The Hunt: An Interview with Robert Scotellaro (by Curtis Smith)

Robert Scotellaro has published widely in national and international books, journals and anthologies, including W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International, The Best Small Fictions Anthology 2016 and 2017, NANO Fiction, Gargoyle, New Flash Fiction Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and many others.  He is the author of seven literary chapbooks, several books for children, and three flash and micro story collections: Measuring the Distance (Blue Light Press, 2012), What We Know So Far, (winner of The 2015 Blue Light Book Award), and Bad Motel (Big Table Publishing, 2016).  He was the recipient of Zone 3’s Rainmaker Award in Poetry.  He has, along with James Thomas, edited the anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (W.W. Norton, 2018).  Robert lives in San Francisco. Visit him at www.rsflashfiction.com

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on the publication of New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction. I’ve been really enjoying it. Can you give us a bit about the book’s history and how you came to be on board?

Robert Scotellaro: Thank you Curtis, we’re very proud to have it now in hand.  And grateful to have your excellent stories included.

Far as its history, I’d been in contact with James Thomas through a mutual friend.  We talked a few times on the phone and I mentioned my interest in putting together a book of microfiction.  He said he didn’t think there was enough good work out there for such a project.  I told him I did, and that I had an enormous collection of very short fiction he should see.  When he came out to San Francisco, and stayed at our home, he saw the extent of my flash/micro and prose poetry library. And that was its genesis. It took us over three years of dedicated research, horse trading, and back-and-forth discussions into the wee hours to put it all together.

CS: I checked out your previous titles—you’ve been writing flash fiction for a while—but this is your first venture into the editing side, correct? How would you compare the work of an editor to that of an author? What were the challenges of the project?

RS: I published a tiny poetry chapbook series in the late 1970s and was co-editor of One-Sentence Poems several years ago with Dale Wisely.  But nothing on this scale.  The challenge was immense.  I’m used to flying solo as a writer. I have a temperament suited for writing—the solitude and creative flurries, the revision process, all of it.

So the challenge was having to be accountable to someone else, in this case, James, and to adhere to protocols I’d not encountered before and endless discussions and hard decisions about which stories would be selected and which would not be included.  With co-editors tastes can differ and compromises need to be struck.  This was an enormous undertaking (three years plus) and it required prolonged devotion to research (which I was completely on board for). But, sometimes it meant having to let go of stories I liked/loved and rejecting very fine work along the way.  And, there was the purely mechanical work of assisting a consultant we hired for permissions.  The business end of garnering reprint rights.  Many moving parts…

I so admire anyone who can do both well: edit/co-edit complex projects, and not sacrifice their writing in a significant way.  I found I was not fortunate enough to live in both worlds equally.

CS: And let’s turn that around and ask what were the project’s unexpected rewards?

RS: There were many satisfying aspects to this project.  What was most exhilarating for me, editing this book, was “the hunt,” discovering a new author or story that took me to a fresh place.  The panning process – those brilliant nuggets that catch the light in all the right ways.  That, and connecting with other authors, realizing how vast our community of writers is. Those who have either lent their talents to the very short story form from time to time, or those who have devoted themselves to it.

The process of organizing such a large body of stories into a book was a great learning experience. Closely examining the broad variety of strategies employed by so many creative talents.  That was truly eye-opening.

And it was gratifying seeing how committed W.W. Norton is to publishing short and very short form fiction.  Knowing our book will be so broadly distributed: bookstores, classrooms, libraries, workshops, online…  Placed in the hands of many.  I find that very exciting.

CS: You no doubt read thousands of pieces for consideration. And I imagine it was tough to leave some out, but I also imagine there were a few you read just once and said, “Wow, that one is definitely in.” Can you share a few titles that hit you that way? What about them made such an impact?

RS:.  Yes, there were thousands of stories read during the research/selection process, and there was an enormous amount that struck me in that way.  Appealed to me fully on the first read.

Here are a few from the many:

“The Custodian” by Brian Hinshaw.  It’s told from the point of view of a hospital custodian who toys with an elderly woman the nurses call “The Mocking Bird.”  “Couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat a lick of solid food, but sang like a house on fire.” he says, and goes on to exploit, for entertainment value, this unfortunate woman’s plight as he coaxes her into singing one song after another.  Refers to her as “A-14” – erasing all humanity.  Then there is a pivotal shift as the woman’s relative visits. This one punched me in the gut.

Another is “Letting Go” by Pamela Painter.  The setting is the Grand Canyon.  A young couple asks our narrator to take a photo of them in front of the striking vista.  What could be more normal?  But, inexplicably, the couple moves back toward the edge of the chasm.  In life and in literature I am frequently struck by the fickleness of luck and fate.  How it can all turn on a dime, unpredictably.

A very different kind of story that garnered that first-read “gotta have it” ranking was “Sleepover” by Bonnie Jo Campbell.  It focuses on the emotional perils of identity, self-image, and self-worth as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl experiencing early sex. While their mom is out, two sisters have two boys to the house.  One of the boys crudely blurts: “We were wishing your head could be on Pammy’s body.”  It is a poignant piece that captures the high stakes involved.

CS: The collection has such a variety of stances and forms. There’s realism and surrealism; there are voice-driven pieces and others told from a detached point of view. There are some that focus on a single moment and others that take in an entire life. There are so many facets of what makes a successful piece, but for me, few are more interesting than these questions of form. What are your thoughts? Is there any aspect of form that intrigues you the most?

RS: What intrigues me the most are the strategies (structural and substantive inventions) a particular writer employs in creating a piece.  The story very often determines the form it will take: tone, point-of-view, pace, language, dialogue/no dialogue, telling details, resonating implications that dwell between the lines…

While engaged in the extensive research for this project, one cannot walk away with anything but a sense of admiration for the stunning range of approaches carpentered into each piece: styles, voice, pedal-to-the-metal, moments deeply excavated, quirky, realistic, surreal, emotionally charged/detached, meditative, a punch to the gut, an eye-opener, a word-dazzle, outside the lines, focused, true, imagined, in a phone booth, expansive beyond all borders…

What I like best is all of it.  A story, the ingenuity built into the form it takes, and the match-ups between the two.

CS: I love the precision of language in flash. Some sentences just resonate, they capture so much in just a few words—they’re like perfect arrows that pierce the heart. Did you have any favorite lines like that from the anthology?

RS: What we were after, and it was very clear to us from the outset, was a distinct focus on narrative (whether a piece was called a prose poem, poetic prose, or purely prose) there had to be a story of some sort told.  Within that general broad criterion there were so many sentences and passages that held captivating, impactful language for me.  Here are some I found memorable:

“Death Row Hugger” by Nancy Stohlman: “…there’s this moment in the hug, you see, where it goes from something awkward and obligatory to when they melt into my arms, weeping with their bodies.  Every now and then I hear one whisper in my ear, and once one called me Mama.”

“The Landlord” by Meg Pokrass: “He slices a sleepy-bear smile my way, my mouth stretches sideways and upward like a circus trick.”

“Why Would a Woman Pour Boiling Water on Her Head?” by Jim Heynen: “It is the mystery of the incongruous, she repeats, and offers a smile to all who will listen.  I feel as if I have sinned, she says, and that I am being punished.  But my sin, my sin, it was so ordinary.”

“Colts” by Claudia Smith: “Our mothers didn’t like one another, but recognized the value of girls and their secrets.”

“Accordion Lessons”, David Shumate: “She took comfort in knowing that not even the Kama Sutra, the ancient scriptures of erotica, imagines a sex act involving an accordion and two consenting adults.”

“Lens” by Len Kuntz: “If you look close, you can see me in her photo—I am the elongated stain in the northeast section of her mirrored sunglass frame.”

Dylan’s Lost Years”, Debra Marquart: “Somewhere between Hibbing and New York, the red rust streets of the Iron Range and the shipping yards of the Atlantic, somewhere between Zimmerman and Dylan was a pit stop in Fargo, a superman-in-the-phone-booth interlude…”

“The Quarry” by Curtis Smith: “He understands a submerged object has only two options—to sink and disappear or to rise to the surface.”

“A Detached Observer”, Mary Miller: “I don’t say anything because I can’t think of any way to win this conversation and there is certainly no way for me to win him , so I swim butterfly from one end of the pool to the other, displacing as much water as I can, while he watches me.”

CS: After working on this project, I imagine the writer side of you changed a bit. I know as a reader I came away a bit awed and more than a bit motivated. What did you, as an artist, take from the experience?

RS: For sure—I came away altered in the best ways.  Encouraged at how a genre, I so love, is firmly in the hands of great literary talents.  And, that the treatments employed have staggering power, even the quieter stories.  It left me eager to get to the blank page (I still write longhand) inspired.  I do not see less than 300 words as a restrictive parcel of land, but an entire borderless universe, should one choose to create it.

CS: What’s next?

RS: A new collection of stories that will be ready to shop shortly.  And another collection I’ve just begun, very different from anything I’ve ever written.  These are exciting times for me.

Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).

 

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