By Katherine Tweedle,
Barren Magazine Flash Fiction Co-Editor
Here at Barren Magazine, we have a bit of a crush on Kathy Fish. Kathy is highly respected for her command of flash fiction and perhaps even more so for all the ways she gives back to the writing community. One scroll through her Twitter feed unearths endless tweets championing the work of other writers, offering craft articles she herself wrote, or promoting opportunities for writers to join her for a Fast Flash class or flash fiction retreat.
I recently had the opportunity myself to read oodles of stories Kathy has written, and I was always impressed by the honesty, subtlety, and power of her prose. For Kathy, the genre of flash fiction offers opportunities that longer fiction does not, to squeeze the bittersweet life juice from moments we might otherwise overlook.
Kathy’s life seems to revolve entirely around writing. When she’s not writing, she’s teaching. When not teaching, reading. When not reading, writing. She admits she doesn’t have any hobbies beyond that (and when you love what you do, why should you?)——but a little bird says she’s mildly obsessed with Downton Abbey.
So of course, I needed to learn more: Why flash? What’s Kathy’s process? And what the heck is Whoosh?
KT: First things first, Kathy. You are widely considered a master of flash. What is it particularly about flash fiction that influences you to set most of your writing in this genre?
KF: Well, in the beginning, it was being able to write a complete story during my son’s cricket practice. Or during my toddler’s nap time. The more I wrote and published flash fiction, the slower I got at it. Now I see it as closer to poetry, with poetry’s distillation of image and language. That’s what turns me on about the form now, along with how it lends itself to innovation and experimentation.
KT: So, the more you wrote it, the slower you got? How delightfully ironic! Why is that?
KF: I understand what flash is now. I understand it is its own unique form. I am trying to do more with it, create more than just a truncated short story. I take more care with it.
KT: We write for all sorts of reasons: to express ourselves, for fun, or even as a cathartic experience. What would you say is the driving force behind your writing?
KF: Self-expression for sure. I’m not very good at making myself heard or even understood in conversation. I’m usually pretty quiet in person. I’m not so much going for catharsis in my writing as I am wanting to make something to give to the world that never existed before. If that something is true and beautiful and moving then so much the better.
KT: I really admire how you are able to find a story in the everyday facets of life. I’m thinking of a lovely piece you wrote called “Bread.” What usually sparks a story for you?
KF: Oh, thank you! “Bread” is based on a true event in my life that I fictionalized, but it captures a moment I was interested in and moved by. Life is so strange and sad and terrible and amazing all at once. For me, a “story” is any moment that rises above the hum of the ordinary. I think writers, especially flash writers, have keen eyes and ears for those moments.
KT: In a previous interview you said you find yourself revisiting the same themes in your writing. Which themes are these and what do you think draws you to them?
KF: Courage, transcendence, love. I’m drawn to the dynamics of siblings, sibling love, and conflict. Difficult, conflicting emotions. People doing their best. I think our “themes” arise from whatever we experience in childhood, the good and the bad. I grew up in the Midwest with seven brothers. We were a working class, Catholic family. Everything that entails is embedded in me. It’s who I am and it’s in everything I write. For a while I rebelled against this and I think my writing suffered.
KT: So, you rebelled from your life experience in your writing? What did you do instead?
KF: I think sometimes there is a knee jerk reaction to all things Midwestern. That it’s not as deep or complex, that it’s somehow “sweet,” and honestly, I bought into that. I tried to write against who I was and the writing felt more forced. Less authentic. If anything, now I find myself going deeper into my roots for my writing.
KT: Your piece “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild” is a very popular, cutting, and poignant hybrid creature, recently selected for the upcoming edition of The Norton Reader. Beyond flash, you have also published poetry, short stories, and even plays. What is your favorite piece you’ve written?
KF: That is such a tough question! I have been bowled over by the response to “Collective Nouns.” I’m glad and grateful for that. In terms of expressing, exactly, how I felt at a particular moment (and continue to feel), that has to be one of my favorites. I was surprised when pulling together stories for Wild Life how many of my older stories still resonate with me, that I still feel proud of. I still love “Space Man” and “Watermelon” for example, and like “Collective Nouns” they are both quite short and captured strong feeling in the moment such that I honestly wouldn’t change a word.
KT: Now for the process questions.
Revision: love it or hate it? Do you have any strategies for it?
KF: Love it, but only when I have the sense that I’m onto something really good. And I think I’m a good judge of that. I’m not particularly methodical in my revision process, but I do have a couple of revision exercises that I teach and these are aimed at language. It may seem backwards to begin revision at the level of word choice and sentences, but for me, the process of honing the language often serves to answer or correct the larger narrative issues.
KT: I tend to read my own work so much it becomes old and lame to my ears. After a while it’s difficult to see where to improve; how do you know when a piece is finished?
KF: I know a story is finished when the writing is as clean and clear and true as it can be and it has fully revealed to me the reason for its telling.
KT: If I could throw my stories into the world without titles, I would probably do it; titling does not come naturally to me. How do you select a title? Does it usually come to you before writing, or after a piece is finished?
KF: Usually after. I devote a whole session of Fast Flash to titles because they’re hugely important. I’ve often wondered if struggling for a title means the piece isn’t finished yet, but that may be too harsh. I love to lift a bit of text for a title when it sounds good; it’s sometimes really effective to cut the last line and make that the title. Try this, if you haven’t already!
KT: My notebook of Kathy Fish tips overfloweth.
Flash often must cover a lot of ground in a short space. What techniques do you use to transition through time smoothly?
KF: One great way to do this is to use white space to your advantage and eliminate transitions entirely! The fragmented form is perfect for this. Think of this as a narrative version of the jump cut in films. Subtext is a great tool for this as well. But you said “smoothly,” and jump cuts are not smooth. In the breathless one-paragraph flash (as I call it), a flash writer can cover a long stretch of time in one long, smooth exhalation. A flash of my own that does this is “The Once Mighty Fergusons.”
KT: Do you often have to conduct research for your writing? What would you say is the average amount of research you do for a piece?
Now the fun question: what’s the strangest thing you’ve had to research?
KF: Not very often at all. Usually my research involves making sure certain details fit with the time period my story is set in.The strangest thing I had to research was human horns for my story, “There is No Albuquerque.” These are a thing! According to Wikipedia: “Cutaneous horns, also known by the Latin name cornu cutaneum, are unusual keratinous skin tumors with the appearance of horns, or sometimes of wood or coral. Formally, this is a clinical diagnosis for a conical projection above the surface of the skin.” Trust me, you don’t want to go to Google images for this.
KT: This one’s for the introverts. Not for me, obviously, just, like, all my introvert friends. . . . You’re very active in the writing community, teaching Fast Flash workshops, hosting flash fiction retreats, and supporting others online. For writers feeling lonely in the world, what ways would you recommend to connect with the writing community?
KF: I do think it’s important to be connected with other writers, to be a part of the writing community. But I get it. I myself am very introverted. Just know that most of us are a bit on the awkward side. I love Twitter. Flash Twitter is the best and kindest of all the Twitters. So go there if you’re not already. But it’s not enough to post. I see so many people do this. You look at their feed and it’s post, post, post, post with no responses to others, no real interaction. So comment, respond, like, retweet, ask questions, be funny, be yourself. In real life, work up the courage to go to readings, maybe take part in an open mic. Buy books! And review them or tweet about them. Basically, it’s about being present. You don’t have to be cool. You don’t have to sparkle. You just need to show up.
KT: Speaking of Twitter: I’m not a weird Twitter stalker (maybe?), but anytime you promote someone’s work and say “Whoosh!” I think, “That’s something I’ve gotta read.” So, how do writers get Kathy Fish to say “Whoosh”? What are you looking for in the pieces you read?
KF: Ha, “whoosh” is not the most articulate response, but it’s me literally catching my breath after having read something amazing. It’s when a piece of writing is artful and beautiful and fresh and innovative and deeply moving all at the same time. Man, that’s rare, and it’s everything.
KT: What overwhelms you? What are your strategies for stepping away when you become overwhelmed?
KF: Having too much on my plate. Too many deadlines and obligations. I have finally realized it’s okay to just—stop. I leave my laptop closed. I don’t answer emails or cross anything off my to-do list. I watch movies and walk and nap and look at the clouds and pet my dog. So far, the world has not ended when I do this.
KT: Laptops can close? Callooh Callay! I must try this thing some day.
Related question: Oftentimes, when I’m feeling burned out or low, I turn to my guilty pleasure reading pile. Have you any guilty pleasure reading? Do tell.
KF: This is probably not what you were going for, but my guilty pleasure is to reread my favorites (instead of, say, making a dent in my ever-growing To-Read list). I’ve read Anna Karenina four times. The Shipping News several times too. And there’s a falling-apart copy of Best American Short Stories 1998 that has some of my favorite short stories, ever.
KT: What authors are you excited to read more of?
KF: There are so many, honestly. I think this is the golden age of flash fiction. This sounds like a plug, but I am always in awe of the stories that get written in Fast Flash. A lot of these writers are fairly new to flash fiction and I’m excited to see more of their stories out in the world.