Being Seen: An Interview with Tyler Barton by Curtis Smith

Tyler Barton is the author of the chapbook of flash fiction, The Quiet Part Loud (2019), which won the Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest from Split Lip Press. His stories are forthcoming in The Iowa Review, Wigleaf, Subtropics, and Paper Darts. He’s the co-founder of Fear No Lit, the organization responsible for one-of-a-kind literary experiences like The Submerging Writer Fellowship and Page Match. Find him at @goftyler or tsbarton.com. Read a story from The Quiet Part Loud here.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on The Quiet Part Loud. I really enjoyed it. I’m always interested in a book’s journey—especially an indie press book—and especially a first book. Can you tell me how you hooked up with Split Lip?

Tyler Barton: I’d been following Split Lip Press / Magazine since I first started taking writing seriously. Their online magazine has always been a great place to learn about new writers. As far as Split Lip Press, I was reading Jared Yates Sexton stories back in the summer of 2014, and then in the summer of 2016 I read Kara Vernor’s collection of flash, Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song, and that did me in. From that point, I was a total Split Lip fan-boy. I think I started trying to writing more and more like Kara, to the point that, hopefully, I started writing like me instead. The voice, humor, and power of her short-short stories were a huge influence. Which is why when I saw that she was judging last year’s Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest, I knew I wanted to submit. I actually put the chapbook together specifically for that contest, and I didn’t send it anywhere else. I’m still in shock that it was chosen. The news came right at the tail end of my graduate program, and it was exactly the boost I needed to leave the comfy bubble of my MFA community and go out into the wider literary world with some confidence and energy to pursue the next thing (which is: a full-length collection of short stories).

CS: You recently earned your MFA. How was that experience? What have you taken from it? How has it changed you as a writer? What advice would you offer a young writer considering pursuing one?

TB: My advice to anyone thinking about an MFA is always: do it, but do not pay for it. I could not be the writer I am today without the time, education, and community that the MFA at Minnesota State University, Mankato provided me. I want to say it’s invaluable, but I’m not sure I can responsibly say that it’s worth tens of thousands of dollars of debt. I was accepted there in March of 2015, and I spent 6 weeks applying to assistantships throughout many different departments at MNSU, looking for a deal that would pay for my tuition and give me a stipend. Finally, an assistantship (in some random bureaucratic department) came through in the eleventh hour, so I decided to go.

The MFA grew my sense of community as much as it did my writing skills. As a grad student, I worked on the literary journal, hosted a radio show, created a podcast, organized readings, led workshops for writers living in an assistant living facility, and (eventually) served as a graduate assistant for the Native American Literature Symposium. This taught me just how wide, diverse, and important the literary universe was. I left the program determined to remain a part of that, as both a writer and a literary citizen.

CS: We share some general roots. In this collection, I’m seeing and feeling a good degree of Pennsylvania. Are there distinct flavors/tones/moods you associate with this area? How do they manifest themselves in your work?

TB: My experience growing up in the country/woods of York County was that my friends and I had to make our own fun. The town where I grew up experienced a lot of alcohol- and drug-related tragedies as I was coming of age, and this (plus our discovery of hardcore music) pushed my friends and I to declare ourselves straightedge. Meaning, we didn’t smoke, drink, or make a conquest of sex. We were punks, and we weren’t partying, but we also weren’t going to put up with boredom. I think that because we held tight to these three strict rules, we felt compelled to break all the other ones. So we went out into the country, or the woods, or the mall, and tried to entertain ourselves. Thefts, trespassing, pranks, public games—the world a stage, as the saying goes. But the chapbook is less about York County than it is about the restlessness of youth, of wanting to be seen, remembered, and loved and feeling like time might already be running out.

CS: Sometimes I look back on my previous collections, and I can view them as a kind of photo album—the pieces as a whole a reflection of my life at the time—place, literary influences, where my head was at. If you could look at your collection this way, how does it shine a light on this stage of both your personal and artistic lives?

TB: When I was working on the edits for this chapbook, I realized that the whole book was about my friends, and it’s funny because I remember saying to someone when I first got to my MFA program that I couldn’t figure out how to write about my friends. Each of these stories (besides “Divebombing…”) was written during my time in Mankato, and I think I must have been trying to prove myself wrong. Maybe I needed the distance from my friends and my hometown in order to write about it.

Artistically, I think the stories reflect the purpose for which they were written, which was: to be read aloud to a room full of other writers at a community open mic. Writers Bloc was an MFA tradition, a monthly reading series where anyone in the program could get up and read for 5 minutes. So I would make it a goal to bring something every week, something entertaining, loud, and funny, something that would make my fellow writers in the room say, “Damn.” I think a lot of the best writers in our community were coming to those open mics to try to make everyone in the room a better writer. Kind of a rising tide lifts all boats situation.

The summer before I left for grad school, I interviewed my flash fiction hero, Lindsay Hunter, about her reading series SHORTIES!, and this was the process she used to write her first book of flash fiction. She hosted a monthly reading series, and she’d make sure, if she did no other writing that month, she at least had a new 5-minute story to read at the event. It’s a quick, high-pressure form of accountability. I saw Writers Bloc as that same type of opportunity. And I still do that today, with the Turning Wheel, the monthly reading/open mic here in Lancaster—I put pressure on myself to bring something every month.

CS: I admire the work you’ve done to develop/nurture the literary community in Lancaster, PA. You and some other young people have really created a nice scene there. Can you share some of the things you’ve done—and also share some of your plans for the future? I know these things steal time from your writing—but I’m sure you’re also discovering other rewards. Can you tell us about them?

TB: I’ve been active in the Lancaster literary community since my undergraduate days at Millersville, and I just love this city. The energy here inspires me to want to make things happen and bring people together. Right now, Fear No Lit (the organization my partner and I started in 2016) is focusing most on the re-launch on the Submerging Writer Fellowship. We did the first version of this contest in 2017-18, and it was a huge success. But the money for it came out of our pockets, so now we’ve got to fundraise in order to make it happen again. In March, we’ll be launching a Kickstarter for the 2nd Submerging Writer Fellowship, which will likely run from summer 2019 to spring 2020. Apart from that, we’re hoping to start collaborating with the Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg to put on some author events here in Lancaster.

CS: After reading the book, I found myself drawn to your work on both the sentence level and in structure of the pieces. I’m guessing these elements are important to you—am I correct in thinking this? If so, what are you looking for on these levels?

TB: Voice has always been the quality of fiction I prize the most. I want the prose to feel specific, energetic, textured, colorful, and surprising. I think I got this from reading Lindsay Hunter, Justin Torres, and George Saunders. I also have to credit Randall Brown’s book, The Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction, which puts a lot of emphasis on sentence level things like diction, rhythm, details, sentence structure/variation, and even rhyme.

Rhyme has become increasingly important to me. I try not to end-rhyme sentences too often, but I love internal and slant rhymes. I’m a hip-hop junkie, and I decided a few years ago to just accept (and even lean into) my natural inclination toward alliteration, assonance, and rhyme.

CS: You’ve been publishing in some very nice places recently. Do you feel like you’ve discovered a sweet spot in the process, something that has made your vision clearer or your work more streamlined? If so, can you look back and identify what this is?

TB: I made a decision at the beginning of 2017 to start submitting my work frequently (I think I sent a submission every week that year) and only to places that felt like long-shots. It sounds crazy, but I wanted to see if I could start getting paid for stories (haha). It has worked out a few times. But it’s important to remember that if you see me posting about an exciting publication, there are about a dozen rejections sitting behind that. I was recently paid handsomely for a 6,000-word story that had been rejected eleven times beforehand. That’s pretty normal. Basically, what I’m saying is that I’ve been taking more shots and aiming at tougher targets. I’m extremely fortunate that it’s paid off a couple of times. Each acceptance fortifies me with the energy and confidence to start or finish or revise the next story. I’m so grateful to all the editors who have given me a shot.

CS: I’ve only read your short fiction—are you working in other areas as well? Nonfiction? A novel?

TB: My current goal is to find a good home for my full-length manuscript of short stories, which I finished editing/revising/sequencing this winter. Then, I want to dig into a novel idea, but so far I’ve only got a pitch and a first chapter.

The form of writing that scares me most and that I really want to try some day is joke writing. My writer friends and I are always saying we’re going to each develop a tight 5-min stand-up set and then perform at an open mic comedy night, but I don’t know if I’ll ever have the courage. Until then, I’ll just keep writing laugh lines into my short stories.

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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