Friday, December 18, 2015

Rift- Part One- an Interview with Kathy Fish

This past year, I've seen Kathy Fish's name continually pop up whenever and wherever flash fiction is being discussed. Naturally, I was both curious and excited when Fish's story collection, Rift, co-authored with Robert Vaughan, hit the shelves this past month from Unknown Press. I had every reason to expect the best in contemporary flash and, let me tell you, Rift does not disappoint. At times it is poignantly quiet; at times it reaches into your gut and twists. The stories within are a reminder of the excellence in craft that flash writers are achieving these days, but they are also powerful jolts of characters and moments, images and memories, the essence of storytelling distilled down into a dream-like ether that connects with you directly from the page. These pieces will strike out at you, lightening quick, and then leave you sometimes dazed, sometimes warm, sometimes unsettled, as all good writing should do.

Rift is unique, above all, in its almost unnoticeable duality. There are two authors here, yes, two fiction power-houses at work, but the collection reads seamlessly. If there weren't two names on the cover, I don't think you'd ever realize that both Kathy and Robert are inhabiting the space within. Here, though, and given the chance to dig deeper, I wanted to give each their due. Today, I bring you a conversation with Kathy Fish. Tomorrow, Robert Vaughan. There's a lot to enjoy here and a lot to learn from. Read on and then go pick up Rift to see for yourself. (And then read tomorrow's interview and go buy a copy for a friend....)

Steph Post: Rift is the first time I've read a dual short story collection where the stories weren't clearly separated by author. Although the table of contents pairs titles with authors and the order alternates throughout the book, often times it was easy to forget that I was reading a collection by two different peoples. Can you explain how this collection between you and Robert Vaughan came together? Was this was something the two of you collaborated on and then brought to Unknown Press or does Rift have a different origin? Why do you think yours and Vaughan's styles are so compatible?

Kathy Fish: I had been invited to join an online group called The Night Owl Café, which involved Robert, Bud Smith, Michael Gillian Maxwell and Meg Tuite. Meg wanted to take a break from the group to work on her novel. I was invited to take her place. I hadn’t been writing much at the time. After a few weeks of participation, Bud Smith came up with the idea of publishing a collaborative book of Robert's and my stories through Unknown Press. My initial response was, I’d love to do it, but I have hardly any new material! Bud’s response was, let’s see what the next few months in The Night Owl Café produce. So for a period of many months I was working intensively with Night Owl Café along with the great workshop I’ve been in for over a decade, Hot Pants, which is run by the amazing Kim Chinquee.

I’d known Robert as a small press author and flash fiction/poetry writer for some time prior to joining the workshop. I always admired his innovative, playful style and I think he liked my stories as well. The members of the workshop took turns giving weekly prompts. I think somehow through writing from the same prompts and giving each other feedback, and through the inspiration of reading everyone’s pieces, the work began to sort of organically meld together. I think our styles are compatible and complimentary at the same time. And I love that it’s difficult to parse out whose stories are whose in the book. To me, that makes it feel like a true collaboration, rather than just two separate collections thrown together. 

SP: Even before I began Rift, I had heard of your reputation for being a flash fiction master. All of the stories in Rift are flash, but some are so short that they might be called micro-fiction. I'm thinking of a piece such as "Woe," which packs a hell of a punch in the span of a paragraph. How are you able to distill an entire story down into a space this small? Do you start with a moment and explore the story behind it and then go back to the moment? How does this work?

KF: Thank you, Steph. I really love writing both kinds of stories. The more traditional short shorts and the more experimental micro-fictions. I will say that the micros seem to come to me all at once, in a rush of sense and feeling and language. There is a sense of sound and rhythm as well. It’s difficult to explain, but yes, I do tend to begin with an image/moment and it flows from there. I think readers either love these or don’t, but I love writing them. I never sit down with the idea of writing a micro, they just seem to arrive spontaneously on the page and I am never tempted to expand on them.

SP: Many of your stories in this collection have a dream-like quality, as in "A Room With Many Small Beds" (and many others) or have characters imagining a wishful, alternate world, such as in "There is no Albuquerque." I felt that many of Vaughan's pieces also had this dream-world sense about them. Is this a theme that was meant to be part of the collection or does this more broadly reflect overall themes in your work?

KF: I think a good portion of my own stories have that dream-like quality to them. I think particularly when I’m writing from a child’s point of view or drawing on memory, or in the case of “There is No Albuquerque” there in a strangeness that’s enhanced with a sense of imagining or living in an alternate world. Robert’s playfulness with language lends his work a dream-like quality as well. It’s not something we set out to do, but I think those are consistent aspects of both Robert's and my writing. I feel like our cover has that feel to it as well and sets the reader up for a somewhat surreal, magical experience in the book as a whole.

SP: Most of the longer pieces in Rift (well, long for flash fiction) seem to be broken up into even smaller segments. Both you and Vaughan break your stories up in various ways, by numbered sections, by place, by choices. What is the purpose of breaking up the already short stories into even shorter ones?

KF: I love to write segmented flash. I like to think of it as creating a mosaic. This structure makes use of white space in a way that encourages the reader to engage with the work. These types of stories lack bridges and transitions and a clear-cut internal structure. The book begins with “A Room with Many Small Beds” which is a story told in short, sharp bursts of memory and sensation and feeling. I feel like this is a better representation sometimes of our remembered experience than a traditionally told story. For me, it gives the feeling of snapshots.

SP: This is more of a question about flash fiction in general, but since you are the master... in this genre do you think that language or structure takes precedence over the story, because you are operating in such limited constraints?

KF: I think in writing flash the challenge is to give the sense of a story, to leave the reader with the same feeling that comes from being told a story, but within very few words. This requires a bit of finagling and deftness. Yes, language and structure must do more of the heavy lifting.

Now. One may create a flash that follows all the rules of short fiction, that is, it has a definite beginning, middle, and end. It has an arc and a resolution. It is technically a story, yet somehow still falls flat. I think when this happens it’s because it’s not in fact a flash fiction but a truncated short story, a short story that was not fully fleshed out. It makes for a dissatisfying read. Opinions differ, but I believe that flash is not just a super condensed version of a short story. It is its own distinct form, like poetry.

In order to succeed, a flash must have emotional resonance and a sense of an arc, a sense of change, which can be subtle. So, it’s advantageous to experiment and innovate. A flash writer must do more with image, more with evocation, more with style and language and nuance. It’s actually quite hard to do well.

SP: Finally, out of all of the pieces in Rift, "No Time For Prairie Dog Town" is my favorite. It absolutely gutted me and I had to read it over several times. It's exactly the sort of story I'd like to teach in a fiction workshop. (I may have to do that sometime....) Do you have a favorite? Or a favorite theme or structure that you've written within this genre? Is there another flash fiction author that I should have on my radar?

KF: Oh I love hearing what readers’ favorite stories were! Thanks, Steph. That story means a lot to me. My brother died in March and right after that I experienced a sort of creative mania and was writing story after story. I’ve made a few sad road trips home like that and I suppose I’ll keep trying to capture that experience. Everything is so heightened, so bursting with meaning and feeling.

You ask such great questions! I guess my favorite story of the collection is my first one, “A Room with Many Small Beds.” It was the story that underwent the most revision and pulled in bits of writing I had done over many years actually. For instance, at one time, the fragment about the visit to the mental hospital was its own stand alone story. But I cut that to the bone and used it in this story. Though it’s primarily fiction, a lot is drawn from my childhood as well. My mother had actually driven us to our grandfather’s house and burned a dollar bill in front of him. I mean, I had to use that, right?

My favorite of Robert’s is actually the one that follows mine, “Galloping into the Future.” He uses the same fragmented structure and the story is so brilliant and alive and surprising. The final image is gorgeous.

Steph, there are SO many amazing writers publishing flash fiction right now. I think many would not call themselves primarily flash fiction writers. I’m just wild about Kendra Fortmeyer’s writing. She has a chapbook called “The Girl Who Could Only Say sex, drugs, and rock & roll” from Awst Press (I haven’t read it yet, but will) and Rosie Forrest is just a crazy good writer, too. She has just published a chapbook called “Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan” with Rose Metal Press and it’s terrific.

 Many thanks to Kathy Fish for stopping by! Be sure to check out Robert Vaughan's interview, posting tomorrow, and, of course, pick up your copy of Rift. Cheers and happy reading!


  1. Loved your questions, Steph! Thanks so much for the support.


  2. This is a terrific interview and I love your responses, Kathy! Will re-post to all of my social sites!


Thanks for your comments!