Robert Scotellaro: The Secret Is Out

ScottyRobert Scotellaro is a noted master of flash fiction. His short fiction has appeared in hundreds of print and online journals and anthologies, including Flash Fiction International by W.W. Norton. He is the author of five chapbooks and full-length books of flash fiction, including his most recent, What We Know So Far. And he has published three 100-word stories with us.

Scotellaro’s fiction is informed by his varied life. He went from doing advertising layouts for Barnes & Noble to serving as a combat medic and a ward-master in a makeshift Mash-like medical unit in Vietnam. He’s played bongos on stage while Allen Ginsberg recited poetry, chummed about in San Francisco’s Underground Comix scene with famed cartoonists Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, and helped found Earth People’s Park in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. All of which made for an interesting interview.

When do you first remember deciding that you were a writer?

Sometime in my mid teens. I was raised in East Harlem, a Manhattan slum where a skillful fistfight came closest to anything approximating poetry among my peers. I was an avid reader and wrote poems, had an old thesaurus from the 1920s which was a kind of bible at the time. Writing poetry was a secret I kept. Configuring those 26 characters into something other than a harsh expletive (into something elevated/creative) was enormously exciting. Stories came later. Poetry was my entrée into another realm of expression and sensibility. I was hooked.

There’s a rumor that you hung out with Robert Crumb (and maybe even some of the beats) in the 60s. If true, what did you learn from them about art and creativity?

I caught the tail end of the Beat scene. But did play bongos on a small stage while Allen Ginsberg read his poetry. Loved the rhythms and the cultural and personal commentary of beat poetry—its rebellious nature. Was more or less on the fringe of that scene in terms of my writing and acquaintance with its luminaries. But was deeply immersed in the Underground Comix Movement from 1970 to 1974. It was an exciting time, sparking with energy. A convergence of artists from around the country settling in San Francisco.

Yes, I did hang out with Crumb for a bit. We smoked pot together, and I traded old hard-to-find records for his original art. Also hung out with Terry Zwiegoff (many years before he became a movie producer). He and Crumb’s girlfriend were roommates back then. So we all saw a lot of each other. Art Spiegelman was perhaps my closest friend during that period (later winning a Pulitzer Prize for his work, which came as no surprise). He was always eminently talented and devoted to his work. Several of the artists lived at my house, including Art—there was always some space available.

I published seven or so slim books during those years. Learned a lot about how collective creative energies can play off each other. How commitment to craft—showing up day-in/day-out, wins out over talent alone. I learned that a community of like-minded souls is a great counterbalance to what is so solitary an endeavor. I feel fortunate to have been a part of it.

What draws you to short shorts?

I think it has a lot to do with temperament. In terms of concentration, I’ve always been a sprinter. I wrote and read short poems for many years and had an abiding passion for the short story. Had read my share of novels, but my truest love was short fiction (traditional length stories). And, before I ever heard of the terms “sudden fiction” and “flash fiction,” began writing a plethora of short-shorts—appreciating their immediacy.

Was delighted when I came across those Sudden and Flash Fiction anthologies edited by James Thomas (Denise Thomas, Robert Shapard, and Tom Hazuka). I was taken with what could be imparted in so short a space, when telling details, subtext, and allusion to something bigger/deeper was skillfully built into those compressed works. It was a kind of validation of the form. A true recognition in wonderfully produced books by W.W. Norton. The short-short had mostly been in the shadows till that point—an overlooked subgenre. I collected and read everything I could that was 1,500 words or less. Watched, with great pleasure, a steady proliferation of online magazines publishing flash, and more and more print anthologies and personal collections featuring fine writers exploring the form. I am doing what comes naturally, what I truly appreciate as a writer and a reader.

Are you tempted by longer forms—to write a novel?

Not at the moment. I’m enjoying writing and experimenting with the very short story form. Testing the elasticity and variety of individual pieces. I have (eons ago) written long stores in what I called “segments.” They were linked as a whole, but felt complete, when read individually as micro pieces. I could see myself writing a novella using that approach. But don’t see a novel happening any time soon. Don’t know if I’d have the wind for a long distance run of that sort.

What role does poetry play in your writing?

I think there is a poetic sensibility at times in my work. Certain lines perhaps, a turn of phrase, but I’m not a language writer per se. I enjoy having my characters live out on the page: talk to each other, rub against each other, repel. I like inhabiting them, especially first person narratives of those with different qualities and perceptions than my own. What they’d say, how they’d react in various situations. But lush metaphors and similes and lyrical language is not something I’m drawn to in my fiction. Poetry in my prose is a condiment, if you will—something you might recognize on the palate, but not a dish you’d find on the menu.

You draw many of your characters from odd places in life—sumo wrestlers, pro wrestlers, fortune tellers, ice sculptors, a one-eyed preacher with prosthetic limbs. I’m curious why you often find your stories in these people who reside at the margins, in extreme states?

I find myself drawn to the “outsider” in many of my stories. Characters at the periphery, at times defined by their unusual professions—society’s fringe-dwellers. But in the end, beyond the surface variances, they are not so different.

In “Water in Still Life,” an ice sculptor is challenged regarding the “impermanence” of his creations by his lover. This becomes a metaphor for his non-commitment to their relationship. “All that work,” she says, “that beautiful work—and then what: a puddle?” In “Feasting on Crumbs” the sumo wrestler (a tourist in a blue suit) picked up by a lonely widow at the wharf, is tender, holding a photo of her son: “…gently, as though it were made of ash that might crumble, might blow away.” And because of their language barrier, they use a kind of pantomime, share a universal hunger to communicate and connect.

They are characters and scenarios I find fascinating to explore. Offbeat externally and initially, but mined for the human traits and trip-ups in them, common to us all.

If you could go on a road trip with an author, who would it be and where would you go?

There are many. But certainly one of them would be the supremely talented short story writer and teacher Pamela Painter. There is no bottom to the knowledge she possesses regarding short fiction (of all lengths). I am always learning something when reading her remarkable stories and discussing the works of various luminaries in the field with her.

I think a visit to the California Wine Country would be nice. And a toast to the genre we both love.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I’d encourage my younger self to learn how to play a musical instrument (preferably a guitar) and capture those dozens of songs and tunes that came to me over the years. I would love to have been a song writer in addition to my other writing. Think I have a knack for it that was never pursued.

Also, I’d tell my younger self NOT to waive my “Sole Support of the Family” deferment, which (for reasons I don’t fully understand) I did do—landing me in that God-awful war in Vietnam as a combat medic. I’d tell my younger self: “Whatever you’re thinking about God and country—Don’t!”

What advice would you give to your older self?

I’d tell my older self to not waste valuable time with regret. Remind myself that regret is a sharpshooter. No need to supply the bullets. I’d also advise savoring every good thing that comes my way. I’m a big fan of savoring. Would like to keep up the tradition.

What’s next?

I’ve got a book of 100-word stories, Bad Hotel, due out this year by Big Table Publications that I’m very excited about it. And, in process, are two anthologies I’m co-editing with James Thomas and Pamela Painter. One is a collection of micro fiction, and the other is a book of American flash fiction. We are pretty far along with both projects. I’m also working on a new collection of stories that are a bit longer than what I usually write. These are fulfilling times for me, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

For more, read three 100-word stories by Robert Scotallero.

12 Responses to “Robert Scotellaro: The Secret Is Out”

  1. Mueleski says:

    Inspiring short insight to an interesting life. Also thought the advice to the younger and older you were spot on!

  2. David James says:

    The questions and the.answers compliment you both

  3. Jackie Davis Martin says:

    This is a wonderful interview. it’s full of insights not only about Robert Scotellaro but about people and eras. I especially enjoy his philosophies of writing and philosophies of life, of just getting through.

    Thank you, 100 Word Story and Robert Scotellaro!

  4. Digby Beaumont says:

    What a wonderful interview, about a special creative life.

  5. Thanks, Paul. Appreciate you kind words very much!

  6. paul beckman says:

    Wonderful interview about a special writer and person.

  7. Tony Press says:

    Tremendous interview with Robert! I learned so much about him – and about writing, too, and yes, even about that crazy little thing called life. Thanks for this.

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