You have a number of very short pieces out, not just at venues where you would expect the stories to be short, such as “In the End the World Will Break Your Heart” at Daily Science Fiction and “Loneliness in Transit, Sixty Light Years from Earth” at Flash Fiction Online, but also at venues which typically run longer stories, including “Boss” at Kaleidotrope, clocking in at about a thousand words, and “Tigerskin,” 1,246 words at Strange Horizons. What do you like about writing at these lengths, and what are the key factors to composing a successful story within such a short space?
My inability to focus and lack of free time make very short stories ideal because I can actually finish them. They also just come more naturally to me because my current strengths as a storyteller are turns of phrase, evocative descriptions—elements that can make a short-short sparkle but can’t prop up a longer piece.
As for composing a successful story in such a short space, I’m no expert, but I try to listen to people who are. You need to immerse the reader in the characters and setting right away. Tone is huge. It allows you to say so much without using words. You also need to make the reader truly believe the story is just a sliver of a broader reality.
But I suppose the most important thing a very short story needs is focus. Specific character; specific problem. That doesn’t mean the focus needs to be small in scope, mind you. “Loneliness in Transit” is a good example because it involves a 50,000+ year journey, but the story is about a very specific mission and relationship.
It’s Baudelaire’s “Windows”—inventing the story of a person from just a few details, “from almost nothing.” The story’s bigger than what we see on the page.
“An Indefinite Number of Birds” begins with Stanley’s panic and his literalizing what JD tells him. I feel like I probably know people who have somewhat similar personalities. How did this story begin for you; what was the inspiration and how did it develop?
The inspiration was entirely in the title, which was gifted to me by Stewart Baker by way of Vylar Kaftan. It immediately sparked something in me. You watch a flock of birds pass by and you never know how many there are. They’re just all over the damn place, always an indefinite number.
But for this title, whatever story it belonged to, that number mattered for some reason. Why would it matter if you could identify the precise number of birds? And how hopeless a task is that? I landed on augury, mostly in answer to Stanley’s anxieties or insecurities (or whatever they are) leading him in a desperate search for certainty in an uncertain world. Superstition is an attempt to tame chaos.
Do you relate to Stanley, or JD for that matter, in specific ways? Or is the story more of an exercise in crafting characters and situations outside your own experiences?
I’ll probably regret being this open about it, but Stanley is most certainly an aspect of myself. Like Groucho Marx didn’t want to be a member of any club that would have him, I instinctively distrust when people seem to like me: they must be confused, or it’s a trick somehow, or they want something. Or maybe they just have terrible taste. I hate compliments. I’ve learned to become a bit more gracious, but they still make me feel like I’m being eaten from the inside out by beetles like that dude in The Mummy.
But I’ve been on the JD side of that relationship as well, where I see how awesome someone is and am baffled that they can’t just see it and accept it. I suppose this story is a bit of me reminding myself that sometimes it’s OK to just accept love and, especially if you love or respect the person who loves you, sometimes it’s OK to let the way they see you leak a little bit into how you see yourself.
In a way, this story reminds me of James Joyce’s “Araby,” in that this emotion – love – becomes transformed. The focus shifts to the external, love becomes obsession, a fixation on something that has taken the place of love. One major difference here is the participation of two characters, instead of one person creating an imagined relationship. Because of the presence of two characters, here the obsession interferes with the relationship. But obsession never breaks them. Do you feel like this story suggests love and obsession can coexist? Are they related; are they wavelengths of the same thing? Or is it more that love looks different to different people?
Ah, yes, well, I’m often compared to Joyce. *adjusts spectacles*
So I decided to reread “Araby” before answering this question, to ensure I look smart. But when I pulled down my copy of The Dubliners, it had a bookmark in it at the beginning of “Araby.” This is true. If I were a superstitious man…
Anyway, I see what you mean, but I think the presence of a second character isn’t such a gamechanger in terms of what drives the conflict. The protag in “Araby” didn’t exist in a bubble, we just basically never see him interact with people in the story. When he talked with his friends and siblings and parents off the page, this imaginary relationship was looming in his head, and it was often probably more “real” to him than the actual relationships in front of him. That’s what we’re seeing here: two people in a real relationship, with one of them slowly drifting toward an imaginary/catastrophized version of the relationship (and himself).
I think love is dangerously related to obsession, and they can coexist, and people see it differently. But what I think, more than any of that, is that love is harder to define or recognize than I think we prefer to admit. “Love” is such a big concept, such a huge presence, in American culture, but it’s always more complicated than its portrayal. You might not recognize when it’s there, and you might not recognize when it’s not. It’s an easy source of anxiety.
There is this layer of sly commentary on the shaming of feminine males, which adds depth to Stanley’s character, creating in an instant an imagined history of being othered and suffering ridicule, even at the hands of other men with whom he (in theory) should feel a sense of community. Is this deliberate/intended? Is it important? Or is this just my own interpretation of the story?
It’s deliberate and it’s important, and I think it’s universal. Not that specific trait, but the sensation of feeling like you’re somehow wrong. Everyone, at some point in their life, has a sense of who they think they’re supposed to be, and finds themselves lacking.
It’s a cruel thing, though, because the “standard”—the expectation we’re supposedly straying from—is so often in our heads. We invent others’ expectations and then feel bad we’re not meeting those fictional expectations. We shame ourselves.
In this story, JD never shames Stanley for seeming feminine. But Stanley still has that trauma from an earlier relationship—and no doubt from other places—and he’s internalized it. It feeds into his problem of being too in his head, but it also isolates him from JD because he’s convinced he can’t be himself because his self is wrong. And his defense is to close himself off, which is really the source of most of his pain.
This casually mentioned idea at the outset of the story becomes important to Stanley, but JD doesn’t quite get what the birds really mean. Nonetheless, JD tries to keep Stanley happy. Misunderstanding is a classic storytelling device, used in any number of narratives, and it often feels forced, like a cheap trick to create drama. Here, the story is built upon this fundamental misunderstanding. But in this story, it feels like something that really happens, something most people can relate to. It feels genuine. How do you make that work–what makes it feel real here when it so often feels contrived?
Too often, misunderstanding exists only because the plot requires it. You get the classic “why didn’t these idiots just have a conversation” style of misunderstanding, which is boring. I think it works here because for Stanley it’s an intensely private thing. An embarrassing secret. The disconnect arises because Stanley absolutely cannot bring himself to talk about the situation, and that makes sense in light of the self-loathing edge we see in him. I think that’s how these things often happen when anxiety or depression is involved.
I think in the hands of some authors, this story would end in tragedy, or even irony: the birds crashing through the glass and wreaking havoc. Did you play with different endings, different possibilities? Or did you always have this ending in mind?
My stories almost always show up as an opening line or two, followed by an ending. This story was an exception. I wasn’t sure it even had an ending while I was writing it. But the ending was never very different from this.
No surprise to anyone who read the story or this interview, but my brain tends to go straight to bad endings. Not necessarily booming chaos; more the slow, withering loss, like what the characters barely escape here. The more I write, though, the more I try to fight against those endings. I made a very deliberate choice to find a happy ending in this mess, because I think Stanley is lost and the story needed to reflect that. If this had ended on a down note, what exactly would the story be saying? “Sometimes you psych yourself out that you’re unlovable and, surprise! You’re right, and also fuck you!” Bleh.
Is this work emblematic of the sorts of things you write, or of the themes you gravitate towards? Or is each piece completely different from the next? And what else are you working on? What do you have coming up that new readers and fans can look forward to?
It’s emblematic in terms of tone and length, but I only ever finish stories accidentally, so I’m probably the wrong person to ask about what I write. My stories are kind of all over the place, but yes, some themes just keep showing up. As applied here, I’d say depression and interconnectedness are definitely the recurring visitors.
Relevant to your first question, I’m working on writing longer pieces. I got to play around with longer, plot-driven work in the serial Archipelago I wrote with Charlotte Ashley and Andrew Leon Hudson, and I have a lot of ideas and characters that just don’t fit in a very short story. World-building is especially brutal at short lengths, so I have some secondary world and alt-history I’m playing around with.
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