- Fjords: Interview with Caitlin McGuire
- Sidney Thompson’s Interview with Kirk Nesset
- Essays on Craft at NANO Fiction
- Edmundo Paz Soldán
- Flash Fiction
- Interview with Kirk Nesset, Our Flash Fiction Contest Judge
24 Apr 2015
Interview with Kirk Nesset (Fjords Review, July 24, 2014)
by Caitlin McGuire
(Kirk Nesset’s translations of Edmundo Paz Soldán’s poems, “Disappearances,” “Man of Fictions,” “In the Library,” “Pilar,” and “After the Breakup,” appeared in Fjords Review, Volume I, Issue 3.)
Nesset is author of two books of short stories, Paradise Road (University of Pittsburgh Press) and Mr. Agreeable (Mammoth Books), two books of translations, Alphabet of the World: Selected Work of Eugenio Montejo (University of Oklahoma Press) and Disappearances: Stories by Edmundo Paz Soldan (Calypso Editions), and a nonfiction study, The Stories of Raymond Carver (Ohio University Press); his book of poems, Saint X (Stephen F. Austin State University Press), appeared in 2012. His stories, poems and translations have appeared in The Paris Review, Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, Crazyhorse, Prairie Schooner and elsewhere, including four of Norton’s anthologies — Flash Fiction Forward, Flash Fiction International, New Sudden Fiction and Sudden Fiction Latino. He was awarded the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, a Pushcart Prize and the Perry Poetry Prize, as well as grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. He teaches creative writing and literature at Allegheny College, and serves as fiction writer-in-residence at Black Forest Writing Seminars (Freiburg, Germany).
CM: How did you come across Edmundo Paz Soldán’s writing?
KN: I heard him read at Allegheny College, where I teach, and I found his fiction compelling. This might have been eight or nine years ago. We talked that evening at a party at a colleague’s house. What a charismatic, generous, deep-thinking person, I thought. I began reading his work, the short stories especially. A year later, an editor at W. W. Norton wrote to ask if I had any translated flash to submit for an upcoming anthology. I didn’t, but soon afterwards did: pieces by Luisa Valenzuela, Juan Jose Saer, Eduardo Galeano and others. One of the others was a younger, less known but very talented Bolivian writer, Edmundo Paz Soldán. His story “Counterfeit,” as it is titled in English, was chosen for Sudden Fiction Latino.
(Edmundo Paz Soldán)
CM: Name a place you’ve written about but never been.
KN: I wrote a poem this summer about the final days of Oliver Hazard Perry, the American naval commander who defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie. He sailed up the Orinoco River on a diplomatic mission into what is now called Venezuela, and caught yellow fever and died coming home. I spent six weeks reading and researching before I wrote those twenty-four lines. Biographies, journals, letters, newspapers, history, geology, geography, scientific data about period flora and fauna, and so on.
KN: I’m working on a story now set in Tallinn, Estonia’s capitol city. A different matter altogether, this is. I’ll need to visit the country to finish the story, I’m thinking.
CM: What do you consider the biggest struggle in translation?
KN: Making the thing float in English. Making the poem a poem or the story a story. A translator needs to be both a translator and an experienced writer. A fully bilingual, highly learned mind does not a poem or story make, necessarily. The most accurate, painstakingly faithful transcriptions are just that — transcriptions, not translations. They’re not stories or poems. They’re servile. We’ve all seen them. Some of our most cherished epics, even, have been crucified thus. Exquisitely precise, true to a fault to the material, intricately footnoted. They don’t breathe or shimmer or risk volatility, that ambiguous dance that makes poetry poetry. In the worst cases, they’re colorless or clunky or both.
KN: The translated piece in the end should be as correct as it can possibly be, even if correctness means compromising slightly or more than slightly. Even if it means moving away from the original for the sake of musical and compositional unity and of emotional resonance. The ideal translator should combine, as Donald Frame says, the learned humility of the good scholar with the imagination and daring of a gifted verbal artist working in poetry as well as in prose. Which is to say translating isn’t solving a puzzle. It’s not just transplanting and refiguring grammar. It’s about release and reentry. The fiber of thinking constituting the piece isn’t fiber you were born or grew into, usually. The rhythms aren’t rhythms you had thought possible, given your home base in language. So you move into the piece, the story or poem, tantalized, letting its thinking think thoughts your mind really can’t think, or couldn’t before, and now does somehow, and you feel its strange rhythms and try on its tones — and returning, hope to transmit it and make it your own. By transporting the goods from one world to another you transport yourself. There’s almost no better way of emptying yourself, of letting something or someone get into your skin.
CM: Name the greatest lesson you learned in school.
KN: The lesson of not giving up. Of sticking with something. Of getting the words down, the work done. I had a teacher in eighth grade who’d beat our butts in front of the class if we came to school without homework, or with homework unfinished. This created strong incentive to finish. I only got paddled once. Once was enough.
CM: What is your favorite word in Spanish? In English?
KN: That’s a difficult question. As writers we tend to be in love with and enchanted by language. Words are the be-all and end-all. Words are uncanny, at times strange and surreal. They’re the building blocks of this thing we often blithely and mistakenly call “reality.” Ideas and understanding count for something, yes, but words matter more, along with the music of their arrangement. New favorite words bubble up every hour. How to narrow it down?
CM: What was the last so-good thing that made you glad to be an artist?
KN: In May my sixth book was accepted by Calypso Editions (NYC). A book titled Disappearances, a gathering of translated microficciones by Edmundo Paz Soldán. We’re hoping the book will appear late spring or summer.
CM: What are you currently working on?
KN: At the moment I am finishing a manuscript of flash fiction, a bizarre, inspired book-to-be I’m calling Burn. I am also banging together what seems to be a novella, an eighty or ninety page something-or-other that may join a small constellation of old and new stories, all of which I hope to call the next book-to-be.
23 Apr 2015
Sitting Radar: Sidney Thompson’s Interview with Kirk Nesset
(American Literary Review) See original article
On November 21, 2013, I had the opportunity to sit down with Kirk Nesset and his well-behaved Pomeranian at Oak Street Drafthouse in Denton, Texas. My interest in meeting him stemmed primarily from my interest in his flash fiction. I frankly declare that “I Want You to Kill Me,” from Mr. Agreeable, is one of the best short stories ever written, short-short or not. Like many of the other stories in the collection, it’s as provocative and visceral in its abstract expressionism as any painting by Chaïm Soutine, with unsettling intimacy, absurd joy and heartbreak. After a couple of IPAs, we proceeded around the corner to Andaman Thai Restaurant, with Ryan the Pomeranian quiet as a mouse at Kirk’s feet in his portable carrier (with the exception of one brief escape).
The first thing about Kirk that struck me was his precision. With great deliberation, he minces his words, and I don’t mean he “weakens” or “softens” them, and neither is there an over-wrought pause between. There’s a vigorous delicacy to his manner and an exactness, a cleaving, to his word choice — a sheerness. A navigation. He’s one who will tell on himself wryly but not for the cheapness of a laugh, though I laughed plenty. He’s simply an honest poet. I found the jazz of him somewhat reminiscent of Barry Hannah, my mentor and friend, so it came as little surprise to learn that Barry was his friend, his hero, for many years, too. We discussed, among other things, Barry’s “Even Greenland,” one of the classics in the genre of sudden fiction. Here is my account, albeit polished, of those other things.
Sidney Thompson (ST): What were your sources of inspiration as an aspiring fiction writer, and what are they now?
Kirk Nesset (KN): I read a great deal as a child, so I was inspired early. Aesop and Grimm and the Nancy Drew books had the most impact, I think, early on. Then Louis Carroll and Poe, Zane Grey and Jack London. London’s autobiographical portrait of an artist, Martin Eden, pretty much knocked me to pieces. By the time I hit high school I’d read all of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Mansfield, O’Connor, Thomas Wolf, Lawrence Durrell and Hesse, and had dipped into many others. Mainly this was because of a wonderful thing my parents had done. In 1969, relocating to California from Seattle, they “killed the television,” as the phrase went then. After that all I did at home was read and sing and play guitar, stack wood and play board games. As an English major later at college and grad school, I was still a voracious reader, most voracious during the summer. The books I loved then made me the writer I am, I believe. They not only taught me craft but taught me how to perceive. Don Quixote. Tom Jones. Middlemarch. The Brothers Karamazov. Lolita. Beckett’s Malone Dies. Atwood’s Surfacing. DeLillo’s White Noise. I’m still completely TV-illiterate, and not nearly as informed as some about film. I’m not embarrassed to admit it. Bookish is good.
(ST): Are there more recent writers?
(KN): Most inspiring to me have been Barry Hannah, Jeanette Winterson, Alice Munro, Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders and of course Carver, along with DeLillo and Atwood. I used to read around a lot more. These last years I’ve read less widely and comprehensively. I was relieved years ago when Barry Hannah told me how he had been reading. He was presenting that evening at Allegheny College and I’d gone to the hotel to pick him up. He was sitting reading in the lobby and tucked the book in his bag when he saw me. In the car I asked who he favored these days, expecting to hear names and titles one heard on the breeze then. I may have mentioned those titles and names. Barry said he had heard of those authors but hadn’t read them. Rather than reading around, he told me, he was rereading the books he loved. Some of them he’d read, he said, twenty or twenty-five times. The book he’d slid in his bag, by the way, was Beckett’s Molloy.
I didn’t study writing in a writing program, I should say. I’m truly “old school.” I studied literature. I didn’t know I was aspiring to write until I was well into grad school. I’d never presumed to think that writing was a thing people did. I began at UCSB as a Renaissance scholar and wound up writing on Carver. Lit crit and theory drove me to creative writing, it seems. But the books I had read and was reading were key. Aside from a pair of writer’s conferences, and aside from the help of some generous mentors — Barry Spacks, Steven Allaback, Christopher Buckley — the literary models were crucial. The books I had read were my teachers.
(ST): In hindsight, as author of The Stories of Raymond Carver: A Critical Study, what about Carver’s writing (or Gordon Lish’s editing) do you believe is possibly the least understood or appreciated?
(KN): The inexplicable thing about Ray, what we don’t talk about when we talk about Carver, is atmosphere and tone. The eerie moods he creates. For sure, Gordon Lish helped to cultivate this. Mainly it comes from compression, constriction, verbal omission, a ruthless bareness, not to mention the awkward, almost extraterrestrial voices Carver finds. It’s a poetics of silence in prose, you could say. Everywhere in Carver are hints about what can’t be represented, or written, or said. People tend to see social drama — the catastrophe of the plight of the lower middle class, poor prospects, alcoholism, et cetera — and don’t notice the nuances. Carver’s work is richer and stranger than that. The prose is sometimes so blank, so terribly “real,” it borders on expressionism. He hyperextends realism, such that an oppressive, inhospitable world seems that much less full, less hospitable. The stories make you “feel the force of the paradox,” as Claude Richard writes, “that ensures that the deepest anxiety is, precisely, that which does not let itself speak.”
(ST): While primarily a fiction writer, you also publish poetry and translation. Are there discernible differences in style, subject matter, or mood when you approach one genre or another?
(KN): Actually, when you weigh the numbers of pieces appearing over the years, you’ll see I publish more poems and translations than fictions. They’re shorter, easier to place and more manageable, given space considerations. But you’re right, I do consider myself a fiction writer first and foremost. Lately I have also been publishing essays—on Carver, and on writing, fiction pedagogy especially. Issues related to genre do arise, yes, each time I sit down to write. Above all when I begin something new. “Approach” is the key word here. When I’m working from a prompt, or a solicitation from an editor, I tend to move fairly straightforwardly into the genre in question. It’s always a challenge, of course, starting a piece. With nonfiction I tend to outline and plan ahead, even if I wind up discarding those plans. The writing is intuitive, certainly, but it’s nice to line up your ducks, even if you don’t shoot them all down. With fiction, I locate a character and setting and try to discover what’s lurking. What’s intriguing, disturbing. And then sniff out motivation, causality, tap into the mystery, hoping the story will grow or unfold, revealing its secrets. With poetry, typically, it’s the exhilaration of language itself that draws me in, that incites the poem. Some of my verse is narrative, and much of it makes sense. But it doesn’t have to — which is incredibly freeing, since nonfiction and fiction only rarely allow for such freedom. Margaret Atwood believes different parts of the brain are at work in what she calls ambidextrous writers, depending on genre. When you write fiction you’re methodical, organized. And poetry is “a state of free float.”
What’s complicated, though, I find, is that sometimes you write and look what you have and don’t know what you’ve written. I’ll write what I think is a poem, and take out the line breaks and see it’s a story, a compact micro tale. Or vise versa. I have pieces in the mail now, I hesitate to admit, that are submitted in both genres. As stories and poems. Which genre will win?
Translation on the other hand is something else altogether. I like it and do it a lot, maybe because as a way of writing it feels less intimidating. It’s like sitting down to work out a puzzle. It’s not my soul or vertiginous inner abyss on the line, seemingly, but somebody else’s. The matter is already there on the page. There’s more to it, though, as we know. A translation isn’t a puzzle, finally. It isn’t just transposition, substitution, clever maneuvers with dactyls and dictionaries. It’s its own creature. It’s an enacted, unfolding thing, an experience in a new tongue that approximates the original. It may be easy to start, but the piece in English must live and breathe as a poem or story. It needs a beating heart. It needs musical and emotional coherence, as well as semantic finesse.
(ST): Of your short-short story collection Mr. Agreeable, Barry Hannah declared, “Nesset is attuned to the fine-edged songs of the mundane,” while Bret Lott said that you have “given us a beautiful bouquet of crystal shards, each one of which, when held to the light, refracts and amplifies and makes new the entire notion of light.” How conscious are you of technique — of discovering and refining that fine edge, that crystal shard—when inside the writing process of your first draft?
(KN): I’d like to say that I just draft when I draft — write like an ape, go to town, let the gate down. But that’s very rarely the case. Which is why the process of drafting is often so awful to me. I write slowly. Excruciatingly. I’m lucky to get a page a day, if that. And while I’m aware of the fact that polish comes later –attention to the fine edges and shards — I can’t just madly excrete, idiot savant that I am, that we all are, or should be, initially. For me, voice must click from the very first sentence and keep clicking from there, or come close to clicking. Otherwise, I won’t believe the voice, or the piece, enough to go on. So yes, there is attention to technique from the start, but not the intense attention that comes later. The early sensitivity is about getting voice right. Which necessarily includes sentence rhythm, diction, cadence and sound.
Other writers work or worked this way, too, obviously. Flannery O’Connor, Richard Ford, DeLillo and Hannah, among others. I worked with Ford, in fact, late in the 80s, at the Squaw Valley Writers Center in California. I remember asking him what he did in a draft when he got stuck. He backtracked, he told me. He returned to where the voice of the prose sounded true, and looked to see where it diverged, or derailed. He’d work to fix that, he said, and proceed from there.
I love revision, as a lot of us do. There’s very little suffering there, unlike with drafting. And I’m a ruthless reviser. If I’m lucky I’m done after sixty or seventy drafts. Usually it’s more like a hundred, one hundred fifty. Two hundred drafts isn’t unusual, depending.
(ST): Depending on what?
(KN): Depending on how the story complies, unfolds, aligns energetically. On the way voice, rhythm, urgency, tension and pace comply or fail to comply. Fail to arrive. Or arrive. Become manifest on the page.
(ST): About your collection Paradise Road, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, Ann Beattie said, “These stories are melodious when they need to be, jangle when we need to hear what’s discordant.” I understand that you have a background in music. How coincidental are Beattie’s instincts?
(KN): I’m less conscious than some, I think, about what sings or clacks in my work. Crafting sound is an intuitive process, at least for me. Even a sharp listener, a musically-illiterate writer at some point senses the orchestral nature of narrative, the melody and harmony and rests and refrains in every story or poem, the rise to crescendo. Still, my writing wouldn’t sound the way it does, I suppose, if music hadn’t preceded. I was a musician long before I was a writer. Musicians think in sounds, express and emote in nonverbal ways. Language is rhythmic and sonic, obviously. And if your ear is trained, writing is music as well. I’m as interested in the way something sounds on the page when I write, or revise, as I am in what the thing says, or conveys. It’s hard to say, though, how exactly I know what I know, or how influence works. I’d like to say that the way I manage and measure my stories or poems arises from song. That my modulations in voice, rhythm, or awareness of such, arise likewise. But no. It’s a thing you can’t nail down, since what we absorb is internal. Is internalized. And what’s internal is mysterious, finally.
What’s not mysterious is the fact that music is fun. Much of it for me, all of this singing and playing on stage, is about not writing. I’m in two bands now, with three rehearsals a week, 5 or 6 shows per month and daily music homework. That’s a lot of time away from writing, or from preparing to write. Nabokov had his butterflies, so I can have this, I guess. For me, we could say, music is creativity minus the agony, unease and worry, the incinerating self-conscious flames. It’s not lonely or solitary. And there’s free beer.
(ST): What do you love or hate most about writing or publishing, and what do you intend to do about it?
(KN): I love hearing that something I wrote mattered to someone. Especially when whatever it was mattered to someone for reasons I could never have imagined beforehand, much less intended. I got a letter years ago from a high school teacher saying he liked my book on Carver so much he wanted to apply to grad school in English. And he did. And got in. I still get fan mail for Mr. Agreeable and Paradise Road, some of it strange, some vaguely frightening, but most of it very uplifting.
I love, too, the rare affirmation that comes in the form of acceptances. Stories, poems, essays, translations, pieces slated for press. Book manuscripts, especially, which can be exhausting to the point of nightmarish to peddle. There’s a glow, you know, that remains, after the news comes, which can last days. Wow, look, you think, I’m not only not getting kicked or beaten today, but somebody likes what I wrote. And wants to promote it.
Best of all I love the feeling of completing a draft. The glow of that lasts quite a bit longer.
(ST): What do you hate?
(KN): That nothing’s consistent. The process and progress of writing, I mean. I thought early on that there were lessons you learned that eventually made it all easier. On one level that’s true, maybe. Mostly it’s not the case. Each project is like building Rome again from the ground up. The process is laborious, tedious, fraught with doubt and misgiving.
I also don’t like the fact, speaking of which, that writing turns you so inward at times you think you’re moving completely over the edge, which isn’t pleasant. But even more I despise the alternative — not writing. Sometimes you need to lay off awhile to refill. A day or two is okay, but after that things get tricky. How did Kafka put it? “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.”
More and more these days, though, I don’t hate much. I try to be grateful for what I’ve accomplished or earned and resent less and less. Because if you’re in this for good you can’t expect much. You write and write and take what you get and feel thankful. The rewards usually aren’t very visible. When I was fresh out of grad school, rejection was a palpable, personal thing. An agent would respond with cutting remarks — less than charitable, cruel, but also helpful and true — and I’d feel disemboweled for weeks. Which doesn’t help. You eventually stop taking things personally. Your skin thickens. It has to, or you won’t last in this business. I read a review weeks ago of Saint X, for example, my new book of poems. The reviewer destroyed it. Did I hate her? Yes, momentarily. Then I reread the review and thought, how sad. Here is a woman who seems to take the craft seriously and has a degree but hasn’t yet learned to read, can’t tune in to the way poetic language evokes. How sad, when journals give reviews to reviewers unprepared to review.
What to do, you ask, about the diminishing hating, and loving? Keep writing. If we’re here for the long haul there’s not much else to do. The best meditation practice, we know, comes in part from not attaching to notions of outcome. The same goes for writing. “The point of sitting is to sit,” my teacher Sasaki Roshi told me, once upon a time at the L.A. Zen Center. The point of writing, likewise, I think, is to write.
(ST): What can we expect to see from you in the near future?
(KN): My sixth book, a book of translations, is due out next summer at Calypso Editions, a fine arts press in New York. Disappearances, the new book will be called. A selected anthology of micro fictions by a wonderful, highly visible Bolivian writer, Edmundo Paz Soldán. His enigmatic, mellifluous fictions, translated pour moi, have gotten some attention in this country already. They’ve appeared in the Boston Review, Chicago Review, Literary Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, PANK and Arroyo, among others, including two of Norton’s anthologies — Flash Fiction International and Sudden Fiction Latino.
At the moment I am finishing a manuscript of flash fiction, a bizarre, inspired book-to-be I’m calling Burn. I am also at work on a historical novel, set in northern California in the 1880s. And a travel book involving the Philippines and Filipino cuisine. And I am banging together what seems to be a novella, an eighty or ninety page something-or-other that may join a small constellation of old and new stories, all of which I hope to call the next book-to-be.
Kirk Nesset is the author of two books of short stories, Paradise Road and Mr. Agreeable, as well as a book of translations, Alphabet of the World, a nonfiction study, The Stories of Raymond Carver, and, his latest, a book of poems,Saint X. His stories, poems, translations, and essays have appeared in such journals as The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, American Poetry Review, Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, Witness and Prairie Schooner. His flash fiction has been widely anthologized: most recently in Flash Fiction Funny, but also The Pushcart Prize Anthology XXIII, Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories, Sudden Stories, and New Sudden Fiction: Short-Short Stories from America and Beyond, among others.
Sidney Thompson is the author of the short story collection Sideshow, recipient of Foreword Magazine’s Silver Award for the Best Short Story Collection of 2006. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in such literary journals as The Southern Review, Carolina Quarterly, Prick of the Spindle, Danse Macabre, Ostrich Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, Clapboard House, Ragazine.CC, NANO Fiction, TheNewerYork’s Electric Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature, The Story Shack, Beetroot Journal and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, while his poetry and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in RHINO Poetry, A capella Zoo, IthacaLit, The Fertile Source, The Fat City Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Paste Magazine, The Human, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the University of Arkansas and is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Texas.
03 Sep 2013
Three essays by Kirk Nesset have appeared in “The State of Flash” series at NANO Fiction, which includes work by Sean Lovelace, Matt Sallor, Kathy Fish and others. Nesset’s essays investigate micro tales by Pamela Painter, Marco Denevi and Natalia Rachel Singer, among others. Check out each at the following links:
29 Jun 2013
Three Stories by EDMUNDO PAZ SOLDÁN translated by KIRK NESSET
originally posted in the Adirondack Review
Although we didn’t altogether agree, we told him yes, when he asked—Carolina was pretty, maybe the prettiest woman in town. We couldn’t tell him the truth; he was in love, and none of us wanted to be the one to dispel the illusion. A year later he married, and children appeared, along with rumors. When asked again, we replied as before. No way, we said: she had not betrayed him. How could we tell him the truth? We were his world, and couldn’t admit we’d made the most of his loose, less-than-attractive, dim-witted wife.
Forty-three years later she died. We approached at the wake as he wept without cease; we told him again we did feel his loss. She was indeed a good person, a saint, we agreed, opting for the cliché. Still weeping, he told us each the same thing, more or less: that he’d seen through our lies, he’d understood from the start, and allowed it because we were his friends. It wasn’t our fault she was such an astonishing lover.
ROMEO AND JULIET
One afternoon in a clearing in the woods, the sun stifled by edgy, elongated clouds, the little blonde girl with long tresses grips the knife firmly, and the boy with the large, sensitive eyes and delicate hands holds his breath.
—I’ll do it first, she says, aiming the sharp tip at a vein in her wrist. —I’ll do it because I love you. For you I’ll give everything, even my life. There’s no love like ours, or ever will be. That’s why we’ll do it.
The boy is crying quietly, lifting his arm.
—Wait, Aleja . . . I’ll do it first. I’m the guy. I have to set an example.
—This is the Gabriel I know and learned to love. Here. Why will you do it?
—Because I love you like I never thought I could love. Because my life is the most I can give you.
Gabriel raises the blade, drawing it close to his veins. He hesitates, his dark eyes widen. Alejandra presses against him, passionately kisses his lips.
—I love you a lot. You don’t know how much.
—I love you lots, too—you don’t know how much.
Gabriel considers the knife, inhaling, tears drying. And in a flash the sharp steel finds a vein. Blood begins to flow furiously. He’s surprised; he’s never seen liquid so red. The pain rises, he lets the knife drop, easing onto the carpet of earth: the sun fills his eyes. Alejandra throws herself on him, kissing him, licking up blood.
—Oh, Gabriel! How I love you!
—It’s your turn now, he stammers, less able to breathe with each breath.
—My turn, yes, she says, embracing him.
—You . . . you love me?
Alejandra turns, and then rising, heads home, thinking about the homework in literature she’s supposed to hand in in the morning. Behind her, the uncontrollable red puddle swells.
Thursday’s the only day my father allows late-night TV—he knows tales of terror captivate me, and Hitchcock shows are my favorites. Together on the sofa, he in his pajamas and I in my night shirt, we sit silent an hour, devoted to different ends, me to pleasing myself with twists and turns of terror onscreen, he to scaring himself with its pleasures.
When the program is over, we exchange the usual comments, and the fake goodnights. Fake, because every Thursday before I’ve been in bed for ten minutes, he appears, timidly asking if he can join me. Of course I accept. Holding him, I feel his body tremble, feel the unfaltering fear that keeps him from sleeping alone in his room after Hitchcock. He presses his body tight into mine and we drift off immediately. It’s lovely, each morning, waking before he does, feeling his heat, our legs intertwined, hearing his hoarse, arrhythmic breathing, seeing him cushioned in sleep with such expertise.
I am fourteen, and I have heard of perverted fathers, perverted girls. But in me no doubts exist: mine and his is a thing apart, a pocket of pure and sublime in a corrupt world, a magnificent moment untouched by sin.
And I stroke him until I see he’s awake, despite the closed eyes, and then closing my own, feel a hand grazing, discovering, and feel the lips grazing, discovering, and eyes closed, feel a body explore and discover, explore and discover, explore and discover.
EDMUNDO PAZ SOLDÁN is author of seven novels and three short story collections, including La materia del deseo, Desencuentros, Simulacros, Los vivos y los muertos and Palacio Quemado. He has won the National Book Award in Bolivia, the prestigious Juan Rulfo Award, and was a finalist for the Romulo Gallegos Award. He was born and raised in Bolivia, and lives now in the United States, serving as assistant professor at Cornell University. One of the few McOndo writers who live in the U.S., he is frequently called upon as the movement’s spokesperson by the American media. His work has been translated into eight languages.
KIRK NESSET’S translated selected anthology of Eugenio Montejo’s poetry and prose appeared in December 2010, a book titled Alphabet of the World (University of Oklahoma Press). Individual translations of his from the Spanish have appeared in The Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Agni, Michigan Quarterly Review, New England Review, Crazyhorse, Poetry International and elsewhere; his own fiction and poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Raritan, Gettysburg Review, Boston Review, Iowa Review and Prairie Schooner, to name just a few. He is author of two books of short stories, Paradise Road (University of Pittsburgh Press) and Mr. Agreeable (Mammoth Books), Saint X (poems, forthcoming) and The Stories of Raymond Carver (nonfiction, Ohio University Press). He is recipient of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and has received a Pushcart Prize and grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. He teaches creative writing and literature at Allegheny College, and serves as writer in residence at Black Forest Writing Seminars (Freiburg, Germany).
15 Mar 2013
Short Short, Sudden, Flash Fiction and Micro Fiction: The Age of the Miniscule Tale
Short short fiction has been in the news a lot lately, suited as it is to the Internet — but it’s not exactly new. Compact, miniscule stories have been with us since the beginning, manifesting in various forms as fables, folk tales, tall tales, monologues, epistles, ghazals, sonnets, anecdotes, parables, koans, Norse kennings and Sufi tales, among others. Stories between 1300–1500 words became popular in the US in the 40s and 50s in magazines like Collier’s, which published such pieces on a single page; size was aimed to accommodate magazine format and design. The form fell away after that, and began appearing sporadically again in the 1970s. In 1982, an anthology titled Short Shorts appeared, referred to by many as the granddaddy of the short short anthologies, featuring a star cast of international writers, including Tolstoy, Babel, Kafka, Chekov, Hemingway, Paz, Heinrich Böll, Doris Lessing and others; in1986, the first of W.W. Norton’s soon-to-be highly visible anthologies, Sudden Fiction, was published, followed by Flash Fiction, both of which inspired subsequent editions over the years — Sudden Fiction International, Sudden Fiction Continued, New Sudden Fiction, Sudden Fiction Latino, Flash Fiction Forward and Flash Fiction International, among others. In 1996, another influential anthology arrived on the scene, also published by Norton: Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Fifty Really Short Stories. These pieces took “sudden” and “flash” to the next extreme, constricting the form even more.
Critics and editors tend to classify the various forms according to length, as per those first editorial choices: sudden (one thousand words or less, usually less); flash (750 words maximum, usually 500 words or less); and micro (250 words or less, sometimes much less). Within the micro category, interestingly, we’ve recently seen more particular, sometimes stringent specifications and classifications. The drabble, for instance (55 words), and nanofiction, a brief (spurious) citation (a few sentences, if that); twitter fiction (140 characters) has been causing a stir, as has hint fiction (30 words or less). At the outset, of course, when the packaging began, there was a bit of bickering about how to discriminate, what exactly to call the new form. Postcard fiction. Minute fiction. Furious fiction. Fast fiction, quick fiction, skinny fiction, mobile phone fiction. Term after term arose as the form grew and proliferated. In France these days they’re called nouvelles. In China: the little short story, pocket-sized story, minute-long story, palm-sized story and smoke-long story (a story told in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette). Before the editors of the hallmark (and monumentally influential) volume Sudden Fiction landed on the name “sudden fiction” they solicited advice, I should add, from authors and editors about what to call this thing they had gathered. Happily they didn’t call them “blasters” or “snappers” as they originally thought that they might. The fiction editor at the world’s most illustrious men’s magazine chimed in to say, not surprisingly, “ ‘Short shorts’ ” is what we call them at Playboy, as in ‘We love short shorts,’ which we certainly do.”
(single author volumes)
Varieties of Disturbance: Stories (Lydia Davis)
Mr. Agreeable (Kirk Nesset)
Suddenly, a Knock on the Door (Etgar Keret)
Wouldn’t You Like to Know (Pamela Painter)
I Call This Flirting (Sherrie Flick)
The Rooster’s Wife (Russell Edson)
Vicky Swanky is a Beauty (Diane Williams)
Excitability (Diane Williams)
We the Animals (Justin Torres)
Minor Robberies (Deb Olin Unferth)
(other worthy anthologies)
(literary venues favoring flash fiction)
Interview with Kirk Nesset, Our Flash Fiction Contest Judge
See original article
Potomac Review’s Morgan Moyer virtually sits down with Kirk Nesset.
M: Do you start out, usually, intending to write a flash fiction piece? When and how do you know that what you’re working on will be flash?
KN: Lately, actually, it seems like I’m always starting out thinking I’m writing flash fiction. It’s less ponderous, less daunting, in terms of build-up, or planning. How awful can writing two or three pages be? Thirty or forty pages later, I’ll finally finish, pleased but bemused to see all it gained on its own, almost in spite of me and what I hoped to achieve. The flash format in cases like these is a spur, or a trigger. A trick to get the writer writing, thinking it won’t be such a big deal. Which isn’t to say the tiny tales aren’t big deals, and often hard to deliver. I spent three weeks working on “I’m Not Camille,” the title piece in my new manuscript of stories—a story barely four pages long. It fought me every step of the way.
M: What elements make up a good flash fiction piece, in your opinion?
KN: Brevity is essential, naturally. Which involves concision, compression, compactness, accelerated pacing, economy in delivery on all levels. Beyond and above and because of all this, we wind up with impact, and depth, especially in closing; we find the kind of universality one expects in a poem.
M: Do you have any advice for flash fiction writers?
KN: Write less, I would say, and read more. Read all the great works you can get your hands on, from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf — and after, and before. Read Norton’s collections of flash and sudden fictions over and over. Study the pieces you like best, or find useful as models, with the attention of a jeweler examining texture and color in gems, and placement and setting. When you do write, revise your piece mercilessly. Seventy or eighty drafts are just the beginning.
M: Where do you see flash fiction going in the near and far future?
KN: That’s a tough question. In the near future, the profusion of mediocre micro tales will keep crowding the net. Farther down the road, flash fiction will help to save literature, I think. It’ll keep people reading—on their phones, on their pads, and in their heads, where much of what we know, or can know, or experience, will finally be downloadable, and downloaded.
Kirk Nesset is author of Paradise Road, Mr. Agreeable, and Alphabet of the World: Selected Works by Eugenio Montejo. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, others, and most recently The Potomac Review issue 48.