John Brantingham was Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks’ first poet laureate. His work has been featured in hundreds of magazines, Writers Almanac and The Best Small Fictions 2016 and 2022. He has nineteen books of poetry and fiction including Life: Orange to Pear (Bamboo Dart Press). He is the founder and editor of The Journal of Radical Wonder. He lives in Jamestown, New York.
We’re delighted that prose and poetry writer, teacher and editor from the US, John Brantingham, is judging our 2023 Novella in Flash Award. He has so much of interest to say in this interview, to inspire you to write a novella-in-flash. We hope you will give it a go and if you want to read a survey of the form and exercises to help you structure, and finish your novella as well as get ideas, the new craft guide book Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash, from blank page to finished manuscript by Michael Loveday,recently published by our small press, Ad Hoc Fction will help you with the writing process.
- Thank you for judging our 2023 Novella in Flash Award!
As well as many poetry books, you have written three Novellas-in-Flash yourself. Inland Empire Afternoon, which was a runner up in the 2019 Bath Flash Fiction Award and published by Ad Hoc Fiction the same year, Finding Mr Pembroke, The Wapshot Press and Life: Orange to Pear, published by Bamboo Dart Press. Can you give us a few sentences about each of them and their themes?
Inland Empire Afternoon follows a new character in about forty flashes, all linking to the others to tell the story of a region of the Los Angeles area. The Inland Empire is a much-maligned section of California. It is stereotyped and insulted because it is not nearly as wealthy as Los Angeles, and I don’t like that human tendency toward provincialism and hatred. I wanted to capture the humanity, grace, and craziness of the area, which might be anywhere.
I wrote Finding Mr. Pembroke after a particularly difficult semester of teaching. It had been overwhelming physically and emotionally, and one day, I shut down. I just couldn’t move, so I wanted to capture that experience. Along with that, I’m well into middle age (as long as I live beyond 100), and it surprises me when I realize that I’m not in my twenties any longer. I wanted to deal with self-concept as well. It’s a book done in one long sentence, and I was hoping that it captured part of the reality of rumination, and the way I was feeling at the time. I couldn’t go to sleep, and I was never really awake.
Life: Orange to Pear was written slowly, and I understood halfway through that I was asking and answering a question. It is about an alter ego of myself. I started out my adulthood on a journey to become an academic and dropped out of a Ph.D. program in favor of an MFA and the life of a writer. Sure I taught at a college, but the writing I was doing stopped being academic at that point. I was a dismal academic writer. My articles tended to explore the obvious. I also missed the experience of fatherhood, so this answers the question to me of how my life would have been different with those two changes. The answer I came to was that I would have been a boozy, erratically employed father of someone I loved deeply. I’ve written a shadow companion to it called Finnegans Awake to ask and answer other questions about myself. Actually, that entire collection was inspired by an exercise at the Bath Flash Fiction Festival last autumn.
- What interests you in the novella in flash as a form?
I like the way that it breaks away from previous modes of expression that were damaged by financial concerns. So much of writing before the new technologies of today was limited by the realities of print media. It was too expensive and too difficult to distribute forms like flash or the novella. A friend of mine wrote and published a flash novella in the 1970s, Gerald Locklin’s The Case of the Missing Blue Volkswagen. It is an absolutely brilliant book that changed the way I understood fiction, but it never got the kind of distribution it needed. It asks us to reconceptualize not only what fiction is but what life is because it can be a series of interlocking moments with or without narrative arc, as our lives often are.
- The problem with this is that when we limit forms of expression, we limit what we can say, and voices that should be heard are silenced. It is part of the process of gatekeeping, and I want to hear as many points-of-view as possible. It’s not just about the kinds of stories that we can tell, but the ways that we see. It’s not just story; it’s point-of-view. Not all concepts can be expressed in 100,000 words, and so these new forms, like the novella-in-flash, allow us to explore other selves and ideas (We need to be able to see from other people’s perspective. David Foster Wallace tells us why.).
- For many years you were a professor of English at Mt. San Antonio College, California,where you coordinated the creative writing programme and ran the yearly creative writing conference. But you have recently left teaching there and moved to New York State.
Have you plans to teach elsewhere?
- I might. Technically, I’m just on leave so I might return to Mt. SAC, but currently I’m feeling that I’d rather not. The work I did there was good and important, maybe the most important work I will ever do, but I’d like to focus more on creative writing than I did there. I had a kind of hybrid assignment where I taught creative writing and essay writing, and I worked with and evaluated part-time professors.
What I’d like to do now is teach creative writing exclusively. I don’t know what the realities of the United Kingdom are, but in the United States there is too much gatekeeping, starting with professors who do not help their students find their own voice and platform. Many educators ask their students to mimic their voices. I want to help people create something that is true to them and their experiences. I love to help marginalized students find their audience for the same reason I love new forms of fiction. I want to hear new things. This might be at a formal college or university or in places like flash fiction festivals. It could be in the United States or outside of it. I don’t know. I’m so new to not being a tenured professor that I’m still spinning a little; after all, for twenty-five years my first name was Professor. Now, I’m back to being John.
- Have you any new writing projects on the go?
I always work on many projects at once. I just finished a collection of 100 ekphrastic sonnets about four artists who lived through times of war, Miro, Klee, Goya, and David. Some of their art gives a path forward through international trauma. David often celebrates tyranny, propping up dictators like Napoleon. Of course, this is the nationalistic quest, and I see many in my country acting in the same way. I’d like to understand those people, but I doubt I ever will.
At the same time, I’m working on a flash novella or novel following the life cycle of one person born during WWII. We follow his life and the effect that war has on him. It resists the idea that there are individual wars rather than just one war that shifts all over the world. If we say, WWII ended, then there’s no way that it can. There’s more to it than that. There are other throughlines like how returning to nature heals, but that was the impetus for the work.
My third collection in progress is a series of free verse poems looking at empty spaces and why they have been abandoned, and how that abandonment feels in a world that is often hostile and feels meaningless to people who live in it. I live in a rural part of New York State and people are leaving for places like the Inland Empire, California. There are abandoned factories and houses everywhere.
The fourth project, which I’m more or less done with, is about the Santa Ana River Watershed. It’s an 80 page haibun about what makes a watershed. In the Los Angeles area, where the Santa Ana River is, water is so scarce that it must be used and reused. If a drop of water lands on a mountain, it’s likely to pass through 3 or 4 people before it reaches the ocean. That means the human population is part of the calculation that the water resources people make when they try to understand how much water there is. This fact makes it clear that we are a part of nature, not disconnected. We are in fact a part of the watershed; we are a mobile reservoir. I try to explore those connections to nature. “Connection” is even the wrong word because it implies disconnection is possible. It is not. We are of the rivers that run past and through us.
- You have also recently started The Journal of Radical Wonder on Medium. Can you tell us more about it and how people can submit and what you are looking for?
It’s a journal that came out of years of conversations with my writing partners. I agree very much with Hannah Arendt about the dangerous nature of the banality of evil, and we’re trying to extend that idea a bit. Being able to see this world, any part of it, as banal is where evil begins. The lens of banality is a way of seeing beauty, oneness, and connection as being disposable (Have you heard Cosmo Sheldrake’s song against boredom? Here it is.). Not everything needs to be positive, but it’s trying to understand how everyday moments are not simple or humdrum. It fights cynicism, which is a sophomoric approach to life meant to make someone seem smart without taking the time to understand.
What I’d like people to submit is anything that lays bare what is true in this world. I don’t want to read anything merely clever. I hate smugness and punching down. I assume that I’m wrong about a lot in this world. I want to be shown the truth.
Okay, so on a practical level, what would l like to see? Flash of all sorts. Poetry, although formatting on medium is very limited, so I think it’s best to send poems that rely on shape to other publications. Essays. Book reviews. We’d love more book reviews. Interviews. Art and images, these don’t go to me but to Jane Edberg, the visual arts editor.
Here’s the link to our submissions page. Please send me work. At heart, I am more of a teacher than an editor. I’d love to have a conversation about your work: Link to our submission guidelines.
- If you are able to answer this, it would be very interesting to know what kind of novella would particularly grab your attention?
I want to understand other people in a profound and meaningful way. I want to have a moment of humanity. I’m driven by character and setting. Kathy Fish, Kendall Johnson, Romaine Washington, Aimee Bender, Grant Hier, Tony Barnstone, Pamela Painter, Karen Jones, Lynne Thompson, Michael Loveday, and Stuart Dybek move me. Kareem Tayyar always floors me. I think he’s one of the best living writers. All of these writers and poets show us what it means to be human. Of course, I love others too, but this kind of writing tends to reach me.
- A tip for the difficult moments in writing a longer narrative in flash fictions?
When I am having trouble moving through writing, it usually has to do with me running from trauma. When that happens, I try to understand what it means, and what pain I’m afraid to work through.
A psychologist friend of mine once said that nightmares are not the problem, they are the solution your body is giving you, and you need to listen to them. When we’re entering fiction, we’re entering dreamtime. If you’re struggling, it could very well be this. It also might be that it’s dangerous in these moments to proceed alone. Support systems matter. The image of the alienated writer is a warning, not an aspiration.
On top of that, if you’ve had the kind of shame-based vaguely religious childhood training grounded on groupthink and cognitive dissonance that I had, everything in your stupid brain will tell you that if you enjoy an experience then it must be without value, that if you create something, it has no meaning, and that everyone around you always has greater insights than you do.
Let me tell you this:
Your work is important.
Your voice matters.
The world needs to hear what you have to say.
Also, if you are a beginning writer, please watch this: Ira Glass’s flash essay.