We are delighted to post a Q & A with the October first prize winner, Dawn Taska Steffler from the USA. Dawn sent us some great pictures to go with her answers. A view from her sister’s backyard in Hawaii, her pets Rascal the dog, Momo the cat and Coco the chicken. and an extraodinary photo of her at The Broad in Los Angeles, which looks like she is a giant’s house! Be sure to read all the interview for inspiration and to get to the end and Dawn’s great prompt for writers who might want to enter our next Award. Dawn uses, as inspiration, a very powerful excerpt from a Martin Luther King text.
The Early bird discounts for the February Award, end on Sunday December 17th and the competition deadline is Sunday February 4th, 2024. Our Judge is novelist, short story and flash fiction writer Susmita Bhattacharya from the UK. Interview with Susmita coming very soon.
Q and A with Dawn Tasaka Steffler
Congratulations again for your first prize BFFA win in our October Award, judged by Sara Hills.It was wonderful to hear you read your brilliant story Détente at the November online Flash Fiction Festival Day. This story has many layers and says a lot about relationships in the aftermath of a loss by suicide. Did it go through a lot of versions before you decided it was finished?
I first drafted this story in April 2023 in a Smokelong Quarterly workshop. And this version I submitted to BFFA is actually the 18th revision (grimacing face emoji). I’m unsure if I should admit to the world that my revision process is this tortuous. I’m always seeking opportunities, like revision classes, to put my stories in front of new eyes. Détente was workshopped a couple of times in Smokelong workshops, I received feedback from Senior Editors at Smokelong as part of the fellowship, and I workshopped it in a Meg Pokrass weekend workshop. I never think, “Oh, this is done now.” I send something out, and it gets rejected a few times, so I tweak it again. Had Sara not picked my story, I would probably still be tweaking it!
- You have flash stories published in many different online magazines. Can you link us to a few of your favourites to read?
Oh gosh, I love all my stories! But two stories stand out for me.
“Sometimes she wishes he was dead but then she’d miss him”is set in Honolulu, where I grew up. It weaves in much of my childhood: the ghost stories, the locations, the culture. And it was inspired by a hike my brother-in-law had taken us on, up Old Pali Highway to the Pali Lookout. During the hike, he shared some interesting historical details about the Battle of Nu’uanu, and I became utterly obsessed with an image of a woman, pushed by her life to jump off a cliff like those eight hundred Hawaiian warriors had.
And “How to Survive a Black Hole” published in Pithead Chapel,is set in another very dear location, Lake Tahoe. When my kids were growing up, we went to Lake Tahoe multiple times a year. But this story also weaves in complex emotions and memories of years of visiting my grandmother in a nursing home when I was a kid in Hawaii. So, for those reasons, it’s a story very close to my heart.
- I think you came to writing very short (flash) fiction fairly recently but also write in different forms. Can you tell us about your writing in general and any projects you are working on currently?
Yes, you’re correct. I’ve only been writing Flash since June 2022, when I signed up for SmokeLong Summer (Smokelong Quarterly’s summer-long workshop). Before that, I had been diligently plugging away on a first draft of a novel. Naively, when I registered for Smokelong Summer, I thought I could do both the novel and flash. But I quickly discovered that not only could I not juggle both forms, but I was completely and utterly in love with Flash. So, I did the only thing that made sense: I put the novel aside. However, there is a silver lining. Last summer, I was invited to be a summer workshop fellow for StoryStudio Chicago — I was in Rebecca Makkai’s cohort of their Novel-in-a-Year class in 2021. And it was an opportunity to experiment with an idea I had been playing with, of reshaping my novel using the compression and craft of flash. The workshop feedback I received for my rewritten novel opening was positive, so I am mentally preparing myself to temporarily wind down my flash and dive back into my novel in 2024. But we shall see how strong my willpower is!
- You told me you get up very early everyday (4.00 am I think?) to write. What do you like about writing at that time of day?
This early morning writing habit started when my kids were young, and I would write for a couple of hours before everyone woke up. Now, I get up between 4 and 5 in the morning because my cat wants her breakfast. But I do love writing in the early morning. I love how dark, quiet, and cold it is. Additionally, I have found that there is no substitute for fresh brain. Something that might have stumped me the day before, I usually discover a “duh, why didn’t I see that?” solution the following day. I just have to sleep on it.
- You are currently a Smokelong Fellow. We’d love to hear what that entails and what you are learning.
Fellows actively participate in the Smokelong workshop platform, read stories from the magazine queue, and turn in two stories a month for feedback from three Senior Editors. Reading the queue has probably been my favorite. It has allowed me to experience the amorphous way that a “finished” story naturally stands out and also understand the equally amorphous way you can read a story and know it’s not quite there yet. Of course, the workshop environment is fantastic. The Smokelong community is intelligent, and their feedback is invaluable. And there’s nothing like having three Senior Editors look at your stories twice a month. I am so grateful for this learning opportunity.
- Finally, we’d love a writing prompt from you to spark off writers considering entering our next Award.
I’m a real believer in the T.S. Eliot quote, “Good writers borrow…” and always have my eyes open for writing with energy and potential. I recently came across a 237-word section from Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” and I thought this could work for Flash. It had a great repeating structure and a wonderful sense of forward momentum because of the when-then equation embedded in it: when [something happens] – then [something else happens].
What “when-then” story can you build towards, either with or without a repeating pattern?
Here is the passage:
“But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that “Funtown” is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored,” when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobody-ness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”