“surprisingly bizarre & unexpectedly touching collection of short/flash stories that deliver healthy doses of heartbreak, memories, weirdness, and violence”

RIFT FINALRIFT received three new glowing reviews this past week! Co-author Robert Vaughan and I could not be more grateful for the surge in attention the book is getting lately. Thank you to everyone who has bought the book, read it, reviewed it, mentioned it, promoted it, etc.!

Gabino Iglesias, in his review at Dead End Follies, says:

“Rift is constructed so that each writer has an equal amount of space and they trade stories so that, instead of half and half, readers get four sections in which they alternate narratives. This works really well because it allows for the stories to flow nicely and for each voice to feel fresh every time it comes around. Fish is up first, and her work throughout the book is outstanding. Her knack for surprising the reader and writing about relationship as it were a new theme is enough to make this book one that all fans of short fiction should check out. There are many standouts from Fish, including Vocabulary, which puts an entire new relationship and its possibilities inside a paragraph, Grip, which pushes the boundaries of how much sadness and reminiscing can be crammed into a very short tale, and The Blue of Milk, which is at once gritty and incredibly haunting but also poetic and beautiful in the way only unexpected encounters can be. That being said, this is a review and one piece needs to be held above all other and given the space/spotlight of a quote, and that story is There is No Albuquerque, a narrative that packs the heart-wrenching biography of a pale-eyed woman born with a hole on her neck and three horns. This one is what happens when literary fiction, bizarro, and magic realism collide:

When I was little, my mother used to stand me before the mirror every morning and make me say: I am beautiful. After she died, I keep doing it for a while until Buddy told me to stop. After he married the Tattooed Lady, they soon lost interest in me, and I was sent to a foster home. My foster parents thought I was retarded. They told everyone who would listen that they saved me from a dumpster. I ran away when I was sixteen.

You can read the entire review HERE.

Gay Degani, in her lovely review at Heavy Feather Review, says of Rift:

“Imagine a coffee shop, something independent, unique, not part of a chain, where the air is filled with a rich, dark aroma, where the tinkle of music is subtle, underlining real conversations about real things. Now imagine a solid wooden table, highly polished by hand, scarred by time, yet warm with love. Stitting across from you are two writers you admire, not just for the skilled pieces of written art they create at their computers, but also for their humanity, their generosity, their views on the human condition. Who would those two writers be? How about Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan? What if they were taking turns, telling you stories? What would that be like?”

You can read the rest of her review HERE.

At The Tavern Lantern, the blog for the lit journal Literary Orphans, Ray Nessly wrote another wonderful review. In it, he says:

“Simply put, Rift is a collection of stellar examples of an infinitely variable art form, by two writers at the top of their game.”

You may read the entire review HERE.

Many thanks to Gabino Iglesias, Gay Degani, and Ray Nessly!

*cover photography courtesy of Casey McSpadden

Writing & The Importance of Community: A Conversation with Gay Degani, Author of Rattle of Want

GayI recently invited Gay Degani to Denver to participate at the Mercury Café where Nancy Stohlman curates the monthly reading series called the F-Bomb. The “F” refers to flash fiction, and because Gay has a collection of mostly flash stories, Rattle of Want, (Pure Slush Books), it felt like a good fit. She and Sally Reno took to the stage taking turns reading their short fiction. During the visit, Gay and I spent time talking about writing and about community. These are some of the questions I asked her.

(You may listen HERE to a podcast of the event with many thanks to the amazing Rocky Mountain Revival and Levi Andrew Noe!)

The F-Bomb readings are a community event. How has “community” impacted your writing?

I have to say that if I hadn’t discovered the writers I’ve met via the Internet, I’m not sure I would be writing today. I’d taken extension classes at UCLA, gone to the Iowa Writing Festival for several summers, and run a long-term writing group at my house, and even though I’d had a couple stories published, the process of sending manuscripts through the mail and following the “no simultaneous submissions” rule, made my publication prospects seem dismal.

Once I learned about the web and the writing community there, my world became brighter. First there were the forums at several e-zines including Every Day Fiction and through them, I learned what readers expected. Then I discovered Zoetrope and Fictionaut, both offering opportunities to learn from other writers. I understood that this was key to becoming good at something, anything. A writer must practice, experiment, and receive feedback.

The best part for me, however, was having access to so many wonderful writers that I could never have met in the real world, but were there, doing what I was doing in the virtual world. I learned much from what they thought and what they were doing. And Kathy, you were one of those people I admired and when you stepped in and critiqued one of my stories at Zoetrope, I was over the moon!

Author Christopher Allen says, “Rattle of Want is a narrative road trip across America.” Most of your stories seem grounded in community.RATTLE OF WANT 2

I feel as if we are where-we-live and who-we-know, especially writers, and a big part of our work comes from those who are part of our community. I’m not saying that we write about the individuals we know in particular, but our observations, our references for most of us come from the world around us, the people around us. In Rattle of Want, there many stories set in identifiable communities: desert towns, Midwest towns, Los Angeles, and points in between. Landscape and how towns form around that landscape almost always come up for me.

In “Isla Vista, 1970,” I draw on the campus unrest at UCSB over the firing of a teacher. The students burned down the Bank of America. This was a memorable event in my life, the impact it had on me. The story itself is not drawn from real life, though I did have a friend who was Miss Santa Barbara at the time, but the time and place together, the setting, is what I wanted to serve as an exploration into the dynamics of that time. “Small Town,” Starkville,” “Spring Melt” all concern themselves with people who exist in towns that suggest confinement. “Ruby,” “The Last Real Human Being in Hollywood,” and “Oranges” are about the alienation of living in a big city. The novella at the end of the collection, The Old Road, is about a small community on the edge of town and what happens in their lives after a huge windstorm knocks down an ancient oak, crushing one of their bungalows.

What makes a community work?

We saw this in action in Denver, Nancy Stohlman working hard to give local (and not so local, like me) writers the opportunity to share their work, Sally Reno working hard to make sure we brought the showbiz to our reading, and you, Kathy, being the perfect hostess, keeping everyone relaxed and having fun. On a real life level, we have to make sure we participate and support the events that come our way. The same is true online. We have to be there for each other with encouragement at both ends of the spectrum, before we finish and polish our work, and then again, when we put ourselves out there in the public forum.

This isn’t pie-in-sky hope. This has happened to me: the support and caring from my community has been consistent and generous. I thank all of you writers out there in Germany, Canada, Australia, the U.K, and of course, in the U.S, for all you’ve done to help live my dream of becoming a writer.

Thanks so much, Gay! It was such a blast having you here in Denver for F-Bomb!

Bio: Gay Degani has had three of her flash pieces nominated for Pushcart and won the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize. Pure Slush Books released her collection of stories, Rattle of Want, (November 2015). She has a suspense novel, What Came Before, published in 2014, and a short collection, Pomegranate, featuring eight stories around the theme of mothers and daughters. Founder and editor emeritus of Flash Fiction Chronicles, she is an editor at Smokelong Quarterly and blogs at Words in Place where a list of her published work can be found.

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“Mouth Crimes: Featuring Sally Reno & Gay Degani” Jan. 19th at The Mercury Cafe in Denver!

Please join us at Denver’s Mercury Cafe for the 1st F-Bomb reading of 2016! I’ll be hosting two PHENOMENAL writers and friends, Sally Reno and Gay Degani! The event starts at 7:30 and will feature an open mic, so bring your own amazing flash fiction to read as well! images-4

sallylSally Reno’s fiction has appeared in more than a hundred print and online journals and anthologies, has been among the winners of National Public Radio’s 3-Minute Fiction Contest, the Moon Milk Review Prosetry Contest, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in a fumeous, vaporish, ivy-festered grotto where she serves as Pythoness to Blink Ink Print and Haruspex for Shining Mountains Press.

DSC_0683_2603Gay Degani has had three of her flash pieces nominated for Pushcart consideration and won the 11th Glass Woman Prize. Pure Slush Books released her collection of stories, Rattle of Want, November 2015. Her suspense novel, WhatCame Before, was published in 2014 and a short collection, Pomegranate, features eight stories around the theme of mothers and daughters. Founder and editor emeritus of Flash Fiction Chronicles, she is an editor at Smokelong Quarterly and blogs at Words in Place where a complete list of her published work can be found. RATTLE OF WANT 2

F-Bomb, founded and curated by the amazingly talented and charismatic flash fiction writer, teacher, performer, Nancy Stohlman, is a long-running flash fiction reading series you should check out if you haven’t already! See you Tuesday night!MERCURY CAFE

Recent Fabulous Books…

FullSizeRender (9)New books bounty! Some I’ve read, some I have not yet. I hope to do more book reviewing in 2016. January’s so busy, but soon…

They are:

Not Yet Dark by Berit Ellingsen (Two Dollar Radio, 2015)

Rattle of Want by Gay Degani (Pure Slush, 2015)

Moon Up, Past Full by Eric Shonkwiler (Alternating Current Press, 2015)

The Farmacist by Ashley Farmer (Jellyfish Highway Press, 2015)

Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz (Future Tense Books, 2014)

Grace Notes by Meg Tuite, David Tomaloff, and Keith Higginbotham (Unknown Press, 2015)

Kinda Sorta American Dream by Steve Karas (Tailwinds Press, 2015)

I am Barbarella by Beth Gilstrap (Twelve Winters Press, 2015)

New stories, nominations, a podcast, and more…

I have so much to be thankful for as 2015 draws to a close. The short short collection, RIFT, co-authored with the great Robert Vaughan, is set to officially launch from Unknown Press on December 1st. Huge thanks to Bud Smith and Unknown Press! When Robert was in Denver for the F-Bomb reading, the talented and energetic Levi Andrew Noe interviewed us both for “Rocky Mountain Revival: Audio Art Journal” and you can listen to the interview and Robert and me reading some of our stories. It was great fun to do and thanks so much to Levi for being such a generous host!

My story, “Grip,” was nominated for Pushcart by R.K.V.R.Y. and you can read it here. Many thanks to everyone at R.K.V.R.Y., particularly editor Mary Akers. “Grip” is included in RIFT.

On the heels of that news, Scott Garson, editor of Wigleaf wrote to tell me he’d nominated my Wigleaf Postcard for inclusion in Best Small Fictions, 2016. And you may find that by going to Wigleaf and scrolling down a ways. It was published in April.

Both “Grip” and my Wigleaf postcard are works that mean a great deal to me personally, so I’m especially grateful for this recognition.

My story, “Giant” is up now in the Fall 2015 Issue of New World Writing, edited by Kim Chinquee, who is now also the Senior Editor there. Much gratitude, always, to Kim. The issue includes work from Bobbie Ann Mason, Claudia Smith, Pia Z. Ehrhardt, Robert Lopez, T.L. Sherwood, Tiff Holland, Pamela Painter, and more!

Also! I’m pleased to have two new stories forthcoming soon in New South and Alice Blue. (This week I believe.) This will actually be the final issue of Alice Blue, a great lit journal that’s been publishing for ten years. Sad to see them go. Edit: My story, “Sea Creatures of Indiana,” is up now and the issue is jam-packed with goodness. Go read the whole issue, because it’s stellar.

We have a page for RIFT now up at Goodreads and already have a review posted by David Atkinson, who read with Robert and me at F-Bomb. Many thanks to David!

Finally, the F-Bomb reading, hosted by the amazing Meg Tuite, was a huge success and great fun. Nancy Stohlman has created this great series of readings aimed entirely at furthering flash fiction, with monthly guest hosts and guests. November’s reading included Robert Vaughan, Len Kuntz, Kona Morris, Leah Rogin-Roper, Katharyn Grant, David Atkinson, Levi Andrew Noe, and more!

I will be hosting the next event on January 19th, featuring terrific writers and friends Sally Reno and Gay Degani. More details here!

Beautiful Smokelong Quarterly: Part Two

And now for the remaining story excerpts from Issue 47 of Smokelong Quarterly, the launch of its beautifully redesigned site. I just continue to find the stories so original and breathtakingly written:

from “Mutable Pleasures” by Meg Tuite: “Attentive lust tasted as salty and unbridled as the wall. I holed myself up with the sock in my room. I sucked on it like a kid with a blanket for a few hours. It edged out the dark skid marks in my mind. Humiliation and anxiety were replaced with distance from school, homework or the need to be social. At some point, the alarm clock ticked out half past two, and I’d been seduced by sections of this cotton gnarled up and balled inside my intestines. I was a snake with a mouse stuck in the middle of me. There was no exit. It wouldn’t come out the other end.”

from “Rabbit” by Natalie Lund: “She emerges from the bushes and pauses, aware of us. It’s the first time she’s watched me and that eye reflects everything: the fear and the shame.”

from “Write Nothing Down” by Molly Faerber: “In the north they curve pocked and pitted, tumble down to pine trees and unplowed snow. We walk all day, stand by the milky waters, count the splay-toed prints in the underbrush. Our breath blurs and thickens in the air, and all around us shards of frozen water ring with cold, glistening.”

from “Map” by Susannah Felts: “Our homes, of sturdy floors and walls./ Slipping daughters’ freed teeth from beneath pillows, acting our parts./ Separated—by the lifted tips of our fingers./ We hammer out other lines.”

from “Rockaway” by Luke Wiget (and my favorite accompanying art by Lauren Crosser): “And he kissed her but couldn’t find anything. He only found her inside of her mouth. There wasn’t a fleck in the world that would convince him anything existed there besides her. The sea waved. Everything waited.”

from “Two Truths and One Lie About Marian ‘Lady Tyger’ Trimiar, Former Women’s Lightweight Champion of the World” by Annie Bilancini: “This Lady Tyger with the future in her strut and their children dancing around her, parrying against the encroaching night: the street lamps are little moons pulled in her wake. This woman is our sister, our daughter, they think. She will fight the battles that need to be fought, and she will win.”

from “Cords” by Gay Degani: “When my mother died, there was no hospital, just the morgue downtown, her little Honda T-boned, the medical examiner explaining she died instantly, no suffering. Can anyone die instantly? Wasn’t there terror in that split-second before? Did time slow down enough for her to deny or accept her fate? Did her life pass by like a hyper-speed movie? Did she miss saying good-bye to me? I asked myself these questions, I asked God, I asked Aaron. There was no harnessing the darkness. I clung to it. God kept silent, my father retreated, Aaron left.”

from “A Deer’s a Deer” by Taryn Tilton: “At dinner, I don’t say much, just tell my mother that everything tastes good. Everything’s actually cold, and we forget to say the blessing. My friend mentions the goats I raised for show, and my father cuts in. “Tell you what,” he says to me, “you and your animals, smost disappointing part.”

from “Nancy” by Coco Mellors: “Nancy is sensitive because she belonged to my grandmother, who is dead now, and who let her have her own electric blanket because the house was often drafty and cold. “Nancy is my reason for being,” she would say and pat her under the blanket.”

from “Antarctica” by Michelle Elvy: “The sky is heavy metallic: the hour before snowfall. He pulls his collar tight and heads home and when he gets there his wife’s standing naked in the kitchen. It has started to snow and the only colour in the room is the orange of her fingernails. The snow falls and they can’t get warm, no matter how hard they make love.”

Whoosh. So that’s that. Go read, if you haven’t already…

My Favorite Reads of 2014

As usual, my favorite reads were published predominantly by small presses, written by writers unafraid of taking chances with their work:

I bookended the year with collections by the innovative Robert Vaughan: Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits (blurbed, reviewed on Goodreads) and Addicts & Basements, also reviewed on Goodreads.

Every Kiss a War by Leesa Cross-Smith, just a beautiful collection, I blurbed and reviewed on Goodreads and interviewed Leesa here on this blog!

I also read and blurbed Nancy Stohlman’s book Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories. Nancy is another original who performs her stories live as well as she writes them.

I read Avital Gad-Cykman’s chapbook recently released from Matter Press: Life In, Life Out, and reviewed it on Goodreads and interviewed Avital right here on this blog.

If I Would Leave Myself Behind: Stories by Lauren Becker, which I also talked about here.

Understories by Tim Horvath, which is terrific and I gave five stars to on Goodreads.

I read two Gay Degani books in 2014, her collection, Pomegranate Stories and her novel What Came Before, which I blurbed and reviewed on Goodreads. I also interviewed Gay right here and she has lots of smart things to say about writing in general.

Bald New World by Peter Tieryas, reviewed on Goodreads. This book was recently nominated for the Folio Prize in the UK.

Bones of an Inland Sea by Mary Akers, reviewed on Goodreads.

The Last Days of California by Mary Miller, reviewed on Goodreads.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, reviewed on Goodreads.

My Mother Was An Upright Piano by the talented and versatile writer of flash as well as longer works, Tania Hershman, reviewed on Goodreads.

Girl with Ears & Demon with Limp by Edward J. Rathke, reviewed on Goodreads.

Doll Palace by Sara Lippmann, this book was one of my favorite short story collections of 2014 and one of my favorites, ever…reviewed at The Lit Pub.

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro, a great inspiration in 2014 and mentioned in various posts on this blog.

I reread The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (who incidentally drafted the novel in four weeks according to this article in The Guardian).

Understudies by Ravi Mangla, reviewed on Goodreads.

House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Don’t Tease the Elephants by Jen Knox. blurbed and reviewed on Goodreads.

Quarry Light by Claudia Smith Chen, reviewed at The Lit Pub.

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. A fascinating, harrowing read.

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life by Twyla Tharp, another inspiring read, also mentioned a time or two on this very blog.

Smokelong Quarterly: The Best of the First Ten Years 2003-2013, a book I contributed to and reviewed on Goodreads.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, reviewed on Goodreads. I loved this book so much I read it twice.

Segmented Flash Fiction: "Abbreviated Glossary" by Gay Degani (with author comments)

Gay II(Readers, in talking about my previous post with my friend, Gay Degani, she linked a segmented flash of her own and it’s…amazing. So I asked if I could reprint the story here and get her to talk a little about the story and its structure. I was hugely moved to learn the origins of the story and I think you will be too. Thanks so much, Gay, for honoring my blog once again!)

~~~

I wrote “Abbreviated Glossary” around 2009 or 2010, and I’m trying to remember what prompted me to do it this way. I know I didn’t want the piece to be too complicated–emotional scenes with dialogue–because the inspiration for the story was real. One of those “what if” stories where you take something from your life, something big, and change most of the details to create–well, a story not quite your own.

Honestly almost everything I write comes from my life in one form or another. In this case, it felt like an offering, I suppose. It’s turning my life into something meaningful and it was cleansing. Perhaps this is how I forgive myself. Or perhaps it’s my way of writing memoir. I did lose a child to anencephaly back in 1980, but I didn’t want this piece to be about me.

So segmentation worked. It allowed me to reveal a difficult situation without delving into all the emotion, all the self-blame, all the loss. I can’t find a draft of this story with any other structure so I must have been exploring “form” at the time, read someone else’s piece using this technique, and had an “aha” moment–that’s the way to do this story.

The original version was done as chapters, each segment with its own Roman numeral. I called it “Five Chapters.” At some point, I decided to use words instead. This added another dimension and gave me a more distinctive title. That’s all I can remember about this, other than I work-shopped it twice, both times with male authors facilitating, and interestingly, neither liked it–at all. Thus Melusine seemed to me the perfect place to submit.

(And here is Gay’s gorgeous and delicately wrought segmented flash, originally published in Melusine):

Abbreviated Glossary

Want:

I slide my naked leg between his thighs. Dev is trying a case tomorrow; he’s tired. But he owes me his touch, and I know exactly how to use my tongue.

Pact:

His lips disappear between his teeth when I break the news. He says he’s not ready—no diapers for him—but I know he is. I’ll do the hard part. I promise.

Hope:

My fingers knead the curve of my belly. Dev slips an arm around my waist and grins at his boss. Proud papa.

Thrill:

Dev can’t keep his hands off me, calls me sexy mama, but when he’s not around, I fret. Eight months along and my bump so small.

Rift:

Skull bones don’t always fuse together, the doctor tells me. I call Dev, but he’s in court, won’t request a recess, even when I beg. The hard part, I see, will be losing both.

Gay Degani lives in Southern California with her husband in an old Victorian house where parrots congregate at dusk in the oaks and camphors around her neighborhood.

She has published fiction online and in print, including her collection, Pomegranate Stories. She is founder and editor-emeritus of Flash Fiction Chronicles, an editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and blogs at: Words in Place where a complete list of her work can be found as well as her social media links.

Three times nominated for Pushcart consideration and winner of the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize, Gay has won or been a finalist in contests sponsored by Women On Writing, Glimmer Train, Writer’s Digest’s Short Short Competition, and Bosque (The Magazine). Her novella, The Old Road, has been unfolding in Pure Slush’s 2014-A Year in Stories project. Her suspense novel, What Came Before, is now available at Barnes and Noble online and Amazon.com in hardcover, trade paperback, and ebook formats.

A Conversation with Gay Degani, Author of WHAT CAME BEFORE

gay-aug-2012

“I’ve grown to trust that I have the answers to story problems somewhere in my head or at least in some brainstorming activity I can employ. Trusting that I will solve the problem allows me to let go of the problem and once I let go, answers start bubbling up. This comes from the act of working at craft over a period of time, failing, and then eventually succeeding. It works for writing, it works for life.” ~Gay Degani

Gay Degani is a writer and friend whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for many years. We first “met” on the Zoetrope Virtual Studios site where we were both writing flash fiction. She is well-known and respected in the lit community and manages to do so many things I suspect she has cloned herself. I was eager to get Gay here on my blog to talk about her new novel, What Came Before, and just to chat in general about the craft of writing. Life kept interrupting us both, but we enjoyed a fun email exchange over the course of a few weeks.

Get the book!

Get the book!

If you aren’t familiar with the book here is a synopsis from the jacket copy: “A literary suspense novel sparked by racial tensions and family history. Fed up with being tied down by twenty-five years of domestic bliss and everyone’s expectations, Abbie Palmer is struggling to assert some independence from her husband Craig and find her creative self. When he tells her, “No man is an island,” she flings back, “That’s exactly what I want to be, an island. I’m sick of being a whole continent.” But breaking away from her mainland isn’t so easy, what with cops, Molotov cocktails and Hollywood starlets, lost memories – and maybe an unknown half-sister…”

KF: Gay, my first question comes from having read a blog post of yours about an incident from your young life that I’ll quote here:

“I stood in front of two water fountains. I’d never had a choice like this before. Not in California.

One was labeled “white” and one was labeled “colored.” What would most little kids choose? I chose “colored,” of course, because to my mind that meant the water would come out like a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. When it didn’t, I was disappointed. I tried the white one. The two sprays of water were exactly the same. I was confused and angry.

I ran back to my grandpa. He said one was for white people, the other was for “colored” people. When I asked why, he just shrugged. I don’t remember for sure, but I think it was my father who explained it to me, that this kind of thing existed in the world.

And I wish I could say I knew instinctively at that young age the wrongness of it, but I didn’t. It’s something I have learned as I’ve grown into myself, through reading, through the experiences of the growing up in the fifties and sixties, through watching the news filled with civil rights marches, the Watts riots, and assassinations (MLK, Medgar Evers, Malcom X), how human beings tend to exist in a real world. “What Came Before” springs from a desire to show that people are more alike than different and that our differences enrich us.”

So could you talk a little about what went into your decision to have the character of Makenna be African-American?

GD: Originally, my concept for this story was simple: write a fast and funny story about a woman whose life goes awry when a sister she didn’t know existed is murdered and she’s stuck with her “niece,” me thinking “Ruthless People,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” something reminiscent of an 80’s comedy.

I’d been writing screenplays and had turned one of them into a novel when I realized how hard it is to negotiate around in the movie business and I was totally inhibited by pitching stories and selling myself. Novels felt safer and more clear-cut with less schmoozing. Little did I know…

At first, the “niece” character was white and the whole thing felt flat to me. There was no surprise. I’d been interning at Chaffey College to teach English and the woman in charge of the program was African-American and did a class on some of the things she felt white people didn’t understand about racism, addressing the subtle cues people send out even though they think of themselves as open-minded liberals, but often say or do things that are offensive to people of color. It was an eye-opening for me. I decided to make the niece African-American, though for me, a timid soul who steers clear of controversy, it was a somewhat frightening idea. What if I unintentionally wrote something that would anger people? But I wanted to do it, needed to do it for my own growth, and suddenly, a whole new, deeper story began to emerge.

KF: What happened that made you move away from the original fast and funny idea to something deeper, Gay? (take this question any direction you want).

GD: The simple and most accurate answer is that the story became deeper through my own growing love for my two main characters and wanting to tell their story in a way that would make readers love them too. And I wasn’t sure how to do that.

Honestly, it’s taken me a long long time to understand what elements a story must have to be “good,” and like so many writers who just start writing without the benefit of a structured program, I didn’t “get” that there are common elements in most successful stories, including a need for tension between the two main characters. Lesson: Two characters who get along from the get-go are boring, therefore if you have two protagonists, they cannot get along. And it was from seeing the world from my two characters different viewpoints that made me care about them.

I figured this out by taking screenwriting guru Robert McKee’s advice. (He wrote a terrific book on structure called Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting). He suggests that by studying movies to learn how story and structure work, you will begin to understand that the audience (or readers) have certain expectations and how good movies (and good books) meet those expectations. “Outrageous Fortune” and “Trading Places” were perfect illustrations for me to figure out how the main relationship in a piece of fiction should work. Once I realized the story needed to have tension between the two main characters, I knew I wanted to find ways to cause friction between Abbie and Makenna.

I wanted to create characters–especially Makenna–who would be believable and not trite. The only way I could do that was to write about her as a person, a teenager, as I understand teenagers. My emphasis had to be on her humanity, flaws and assets, not on her race so I made her middle-class. I know the middle class. I am in the middle class. She became real to me, like a daughter, just as she became real to Abbie.

I owed both of them a good, strong story where their weaknesses are acknowledged, but also where their humanity triumphs. The original text is the skeleton to final work with many, many changes. I left in the original yoga scene with its slapstick elements, though I felt I’d eventually have to take it out, but then it occurred to me that the books and movies also need surprise, and that perhaps that scene should stay. Writing is, after all, a process of creating, filtering, excising, and adding, and by mindfully allowing that process to do its job, a piece of work you love may result.

KF: Fantastic, Gay! I’ve heard so much about the McKee book…do you recommend it? Even if I’m not interested in writing a screenplay? I’ve heard from others it’s a great book.

GD: Kathy, I found him a revelation. Because I have a knack for words (or thought I did), I used language to drive story which is okay, but you still need to know how to go back and create purpose and sense out of the language. I really didn’t know how to do that. I ended up with convoluted stories to save all those paragraphs and details I loved. Reading McKee helped me to understand how structure is really the thing that should drive the piece. Not like an outline and not like a formula, but more as a guideline to what expectations the reader has when he or she picks up a book.

KF: I think that’s very apt what McKee says about “expectations” and that it may be the reason why a reader or a movie goer might not enjoy a book or film, saying well, everything was great (like the prose, or the acting, cinematography, etc.), yet they just didn’t end up liking it. Those ingrained expectations of how story works have not been met.

Once you read McKee’s book and felt like you “got it” regarding necessary elements of structure, did you find yourself going back to unpublished work or other works in progress to “fix” them?

GD: You say, after I “got it!” This made me shake my head because there is no way I can pinpoint this. The process has been so slow. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been in a structured program focused on learning the craft in a given time frame within a community of writers. For me, everything has been stretched out and amorphous, a kind of made-up-as I-go-along MFA, so going back to fix both works in-progress and published pieces is woven into my learning curve. Very little that I’ve published has been left untouched. Understanding structure is key to my writing and without that ability to question my text with structure in mind, I don’t know if I would still be writing. It’s what allows me to layer in meaning, and without meaning, without some emotional resonance, at least for me, lovely words just aren’t enough.

KF: Did it change your reading of other people’s stories or your experience watching films?

GD: Understanding structure has made me a smart-aleck. When a conversation about the strengths or weaknesses of a movie is going on, I can’t help myself. I pipe up with all the structural reasons it did or didn’t work. “Die Hard” works because it has such a solid structure. “Iron Man 2” doesn’t because it has no structure. Structure isn’t linear. It’s not the same thing as a string of events. It has set-ups and pay-offs which need to be employed to reveal character and meaning. It fulfills the expectations we have when we read, watch, or listen to a story.

It’s made it very difficult for me to finish reading a book that rambles on and on without telling me what the character wants or needs. I don’t need to be hit over the head with it, but I have to have a sense of inner conflict. The art on the part of the writer is letting me know this is happening on some level and then showing me why the character can or cannot change.

KF: Also, you said: “Writing is, after all, a process of creating, filtering, excising, and adding, and by mindfully allowing that process to do its job, a piece of work you love may result.”

This is excellent. I love “mindfully allowing that process to do its job.” And how you mindfully approached this novel. My next question is, this sounds so lovely, and so natural and smart. I envision you calmly and mindfully writing, revising this novel and loving every aspect of the process. Is that the experience you had?

GD: Ha! I hope you mean you envision me “calmly and mindfully writing” over a twelve-year period because that’s how long it’s taken me to get this novel right. And I’ve been “writing” one way or another since the fifth grade, most of that time scribbling pretty sentences, nice images, in stories that were convoluted and unsatisfying.

I was a mess of self-doubt for most of the last 40+ years, and it’s only been these twenty years or so that I’ve made real progress, when I cobbled together my self-propelled “MFA,” and began to understand structure. I’ve grown to trust that I have the answers to story problems somewhere in my head or at least in some brainstorming activity I can employ. Trusting that I will solve the problem allows me to let go of the problem and once I let go, answers start bubbling up. This comes from the act of working at craft over a period of time, failing, and then eventually succeeding. It works for writing, it works for life.

KF: Thanks so much, Gay!

Readers, What Came Before is published by Every Day Novels, an imprint of Every Day Publishing, Ltd., and has been serialized on its site. The book may be purchased from Amazon or Barnes & Noble and I highly, highly recommend it!

Gay Degani lives in Southern California with her husband in an old Victorian house where parrots congregate at dusk in the oaks and camphors around her neighborhood.

She has published fiction online and in print including her collection, Pomegranate Stories. She is founder and editor-emeritus of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles, a staff editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and blogs at Words in Place where a complete list of her work can be found as well as her social media links.

Three times nominated for Pushcart consideration and winner of the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize, Gay has won or been a finalist in contests sponsored by Women On Writing, Glimmer Train, Writer’s Digest’s Short Short Competition, and Bosque (The Magazine). Her novella, The Old Road, has been unfolding in Pure Slush’s 2014-A Year in Stories project. She blogs at: Words in Place.

Down for awhile…

…putting the blog on a short hiatus. But come back in June, when I’ll have a great interview up with Gay Degani, author of WHAT CAME BEFORE. You won’t want to miss it. what came before

Smokelong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years Anthology available now

SLQI have always felt very proud and honored for my time as fiction editor of Smokelong Quarterly. This journal gets better every year and remains one of the most respected venues for flash fiction around. Edited by the brilliant Tara Laskowski, “The Best of the First Ten Years: 2003-2013” anthology is now available from Matter Press. Here is the description:

SmokeLong Quarterly, one of the oldest and prominent online publishers of flash fiction, has collected the “best of the first ten years” in this anthology of 56 pieces, each one a smoke-long. Also, after each piece, the editor/guest editor who chose that particular story for the anthology explains why s/he chose it, including past editors Kelly Spitzer & Kathy Fish, Founding Editor and Publisher Dave Clapper, Senior Editors Tara Laskowski & Nancy Stebbins, and staff editors Gay Degani, Josh Denslow, Ashley Inguanta, Beth Thomas, and Brandon Wicks.

Get it!