Talking Funny with Tom Hazuka

Tom HazukaAccomplished writer, editor, singer-song writer, and teacher Tom Hazuka is also the man behind the humor collection Flash Fiction Funny. Learn what Hazuka thinks is funny (or not), his favorite humorists, why his students like flash fiction, and more about how he’s dedicated his career to be a serious wordsmith.

Tell us about yourself—where did you grow up, what were your early interests, and what did you want to grow up to be or do?

I grew up in Westbrook (not Westport), Connecticut, a small town on Long Island Sound. To give an idea of how small, there were 56 kids in our high-school graduation class. I read constantly, though writing something myself never entered my consciousness. Sports played a big part in my life, and attending a small school allowed me to play varsity soccer, basketball, and baseball. After the reality set in that I’d never be the center fielder for the Yankees, I had no real plans for the future outside of going to college and keeping my eyes open.

When did you begin your writing and editing career? What were the early days like?

I started writing while in the Peace Corps in Chile, mostly poetry and songs, with a little fiction and nonfiction. For better or worse I caught the writing bug, and when I returned to the States and discovered you could earn graduate degrees in creative writing, and get stipends to boot for teaching classes, I wanted in on that plan. I spent two years at U.C. Davis, writing steadily and amateurishly but constantly improving (my M.A. thesis eventually became my second novel, In the City of the Disappeared), then moved on to the University of Utah for a Ph.D.

My stories started getting published while I lived in Salt Lake City. Although I was an editor at Quarterly West magazine, I never gave a thought to editing books until I helped Robbie Shapard and James Thomas select stories for Sudden Fiction, which came out in 1986. A few years later James invited me to edit Flash Fiction with him and his wife Denise. The book has done pretty well, and since then I’ve always had at least one editing project going on.

When and why did you turn to flash fiction? What do you like about it?

Until I edited Flash Fiction, my main connection with short-short stories involved writing a yearly 250-word entry for Sun Dog’s World’s Best Short-Short Story contest. (For the record, the best I ever did was honorable mention.) After three years of work on Flash Fiction, I was so immersed in the form that I tried to write my first novel, The Road to the Island, as a series of flash stories, each of which could stand on its own. I abandoned that structure when it became unwieldy, though most of The Road to the Island’s chapters are still quite short, and with some tweaking I’ve published several of them as short stories.

Considering that my first main attempt to use flash fiction was in a novel, I can’t say that I ever “turned” to it. I enjoy writing flash, but no more than I like writing stuff of any length. A primary allure of flash fiction is that it not only can affect a reader in a shorter space, it doesn’t take anywhere near as long to write as it does to finish a novel, or for that matter a ten-page story. In both its compression and its attention to language, flash is very much akin to poetry.

Tell us about your writing life. For example, do you write daily? Keep a journal? Set writing goals? Write on paper napkins?

I keep a journal and have separate notebooks for collecting writing ideas. I try to write daily, but life, often in the form of teaching responsibilities, can keep that from happening. Also, to be honest, sometimes laziness is a factor. I rarely set writing goals, except to try to finish what I start. Admittedly this can take a while, as evidenced by two unfinished novels of 120-plus pages, and 60 or so pages of a third.

You’ve edited an anthology dedicated to flash fiction humor. How did that come about? Was it easy or hard to find good pieces that were both short and funny?

Flash Fiction Funny was my idea, and unlike every other editing project I’ve done, I’m the sole editor. Humor is subjective and idiosyncratic, so if Flash Fiction Funny works or fails it’s completely my responsibility. Obviously I think it works, and well, or I wouldn’t have foisted it on the world.

It was definitely tough to find 82 funny stories of fewer than 750 words. Compiling any flash fiction collection is a challenge, and for this book the pool of candidates shrank considerably. Most short stories of any length are serious; I’d be surprised if more than 5% try to be funny.

What is funny to you? What is not?

I like parody, satire, wordplay, incongruity, and sometimes slapstick. I rarely like anything mean-spirited.

You’re a professor, too. Do you use flash fiction in the classroom? If so, how do young students respond to it?

I definitely use flash fiction in the classroom, especially in introductory sections. It’s great way to highlight superb sentences while still having time to analyze an entire story. In fact, there’s usually time to discuss several stories, allowing us to compare different writers’ styles and strategies in a single class session.

Students respond extremely well to flash fiction, both as readers and as writers. Beginning writers tend to write shorter pieces anyway, so flash provides useful models. Thousands of high-school teachers use flash fiction in both literature and writing classes, which is why my wife, Christine (a former teacher), Mark Budman, and I put together Sudden Flash Youth a few years back. The book’s protagonists are all children or teenagers, which enhances its appeal to young people.

Who are some of your favorite humorists, and not necessarily flash fiction authors?

Mark Twain, first and foremost. Joseph Heller in Catch-22, J.D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye, though at a certain point in both novels you realize you’re not laughing anymore. Martin Amis’s Money and William Kotzwinkle’s The Fan Man. James Thurber. Tina Fey. Folks probably don’t think of her as a prose writer, but I dare you not to laugh at Bossypants.

And every writer in Flash Fiction Funny.

Flash fiction—the temporary antidote to our overly busy lives … or a genre that is here to stay?

All of the above!

Humor is subjective, and thus difficult to write. Do you have any advice for aspiring humorists?

Never forget that your stories are about people, not about kowtowing to an imaginary laugh track.  And be wary of using dialect, which is nothing but annoying unless done extremely well.

For more, see Flashing Funny: Stories by Tom Hazuka.

One Response to “Talking Funny with Tom Hazuka”

  1. Mary Deal says:

    Very informative interview. I’ve always wondered about the person behind the name. One statement that rang bells for me was about rarely setting goals, trying to finish what he starts, but having some unfinished work as well. Rang true with me. Humor, yes, we all need it in today’s work. Glad someone is out there promoting it in bits and dabs that readers can grab in the moment.

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