Interview with Meg Pokrass

“My head’s skipping around the world—everything feels remote and unusual, like a foreign movie.”

(from ‘Double Date’, in Here, Where We Live, published in My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a study of the form, Rose Metal Press, 2014, p.84)

Meg Pokrass is the award winning author of three collections of flash fiction and one collection of prose poetry.  Her flash fictions have appeared in over 300 literary journals and have been widely internationally anthologized including two recent Norton Anthologies Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton, 2015) and New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co, 2018). Meg curates Bath Flash Award’s Flash Fiction Festival, U.K. and serves as Founding Editor for New Flash Fiction Review.

 ML: The first work of yours that I encountered was the flash fiction novella Here, Where We Live, published in the beautiful anthology of five such novellas My Very End of the Universe (Rose Metal Press, 2014). This was an early introduction to an element that I’ve noticed running through your books – an interest in young female narrators – not always adolescents, but often so – who are finding themselves, coping / struggling with parent-figures, or experimenting in friendships and relationships with boys or other girls, discovering their sexuality etc. It’s a territory that you explore so vividly – what is it in particular that calls you to write about it?

MP: Diane Ackerman says it beautifully: “Young animals don’t know what is important, what can be safely ignored; they have had fewer novel experiences, and their senses are fresh and highly sensitive. Everything matters.”

I love writing young characters. Experiences have not yet shaped them. Everything is new and untested. With little acquired wisdom, there is much vulnerability. And the worries and unfulfilled dreams of parents have often been internalized, involving impulses of loyalty and rebellion. I find all of this to be fertile material as a writer! Though I’d never wish to be young again, it’s remarkably fun and interesting to write about young characters.

ML: That’s very interesting to hear. Another element I enjoy in your work is your interest in misfits and rebels – people out of kilter with the mainstream. And there is at times an almost willful desire to be mischievous or flirt with quietly scandalous statements – like “Just this year I’ve decided that I don’t like smelling clean.” (from ‘Rollerskating, Barking’, in The Dog Looks Happy Upsidedown, Etruscan Press, 2016, p.12). Or: “I wanted to know if late development meant small breasts. Mom said it didn’t, that she had been the same way. “Worth the wait,” she’d say with an exaggerated wink. Now that dad has his own place and his bipolar disorder, she had all kinds of new expressions.” (from ‘Plastic Pool’, ibid, p.112). Do you set out intentionally to explore unconventional perspectives and shock / tease, as a writer – is that of your creative mission, as it were – or does it just “happen”?

MP: We write about what we know. I grew up fatherless, in an artistic and eccentric family, watching my single mother contend with raising me alone, not fulfilled or happy with a partner. I became her partner, more or less. For me, rebellion meant breaking away from her and taking emotional risks that I didn’t have role-modelling for.

Photo 1 - Waltons.jpgTo add to the weirdness of growing up fatherless, when I was five, we moved to Southern California from Reading, Pennsylvania (where I was born) to be closer to my oldest sister, Sian Barbara Allen, who was living in Hollywood. She was rapidly becoming a well-known  (and beloved) TV actress. She was a semi-regular on The Waltons (the first 2 seasons)  and starred in endless iconic TV shows in the 1970s. It was so exciting! But it once again made me feel different than everyone I knew. She’d bring her TV star friends home and it was amazing (and life-changing) for me—getting to know such talented, unusual people.

Much of my youth was defined by falling stupidly and fearlessly in love. Being vulnerable in a way my mother was not. I really did not want to be like her. At the same time, I had extreme social-anxiety, hardly spoke a word in school, which is to say that I was a sensitive loner. So this presented quite a conflict.

The story “Rollerskating, Barking” is loosely based on the close relationship I had with my teenage best friend, my “cool” friend! I admired her, but was jealous of her Hollywood-ish beauty. At twelve, we smoked cigarettes and my hands took on a naughty smell—the scent of tobacco. That smell reminded me of my friend and how much I wanted to be like her. So there was built-in conflict. Love versus envy. This is fertile stuff to write about. And we loved being bad-girls together!

Family dogs had a lot to do with my happiest and most awkward childhood moments. Animals bring sudden plot twists and much silliness. Pets scoot into most of my stories undetected.

ML: What are the challenges and joys of writing a novella-in-flash as opposed to other kinds of fiction / flash fiction? How would you say the individual flashes in a ‘novella-in-flash’ differ from individual flashes that might be published in magazines or selected for competitions?

MP: Successfully written story-chapters in a flash novella are usually publishable as individual flash fiction stories. They should be just as strong standing alone as they are as part of the narrative arc.

This makes writing a successful flash novella a unique challenge, but it also encourages us to pull from the flash fiction stories we’ve already written and consider them as novella possibilities. With my own flash novella, Here, Where We Live, nearly all of the chapters had been published individually as flash fiction stories long before I thought of binding them together.

The greatest challenge for me was defining and structuring the narrative arc. The editors at Rose Metal Press, Kathleen Rooney and Abigail Beckel, were incredible partners for me there.

ML: Can you say more about this? For example, what particular problems were you facing in the narrative arc, how did you resolve them, and how did Kathleen Rooney and Abigail Beckel’s advice guide you?

MP: Abbie and Kathleen had queried me for a novella-in-flash at the time and I had one but it was not quite ready to go yet. So, I sent them what I had, a coming-of-age novella— and though it needed more work, I was thrilled to hear that they wanted it. They became great partners for all of the add-ones and revisions; reading every version (I had a few) and guiding me toward the most effective story arc. That novella needed to fit into an anthology of five mini-novellas in flash, My Very End of the Universe – Five Novellas in Flash and Study of the Form (Rose Metal Press, 2015). Abbie and Kathleen knew what the other novellas were like in tone and scope. I tested out a number of possible conflicts and resolutions on them and they were wonderful at pointing me toward what worked the best.

 ML: What formative influences (from childhood or adulthood) led you towards becoming a writer?

MP: I planned to follow my big sister Sian and to become a working actress. She was my role-model. I learned to live through self-expression from a very early age in order to overcome my disabling shyness. My process as a writer is extremely similar to that of an actor. I developed writing tools while in theatre; studying great plays (memorizing and performing lines) by Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and others. This helped me develop a love of the rhythm and music in language as well as interest in character motivation and sense memory recall.

Also, I was a fanatical journal keeper. I kept a journal every year of my life from age 10 to my 40s (for some reason I stopped keeping much of a journal at that point).

ML: Who are your influences or “permission-givers” as a writer? What is it you admire about them?

MP: Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Joy Williams, Ann Beattie, Richard Ford, Ann Beattie, Jayne Anne Philips, Amy Hempel, Antonia Nelson, Dorianne Laux (poet). I was transfixed by their words. I schlepped their books around with me everywhere. Reading their writing made me think that maybe I could do something like this. With these writers there was a sense of entering a world of the heart rather than the brain. They made me laugh and cry.

These days I study the writing of Christopher Merkner. I’ve reread his collection The Rise and Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic at least six times. I drag it with me everywhere. I’ve recently discovered (quite late to the party!) the wildly funny and original stories of the late Grace Paley. And recently I’ve become addicted to the fiction and poetry of Francine Witte. I’m addicted to her deviously original little gems.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I love the stories of Pamela Painter, Robert Scotellaro and Norton editor Robert Shapard. Shapard writes brilliant flash. I’m lucky to have worked and served on panels with these contemporary writers.

 ML: In your stories you seem to pack into the sentences and paragraphs what Jennifer Pieroni calls “the smart surprise” (in the essay ‘Smart Surprise in Flash Fiction’, Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, Rose Metal Press, 2009, p.65-7) – showing not so much an interest in plot twists, as an interest in phrase-by-phrase surprises of character and subtle narrative redirections. A small example might be: “Our neighbours wouldn’t do anything to help if we fell over dead, but I like it pretty well here.” (from ‘Snow-Life’, The Dog Looks Happy Upsidedown, Etruscan Press, 2016, p.49). How can new flash fiction writers learn to get “smart surprise” into their stories? How would you define this magical ingredient?

 MP: Flannery O’Connor  said she wrote fiction to find out what she knew. This is the way my brain works as well. I hardly ever set off with an outcome in mind. It develops as I write the story.

I tend to write about characters that fool and confuse themselves as well as others. I like complex, unreliable and vulnerable narrators.

As far as learning this “surprise element”, I believe that taking acting classes is a good idea for any serious writer! It may even be a better idea than studying writing directly. Learning about character motivation and sense-memory recall is key. In improvisation, one learns about how the endless ways the outcome of a scene can change…

After a story is complete (I’m not aware of this when writing) I’ll often look back and notice that I’ve written sentences which simultaneously confirm and contradict what my character feels.

ML: That sounds like really interesting territory. Can you explain more about the idea of confirming and contradicting a character’s feelings within the sentences?

MP: To clarify, my characters are often trying to figure out what they really feel versus what they are supposed to feel—and are often muddling around in that perplexing territory. For example, my character “Abby” in Here, Where We Live might have said something like this:  “I like our Christmas tree but I hate Christmas decorations”. This observation is one of conflict. Abby’s aesthetic versus her mother’s. Abby likes the idea of a celebratory holiday but she distrusts ornamentation. As a writer, this is a meaty contradiction to work with.

Photo 3 - dog with bookML: Many of your first-person flashes have a jump-cut confessional tone, as though we are privy to diary entries with an electric charge running through them. And many of the flashes in The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down and most especially in Bird Envy read as character portraits and vignettes – situations without an explicit plot or a linked series of events. I came flash fiction via the gateway of Louis Jenkins, so this is often the kind of style that feels most like home to me. What do you say to flash fiction writers who say that there must still be a ‘story’ in a flash fiction, a developed narrative with some kind of beginning, middle and end, or a causal chain of events – incorporating some element of either rising action, turning point, climax or resolution (as Ron Wallace puts it)?

MP: Yes, well, I do agree that I’m more or less a “confessional writer”. In acting classes I was taught to find the sex or the death in a scene. That every scene and every relationship has some connection to either sex or death. I questioned this concept as a young actor, but I do believe I internalized it. I was taught to scamper right out of my comfort zone.

One of the things I love about flash is how it gives one the freedom of inventing new ways to tell a story. Personally, I try to stay true to the material without worry about the narrative structure. I try to tell the story in the truest and most compelling way.

In flash, a story can be told in a shopping list, or an e-mail, or a playlist. There are endless ways to approach flash, and being inventive makes it fun.

Of course, some editors are looking for a standard narrative telling. Some editors look at flash as a condensed mini short-story. I’ve been informed that my flash ‘I Married This’, published by The Literarian Center for Fiction in NYC [http://www.centerforfiction.org/magazine/fiction/i-married-this-by-meg-pokrass/] is sometimes taught as an example of how a piece of flash can meet all the criteria of a good story as described in Antonya Nelson’s craft essay, ‘ “Mom’s on the Roof”: The Usefulness of Jokes in Shaping Short Stories’ [in Bringing the Devil to His Knees: the Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life, Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi (eds), University of Michigan Press, 2001] I was surprised when I found out ‘I Married This’ was being used as an example of narrative structure! I had no idea that it had accomplished that. But now I can see how it does.

ML: You have an award-winning collection of prose poems (Cellulose Pajamas, Blue Light Press, 2015) and in your introductory essay for your novella-in-flash you mention poetry also, saying that you drew upon “older fragments and poems” (p.49) as a guide. How would you say your prose poetry differs from your flash fiction? In what way do you approach the forms differently, and in what way the same? How do you distinguish between the two? And what is your relationship with (verse) poetry these days?

MP: I don’t write poetry as much as flash these days. However, one of the recent highlights of my writing career was having a poem accepted at Rattle’s “Poets Respond” feature. [https://www.rattle.com/america-by-meg-pokrass/]

Sometimes I’ll be writing a piece and discover that it would be better told as a poem, with or without line breaks. I look at a piece and try to help it live up to its potential.

ML: You’ve lived and worked as a writer in both the U.S.A. and U.K. What differences have you noticed between these two countries’ flash fiction environments?

MP: Because the U.K. is so much smaller than the U.S., there is more awareness who other flash fiction writers are and what they’re doing. Writers here tend to enthusiastically support each other’s projects. Here the flash community is supportive, cosy and warm.

I would like to see flash fiction making its way into more university classrooms in the U.K. Flash fiction is being taught in many university writing departments in the United States now, but not so much here. There are some signs of this changing. Ash Chantler and Peter Blair at the University of Chester have been brilliant advocates for the form with their academic flash fiction archive and their world-class flash fiction literary magazine, Flash:  The International Short-Short Story Magazine and Press.

ML: The government is eradicating literature by burning all books. You can save one from the fire and run away to the woods to preserve it, where you will share it with fellow rebels and future generations. Which do you save and why?

MP: Yikes. The collected Raymond Carver. I could read those stories happily for the rest of time. They contain the whole world.

ML: What does your typical working day look like? (do you have any special writer’s routines, habits, perks)

MP: I’m struggling with this right now, having recently adopted a puppy! It’s like having a new baby. I try to get the puppy chores, physical exercise, and my workshop editing done and at the end of the day, usually between 3-5PM I write.

Photo 2 - with puppyI do want to say that to me, having a specified writing environment makes no matter. If one wants to write, you’ll do it wherever you are, no matter how busy and how hectic life around you is. No matter how “special” a space is. People make too much of this. One does not have to be sitting in a glorious castle or some wind-swept beach to be creative.

ML: What in your opinion does a writer need in their everyday life and environment to flourish?

MP: It’s not physical. It’s not a certain kind of support or a perfect chair or a supportive partner. A writer must simply believe they have a story to tell or a unique perspective to offer.

 

Link: http://megpokrass.com/

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