The Essence of Tommy Dean: An interview by Curtis Smith

Tommy Dean is the author of two flash fiction chapbooks Special Like the People on TV (Redbird Chapbooks, 2014) and Covenants (ELJ Editions, 2021). Hollows, A collection of flash fiction was published by Alternating Current Press in 2022. He lives in Indiana where he currently is the Editor at Fractured Lit and Uncharted Magazine. A recipient of the 2019 Lascaux Prize in Short Fiction, his writing can be found in Best Microfiction 2019 and 2020Best Small Fiction 2019, Monkeybicycle, and numerous litmags. Find him at and on Twitter @TommyDeanWriter.

Hollows Amazon link:

Hollows Publisher link:

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Hollows. It’s a great collection of flash. How did you end up working with Alternating Current?

Tommy Dean: I submitted to their open call for story collections. They had been on my radar for awhile after witnessing Leah Angstman’s passion for the books she published at ACP! Working with Leah from the cover design to editing each story for clarity and beauty was an amazing experience. I had never felt so taken care of as not just a writer, but now an author. Leah gave Hollows a great home!

CS: In addition to your own writing, you edit a literary journal. I’m always interested in editors who write. How does this editing role play into your own work? Do you find your time working on the journal inspiring? Or does it tap into the same part of your brain as your creative work? Can these roles exist side by side—or do you have to build a wall between them?

TD: I absolutely love helping great stories find readers! As a writer and submitter myself, I know the odds are long and that each publication feels like a bit of luck even with all of the hard work of writing, revising, and doing research on litmags to find the best home for each story. Writers are always inspiring, so it does help me think about my own writing, my own goals, Also it’s helped me to edit my own writing. I’m constantly inspired by the craft moves and the beautiful writing of the stories we publish. It adds to my well, so to speak! But yes, I do need to do my own writing before I can switch brains and work on the editing side. If I try to write after editing, I get kind of locked up, too worried about writing perfectly, so I try to keep a bubble of time in the morning to attend to my own writing first.

CS: Was it always flash first and foremost for you—or did you settle in here after exploring other forms? Who were your early influences—and who influences you now?

TD: I didn’t really start writing until undergrad and we were given that first Sudden Fiction anthology from 1986. I also explored Carver’s short stories and I was reading John Grisham and Stephen Kin novels. So I started in flash from the very beginning, but I was also trying to write traditional length short stories at the same time. I had more trouble keeping up the necessary level of tension in longer stories, so those proved to be less successful at getting published, so as I became more confident in knowing how to write and more importantly end a flash story, I put my full obsession and time into writing flash. It’s just how my narrative brain works! I constantly look for and explore a character’s hot spot—Why this moment in this character’s life—the moment that stands in for this character’s entire life. The following flash and sudden fiction anthologies were great influences, with flash and micro from a diverse range of writers, all tackling stories with small word counts in different ways. These books led me to litmags such as Smokelong Quarterly, wigleaf, Frigg magazine, and countless others that were only publishing flash. I found stories by flash masters Kathy Fish, Meg Pokrass, Pamela Painter, Stuart Dybek, and so many others that gave me the confidence to continue to write short! My influences today are the next best flash I read, the writers and stories we publish at Fractured Lit, and too many writers to name!

CS: You’re currently working on a novel, correct? On a craft level, how does a background in flash impact the writing of a longer work? How is the experience different in terms of your engagement with the process?

TD: Like most fiction writers, I’m always working and failing on a novel! I actually think that writing flash and micro takes a special skill set, a special way of considering craft elements and moves that work best when writing with brevity and concision. Compression calls for a unique way of creating stories that don’t always follow traditional plots and story arcs. On one hand, flash has helped me to write a scene, and these are still important when writing novels and short stories, but novels gain their power from exploring a character’s interior thoughts and introspection that often bogs down flash and doesn’t work in that format. I so ruthlessly cut out interior and introspection when writing flash that it has been harder to adapt to writing novels and exploring characters in this manner. I’m so centered and concerned with scene and action without interpretation that I often get stuck in tying all of the scenes together in a novel length project!

CS: I’ve been talking to my students a lot about access points these past few semesters, so let me ask you—what is your go-to access point? I feel like many of your pieces here center around family relationships.

TD: I’m obsessed with families, with the way that parents and children interact and reveal their relationships on the page in narrative. My entry point to most stories is through character, and how characters react to the people around them, which usually results in creating and exploring family dynamics. I often start with the opening line, something catching in my head that repeats until I write it down. It usually comes to me in the form of knowing the point of view, main character, setting, and the initial problem. Then I can let the character lead me through the story! I put myself into the consciousness of the character and stand next to them on the stage of the story as I write!

CS: There are a lot of killer opening sentences here. I was wondering if you keep a list of them somewhere and then return later to flesh them out?

TD: oh, thank you! This is my pride as a writer! As I mentioned above, most of my stories start with these lines repeating in my mind. This is how I start a story, so I don’t write them down and walk away! I start all my stories with the line I’m thinking about in the moment and see where it takes me. I rarely change these opening lines when I revise before publication. They are the energy and the entry point that allows me to write the story. Without them, there’s often no story. I think the opening line is the most important part of a flash or micro story. There’s no time to settle in, we need to get our character’s acting due to some conflict from the very beginning!

CS: There’s a number of different structures and points of view utilized here. When in the process do these things come to you? Are they there from the start—or do you get rolling and then let these things speak to you?

TD: Yeah, that opening line often has the point of view and structure built into it and I rarely change it. Usually when I change point of view or tense in a revision it never seems to work. Something has been lost from the original impulse to start the story. There are times when I give my self a challenge of using a particular structure or particular point of view and I have to go searching for the opening line or the main character, but these challenges don’t always turn out successful. When story openings and structures come organically from that impulse to write these stories are usually more successful.

CS: I also talk to my students about identifying the themes and currents that fascinate us and, once acknowledging them, working with them. Can you look at your work and identify any reoccurring themes/ideas that keep drawing you in?

TD: We’ve already talked about family relationships, which I’ll always be drawn to, but I’m also drawn to the moments just before violence, the way that tension crackles in these moments, how we’re all trying to connect with others, how loneliness inspires or defeats connection, how people can make mistakes trying to be good, how people have the ability to change, but they often reject this choice or can only move in small increments, how children are shaped by their parents love and mistakes, their parents’ fears and desires. What it means to be a dad, a husband, a child all at once. Hope, endless hope.

CS: What’s next?

TD: I’ve decided to focus on writing another full collection of flash fiction. I’m about a third of the way done with a rough draft of the book. This time I’m focusing on exploring the small and large violences that are created through family relationships and our fears. Those moments immediately before or after a violence. My own fears of violence, death, protecting my children are guiding me into these waters. I’ll be looking for the hope. Trying to let some light in along the way.

Curtis Smith’s latest book, The Magpie’s Return, was named as one of Kirkus Review’s top Indie releases of 2020. 

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