Amelia Gray is the author of four books: AM/PM, Museum of the Weird, THREATS, and Gutshot. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Tin House, and VICE. She is winner of the NYPL Young Lion, of FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize, and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. She lives in Los Angeles. Her story, “These Are the Fables,” can be found in The Best Small Fictions 2016 (series editor Tara L. Masih), guest edited this year by Stuart Dybek.
Jen Michalski: Congratulations on “These Are the Fables” being selected for The Best Small Fictions 2016! It’s such a diverse and thoughtfully curated collection—it’s great to see writers who’ve been working in short form for a very long time, like you and Dawn Raffel and Kathy Fish, alongside those just making their mark. What drew you to writing flash fiction? Do you remember your first story?
Amelia Gray: Thank you. It certainly doesn’t feel like a long time, though I have also come to know that time on the Internet tends to have a multiplier affixed on it. Many great writers drew me to the form, starting at an early age with Aesop, later Russell Edson, Don Barthelme, Lydia Davis, and Shirley Jackson. In reading short story collections I always gravitated towards the shortest story, curious to find the idea expressed in the shortest amount of time. I had a philosophy teacher in high school who allowed us to write either an analysis paper or a short story to illustrate the idea we were studying. That was very exciting, and I was also doing my best to impress a boy I liked in class, so it was off to the races for my fiction career.
JM: “These Are the Fables” (which has appeared in many reviews of the anthology) is from your short fiction collection Gutshot (FSG, 2015). I was struck by how complete a story it is, working on a straightforward level of a couple encountering an unexpected pregnancy, with an element of the surreal—as they discuss the implications of a pregnancy test and whether they are prepared to be parents (“And you can’t sleep unless you’re sleeping on the floor. And I am addicted to heroin.”), a Dunkin’ Donuts burns behind them. And I’m not even going to go into Selena! You can just read along on that level, the intoxicating weirdness of it, but there’s also a weight underneath—how, maybe, all our of fables come from this chaotic place from which we are not prepared. And maybe we rise up and conquer them or maybe we don’t, but either way they take on a mythological status, an importance, a compulsion to lend origin to the things that come after. Do you feel “Fables” is a fitting introduction to your work?
AG: You know, I appreciate your description of that story. I do think it’s a suitable introduction to a certain type of story. I write a lot of fables in particular, and the form as you know is generally a one-idea party. The story was half its length for a year or two after I wrote it, it used to end with roses on the dashboard of the car, but then I felt I hadn’t quite earned the last line I wanted, and so a road trip was in order.
AG: Short fiction often does the most work to carry a single idea to a reader. Short fiction can do the same sort of thing longer fiction does, to imply mood or character and involve the reader, but you’ll find a sense of urgency in a good short story, regardless of what’s happening. Sometimes I like to use caps lock, to really get the urgency in.
JM: You write short fiction, flash, and you’re currently working on your second novel. How do your approaches differ with each, or do they at all?
AG: Related to the above, when I’m writing a novel I spread out a little and enjoy going more into mood and character. It’s always fun to think of a character’s backstory or what they do for a living or similar, and the longer a piece is the more I get into that. I do tend to get into what people do for a living with longer work, and if a book gets really long I start talking about what their parents did for a living. Practical concerns like that don’t always make it into a piece of flash fiction. It’s good to spread out with longer work. I spent so much time discussing clothing/curtain textures in the novel I’m finishing now, I’m seriously considering holding the launch party in a Jo-Ann Fabrics.
JM: What stories do you recommend to someone who’s never read flash before?
AG: Among stories online: Lindsay Hunter’s “Meat from a Meat Man,” Etgar Keret’s “Crazy Glue,” Lucia Berlin’s “My Jockey,” Meredith Martinez’s “When I Say Love,” Don Barthleme’s “The School,” Barry Hannah “Mother Mouth.”
JM: If Tara (Masih, the series editor of BSF) tapped you as guest editor, what would you look for in submissions? With so many great flash writers out there now (and so many great sites, like Smokelong and Hobart, publishing them), what makes great, unforgettable flash stand out from strong, just-competent flash?
AM: It’s wholly a matter of taste, of course; plenty readers are looking for something which conveys a sense of atmosphere or character or some elegant idea expressed elegantly. I generally look for and enjoy the kind of story that grabs the reader with two hands. Look at the last line on that Martinez story above. It’s brilliant, you know? Every time I read it I feel flushed. That’s entertainment!
The second installment of The Best Small Fictions continues to celebrate the diversity and quality captured in fiction forms fewer than 1,000 words. Forty-five acclaimed and emerging writers–including Alberto Chimal, Toh EnJoe, Kathy Fish, Amelia Gray, Etgar Keret, R. O. Kwon, and Eliel Lucero—offer readers “some of the brightest concise writing available today” (NewPages). With spotlights on Texture Press and author Megan Giddings, the acclaimed new series, with its “finger on the pulse,” succeeds in its aim to make something big from many small things.