by Grant Faulkner
Press 53. 2015
Flash fiction has taken on such prominence in the recent literary landscape that there are categories within this category. One such category is a drabble, which is, in prosaic terms, a story of 100 words. Grant Faulkner’s recent publication of Fissures heralds a champion of the form. Faulkner has already spearheaded significant literary experiments as the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month and co-founder of online literary journal 100 Word Story. In Fissures, as in his other literary projects, he has embraced placing arbitrary limitations on literary forms with great and prolific results. I recently had a chance to interview Faulkner about his new book.
You have written 100 stories, each 100 words. Why is 100 the magic number, from a literary point of view? What can 100 words or stories express that fewer (or more!) words could not?
The number 100 isn’t a magic number unto itself. I could have decided to write 99-word stories or 101-word stories. The magic is in the compositional limit, the different creativity that emerges when you have a hard border. To write within such limits, I had to question each word, to reckon with Flaubert’s mot juste.
I think of these stories as narrative haikus. The magic emerges because of the limitations of the form.
Several characters recur in these stories, including Celeste and Gerard, Zabeth, the “I” narrator. Others pass through and never reappear, at least by name. How do you conceive of these stories working together with these disappearing and reappearing characters? How do the characters, who may not reappear, work to support those in the stories who do?
The Gerard and Celeste stories are part of a larger narrative, still in the works and yet to be defined. I’ve written about 50 of them, so they form a novella of sorts. But each piece is meant to stand on its own as a single story that can be read separately from the larger narrative.
The same goes for the Zabeth pieces, which are a series of just a few pieces. Sometimes a character grabs me and I stay with him or her for a while. Sometimes I’m only with a character for one story.
Since this collection includes one hundred stories—quite a lot—I liked the idea of creating some throughlines, which is why I wove in many of the Gerard and Celeste stories in particular. I viewed them as providing a guiding trajectory.
I often tell my creative writing students that in order for a story to be a story, rather than an anecdote or a slice of life, it has to have a change. This change could manifest in point of view, situation, or something else, but it has to be a change to be a story– in such a short space, what do you think makes these stories? Is it change or something else?
It’s difficult sometimes to decide what the line is between a story and a slice of life. I’m not against stories existing as vignettes, as prose poems, but I generally focus on a sense of change.
One of the first books of small stories I read in my early 20s was Tropisms, by Nathalie Sarraute. Funny, I never hear her or the book discussed, but it’s exquisite, and I’ve never forgotten it. She describes tropisms, which is a biological term, as the “interior movements that precede and prepare our words and actions, at the limits of our consciousness.” They happen in an instant, and apprehending them in the rush of human interactions demands painstaking attention.
Many of my stories move through such small, barely perceptible moments of change. On the other hand, many have an identifiable beginning, middle, and end if you read closely.
Would these 100 individual stories still be stories if they didn’t work together as a book?
Yes. Each was written to be an individual story unto itself.
You mention some Influences in your Afterword, notably Paul Strohm’s Eleven Eleven, and many others in the flash fiction community, including Lynn Mundell and Beret Olsen, with whom you published the journal 100 Word Story. Do you draw inspiration from writers of longer form? If so, whom? And what do they give to your writing (or what do you admire about theirs)?
As a flash fiction writer who also writes novels, I’m really drawn to the possible interactions between the forms. In fact, after writing these miniatures, my approach to the novel has changed. The novel I’m currently working on is more like a series of fragments that work together to create a larger story.
So, on that note, I love Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which moves the same way. Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga is a masterpiece of what I’ll call the fragmentary novel. Evan Connel’s Mrs. Bridge is written entirely in little short stories that are often anecdotal. And then I always read Roland Barthes, who stitches together his thoughts through drifting shorts.
I’d like to write a novel that’s essentially a prose poem. Or a prose poem that’s a novel.
In your forward you mention that what is most interesting is what goes unsaid, which is lovely and thought provoking. Thinking of Fissures as an entire book, what remains unsaid? How do you understand the power of that silence?
I believe that we live within what goes unsaid as much as what is said, so these stories invited a different compositional and aesthetic approach—to construct them around spaces and gaps as much as text and connections. To reveal a character’s essence through hints. To write toward spectral, haunting moments. To let the reader fill in the gaps of a story.
The writer Jayne Anne Phillips said that the last lines of a short short “should create a silence, a white space in which the reader breathes. The story enters that breath, and continues.”
I like to think that each story enters that breath and continues, that the collection as a whole does.
I, and probably many others, find difficulty in writing short forms. It is easy to clutter your images and ideas with words, until suddenly you have a chapter, or more unexpectedly, a novel. What are the unique difficulties of writing such short pieces, in your opinion? Why are there so few who write pieces this short?
I found it very difficult at first to write with such brevity. As writers, we’re generally trained to write more—since the beginning, if you think about it, when a first-grade teacher tells students to add more detail, to flesh out a sentence into a paragraph. I think writers tend to show their writerly muscles by focusing on the “more”—to fill the capacious spaces of a novel’s pages with layers of details, florid descriptions. I don’t remember ever being taught to write less.
But it’s much more challenging to write less—and to discover how less can be more. Hemingway’s famous iceberg dictum instructs writers to show only the top 10 percent of their story, and leave the other 90 percent below water to be conjured. Flash fiction is more about showing only the top 1 percent.
A flash writer has to paint characters in deft brushstrokes, with the keenest of images in such limited space. Shorts require immediacy; they’re a flicker of light in the darkness, a prick, a thunderclap.
There’s a great storytelling power in telling a story through a “simple but profound suggestiveness,” as Stuart Dybeck has said. The most haunting stories are those that don’t provide answers, but open up questions.