If you lurk on Fictionaut, you have undoubtedly seen the name “Finnegan Flawnt” featured on its front page. Perhaps you’ve read some of Flawnt’s “The Serious Writer” series; you may even have stumbled onto his web page, where he publishes his work. Perhaps you read Metazen, where he worked as editor. Perhaps you’ve read some of his pieces in Elimae and Kill Author. Much of his fiction focuses on writing and the writing process with frequent forays into the absurd. It’s short, it’s intelligent, and it’s wicked fun.
You may also know there is no Finnegan Flawnt. His only physical incarnation is an avatar in Second Life that bears more than a passing resemblance to Ben Franklin.
June 16th 2010 marks the retirement of Finnegan Flawnt (Mr. Flawnt’s friends at Metazen have posted a tribute to him here). Before his disappearance, Bess Winter corresponded about metafiction, online writing communities, and not being real.
Bess Winter: As you say, you are not real—or a “fictitious writer,” according to your Fictionaut profile. How does being fictitious inform your writing? Is writing by a fictitious writer inherently different than writing by a non-fictitious writer? Would you say you’re the frame for your stories?
Finnegan Flawnt: Being “fictitious” is different from using a pseudonym, which is only a fictitious name. FF is not just a different name, he is very different from Mr. X, the man of mystery behind FF. This keeps me pondering existential issues a lot of the time: Who am I really? Who do I want to be, and how many? What makes me, my life, my thoughts, my relationships special and worth writing about? All my writing circles around the existential human condition—philosophically I stand in the tradition of Camus, literally of Dostoevsky and Kafka. It didn’t occur to me before you asked the question, but yes, I think I am the frame for my stories…in a series of mostly very short stories, I gave life to this persona “the serious writer”—I think it was the distance between FF and the real me that drove me to do this and appreciate “the serious writer” as a character, a literary locus. Also, while FF is a Celtic personage—Irish perhaps—this is not true for Mr. X, who is not even a native English speaker, poor sod.
BW: This concept of the fictional writer that you explain is exactly why I wanted to interview you. Apparently there are whole communities of fictional writers online&mash;in Second Life, and so on. Does Finnegan Flawnt have any idea of his origins, his status as a fictitious writer, or is this something we are supposed to know as readers, which is beyond his own conception?
FF: Flawnt is both a character and a writer. Flawnt gains weight and meaning with everything he writes. Without the writing, he is nothing and nobody. He quite literally does not have a life outside of the page (maybe that’s why he clings to it). The stories themselves do not, however, assume or know anything about Flawnt’s identity, I believe.
As for Second Life, there is indeed a very large writers population held together by reading events, contests and the co-habitation that a 3D virtual world offers. Really though, the writers are not there but their virtual representatives—the avatars—are. Writer avatars have their own support infrastructure both inside (e.g., Milk Wood for Writers) and outside (e.g., Virtual Writers Inc). Flawnt likes Second Life because he has a body there and a voice and can walk around (his loud shoes are legendary). He lives and writes in a cosy Irish cottage on a lake. Inside the cottage, there’s a fire and a bathtub with water that’s always hot and a grand piano that will play by itself. And so on. There’s more but it’s less fun to talk about it than to do/see/use it.
BW: In university I worked at the campus radio station and part of my job was to build a “virtual station” in Second Life for alumni to visit. My boss gave me a bunch of Linden dollars and all I could ever get my avatar to do, building-wise, was stand, frozen, with her arm raised in what kind of looked like a “Heil Hitler” salute with a sheet of virtual drywall suspended above her. Yet you’ve seemed to master Second Life and are thriving there. Do you think there are unexplored possibilities there for non-fictitious writers, especially now that the internet has broken down distance barriers and we don’t all have to be in New York or Paris or London? I suppose what I’m wondering is whether Second Life has advantages over, say, video conferencing, or whether the anonymity of using an avatar there is something that appeals to fictitious writers, especially.
FF: For me, virtual worlds—even the 2D versions like Facebook or Fictionaut—are extremely important because in Berlin where I live I am not part of any literate community. If I were, I might not have been quite as active as a virtual person and writer.
Virtual 3D worlds, which you mention in your example, are really a lot more difficult to master than 2D worlds. However, when you spend some time there, due to the immersion effect (this means that your avatar truly feels like an extension of your self), it is actually a little like living another life. Scary that, too. It is this immersive effect that makes the Second Life experience so vastly richer than, say video conferencing or shared desk tops plus Skype telephony etc.—these latter methods are fine for collaboration. As a Metazen editor, we use them and we’re quite happy with them even though we do not know each other in real life at all—never met any of them.
BW: Your series “The Serious Writer,” which you began on your blog, has been starting to crop up in journals. “The Serious Writer and her Bush” was recently in elimae. Tell me a bit about those. Why and how did you start writing them?
FF: Thanks for asking about this series, which is dear to my heart, especially since it caused quite a storm of imitators once the serious writer had decided to publicly and seriously talk about the length of his penis (hardly the first writer to do so, hence my surprise at the hefty response).
The first flash of the series, “The Serious Writer and His Woman” was written in October last year as an homage for my wonderfully supporting wife, Ms. Flawnt. Whatever happened afterwards in the life of this serious writer was closely modeled on whatever happened in my life. Simple, really. It seemed a good, artful way to write about writing without being patronizing or trivial. The series has so far culminated in “The Last Story”, which is a deeply philosophical, at times possibly boring, rant of the serious writer facing death. I wrote it shortly after the death of J. D. Salinger.
As things stand, I have enough unpublished pieces to create a “serious writer” chapbook (if I knew how to do that) and I would like to write more for this character, who feels like a writer living next door to us, but the above mentioned flurry of imitative pieces have trivialized him a little to my mind and I may need some distance from that. Instead, I have begun to write a much angrier story cycle called “The Factory of Blind Infants”, which I will probably serialize again in my blog. The serious writer has also made an attempt at a novel—you can read all about that in the June issue of the Wrong Tree Review.
BW: I don’t think “The Last Story” is boring at all. In fact, that was the first story I read in your “Serious Writer” series and it was enough to draw me into the rest. It’s interesting, though, that you feel this character you’ve written has been trivialized by imitators when—to some degree—sharing work on the internet (in a collaborative way, as in on Fictionaut and so on) encourages imitation. The serious writer doesn’t want to take that and run with it?
FF: Did I say that out loud—“boring”? Perhaps it would be better and more appropriate to say that “The Last Story” misses an important quality that I appreciate in even the shortest flash, namely a certain “pulsing,” a ride up the ridge and down the valley of plot and poetic persuasion. This story is rather an existential shout out akin to George Emerson’s moment in “A Room With A View” where the young man, burdened with too much credo, falls out of a Tuscan tree – it’s too evenly woven for good flash, which I think ought to be more of a daring ride. But I’m an old romantic of the E. M. Forster kind. In any case, I’m glad the story pulled you in.
In my moral universe (which I hope I’m not inhabiting alone) sharing encourages participation, hopefully dialogue, perhaps even collaboration but not imitation. Where imitation rules, literature becomes ephemeral. Imitation belongs in the realm of the creative writing course as a necessary mode of training but not in serious professional society. I’m afraid the serious writer may be too tense for the other road, which you suggest—“take that [imitation] and run with it.”
BW: Do you envision your work eventually winding up in print? Is that your ultimate goal?
FF: Yes, it is. I’d love to have an agent who helps me with that. (Is this an uncool thing to admit in an online journal?) Does this constitute manifest doubt in the validity and meaning of online publication? Yes it does until online publishing becomes a critically acclaimed, commercially viable enterprise, which it will be once suitable business models have arrived and been tried.
Actually, I lied and I didn’t. I love online publication and the fact that “the Internet favours infinite niches, not one-size-fits-all” (Shields). I love the disruption of traditional business models and the opportunity for us writers to thrive and touch our readers and be touched by them. For now, I am very happy to have such a great online print run and I continue to be amazed at the impact one can make purely wielding virtual instruments.
BW: In light of your decision to retire Mr. Flawnt, can you give us any hint as to the subject of your novel(s)? Or is that information too sensitive?
FF: It really wouldn’t be my place, as a mask doomed to disappear, to interfere with the artistic decisions of my maker who has now decided to retract me entirely.
However, from what he has told me, there’s more than one project. The one he’s working on right now follows a large cast of characters from different countries through their lives on Earth. A sort of personal Comédie humaine of our times. Like Balzac, he’s very fond of making lists of characters, places, scenes and novels which might never see the light of day let alone publication. In any case it’s an extensive project—at least when compared with Flawnt’s History of Flash collection, which amounts to about 150 pieces written over the past eighteen months—a story briefly retold in “The Serious Writer Is A Story In A Story By Finnegan Flawnt”, my own last story. There is quite a bit of sadness surrounding my departure from the net, too, but gosh have I enjoyed the ride!