my workshops (smile).
BS: Tell us about your latest project.
KF: I’m working on something very exciting and very secret.
Kathy Fish is a faculty mentor for the Mile-High MFA at Regis University in Denver. Additionally, she teaches two-week intensive Fast Flash© Workshops as well as weekend workshops for Word Tango. She served as Consulting Editor for the Queen’s Ferry Press The Best Small Fictions 2015. Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), Choose Wisely: 35 Women Up to No Good (Upper Rubber Boot Books, 2015), Threadcount, Guernica, Indiana Review, New World Writing, Denver Quarterly, New South, Yemassee Journal, and various other journals and anthologies. She guest edited Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web 2010. She is the author of four collections of short fiction: a chapbook of flash fiction in the chapbook collective, A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women (Rose Metal Press, 2008), Wild Life (Matter Press, 2011), Together We Can Bury It (The Lit Pub, 2012) and the recently released collection, Rift, co-authored with Robert Vaughan and published by Unknown Press. She blogs at http://www.kathy-fish.com/
Interview With Robert Vaughan
BS: How did you get started writing flash?
RV: I started writing flash in multiple ways. I’ve kept a daily journal over four decades. That vignette of a daily entry evolves, most days, into a flash, or slice of life. Then the earliest short fiction writers who I devoured in the 1980’s like Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, Lorrie Moore, or Barry Yourgrau. Eventually I started to read our contemporaries like Lydia Davis, Kim Chinquee, Len Kuntz, Meg Tuite. I read the Rose Metal Press A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness (four chaps of four kickass female flash writers) and that ignited my desire. Simultaneously, Michelle Elvy and two other writers started up 52/250—a site with weekly prompts, and pieces that had to be 250 words or less. Let the workshop begin!
BS: Was there a story in Rift that you particularly enjoyed writing? What about one that was more challenging to write?
RV: One of the most fun stories to write was “A Literary Savant.” Once I had the “I would date a dog” concept, it just flew! I love abstraction, and to play with how much a character can get away with. Also the communication disconnection—how often do we really get what another person says? This is a piece that pushes the envelope. A more challenging piece for me to write was “The Rooms We Rented.” Often the more strange or elusive pieces are those which take the longest to hatch. This is also the sort of piece that might warrant multiple reactions.
BS: I found your story “Dehydration” stunning. That final letter from the funeral home, the father’s sense of loss, the details about his daughter playing Desdemona and the way “a woman, all grown up, drifts down her long hair and is lost”—all this felt so real and palpable to me. What was your process of writing this piece?
RV: A dear friend, Mel, succumbed to melanoma cancer in 2006. She was vibrant, sweet, and her nickname was the Snow Dove. I think I was using the devastating loss as a premise to drop into possibilities as a parent, imagining her father’s perspective on the premature death of a daughter, someone half his age, in the prime of her life. How this kind of death (any?) haunts those who are closest, and still alive.
BS: “Postcards of a Life,” like “Dehydration,” is inspired by letters, but here they form the narrative framework of the piece. How did you decide on using postcards to tell the story?
RV: I used to be a huge postcard sender, and received many as a result. I worked internationally, and in those days prior to social media, it was a way to include family and close friends in visits to other continents, new experiences. “Postcards of a Life” is one of my older pieces in Rift. The first draft I wrote was in the early 1990s. I wanted postcards to reveal the extreme distance between a father and son. It’s a way to utilize “space” in actual format.
BS: “Postcards of a Life” also has a particularly powerful ending. Did you know what the last postcard would reveal when you started writing? Also, do you tend to know how your stories will end when you sit down to write, or do they come as a surprise?
RV: The end of “Postcards of a Life” was what I changed the most in the various edits over the years. I am not the sort of organized writer, planning endings, or knowing things in advance. I’m the opposite—I work best when I can write toward the abyss, or a blank canvas.
BS: “What’s Left Unsaid” is another favorite of mine. I love how you started the piece between two dramatic scenes that are never shown on the page—the narrator’s time in Vegas, where he blows his retirement savings, and the moment where he will probably hide this from his partner. Why did you decide to set the story at this particular point in time?
RV: “What’s Left Unsaid” is based on a distant friend’s gambling obsessions, how in the mid 80’s it nearly destroyed his entire life— home, marriage, job. When you write flash, there is typically no time to get into much backstory, or future. Also, if there is an unbearable secret that weighs on a person, well, as readers we have empathy, no matter how idiotic it might seem.
BS: I loved the one-sentence breathlessness of “What Lies Ahead,” the way you build momentum while at the same time conveying the narrator’s loneliness. What was the inspiration for this piece? And how did you decide on the one-sentence structure?
RV: In 1987, my roommate from college and I left New York City, and drove to Los Angeles, to start a new life. This piece was reconstructed from that coast-to-coast experience. The one-sentence structure of “What Lies Ahead” is a format that was given because of a journal to which I wanted to submit, almost like a writing prompt. Sometimes a journal’s “constraints” can inform the material that works for the piece. There is another piece I wrote earlier called “Moving to Los Angeles: A Screenplay in Three Acts” which was published in Diptychs + Triptychs. That story is much more fictionalized and experimental than “What Lies Ahead.” Still, any “one” life experience can provide material for multiple stories.
BS: Your story “If You Have to Have an Ism” is tiny in terms of word count, but gut-punching in effect. What does a story of this length need to be a story? Can we throw away all the rules?
RV: I think there is a bending of “rules” in flash fiction, and it’s a fine line between what works and what might fail. Also, the cliché “rules were made to be broken” comes to mind. I actually saw the woman referred to in “If You Have to Have an Ism” at a local café. I sketched her, jotted notes, then sculpted the piece over time. Generally, the smaller a flash, the more work it requires. Every single word has to be combed over. The requirements—intrigue, tension, a rare or unusual outcome, the element of surprise. To feel as if it was just written, versus the “reality,” which is the amount of drafts it has gone through.
BS: What are your writing and revision processes like? How do you know when a piece is ready to be sent out into the world?
RV: I try to write every day. Or as often as possible. I journal. I sketch. I edit other people’s work (for two magazines, and two independent publishers). As far as submitting, that formula is as mysterious as the day I first did it. I have no idea how to measure when something is ready—journal, or book both. It’s a gut instinct, like intuition, and it seems to work the more you use it.
BS: Where do you see flash in several years from now? How do you see the form evolving or staying the same?
RV: I would like to think that flash will become more widely read, and the variety will continue to grow. More novels than ever before are being told in vignette format, or short chapters. I am not visionary enough to foresee anything more than more possibilities of publications for short fiction or flash writers. As our lives get more elaborate, with less time for traditional novels, short fiction suits the reader more.
BS: What advice would you give to someone new to writing flash?
RV: Read as many books of flash fiction as you can! See what turns you on, what excites you as a reader. Then, write some short pieces, give it a try. Be willing to fail on the page (as Beckett says, “Fail better.”). Of course, then try to submit to some journals. Follow some flash fiction writers you admire on their social networks, so you can see what they’re up to, read their latest published pieces and books.
BS: What projects are you working on now?
RV: Rift was published on December 1, so Kathy Fish and I are doing promotional things around the book. My next book, Fun House, is another collection, and I have about half of that done. It’s slated for a late 2016 or early 2017 publication. I am also teaching two-week long workshops in 2016—a fiction course in Taos, New Mexico at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House with Kathy Fish, August 20-26; and “Mixing Genres” at The Clearing in Door County, Wisconsin on Sept 11-18.
Robert Vaughan teaches workshops in hybrid writing, poetry, fiction, and playwriting. He has facilitated these at locations like Alverno College, UWM, Fox Valley Technical School, JMWW (online), RedOak Writing, The Clearing and Mabel Dodge Luhan House. He also leads writing roundtables in Milwaukee, WI. Vaughan is the author of four books: Microtones (Cervena Barva Press, 2012); Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits (Deadly Chaps, 2013); Addicts & Basements (CCM, 2014). His newest, Rift, is a flash fiction collection co-authored with Kathy Fish (Unknown Press, 2015). He blogs at http://www.robert-vaughan.com.
Leonora Desar‘s writing can be found or is forthcoming in Harpur Palate, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Citron Review, Prick of the Spindle, Psychology Today, WomansDay.com and in Bartleby Snopes as a Story Of The Month Winner. She received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award, and was a finalist for SmokeLong Quarterly’s 2016 Kathy Fish Fellowship. Leonora lives and writes in NYC, and holds an MS from the Columbia Journalism School.