Part II of the interview with writer/editor Susan Henderson.
Wayne: You once wrote a magical realism flash for Smokelong. You quipped in an interview that you were unsure what magical realism is. How do you see the genre? Have you tried more experiments in that vein?
Sue: To be honest, it’s not one of my favorite pieces. The writing feels forced and overly dramatic. It was useful to try something new (if only to better appreciate those who get it right!), but it’s not very representative of my work.
A better example of magical realism is a gorgeous short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez called “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” I’ve read it a dozen times because it inspires me. Whenever I feel boxed in with where I can take my characters, this story shows how you can blow a hole through the wall of your story and go somewhere completely unexpected and magical.
I guess, some years after writing that flash you mentioned, I am just as unsure what magical realism is. I mean, does it also include Gulliver’s Travels? And what of fairy tales with gingerbread houses and Wee Free Men living just out of our consciousness and all those wonderful Greek myths – are these examples of magical realism, too? I don’t know. But they’re wonderful stories that bridge the worlds of fantasy with what we know, and in the end, all I care about is whether I enjoyed reading a story or not.
Wayne: What about flash fiction? How does it differ from the sketch or vignette–or poem for that matter? In what way does your affinity for poetry draw you to the form? For what kind of writer is the form suited?
Sue: I love flash fiction. Except for Mary Robison, I haven’t seen anyone try it in book form, but I’m looking forward to the day it’s an accepted form of mainstream publishing. I’ve read flash that has a beginning, middle, and end; and I’ve read flash that’s more like a poem in that it stays with an image or a scene. I think the jury’s still out on how exactly it ought to be defined. And again, I’m always in favor of less rules and more gut – does it feel finished and satisfying and wonderful? Good.
I remember Bob Thurber had once posted somewhere online a wonderful definition of flash fiction. I can’t find it (maybe one of your readers can?), though this [Wikipedia] link is interesting. Thurber is someone I see as a trailblazer in this field, and if I’m not mistaken, he was instrumental in getting the flash fiction wing opened at the Zoetrope workshop. Diane Williams is another trailblazer in the flash fiction movement. She’s be a great person to interview about this. Same with Kim Chinquee, who will be moderating a panel on flash fiction at the Atlanta AWP conference.
Personally, I find flash fiction is the number one way to work myself out of writer’s block. I grab a handful of random words, see what pops into my mind when I imagine those words together, and then try to write a paragraph or two that has movement and feels whole. Often, I’ll publish the flash on it’s own, but eventually, a flash piece tends to wind up as a part of a longer story or novel.
Wayne: You are well respected as an editor, can you share your thoughts on what beginning and emerging writers need to do to best improve themselves as writers?
Sue: Read! Read at least a book a month. Read different genres. You’ll start to fine-tune your ear, you’ll get an instinctual sense of pacing. You’ll learn why you can value Homer and Stephen King and James Baldwin and Alice Munro and PG Wodehouse, even though they seem to have nothing in common. That was an absolutely random and apparently male-dominated list off the top of my head, but you know what I mean. The more you read, and the more varied styles you read, the more you understand the many different ways a good story can unfold.
Wayne: Can you talk about your book projects? Besides the obvious difference in length, how are they different from your shorter works?
Sue: I’ve written two books, and I’ve outlined (sort of) and started (sort of) two others.
I’ve found that I love having the space and time a novel allows me to tell a story. The writing feels so much more grounded and coherent and satisfying. It’s a freeing form for me.
Short stories are very tricky things to write. There’s such an intensity of focus, and often the time span is so tight. You feel at any moment you might lose your audience. You’re trying to say so much so quickly. You have to introduce your characters immediately and write in ways that people understand them or form opinions of them instantly. But you have to write it in a way that doesn’t feel crammed with information because the plot has to race forward and there’s very little time to pause.
Writing a novel allows me to write what seems more like the truth as I know it – that people don’t often evolve in an instant, that the very dramatic events in our lives are rarely the ones that change us the most, and that it’s more often an accumulation of choices rather than a single choice that gets us backed into corners.
I thought novels would be like writing very long short stories, but they’re really a different form all together.