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…
Thanks, Christopher, for agreeing to talk about your collection. It’s a beautiful mix of funny, devastating, realistic and strange – ‘widely imaginative and painfully real’, according to Sara Lipmann. Why these 48 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.
That having been said, 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 dig that up 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.
You’re a writer who puts a lot of thought into titles. Tell us about how you came to the title Other Household Toxins.
Thank you. I sometimes have a title bumping about in my head a year before I find its story. “Other Household Toxins” is the last story in the collection. The narrator in that story uses the term as an aside, a suggestion of menace. In very short fiction, so much can be—must be?—achieved through suggestion. I wanted the title of the collection to begin this discourse for the reader: between what is on the page and what is left unsaid and unseen.
Which of these stories 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. And then of course there’s the prominent thread of domestic toxicity.
It’s difficult to say which of the stories are closest to my heart. Only a few of them are about me, even if they seem deeply personal. “Beyond the Fences”, which translates a horrible experience from my youth into fiction, is infuriating to relive. “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 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 when I saw a child jump on his father’s shadow, “Fred’s Massive Sorrow” 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. That was freaky. My favourite story behind the story, though, is about “Santa Caterina”.
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 so clumsy and raw. 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 (famous for having an eating disorder I discovered later in my research for the story). I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything as beautiful. I still get choked up thinking about it. This experience milled around in my head for 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. There are no bylines in the collection, leaving the reader to guess the genders of the authors (a jaw-dropping cast of flash fiction writers). I found the concept of the anthology fascinating. In the end, I’m thrilled to say I fooled all the test readers and even a 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 jumble of both. A few stories in Other Household Toxins came fast and furious while others—most others actually—were arduous exercises in prewriting, editing, regrouping, trashing, quilting, forgetting, rediscovering, etc. In my role as managing editor for SmokeLong Quarterly I see thousands of stories every year. 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.
That sounds like good advice. What advice commonly given to writers do you disagree with?
Write what you know. I suppose this works for some writers, but I say research what you don’t know and use your talent to write what you feel. Write what rips you up. There’s so much to learn out there, and research is so much fun.
You recently published a story about a refugee applying for a job in Germany. Who owns stories? Who has the right to tell them? Is that a fluid thing? Are we sometimes holding space for people till they can tell their own stories, or amplifying unheard voices? Where’s the line between that and appropriation, and what should/can we do about it?
Great questions. I worry about this. Who does have the right to tell a refugee’s story? Or any other character’s story who’s not your gender, race, sexual orientation, nationality, etc. I know I needed to tell the refugee’s story, so I did. In terms of appropriation I think we have to ask ourselves, and be honest with ourselves about, whether we can tell a story graciously, respectfully and without bias. I feel an obligation as a writer to transcribe what I see happening. I live in Munich, where hundreds of thousands of refugees were received. It was, and continues to be, heartbreaking. I hope I have amplified an unheard voice. And I hope I’ve told his truth.
In your experience as an editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, what elements lift a story from the slush pile? What sets flash apart from other narrative forms?
Well, it must be said that we have only the slush pile, and we read everything. We don’t solicit stories. Our guest editors read blind, and our staff editors read bios only after having read the story—if at all. 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—are 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, razor-sharp wit, and uncommon beauty 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.
There is a common misconception that flash fiction is only about the length, that anything under 1000 words is flash. That may be essentially true, but as flash has evolved—at least the Anglo-centric idea of flash fiction—so have the expectations of editors. In my opinion, there is an urgency to flash that makes it rush at you, that increases your heartrate, that keeps your eyes moving into the story. I can’t say this enough. Maybe it’s like falling down a hole? Feeling that sort of momentum? And then of course—at least for me—there must be a compelling, layered story even if it’s merely suggested. Some flash fiction editors don’t need a story, but at SLQ we often reject a beautifully written piece of prose because we can’t find one.
Bringing the discussion back to Other Household Toxins, is there a question about the collection that no one has asked?
Brilliant question. Yes. There is. No one has asked me why there is a 6000-word story smack-dab in the middle of a flash fiction collection. It’s like an enormous 6000-word elephant in the room. We’ve included it to show how flash fiction techniques—each section of the story is under 1000 words—can be used to build a longer narrative work, how a story can be modularised into smaller stories. Bath Flash Fiction has a novella-in-flash competition that also encourages writers to experiment with flash techniques.
What do you want readers to take away from the Other Household Toxins?
I want readers to feel as if they’ve been on an emotional, truth-seeking journey with me and my characters. I also hope readers, especially those new to flash fiction, are inspired by the range of possibilities flash has to offer.
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 11 months ago