Bartleby Snopes Writing Blog

Becoming a Better Writer

Month: August 2016

An Interview With Sally Reno by Jayne Martin

Sally Reno smallSally Reno is a writer of primarily flash and micro-fiction. Her work has been among the winners of National Public Radio’s Three Minute Fiction Contest, Moon Milk Review’s Prosetry Contest, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in a vaporish grotto where she serves as Pythoness to blink-ink print and Haruspex for Shining Mountains Press.

JM: Hi, Sally. Thanks for taking the time to tell us a little about yourself and your writing. Why don’t we start at the beginning? How did where you were born and raised influence you as a writer? Or did it?

SR: Most of my life I would have said that where I was raised (Colorado) mattered a great deal and where I was born (Indiana) didn’t matter much at all, but recently Kathy Fish offered me a photo prompt and out popped all these Indiana stories. I have a decided Westerner’s perspective on most things: I worry about water, my internal GPS is a set to where the mountains are, I count on being able to see an active sky, etc. My father was an airline executive so we lived and visited all over the world. I loved that, but Colorado is home.

JM: Who were some of your early literary influences?

SR: My mother, bless her, read me all the children’s classics. I was especially enchanted by fantasies like The Water Babies, The Wind In The Willows, Peter Pan. My parents had an extensive library so I went seamlessly from Tristram Shandy to The Upanishads. I adored poetry. Myth. History. The Arthurian cycle. The Transcendentalists were big favorites.

JM: What/who are you reading now?

Funny thing, I just picked up Helen Macdonald’s, H is For Hawk on your recommendation. Because I’ve just begun it and I don’t have much time right now, I’ve just gotten to the end of the second chapter where she reflects on her grief, the torrential rains and the dream of the hawk. Gorgeous, gorgeous stuff. I thank you for pointing me to it.

JM: I’m so glad you like it. I read it twice, turning right back to page one after reaching “The End,” then listened to it on audio. I’m just a little obsessed.

SR: I just finished the Breece D’J Pancake’s collection. How did I miss this guy until now? So, so good. His story “Trilobites” layers thinking in millennia with living in the present microsecond and flashing sideways to all the other places. Before that, Steven Dunn’s debut collection, Potted Meat set my hair on fire. I recently fell in love with Karin Tidbeck, a Swedish writer of folklore and fantasy-inflected contemporary fiction.

I’m old, so I sometimes panic and imagine I’ve already read everything thrilling. At the same time, I have less patience to push through things I do not like. Recently I went as far as I could with The Bone Clocks and A Confederacy of Dunces, and then I just quit because life is short and getting shorter.

 JM: When/how did you discover your interest in writing and what were some of your earliest beginnings?

As a child, I noticed that my parents spent a great deal of time absorbed in these handheld devices called “books.” So, I can’t remember a time when I was not avid to find a way into those things. Brain studies show that we most naturally learn to write first, read later. That’s how it worked for me. I began with simple statements I would write down and pin or tape to household objects that I felt were relevant to the statement. My first narratives were strings of clues like treasure hunts I would hide around the house, often along with rewards like a lovely stone, a small bright feather or a piece of striped hard candy. I have been writing and publishing what is now called flash fiction for 50 years.

JM: Do you have a general theme that you find coming up repeatedly in your work? For example, I’ve noticed in my own that I write an awful lot about death and betrayal, although I don’t consider myself particularly morose.

 SR: Curious, isn’t it? But yes, I have a few personal obsessions. I look to distinguish human nature from what often passes for human nature, but may only be the human condition, i.e., false premises to do with the things people believe. My writing is anchored in the feeling of having something I need to investigate, to explode. I don’t place a very high value on self-expression per se. I mean, who the fuck am I? Who cares? Ah! But have I noticed something?

JM: How do you feel about prompts? Images or words or both?

In theory, I don’t approve of prompts. I feel like prompts are a writing game we play instead of writing. In practice, I have twice been gratefully startled by what a photo prompt provoked from me.

JM: One of those photos produced “Man Like That,” a wonderful story and a winner of the Dr. T.J. Eckleberg Prosetry Contest. You also won an NPR “Three-Minute Fiction” contest with this charming piece, “Mickey, Mickey, You’re So Fine.” Congratulations. How does a story usually start for you? With an idea, a feeling, a first line? Or?

SR: I need a first sentence. And, especially in flash, I never begin at the beginning or anywhere near it. As for characters, I don’t require them to “develop.” I’m looking for a revelation, that flash or glimpse of the character’s humanity. In revising, the work is about syntax—sentence engineering. I will often take a troubled passage or even a healthy micro and investigate what it would take to turn it into one grammatically correct and syntactically secure sentence. Then I know what the thing is made of and how it works.

JM: One thing I like most about flash fiction is there really are no rules per se. It’s wonderfully subversive that way.

SR: Yes. Playing with POV and tense, for example, is where lots of the magic happens and the solution to most of the things we believe we can’t do. Very short fiction greatly antedates the long form and owes it nothing in its own terms.

JM: How does being an editor of the lit journal Blink Ink influence your writing or does it?

 It doesn’t influence how I write or what I write much at all but it does influence my ideas about writing. An editor gets to see quite a bit of mediocre and just plain bad writing. That said, there is usually some merit, some spark or sparkle, some fingerprint of the Muse in everything we see. I have come to see this as a matter of commitment. So often folks aren’t ready to be seen making their best effort, saying what they have come here to say, and so to risk being judged on that. It seems we all must outrun a tendency to hide behind being coy, too-clever-by-half, snarky, tricky, obfuscating and, lord help us, ‘funny.’ It seems we must struggle to overcome evasion.

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blink21_21-300x188blink20-233x300JM: As an editor, what do you look for in a piece you’re considering?

 I want to be surprised, delighted,  transported, knocked down by raw truth and hoisted up by rising emotion. Blink-Ink is a print-only quarterly that features stories of about 50 words. Our issues run from 16 to 24 pages, in a format the dimensions of an A-2 envelope. So we don’t have space for work that doesn’t excite us. We are passionate about being inclusive and are tickled pink to hear fresh voices, which happens all the time. We respond to every submission in as human a way as we can, which Doug Mathewson, our noble founder and Editor-in-Chief is better at than I am because he is a nicer person. We ask for stories of about 50 words, which we expect people will understand to mean that lesser lengths are always welcome if they are working, and that we would prefer a few extra words to arbitrary cuts which may mar the fabric of the tale.

Most of our issues are themed so we have a certain vision for each issue. Our next, the October issue, themed “Crossroads,” is slim and specific and darker than we usually publish. This is in response to this specific moment in the body politic. The following issue, in January, will be themed “Space” where the sky itself is no limit. We love it when a writer goes straight at our theme and we love it when a writer takes it sideways. We scratch our heads when they don’t seem to be connecting to our theme at all.

JM: Sally, thank you so much. For more of Sally’s flash fiction, click on the links below:

 “The Light From A Sports Bar A Thousand Miles Away”

“Hotel Khadijah” (Pushcart nominee)

“Gargoyles, Witches, Nihilists, Yoko Ono”

 

IMG_8680[3] - Cropped

Jayne Martin’s work has appeared in Boston Literary Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, Blink Ink, Literary Orphans ,Flash Frontier, F(r)iction, Sick Lit, and Hippocampus, among others. She is the author of “Suitable for Giving: A Collection of Wit with a Side of Wry.” Her television writing credits include movies “Big Spender” for Animal Planet and “A Child Too Many” for Lifetime. She lives on a ranch near Santa Barbara, California, where she indulges her passion for horses. Find her at: injaynesworld.blogspot.com, where she writes about everything from politics to private parts, and on Twitter @Jayne_Martin.

Writing About a Spousal Fight

Guest Post by David S. Atkinson

Intro by Nathaniel Tower

When David S. Atkinson asked if I would read his latest short story collection, I didn’t hesitate. A chance to get a free advanced copy of a book I knew I would like by a great writer and good friend? There was no way I could turn that down. David is a treasured member of the literary community. Aside from being a voracious reader who can somehow read and digest every word of any book within 24 hours of receiving it, he’s one of the nicest and most supportive writers I’ve ever met. And he’s damn funny, which is on display both through his personal interactions and his fiction. Not Quite So Stories is one of the best collections I’ve read, and I’m not just saying that because we’re friends. I’m saying that because I mean it. Unlike David (who must have some sort of time-freezing device) I don’t have the time or dedication to read every book that gets sent my way, but David’s was one that I read and enjoyed thoroughly. And I probably owed it to him. Of course, after reading it, I feel like I owe him even more. Yup, it’s that good. 

If you haven’t read David’s collection, do so now. But before you do, stick around here and enjoy learning a little more about his process and inspiration for one of my favorite stories in the collection.

 

david atkinson

Writing about people one actually knows is always an uncertain territory. Conflicts with loved ones is particularly fraught with peril. After all, one never knows how the subject will react. Presuming one actually cares, the need to write the story must be weighed against how the person might feel, and what they might do about it.

Writing about a spousal conflict is even more of a minefield, especially if one wants the marriage to continue.

However, I did write about an area of my real life marital strife in my story “A Brief Account of the Great Toilet Paper War of 2012,” which is included in my new short story collection Not Quite so Stories. The issue centers on, as one might guess from the title, toilet paper. There are great disagreements in our household over toilet paper.

To explain, my wife is an “under the roll” believer, whereas I maintain that this is blasphemous. I take this quite seriously, which amuses my wife. Also, she doesn’t tend to replace empty rolls unless she herself needs them. Sometimes, she’ll just set a new roll nearby and start using it rather than actually placing it on the roll. This all bothers me much, much more than is reasonable. toilet paper war

So, it all went into the story. I went wild with it, taking things to ridiculously absurd extremes (I have never, I repeat never, glued toilet paper to a roll in order to ensure that there is always toilet paper on the holder, whether usable or not). Still, the core of our “debate” is there and I’m airing our dirty laundry in public.

Is that a good idea? Should I have done it? One school of thought, advocated by Anne Lamott, is to go ahead…but to: “give the character a small penis,” the idea being that the subject would never claim that the character is them. However, I didn’t want to give my wife any kind of penis at all. Further, I wouldn’t worry about my wife claiming the character is her. Rather, I would be concerned with her being hurt and thus damaging our relationship.

So, what did I do?

Well, first of all, I wrote about a relatively insignificant conflict. Arguments about toilet paper may get heated at home, but this is a fairly petty matter that isn’t particularly private. I think that helps. Also, the story is humorous. I’m trying to entertain and make people laugh, not get validation from the reading public regarding my position in the argument (I’m still right). Beyond that, I made sure to make the wife in the story more reasonable whereas the husband is a loveable yet ridiculously over serious about toilet paper protocol. In short, he’s a buffoon. Even if my wife read the story and felt it was an airing of a private marriage matter in public, I’m the one I made look ridiculous. All of those things work together to make me feel more okay in writing about something from my marriage.

david atkinsonNow, am I guaranteed to be okay? Absolutely not. However, I know what I’m comfortable with and I know my wife. I thought about whether or not I should write the story, and I thought about it deeply before I began writing…no matter how innocuous I thought it was. I considered her possible feelings, and considered them again before getting the story published. Whether or not I’m actually okay, I thought about it a great deal and decided I was. Personally, I think the fact that I considered her feelings mattered more than anything I happened to write.

Of course, it also probably helps that my wife doesn’t hang on every word I write. She’s got a lot of important things going in her life and I’m not the center of everything. Nor should I be. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure she’s read “A Brief Account of the Great Toilet Paper War of 2012” yet. We’ll have to see if my advice on this changes when she does.

Wish me luck.

 

David S. Atkinson is the author of Apocalypse All the Time (forthcoming 2017), Not Quite so Stories, The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes (2015 National Indie Excellence Awards finalist in humor), and Bones Buried in the Dirt (2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist, First Novel <80K). His writing appears in Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow Journal, Atticus Review, and others. His writing website is http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/.