Flash fiction and microfiction are dear to the hearts of all here at Gatehouse and Lighthouse. Award-winning flash fiction author Helen Rye recently caught up with author and editor Christopher Allen to talk about his newest collection of stories, Other Household Toxins…
Why these stories?
When I first started discussing this collection with the publisher, it was meant to be an instrument for teaching flash fiction. I still have a version of Other Household Toxins with sections on how the stories came about with accompanying prompts and exercises. But I changed my mind. Although I’ve been a flash fiction editor for more than 10 years, I felt producing a textbook with only my work was presumptuous—especially for a debut collection.
So when Kathy Fish in her blurb for the collection wrote that it ‘could well serve as a flash fiction primer’, I wondered if I’d made a mistake in insisting that we take the teaching material out. Maybe in a few years, we can drag that back out and see if it still rings true. What remains, though, are 48 stories I love—each for various reasons.
And I guess that’s the point. Ultimately, I’ve chosen these stories because each demonstrates a particular way flash fiction can be used to tell a story, possibly to help writers who are new to the form understand the generous flexibility of it. I hope this is evident without the pedagogy.
The collection contains 48 stories you love – which ones are closest to your heart, would you say? Are there common threads there, or do they represent particular pre-occupations in your writing?
There are common threads. The relationships between sons and fathers is the strongest, but there’s also death and the reinvention of death holding the collection together. As the title Other Household Toxins suggests, the thread of domestic toxicity dominates the collection.
It’s very difficult to say which of the stories are closest to my heart. Very few of them are about me. “Beyond the Fences”, which translates a horrible experience from my youth into fiction, makes me angry to relive but not really emotional; while “The Ground Above My Feet”—despite the fact that it is completely unrelated to my life or my reality—chokes me up every time I read it. “My Boy Winston” and “What Strangers Do” are both deeply personal stories and tragic in their own way.
Tell us the story behind one of the flash fictions in this collection.
More than half of these stories were triggered by a chance observation. “This Baring Daylight” happened as I was walking around a lake and saw a child jump on his father’s shadow. “Fred’s Massive Sorrow” was born when I saw a very large tree growing on the roof terrace of a building in the middle of Vienna, “The Guy I Used to Date” after I spent a few minutes trying to figure out if I was really sitting opposite the guy I used to date on a train. It was freaky. The story behind the story I want to tell you though is about “Santa Caterina”.
I travel a lot. And I just happened to be in Siena during the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena where I just happened to find myself following a parade of young men in tights, beating drums and shout-singing. The rest is deliberate. I followed them into a church where they gathered round the relics of St. Caterina, quieted and began singing the most beautiful song to this saint. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything as beautiful. I still get chocked up thinking about it. This experience milled around in my head for about a year before it found its story.
That was around the time the editors of the anthology STRIPPED: A Collection of Anonymous Flash were looking for stories that would challenge the way readers read gender. I found the concept of the anthology fascinating and was confident that I could write a story from a woman’s point of view. In the end, I’m thrilled to say I fooled all of the test readers—even a computer software designed to indicate the gender of the author. Is it possible to leave your gender at the door when you write a story? I think so.
What is your experience of the writing process? Are you someone who approaches the desk singing, or do you carve out stories in blood and sweat and tears – or is it a combination…?
Thank you for this question. I’m a mixed bag of both. Some stories come fast and furious while others—most others actually—are arduous exercises in editing, regrouping, trashing, quilting, forgetting, rediscovering, etc. I see a lot of stories in my job as editor. Most of them feel like they needed more time to bloom. We’ve all had that experience of finding the perfect phrase or a more precise word five seconds—or five days—after having submitted it to our dream journal. We would all be better off if we let our stories germinate longer.
In your experience as an editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, what elements lift a story from the slush pile?
Well, it must be said that we only have the slush pile, and we read everything. We don’t solicit stories, and our guest editors read blind. Every time we open a file, we hope we’ll find a story that rips us up. The elements that keep me reading—and I think I can speak for the other 12 editors at SLQ—is exciting prose at the sentence level, a confident voice that urges the reader into the story, and a honed narrative technique that drops the reader into a situation without a paragraph of scene-setting. Heart, or razor-sharp humor, or an uncommon beauty—or all three—can’t hurt. It’s almost always the story that makes an editor say, “I wish I’d written that” that raises a story above the pack.
Christopher Allen is the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press) and Conversations with S. Teri O’Type (a Satire). His short fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, [PANK]. Jellyfish Review, SmokeLong Quarterly: the Best of the First Ten Years 2003-2013, and STRIPPED: A Collection of Anonymous Flash among other fine journals and anthologies. Allen is a multiple nominee for the Pushcart Prize anthology, Best of the Net, storySouth‘s Million Writers Award, and The Best Small Fictions. In 2017 he was both a semifinalist and a finalist (as translator) for The Best Small Fictions. Since 2014 Allen has been the managing editor of the online flash fiction journal SmokeLong Quarterly and since 2017 a consulting editor for The Best Small Fictions. Originally from Tennessee, he lives somewhere in Europe.
Interview by Helen Rye: https://helenrye.com/
Posted 1 month ago