Thaisa Frank: Flash as Seizure of Language

Thaisa Frank is an instinctual writer in the best of ways. Her stories often read as if they take place in a dream world, yet without any forced contrivances or showy surrealism. One image leads to another as if she’s simply tracing a path from one mystery to the next. The reader has to be able to discern the traces, to meander away from certitudes, accept a world of drifting nuances, and find connections in the gaps.

This is all to say that while she’s a successful novelist (proof point, the riveting Heidegger’s Glasses), she’s perhaps genetically inclined to be a master of flash fiction. Short shorts are sprinkled throughout her collections of short stories, including Enchantment: New and Selected Stories and Sleeping in Velvet, as if they’re irresistible magnets, pulling her voice toward them. We talked to her about the many shapes of short shorts.

How do you decide if a story idea is a short short, a short story, or a novel? Logic? Intuition? Both?
I think the form, content, and voice decide it for me. Flash fiction isn’t really a decision. It happens, the way dreams happen, and sometimes work (or are worth working on) and sometime don’t. I can “feel” a longer story. And a novel is like an animal with empty phalanges that have to be filled in. (It’s a commitment and a different kind of passion.) I would say that flash is a kind of seizure of language.

Have you ever developed a flash piece into a longer story or vice versa?
I don’t think that’s ever happened. The forms seem to announce themselves beyond my control.

What do you think is key to writing a successful short short?
A short short has to have language and unity. In other words, it has to tell a story and the language has to be perfect—not a word out of place—and the piece is so short the language feels like it is the whole story. (Unlike a novel that may have connective tissue.) I think that true “flash” fiction is different from prose poems because in a prose poem the transformation occurs with an image and in flash usually something happens with a character. And of course there are hybrids.

You’ve written a book on voice. Is your voice different in a flash piece than it is in a novel? Does voice matter as much in short shorts?
Voice matters more in short shorts. Short shorts are more like poetry. You should be able to hear the spaces in between the words and also have the whole sense of the story.

What’s your favorite of the flash pieces you’ve written and why?
I think that “Poland” is my favorite flash fiction. It took me seven years to write (I was writing other things, too), and it had its roots in a friend who died. I’ve read it at Literary Death Match with success, and often start my readings with it.

One of my favorite lines of yours comes from “Silver.” “You can’t love someone without hurting them.” Do you think that’s true?
Yes.  I think that the thread of love gets bound up with threads of anger, disappointment, the need to separate at times. All these threads are like braids—no one know who holds the last strand. It’s very hard to be close to someone’s heart without hurting them.

Your stories often have a mystical, ethereal bent, even when grounded in reality. How would you categorize your works—e.g., realism, surrealism, magical realism—or does it matter? Sometimes, for example, I think the adjective before “realism” can serve to diminish the weight of a story.
I tend to agree.  If you want to be accurate, magic realism usually involves a community of people who believe in the supernatural. (My novel, Heidegger’s Glasses, involved people who believed in seances.) But surrealism takes an unlikely situation and puts it in a plodding world. (Heidegger’s Glasses did this.) The narrative person (the writer behind the scenes) didn’t believe in the occult but did believe that people wrote letters to the dead in an underground mine.

My next novel does this, too. That is—there is an aura of the occult but the situation itself has one surreal element and then life plods along. I agree that putting a label in front of something pulls it into literary criticism and reductionism that’s useless. Recently there’s a term called “fabulist fiction” that seems to cover whatever I do without bumping into lit crit.

What’s your take on Hemingway’s dictum, “Write drunk. Edit sober”—especially in regard to flash fiction?
Alas—I’ve never been a Hemingway fan. But a knock-off of this is Flaubert’s advice: Write in haste, revise in leisure. I like that better because it’s a choice about when you can have a glass of wine.

We’re always looking for new flash authors. Do you have any recommendations of authors flying under the radar?
Steve Gilmartin may be doing some flash. He did a great piece called “Ear” a while ago. I love Frances Lefkowitz—you probably know her work. Anne-E Wood is working on a novel, but she may still do  some flash. Tai Moses has done some great flash. Meg Pokrass is a brilliant new writer of flash. (They’re all on Facebook!) Pamela Painter is a master, but she’s hardly below the radar. I’m sure all of you know about Helen Phillips, who wrote “And Yet They Were Happy.” (I love her work.) I’m sure other people might come to mind—people I’ve met on panels. I’ll let you know if more people occur to me.

For more, see Thaisa Frank’s 100-word story Sideshow. Or explore more of her fiction at http://thaisafrank.com/new/index.php.

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