Jul 3, 2011

Ever Wondered what Bruce Holland Rogers Gets Up To in the Shower?

Multi-award winning writer Bruce Holland Rogers is one of the flash fiction world's best known and most respected proponents, and Minifiction is therefore incredibly chuffed that he agreed to patiently answer a torrent of questions from us. The full interview is right on this page, sitting just below Alan Clark's depiction of what goes on just before Bruce wakes up of a morning. As for the answer to the question above, well, you'll just have to read on.

For those not yet familiar with Bruce's work, there's an example here of what happens when a baby dinosaur finally accepts he's human, an example here of the existential plight endured by the Frog Prince, and an example here of a story that won Bruce the prestigious Pushcart and Bram Stoker awards. Bruce is widely published, so if you like what you read, you can corner him on Amazon, or you can even harangue him into sending you three stories a month for a paltry $10 per year.

So, without further ado, it's over to Bruce...

What are you working on right now?

Stories! I have fallen a month behind on my stories for shortshortshort.com, so I am brainstorming furiously and hoping that I can manage to turn out six stories in the space of three weeks in order to get caught up. I always feel like each story needs to be a home run since, with new subscribers all the time, each story will be someone's first subscription story. I want to make a good impression.

You're known as a short story writer, and have also had success with the short short story. Putting length aside, do you see any differences between the standard short story and flash fiction, and, if so, what are they?

There are loads of differences. The most salient one has to do with reader patience and the suspension of disbelief. A novel is a completely immersive experience. In shorter fiction, the reader doesn't sink as deeply into the illusion, particularly in flash fiction where the story is over before the reader has a chance to be more aware of the story than of sitting and reading a story. There are advantages to this, though. A shorter story can succeed by providing a wider variety of pleasures. Artistic pay-offs to the reader can be small and the reader will still enjoy them if getting to the pay-off only requires the reading of a page or two. The reader will be patient with all sorts of odd strategies of storytelling; strategies that are charming for a page might be irritating or even unreadable at fifteen or twenty pages.

Flash fiction can get away with so many odd effects that the division between very short stories and very narrative prose poems is hazy. That sort of genre indeterminacy is not at all common for the standard short story.

Do you see any space for a genre shorter than flash?

I don't think flash has a minimum length. The micro fictions that Jerome Stern celebrated are under 250 words, but I think they are still flash as well as micro fictions. Stories of a set word count, such as the sixty-nine-word stories published by NFG magazine are operating under a different kind of constraint, but the effect is still flash: a story told with extreme efficiency.

Does flash fiction get the recognition it deserves?

What recognition does any art deserve? The various anthologies from W.W. Norton of 'flash fiction' and 'sudden fiction' have made their way onto many course syllabi, and there are publications around the world that specialize in very short stories on paper or on the web. There is an audience. Would it be nice if writers of flash fiction were celebrated more? Sure! I would particularly like to recommend that Bruce Holland Rogers be celebrated more! And I'd like to see poets more broadly appreciated. And I know a number of painters who could use more adulation than they are getting, not to mention cash. Art gets the recognition it gets. Praise and reward are unevenly distributed, and sometimes the distribution is unfair, prejudiced, arbitrary or crazy. But that has always been true. Art forms that bring prestige in one generation are trashed in the next. Artists who get too hung up on whether or not they are getting what they deserve are probably misspending time and energy that could go into making more art.

Does Bruce Holland Rogers know he's about to write a piece of flash fiction before he starts, or does it just turn out that way?

I seek ideas or narrative strategies that are suitable for flash. I rarely write a piece that turns out to need a different length, although I may not know before I start writing whether this is going to be a story of 200, 500, or 1200 words. I'd consider all of those lengths to be flash, or at least short-short stories.

What impact has the Internet, and social networking in particular, had on your work as a writer?

The internet has made a huge difference in my direct connection with readers since my first distribution of my work is by email. However, I haven't used social networking sites much at all. I was very active online in the proprietary bulletin-board system of Genie in the days before the web. However, I haven't used Facebook much or Twitter at all. I haven't had time.

Can you tell us a bit about your subscription service?

Since 2002, I have been sending three short-short stories a month to paying subscribers all over the world. At one point, I had a thousand subscribers in over forty countries. The subscriptions helped to increase my international profile and led to the sale of translation rights to many of my stories. There are currently translation versions of my stories in French (two stories a month) and German (one story a month). For a time, the stories were also available in Chinese and Bulgarian.

Coming up with three new stories each and every month sounds demanding! Have you ever missed a deadline?

Yes, particularly during the last year, which was full of distractions. I missed one entire month (and extended subscriptions accordingly), and right now I am composing the first story for May in the middle of June. I'll need to write and send six stories in June to catch up. But I will! And I will do my best to make all of them terrific stories, though opinions will, of course, vary.

What about writer's block? Ever had it, and, if so, do have any techniques for breaking through it?

I write a lot about writer's block in my book Word Work. The quick version: there are real blocks and illusory blocks. The real blocks come when the writer's life is so messed up that he or she would be engaging in self-deception by trying to write anyway. Something else, like the writer's marriage, needs immediate attention. But most blocks are illusory. The writer gets past them by writing anyway. Write a bad story. Write a lousy first sentence and an awful second sentence. But write. Writing is how you find your way to more writing and to better versions of the same writing. The usual cure for writer's block is to lower your standards.

Both the themes you tackle and style of your short story work vary a lot -- how would you classify yourself as a writer?

I wouldn't. That's what I love about being a short story writer. I can do anything next. Unlike a novelist, I don't have a track record that anyone cares about, so readers don't know what to expect next. What I write next will be what I feel like writing next. It might be a story at home in a literary magazine, a genre magazine, or a web site devoted to one particular narrow strain of writing. It might be a story that would find a home in all three! I enjoy reading stories in a lot of different traditions, and I write the story that I am most excited about writing, using whatever techniques or tropes are suitable. I do have to think about categories when I send work out, but I'm pleased to say that I have had individual stories cross and confuse market categories by being reprinted in magazines that you wouldn't think would have any overlap in taste. 'The Dead Boy at Your Window' first appeared in The North American Review and was reprinted in Realms of Fantasy and The Sun. I would classify myself as the world's only writer of Bruce Holland Rogers stories. Well, the only one that I know of.

Who would you most like to be compared with?

I enjoy hearing comparisons. Individual stories have been compared to work by Ray Bradbury and Raymond Carver. But I don't think that the whole body of my work is easily compared with the whole body of another writer's stories. I'd like to hear that a story reminded someone of Anton Chekov, István Örkény, Franz Kafka, Grace Paley, or Lydia Davis. But I'd feel I was falling into a rut if anyone could say, “If you like X, then you'll like Bruce Holland Rogers.”

How has your writing developed over the past, say, ten years? Has your approach to writing flash fiction changed much?

I read widely, I look for techniques that I can steal or adapt for my own purposes, I try things out on the page and, despairing, start from scratch again. I start writing without an idea. I get an idea in the shower and write it down, dripping. I read a story that I thought was going somewhere nifty only to find that, no, the story I eagerly anticipated from the first lines was not the story the author actually wrote, so then I start thinking about writing that other story. I think my approach has been pretty much the same over the last ten years. I play, and I'm always looking for new ways to play. I may be more fond of some particular games for a while, but for me the process of discovery has always been pretty much the same.

Where do you see the flash genre heading?

If flash doesn't go somewhere unanticipated, I'll be very disappointed.


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