Interview with Luke Whisnant
Novella-in-Flash 2018 Winner

It’s so interesting to see how Luke Whisnant, first prize winner in our 2018 Award created his novella-in-flash. His method has to be encouraging to other writers when he suggests how flexible this form is and that you can ‘find’ a novella-in-flash out of flash fictions you have already written. We’re interested that language, more than plot or character, is Luke’s first interest in all the forms of writing he does. Our 2018 Novella in Flash Judge Meg Pokrass, in her comments on his novella, was very impressed with his use of language. She writes “This author is a keen emotional observer, gifted in his specific, quirky and visual details, as well as in creating superb juxtapositions between sentences and fluid temporal leaps between chapters…”

If you are thinking of entering the novella-in-flash Award which is open now for entries and closes in January 2018, we suggest you take his advice and read as many novellas-in-flash as you can in this time, (including, we suggest Luke’s and the other winners from this year and last year). His tip to start writing a new novella-in-flash is great – get to the fourth sentence in a new work and let the story take you from there. We’re also interested in what he says about the term ‘prose poetry’ – always an area of great debate among writers of the short-short form and a discussion we’re holding at the Flash Fiction Festival in July this year. We hope Luke is able to come to this again – if so we’ll be able to hear him read from ‘In the Debris Field’ which will be published by then. An event not to be missed.

  • We’re very pleased to be able to publish your wonderful first-prize winning novella-in-flash ‘In the Debris Field’. Can you tell us what sparked the idea for the novella?

To be honest, I didn’t originally write ‘Debris Field’ as a novella.

Last December I had a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I was supposed to be working on a new novel. But the novel stalled, and while I was waiting for it to come back around I started looking through the hundred or so flash pieces I’ve written in the past few years. I saw that a lot of them had a family theme, and I thought I might be able to put together a chapbook of thematically related stories. When I printed out the manuscript I realized that I could revise them into a novella by combining characters and unifying the tone. I recast all the stories in second person point of view so the narrative voice would cohere. That took a couple of days. Then I wrote a couple of new stories to fill in some narrative gaps, and that’s when it started feeling more like a novella than a chapbook.

  • What do you enjoy most about writing in this form?

It takes a lot of time and energy to write long-form fiction. It can wear you down. But I’ve found that I can get a decent draft of a flash piece in fifteen or twenty minutes, and I walk around the rest of the day with an endorphin high, thinking how cool it is that this little story didn’t even exist a few minutes ago, but now I’ve brought something completely new into the world. That’s probably my favorite thing about flash.

  • You’ve published a short story collection, a novel and two poetry chapbooks. Do you think your way of writing in all these different forms has common characteristics?

Yes. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing a novel, a story, a poem, or a flash: for me, everything starts with language. Plot, character, setting, all the traditional “storytelling” elements of fiction—those are secondary to me. Language is the catalyst and the primary driver.

I’ll give you an example, from the title story. I was listening to a radio report about the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown a few years ago, and the reporter began describing all the junk he could see “in the debris field” around the reactor. I latched on to that phrase immediately. I knew I’d write something based on that bit of jargon, that little snippet of language, and I knew it probably wouldn’t have anything at all to do with a nuclear reactor, and it didn’t.

Another example: I read an article once about women being more cold-natured than men. A few days later, the phrase “Your Father was Famous for Keeping the House Cold” popped into my head (even though my own father was not famous for any such thing). I liked the alliteration—the F sounds, the hard C sounds, and I liked the rhythm: a triple dactyl in the middle: FA-ther was | FA-mous for | KEEP-ing the . . . Saying that phrase aloud, over and over, almost like an incantation, led me to write the story.

My personal definition of flash fiction is that it’s an art object made out of language. In that sense it’s more like poetry than a traditional story.

  • Speaking of poetry, you also edit the prestigious and long-standing Tar River Poetry Journal which has published many of the best-known poets of the late 20th and early 21st century including William Stafford, Billie Collins and Sharon Olds. What sort of poems are you looking for and is the journal open to prose poetry submissions?

The first criterion is intelligibility. I’m not interested in publishing cryptic or densely opaque poems. That doesn’t mean a poem should be simplistic, just that a normal reader should be able to understand it. I like poems that do something interesting with tone, syntax, or fresh images. And though I like lyric poetry, I probably have a slight preference for narrative poems. Anyone interested in knowing more about what TRP is looking for should take a look at my essay “Perusing the Inbox,” on my editor’s blog.

As for the other part of your question, we don’t publish prose poetry. I may get some flak for saying this, but I think “prose poetry” is an oxymoron.

  • Why do you say that?

If you read a Lydia Davis story without knowing who the author was, would you be able to tell whether it was flash fiction or prose poetry? And why would it matter? How about Gertrude Stein? How about Russell Edson?

Anything a poet can do, a fiction writer can do too. William H. Gass was one of my teachers, and in his prose you see him deploying every poetic device and technique there is—alliteration, rhyme, metaphor, simile, rhythm, everything. The only thing a poet can do that a fiction writer can’t do is use the line. Poetry is defined by the line, and that’s why the phrase “prose poetry” is oxymoronic to me. . . . But having said that, I should also say that it’s not the artist’s job to label and define and explain; we can leave that to the critics and scholars. Our job is to keep making art, not worry about what to call it.

  • Your novel, Watching TV With The Red Chinese, was made into an independent film in 2010. Did you find that an interesting and rewarding experience and would you like to see this novella made into a film? We think it is very filmic.

That’s funny—it hadn’t occurred to me that my novella was filmic. I’d love to see anything of mine made into a film. I worked very closely with the director and producer on Watching TV with the Red Chinese, and hung out on the set for a few days during filming—and yes, it was fascinating and rewarding. I learned a lot.

  • You’ve won awards for your teaching at East Carolina University where you are Professor of English. What do you like about teaching creative writing? Do you find teaching writing takes your own writing in new directions?

Teaching creative writing has been one of the true joys of my life. I love working with other writers. In the creative writing classroom my premise is that we’re all on the same path, all members of the same tribe. My job is to coach and mentor, and nurture the creative spirit. As for taking my writing in new directions, I’m constantly learning from my students. The downside is that teaching seems to take up a lot of my writing energy. To teach well, you have to be constantly thinking about teaching—or at least I do.

  • Nosy question – where and when do you write?

That’s not so nosy. I think it was Alice Walker who said “I write in every room of my house, but I type at my desk.” That’s me. Actually, I type at my desk only sometimes. I also type in bed, which is hell on your posture. Not recommended. As for when, I don’t have a set time; I write whenever I can. But at the end of the day, when I’m getting sleepy—that tends to be a good time for me.

  • Nosy question two – Do you have a writing muse? Person, pet, place?

I don’t really have a muse, but I do have a short list of ideal readers in mind—former teachers, for example, or other writers I admire. “What would Stanley Elkin think of this sentence?” I often ask myself. Then I usually delete that sentence.

  • Any advice for those wanting to embark on writing a novella-in-flash for our next Award, which is now open?

First, check out the genre and read as many flash novellas as you can get your hands on. Take them apart and see how they work. Second, when writing flash, don’t wait for an idea. Just start writing. The first sentence will likely be awful, and the second, and maybe the third, but by the fourth sentence you’ll see something interesting start to emerge. Follow that. Let the story take you where it wants to go. It’s like taking a big strong dog for a walk: you don’t walk the dog; the dog walks you. Third, sign up for the Flash Fiction Festival, go to the workshops and presentations, make some new friends, and soak up everything you can. Finally, read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I don’t know if you’d call it a novella-in-flash, exactly, but I can honestly say that book changed my understanding of what short-form fiction is, and what it can do.

  • Thank you, Luke. We’re hoping you can make the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol this July and will read from your novella then.

I hope so too! I’ll let you know soon.

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