Recently, I talked with Katie Cortese about her new book Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories.
Your new collection focuses on flash pieces. What do you particularly like about this form?
I like the challenge of trying to make something big happen in a small space. Even in a novel there’s no hope of capturing the entire scope of one human life. Anna Karenina doesn’t begin with Anna’s birth and it’s not exhaustive in its portrayal of her daily life. For all its hundreds of pages, compression is still something Tolstoy had to engage in if he was going to tell not just her story, but follow Levin’s arc and keep all of the more minor characters in view as well. In a piece of flash fiction, the need for compression is just compounded exponentially. I’ve always thought of writing any kind of fiction as a kind of lingual sculpting. Each story’s ideal form exists in its block of marble and the trick is to see how much I can shave away while retaining the story’s power. Sometimes the narrative just can’t be told in less than two hundred pages, and sometimes it can live fully inside 200 words, if they’re the right ones.
Is there a thematic thread you intended with the arrangement of the forty-four stories?
I wasn’t aware of shaping the book in any particular way until a year or so into the project when I realized that the bulk of the short-shorts I was writing had female narrators or protagonists. When I started comparing the pieces, even though they are all separate and distinct from each other in terms of characters, settings, conflicts, and all the other essential elements of story, I saw that they roughly fell into three categories—stories told by or about girls or young adults, stories about the choice to either become a mother or avoid motherhood, and pieces focused on women at or past midlife. At that point, I started slotting each piece into one of three sections: Maidenhood, Motherhood, and Matronhood. I hope the progression from one section to the next speaks generally to the experience of growing up female in the contemporary era, but I don’t think it’s absolutely essential to read each story in order.
Who are some of your favorite flash fiction writers?
I’m lucky enough that many of them agreed to read and blurb the book. As a younger writer, I had the sense that somehow short-short fiction wasn’t legitimate literature because of its brevity, but a class I took with Robert Olen Butler helped to change my mind about that. We were turning in pieces of flash fiction every other week for a full semester, but I had to write several each a week in order to arrive at one I felt was strong enough to bring into workshop. All that practice forced me to really interrogate what made certain pieces work while others failed. I started looking purposely for works of short-short fiction, like Butler’s Severance, Kathy Fish’s Wild Life, and all the wonderful anthologies edited by Robert Shapard where I discovered work by Michael Martone, Sherrie Flick, Robin Hemley, Grace Paley, Stuart Dybek, and too many more to name. Kelcey Ervick Parker’s Liliane’s Balcony is an amazing novella that incorporates flash, and Justin Torres’s We the Animals reads like a novel-in-flash to me. I love Michael Garriga’s collection of paired flashes, The Book of Duels, and Matt Bell’s abecedarian novella, Cataclysm Baby. There are so many wonderful writers working in this area; I add a new favorite or two every time I read an issue of Smokelong Quarterly or NANO Fiction.
Who and what are you currently reading?
Right now I’m reading Randall Kenan’s wonderful linked collection Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. The language is just flooring me—it’s so rich and convincing even when the narrative explores things that shouldn’t technically be possible (like demonic possession and strangers that are either angels or devils). I also recently read Merritt Tierce’s fierce debut novel, Love Me Back, another book that includes both sections of flash and some chapters that appeared elsewhere as stories first. Next on my list is Julianna Baggott’s latest novel, Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders. One of my favorite things about her work is her incredible range. She writes novels that fall into just about every category you can imagine: speculative, young adult, middle grade, literary, and more, and that’s on top of writing poetry, essays, and blogging with astounding frequency. Also on my to-read shelf: Eula Biss’s On Immunity, Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, and a six-month backlog of One Story issues.
Any advice for someone interested in writing flash fiction?
I’d suggest that someone writing flash makes sure to read their work out loud frequently through the drafting and revision stages. Because the pieces are so short, there’s pressure on every word, and rhythm plays an especially important role in conveying meaning and emotional impact. If it doesn’t sound right out loud, then keep chipping away at it. When it’s right, the sound of the line will say so.
Katie Cortese lives in Lubbock, TX, where she teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University. Her stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Blackbird, Gulf Coast, Sport Literate, and The Baltimore Review, as well as the upcoming Rose Metal Press anthology, Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. She holds a PhD from Florida State University, an MFA from Arizona State University, and was granted a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to attend the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, as well as a residency at the Arte Studio Ginestrelle near Assisi, Italy. The former editor-in-chief of The Southeast Review, she now serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review, and her flash fiction collection, GIRL POWER AND OTHER SHORT-SHORT STORIES, was released by ELJ Publications late September 2015. She is currently at work on a full-length story collection as well as a novel. You can learn more about Katie on her website http://www.katiecortese.com and follow her on Twitter @KatieCortese.