Robert Scotellaro Interview with Jonathan Cardew
Thank you so much, Robert Scotellaro, for joining us at Connotation Press with your wonderful flash fictions!
It is a real honor to publish some of your work here at Connotation Press. For me, your micro fiction really pushes forward the form and is a source of inspiration for many writers in the scene. How did you get into writing short-short prose works, and who were some of your inspirations? Was there a moment in which you realized, I love and I'm going to keep on with this flash game?
Thank you, Jonathan. I very much appreciate those kind words, and am delighted you’ve chosen two of my stories for Connotation Press. I’ve always been interested in concise lit forms: poems, prose poems, short stories, short-shorts. I wrote my first short-short story in the early seventies. And many of my traditional-length stories back then were formatted in what I referred to as “segments.” Some very akin to a micro-story.
Far as inspirations (there have been many) here are a few: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze by William Saroyan, Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan, Counting by Jayne Anne Phillips, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by by Raymond Carver, Playboy’s Short-Shorts edited by Robie Macauley, Short Short Stories, edited by Jack David and Jon Redfern, Short Shorts: An Anthology of the Shortest Stories, edited by Irving Howe and Ilana Wiener Howe, and of course, the seminal anthologies: Flash Fiction:72 Very Short Stories, edited by James Thomas, Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka , and Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Really Short Stories, edited by Jerome Stern, plus the thousands of very short stories I’ve read in print and online by excellent practitioners over the years.
I devoted myself to writing prose poetry, flash and micro fiction exclusively in 2004. I read every book I could find featuring these very short forms. Have an extensive library devoted to them. It is my passion to explore these genres—to discover fresh approaches in creating them. And now, happily, along with James Thomas, I’ve come full circle, having co-edited a book of microfiction entitled: New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, due out by W.W. Norton in August of 2018.
Let's talk about titles! These are some titillating titles: ‘Schadenfreude Makes Me Horny’ and ‘A Thousand Forms of Love, Minus Nine hundred and Ninety-Seven‘ Any favorite titles out there? For me, I often start with a title and then try to unfurl the story from it. What's your typical process with naming stories?
So many ways to go with titles. They can be extravagant as midway barkers, succinct as a welcome mat, a tease, a hint, a miniature introduction, a telling thematic element… They can also be deceptively understated, yet laden with irony. A great example of the latter is from one of my favorite short-short stories “The Blue Bouquet” by Octavio Paz, about the randomness of timing and luck: good/bad. One could never determine from the title the dark meaning it represents. Yet it holds enough mystery to make one wonder: What is this about a “blue” bouquet? Why “blue” in particular? Just enough there to be intriguing. Then once the story is read (and its true meaning revealed) it becomes a title with one hell of a resonant afterlife.
I give my own titles a lot of thought. In the case of the two stories you selected, they were launching points (prompts). Like yourself, for me, a title can be what gets a story to set sail. But more often, it is a snippet of dialog taken from a notebook, a detail or two, a whiff of something jotted down that flares up a strong interest in me, that initiates a “creative trigger.” Then after a final draft, I delve into what I’ve written for a title I feel best represents the story’s essence.
I love this phrase in ‘A Thousand Forms of Love, Minus Nine hundred and Ninety-Seven’: “A Hot Fabulistic Love.” Apart from being an awesome combination of words and concepts, it connects the presumably irregular ‘banging’ of the husband’s heart (in part 2) with the widow on fire (part 3). Movement is one of the things I love most about flash fiction, and you seem to do it so effortlessly! Could you talk about your process in writing this story? Did the three part structure come first, or later?
Thank you. With this particular story I book-ended that tiny second story by the other two. I’d written “Biblical Transplant Love” (part 2) years earlier. The other stories were written subsequently, and I felt they worked well together as a set. There’s so much at play when we write. Even when our hands are on the wheel, there are often things working at deeper levels in the process. I truly enjoy linked segment stories. A wonderful book of them recently came out from White Pine Press called: Nothing to Declare (A Guide to the Flash Sequence). It’s terrific.
You make an apt point about the importance of “movement” in flash. It is something that goes beyond just word flow and story arc. It also addresses that compatibility of tone and narrative. Like skiing over a good snow pack as opposed to a ride in a bumper car. I want to write many more sequence pieces, and experiment with the form further.
In your SmokeLong Quarterly article, you coin the phrase ‘flexible borders’ and I love this way of looking at flash fiction: “The stories are brief and small, but they have borders that do not bind—spaces left open like many windows to a bigger world. And beyond, in those great outdoors, there is fresh earth to sink into, soil that adheres to your shoes and does not kick off easily.” The soil that “does not kick off easily” is a keen observation: flash prods at the imagination of the reader, asks the reader--like in all forms of literary writing--to fill in the gaps; but is it that the gaps are wider in flash, thus making it more impactful (sticky soil)?
Yes—more gaps, and for sure, more impact. Because there is no room for explanatory flights of exposition, plot development, or back story, in flash we utilize a variety of strategies that expand a flash/micro story’s territory, creating those “flexible borders.” Allusion is one strategy that I feel is key in very short story writing. An implication via a telling detail, something insinuated/something left out. A behavioral tell, a thing said/unsaid. Those gaps for the reader to fill with imagination. A tacit understanding between writer and reader, that there is much to garner between the lines—a vital evocation, something at stake, something that unexpectedly, at a distance, comes into focus. And, most times, there is resonance (that sticky soil) that clings, long after a story ends.
You’re sending a capsule of flash fiction into deep space. NASA’s on the phone--what are your picks for stories and/or books and magazines?
NASA, if you’re listening: We’ve got it going on! In fact, so much great short lit there isn’t a capsule big enough to contain it. I could provide a long list of outstanding authors, personal collections, print and online journals, anthologies… But there’d always be terrific writers and works overlooked. So, as a stellar (no pun intended) sampling, I’d include a copy each of the aforementioned books: Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories, and Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Really Short Stories, and add Tara L Masih’s The Best Small Fictions book series to the mix. If NASA could wait until, say, August of 2018, I’d like to include (shameless promotion alert!) New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, edited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro. That grouping should be (plenty enough) to whet the appetite of any lit-hungry intergalactic explorer.
What’s next? What projects or publications do you have in the pipeline?
It’s become a pretty good period for me, creatively. I’m currently putting together another story collection, a book of prose poems, and a book of “Micro Fables.” This is an exciting time for very short fiction writers (with a robust community developing) and I am extremely pleased, Jonathan, that we are a part of it.
Thanks ever so much, Robert!
A Thousand Forms of Love, Minus Nine Hundred and Ninety-Seven
1. Four Stable Legs to a Floral Couch Love
He lives a life pursued in continuous circles, or more accurately, ovaloids. Drives an ice truck at a skating rink a town over. Layer upon layer, Hard and quick-drying. Bundles up for the job.
Unbundles for his TV dinners, his TV, fully, for the youngish divorcee down the hall. Who knocks lightly. Brings a small bag of marijuana to complement his bottle of E & J. Settles on a couch with yellow flowers his ex picked out years earlier. The couch with four wooden feet nailed mercifully by gravity to the rug. Bouncy, but stable, where melting is a plus now, circling a minus.
2. Biblical Transplant Love
He had a heart pickled in loss and other bitter brines. Its removal was simple—like lake ice cracking. From a sternum to a well they drew from. The Bible, which replaced it, had fly wing-thin white pages.
Nights, when his wife could not sleep, she’d lay her head on his chest—listen to her favorite passages, in lieu of crickets, banging away in the dark.
3. A Hot Fabulistic Love
The widow was on fire. The neighbors could see her standing by the top floor window of the big house, putting out the curtains she brushed against. At the supermarket she melted all the frozen foods she passed. The checkout clerk was polite, but kept his distance.
The widow on fire met him (a tall, thick man beginning to grey) when the plumbing failed. He was adept at taming water to his bidding, and chewed on the end of a wooden match till it splintered.
The widow on fire would make him stews that painted the walls with steam. The neighbors noted the woman on fire no longer singed the clothes she pinned to the line. But, rather, watched them billow in the sun (a flame too far away to blacken).
In time the widow on fire became, Shirley, and late when the lights were out, she’d stand by the upstairs window and smoke. Her cigarette—its small surrounding light as she inhaled—the only thing that burned.
Schadenfreude Makes Me Horny
He was playing an original composition on piano he called: “Exploding Jesus.” Kept banging, punching, pounding the keys (the high ones/the low ones) with very few landings, in-between. Made it difficult for her to hear the TV—the news station she was watching—the crass politician with wild straw-blonde hair being browbeaten before a congressional committee. A politician she despised, which curled her candy apple lips as he squirmed on camera.
“Schadenfreude makes me horny,” she said, turning. But he was lost, with furious fingers, disassembling Jesus. His musical equivalent of God is dead. A passion at the loss, she felt, was wasted. Felt was better spent in wrinkling up those noisy percale sheets fresh out of the package.
When he was finished, slumped over, sweating, she said, “Did you know houseflies hum in the key of “F?”
“Where do you come up with this stuff?” he said.
“Here and there,” she told him, feeling sometimes that getting his attention was like diving forty feet into a tub of water.
She didn’t believe in a “higher power,” so never mourned the empty spaces. Felt sad he did. Presented her one cure by ripping free the buttons of her blouse. He watched them pop one by one onto the rug. The straw-haired politician stammered behind her. It was like strumming the tigress’s cage with a stick.
Jesus, in pieces, sailed somewhere in outer space, far beyond concern. He gazed at her. And even he, could hear a better music in that moment.