Redefining Facebook: Lou Beach and His 420 Characters

We discovered Lou Beach after our first issue of 100 Word Story. Rock critic Anthony DeCurtis posted Paul Strohm’s 100-word pieces on his Facebook page, and someone commented with a link to Lou Beach’s simple, elegant, lush website of 420-character stories.

We said, “Wow.” We said, “Holy Toledo!” There was a silent “Gosh” from the back of the room.

We knew right away that Lou was a kindred spirit of the short short story—and perhaps a madman as well (in the best sense of “mad”). His stories are at once graceful and arresting. They read like snippets of a noir novel. Danger lurks in the most ordinary of gestures. And yet they’re often funny. They might not be exactly 100 words, but just this once we’ll make an exception.

Lou just released a book of his pieces, appropriately called 420 Characters. The book is illustrated by his artwork, which has adorned album covers from such legends as The Police, The Carpenters, and The Flying Burrito Bros., among others.

The 420-character form speaks to the maximum character count of a Facebook status update, but one wonders if the book contains 420 characters, each of them with ash dripping from a cigarette, a story to tell.

You weren’t a writer by trade before starting to write 420-character stories—or you were more known for your artwork as an illustrator, at least. Why did you start writing 420-character stories?

I had fantasies of being a writer when I was much younger as well as wanting to be a musician or an artist. Of the three, making art came most naturally so I gravitated in that direction. I’d still like to be able to play the saxophone. I started writing the stories as an amusement, to fill that damn status update space on Facebook with something other than rant or self-promotion or the commonplace. It was fun and it continues to be. Now half of my status updates ARE self promotion—l’ironie, non?

Does your work as a visual artist influence your writing?

They both spring from the same urge to create narrative, to tell a story. When I was teaching classes at Art Center, I would tell the students to think of the page or canvas as a set, with the pictoral elements, be they representational or abstract, as characters and props, with which they could create scenes, dramas. So my visual art doesn’t influence the writing, rather they complement each other, are limbs of the same tree.

What’s been the most surprising or interesting thing about writing in such a short form?

I suppose it’s discovering, or often because of the severe editing involved, backing into a way of building the words so there’s a real story arc within that 420-character constraint. When I hit it just right, there’s a compressed impact. It’s a cool thing.

Tell me about having others, such as Jeff Bridges, Ian McShane, and Dave Alvin, read your pieces. How did you get such big names to perform such small pieces?

I’m not sure if this is the proper forum to discuss the base and humiliating things I had to do, you may have young readers. Hollywood is an awful place. On the other hand, they are old friends and were very generous in allowing me to ride their coattails.

You publish pieces prolifically on your Facebook page. Tell us about your writing process? While they’re obviously short, it still must be challenging to churn them out.

Churn? Churn, you say? I start each day with hot Ovaltine in a rare porcelain cup and sit at my antique marble writing table looking out on the Caspian Sea. I have several quills, specially trimmed, from the tail feathers of rare Corsican geese, and I choose one, dip it into the gold inkwell, touch it to the parchment and the tales just flow, like blood in the arteries of a goddess. Churn?

Do you have any favorite flash fiction authors?

No.

What writers influence your writing?

Well, without a desert island to retreat to, it’s hard to say….it’s always an unfair question…..there are so many that to name a few feels like a disservice to the ones left out. BUT I do very much admire Pete Dexter, George Saunders, Jonathan Lethem, J. Robert Lennon, Andre Dubus (both), Hemingway, Alan Heathcock, Carver, Russell Banks, Nab0kov, Lorrie Moore, Cormac McCarthy, Anthony Doerr, and Elmore Leonard and Alice Munro and Russell Banks, Sam Lipsyte and Nabokov and those Russian guys and what’s-her-name and and and and and….see what I mean?

I apologize to everyone I’ve left out, and that includes Robert Stone.

Your first collection of 420-character stories was just released. Do you feel that presenting these pieces in book form changes them in any way?

Well it’s a drag to have to scroll through pages of old posts on Facebook. It’s a nice little book. Having them in a concrete form gives them some weight, which is impossible on the web. I’m quite pleased and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has been very supportive, the people there are splendid. Books are wonderful objects, I truly love the feel of books and to have this as a hardcover is more than I ever imagined. It fits very nicely in a stocking, by the way.

What’s next? Will you publish another book? Will you go on to other writing? Will you write 140-character stories?

Well, it’s not for me say whether another book gets published, unless I do it myself, I suppose. There are so many stories I’ve written subsequent to the ones in the book, ones I’d love to see in print. I’m a better writer than when I started, and I feel the need to stretch out, go for the long ball, and I have been encouraged by my agent and former editor to throw myself into a novel, or even a children’s book. I’m still churning(!) out the 420-character pieces as often as I can, though, to keep limber.

For more, read Four Stories by Lou Beach—and post a 420-character story on the 100 Word Story Facebook page by December 31, 2011 to win a free copy of 420 Characters.

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