The Write Stuff: An Interview with Kathy Flann by Jen Michalski

Kathy Flann’s short story collection, Get a Grip, won the George Garrett Award and was released by Texas Review Press. A previous collection, Smoky Ordinary, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and was published by Snake Nation Press. A craft book, Write On: Critical Tips for Aspiring Authors, was recently released by Stay Thirsty Publishing. Her prose has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, The North American Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Blackbird, and other publications. Currently, she teaches at Johns Hopkins University.

Jen Michalski: Congratulations on WRITE ON! Critical Tips for Aspiring Authors. I’m always interested in a book’s journey. Can you tell us how you came to work with Stay Thirsty Press?

Kathy Flann: Thank you for reaching out, Jen!

The way the book came into being is actually odd. When my short story collection, Get a Grip, was released in 2015, my friend Julianna Baggott, a fellow MFA alum from UNC-Greensboro, was also promoting a new book, Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders. Julianna really knows what she’s doing, so I thought, “I’m going to follow her around the internet and do what she does.”  Whenever she posted an interview or a review, I approached that publication about covering my book, as well. Sometimes, it worked. Sometimes, it didn’t. But I learned a lot.

One day, I saw an interview with Julianna in Stay Thirsty Magazine. So I approached its founder and editor, Dusty Sang, who also publishes books. In retrospect, I think he was overwhelmed by manuscripts in his slush pile that missed the mark. My bio mentioned that I had been teaching creative writing at universities and conferences for a long time. So, he proposed that, rather than an interview, I might contribute a quarterly column on the craft of writing. Four years later, those columns were collected and became Write On: Critical Tips for Aspiring Authors.

I’m not sure what lesson new writers should draw from this circuitous path! Maybe it illustrates how one’s efforts can yield results much later than expected and/or in a different way.

JM: I think that’s a great approach! And I think having a column definitely worked out in the long run, as opposed to an interview! What I really like about your approach in Write On is that you meet people where they are. I mean, there are certain craft books that I swear by, but the examples of writing they deconstruct in those books are such high-tier examples of writing. Instead, you’re deconstructing stories about a spaceship landing in the back yard while one’s eating a sandwich and why that particular story always stalls, because people who take your classes and buy craft books are the ones writing about spaceships and sandwiches and who are stalled.

I know many years of being in the classroom prepared you to talk about the spaceships in other people’s stories—what weren’t you prepared for in writing this book? What did you learn, either about your own writing, or yourself?

KF: What I didn’t know when I started was how to translate complicated ideas to the page without sounding “lecture-y.” I’d have my husband read the columns. He’s not a writer. I’d watch is face, and pay attention to where he looked bored while he was reading. Years of teaching is humbling—it’ll instruct anyone how to spot the moment when you’re losing someone. The person is glazing over and you’re like no, no, no. You have to get them back. Then, eventually, it becomes possible to anticipate where it could happen before it happens. I had strategies for dealing with that in the person, and I had to find some for dealing with it on the page, where it’s a one-way communication. Over time, I noticed that I became more and more of a goofball in terms of the voice and the examples like the sandwich in outer space (thanks for noticing that, by the way!).

JM: Love it! My partner is my “lay-reader” for stories, and she’s very honest when she feels I’m wasting her (and presumably the general public’s) time. Why do you think it’s so difficult to tell stories? We tell anecdotes so easily (and many people don’t even understand the difference).

KF: There are a lot of reasons that stories are hard. There a gazillion craft techniques to learn and to apply, for starters. We can be writing for years and find ourselves needing to re-learn something or to remember to apply something we already know. That’s why people love to cite Hemingway: “We are all apprentices to a craft where no one becomes a master.”

For my money, though, the single biggest problem new writers face is that they’re too smart. What I mean is that the human brain is incredible. It can do so many things at once—drive a car, have a conversation, listen to music, think about a grocery list, and grieve a loved one. Think about that—all of those things (and maybe more) can be happening in someone’s brain at the same time. In fact, the human brain is always doing multiple things. It’s executing functions in split seconds.

New writers often miss the mark in their stories because they don’t give their characters’ brains enough power, probably because they’re not fully aware of how their own brains work. Their characters are thinking about one thing, which really almost never happens. Then, the characters arrive at emotions or judgments, and the reader has no idea why. The new writer needs to slow down and show us those split-second thoughts and observations and body sensations that lead to the emotions or judgments.

Once the writer grasps how to do this, a lot of the other craft stuff is easier to manage.

JM: What writers do you think do that well, ie, emotion-reaction (and recommend that your students read)?

KF: An example I often cite is the opening of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis:

“One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug. He lay on his armour-hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow-like sections. From this height the blanket, just about ready to slide off completely, could hardly stay in place. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes.

‘What’s happened to me,’ he thought. It was no dream. His room, a proper room for a human being, only somewhat too small, lay quietly between the four well-known walls. Above the table, on which an unpacked collection of sample cloth goods was spread out (Samsa was a traveling salesman) hung the picture which he had cut out of an illustrated magazine a little while ago and set in a pretty gilt frame. It was a picture of a woman with a fur hat and a fur boa. She sat erect there, lifting up in the direction of the viewer a solid fur muff into which her entire forearm disappeared.

Gregor’s glance then turned to the window. The dreary weather (the rain drops were falling audibly down on the metal window ledge) made him quite melancholy. ‘Why don’t I keep sleeping for a little while longer and forget all this foolishness,’ he thought. But this was entirely impractical, for he was used to sleeping on his right side, and in his present state he couldn’t get himself into this position. No matter how hard he threw himself onto his right side, he always rolled again onto his back. He must have tried it a hundred times, closing his eyes, so that he would not have to see the wriggling legs, and gave up only when he began to feel a light, dull pain in his side which he had never felt before.”

There’s the outlandish premise of a man waking up as a giant beetle. The temptation with a premise like that is to have the character be, like, cursing and crying and tearing around the room. However, Kafka slows action way down and shows the character’s observations of his own body, the room’s interior, the weather, his internal reactions. All of this might take a minute in real time. If we stop to ponder how something like this might actually take place, Kafka is exactly right. The man can’t go straight to freaking out. He has to understand first what has occurred. This is exactly how our minds work, taking in information and reacting to it. We can look at dramatic scenes by most writers we admire and see these same kinds of strategies.

JM: That’s a great example. It seems now, though, with the increasing popularity of microfiction and flash fiction and bite-sized, consumable media like Twitter, writers are expected to create just as powerful a scene with fewer words. When I started writing and submitting stories, 5000 words, or 20 pages, was pretty standard. Now it’s a rarity, with 3000 words, sometimes 2000, being the sweet spot, which can be a source of irritation! However, you have to anticipate audience tastes evolving. Is there anything you’ve found yourself warning your students and other writers about in the past five years, like don’t do this Victorian-style frame story unless it’s a very smart take on The Turn of the Screw?

KF: If Kafka were in workshop today, we’d be like (teeth suck), Ooh, Franz, a novella? Those are so hard to publish. But the reason I love to use his story as an example, even for modern readers, is that his strategy on the opening page is quite contemporary. It’s just boom, right into the action, right into his mind and body in real time. We don’t have three pages of backstory or description of the countryside or whatever. Quite often, students are shocked to learn how little of their story an editor will read before moving onto the next.

JM: You make great points. But that’s why you have written a book on craft! I think writing is deceptively simple to first-time writers because, if you can write a sentence or two, you can write a story—it’s not like learning the piano or violin, where you have to learn notes and finger positions (and even music theory) to sound halfway respectable, not to mention the cost of equipment. (Which dovetails into my theory about the popularity of American Idol because singing is deceptively simple, too). In fact, I think people are surprised there are so many rules about writing. Sometimes those rules don’t even agree—with the popularity of Naniwromo, so many writers are encouraged to write every day, like it’s a set of chin-ups that should be completed. Yet other writers advocate for more quality, not quantity. Others think it’s less about writing and more about focusing your everyday perspective into the lens of a  writer. Are there things that you think writers should do every day, that may or may not be writing? What’s been useful to you to develop a habit or routine as a writer?

KF: I totally agree about the “deceptive” aspect of writing’s challenges. What you say also reminds me of athletics. We watch the sport of running totally differently than we watch gymnastics. Everyone can run, so we almost think if we sprint around the block a few times, we can do what those people on TV are doing. But NONE of us thinks we can do a routine on the uneven bars.

One of the privileges I’ve had in my life is to bear witness to people’s early drafting attempts, to be inside writers’ processes. The act of teaching has probably been my greatest writing teacher. I also have learned a great deal from other writers, whether from reading their work or receiving (generous) feedback. So I guess what I’d advise aspiring writers to do is to seek a writing community. I think it’s very difficult to grow as a writer without one. In fact, I’d say it’s probably more important to give feedback than to receive. It’s easier to see what works and doesn’t in someone else’s writing than in one’s own. Eventually, we internalize those lessons for use in our own writing.

JM: Well, I know you as a giver of great and generous feedback! You are also an award-winning writer of short stories—what are you working on now?

KF: Right now, I’m actually working on a humor book called How to Survive a Human Attack that’s forthcoming in 2021 from Running Press (Hachette). It’s a survival guide for movie monsters, due out for Halloween next year. It started when my husband was watching The Walking Dead in the other room, and there was all this screaming, and I thought, “Those poor zombies—it’s not their fault they’re zombies.” I blame a life of reading and writing fiction for this somewhat troubling thought.

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