Interview with Meg Pokrass, judge of 2019 RW Flash Fiction Prize
For today’s interview, we welcome Meg Pokrass. Meg’s fifth collection of flash, ‘Alligators At Night’, was published by Ad Hoc Fiction (2018). Her fiction has been internationally anthologized, most recently in Best Small Fictions, 2018, Wigleaf Top 50, 2018, and two Norton Anthologies; New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) and Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton & Co., 2015). Her stories have appeared in over 300 literary journals including Electric Literature, Tin House, Smokelong Quarterly and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She currently serves as Series Co-Editor of the Best Microfiction, 2019, Managing Editor of New Flash Fiction Review, Festival Curator for Flash Fiction Festival, UK and Flash Fiction Challenge Editor, Mslexia Magazine. So we’re very lucky to have Meg judging for the 2019 RW Flash Fiction Prize which is currently open (!) for submissions.
Thanks for coming on the blog, Meg. What attracted you to writing flash fiction in the first place?
I wrote poetry through my 20s, 30s, and most of my 40s. My poems were quite narrative, and for this reason, I had trouble getting them published. At some point, I experimented with removing the line breaks from my poems, and writing what I now call “connective tissue”. Turning them into stories. That’s how it started for me. The many years of focusing on compression and use of language (in writing poetry) seems to have been helpful to me as a flash fiction writer.
As an award-winning flash fiction writer, what’s the best advice you can give to writers looking to master the form?
Loaded Moment: Great flash fiction requires a feeling of dramatic urgency—something which we, the reader, sense in every word. Emotional potency is key.
Trust the Reader: The quickest way to lose a reader’s trust is to tell them what you mean. Anton Chekhov said it this way: “Don’t tell me that the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
The Senses: The five senses are our best tools! Sensory detail is the key to making flash come alive. Try to bring a great deal of unique sensory detail into each story.
Read Poetry and Flash: Flash fiction isn’t narrative, it isn’t a “shorter short story”, therefore it’s hard to learn how to write flash by reading traditional length short fiction. Reading poetry and great flash fiction is a terrific way to learn the importance of specific detail, poetic language, metaphor, compression.
Something Subtle Must Change: Here is the one clear thing flash has in common with short stories! In great flash there is often a subtle pivot, a surprising juxtaposition, and the end often leaves the reader breathless rather than ‘completely satisfied’.
Unusual Details: Make characters out of obscure traits, for example, how do they greet their cat? What is their favourite film…and why?
Make it Itch: Dismay your characters, provide a good deal of trouble. Don’t let them get there easily, if at all.
Uncomfortable Childhood Nickname: One way to approach character is to make up a nickname that your main character had as a child and didn’t like. Don’t tell the reader what it is, and keep it in mind while writing your story.
Using Earlier Obsessions: Use your own obsessions and worries when creating characters and situations. Using your much earlier obsessions (having distance) is usually more productive than using current ones. With many years’ distance, there is perspective.
Sexy Elf Logic: If there’s an elf in your story, go ahead and make them sexy, but give him some issues. I mean, if you are a sexy elf, you’re going to come with some psychological baggage. No matter how fantastical a character is, make them real.
Woe Is Me: Readers don’t like characters who sit around feeling hurt by the world and wallowing in it. Instead, they care about characters who are finding ways to cope. We like to know how people get through life’s hardest moments.
Crisis/Advantage: When something very hard has happened in your life, use it. Let something similar happen to your character. Disguise it. Dismantle it. Here we can finally make use of the stuff that hurts. This will help your fiction.
Sex in Flash: A character’s unique relationship to sex is far more interesting than writing about lusty characters having sex all over the place. If there is sex in a story, don’t hit us over the head with it.
Messy Love: Follow the trail of messy love wherever it takes your characters, even if the love is invisible to the eye, and especially if it makes no sense.
The Ridiculous: Cultivate a sense of the ridiculous and a sense of the absurd. Everything that really matters to your character is also somewhat ridiculous when looked at from a different perspective. Don’t take yourself (or your characters) too seriously when writing fiction. Even in the most dramatic, dire circumstances. The human brain creates levity in order to cope. That’s what makes us interesting. Show us the coping mechanisms. Make the stakes high, but let a ray of humour shine through.
What kind of stories are you hoping to see when reading the shortlisted entries in the RW Flash Fiction Prize?
I’m looking for quirky original stories, stories that move me. I read a ton of flash fiction for my literary magazine (New Flash Fiction Review) and for the Best Microfiction 2020 anthology series I co-edit with Gary Fincke. What happens when one does so much reading: the brain gets tired! In a way this makes my job as a contest judge easy! I’m looking for stories that wake me up.
What will make a story stand out for you?
Humour, originality, pathos, use of illuminating detail, interesting sensory information. A character (or characters) who make me care.
Which flash fiction stories do you wish you’d written and why?
If I had to chose a few stories, like my Desert Island Discs, I’d say “Starfish”, “Five Fat Men in a Hot Tub,” or “Zoo” by Jeff Landon. “Pacific Radio Fire” or “The Weather in San Francisco” by Richard Brautigan. “Sweethearts” by Jayne Anne Phillips.
Which writers working in flash today do you admire and why?
I always return to the work of Jeff Landon, because there is simply nobody else who masters the art of funny and sad in flash like he does. His work is online in various magazines, look him up. Google him!
Amy Hempel, that’s a given! Aimee Bender, though she writes very little “flash”. I think of her longer short stories as bursts, like flashes sewn together. I study every word she writes. Angela Readman’s work is stunning. Sherrie Flick and Aimee Parkison, both of them are American writers. These are writers I really can’t get enough of!
Thanks, Meg! You covered an impressive amount of ground there, I’m sure flashers will get a lot out of that, and certainly worth considering for writers hoping to impress in the 2019 RW Short Story Prize!
Find out more at megpokrass.com and follow Meg on Twitter: