Monday, November 26, 2018

Tara Campbell on the Power of Writing Short

The author of Circe’s Bicycle talks about worst case scenarios and the magic of flash fiction
By Yohanca Delgado

The reported resurgence in the popularity of poetry suggests a broader hunger for brevity, for lean literary art. Tara Campbell is ahead of curve. Though her first book was the novel TreeVolution (Lillicat Publishers, 2016), she has been writing poetry and flash for years and teaches flash fiction across the DMV area. 

Tara Campbell's second book, Circe's Bicycle (LitFest Press, April 2018) is a collection of flash fiction and poetry. We talked about creating the connective tissue in a flash and poetry collection, writing the dreaded “what if,” and the difference between writing long and writing short. 

Your second book, Circe’s Bicycle, is a collection of flash fiction and poetry. What inspired you to bring those two forms together in one collection? What is about these two forms that works well together?

I have my editor Jane Carman of Lit Fest Press to thank for the inspiration to bring poetry and prose together. I had submitted a couple of micro-pieces to their magazine, and Jane asked if I had enough for a collection. I hadn’t been working toward a collection, and wasn’t sure I had enough of one particular form to put together. Fortunately, Jane was open to a hybrid collection, so I looked back at all my small, strange things to see what made sense together. I took the paintings down from one wall of my office, then printed the poems and stories out and jotted potential themes on each page before taping them to the wall. Pretty soon my office looked like one of those movies where the detective is staring at a web of strings attached to various photos and pieces of evidence stuck to the walls—except I used red sharpie instead of string. Out of that process emerged the two thematic sections of the collection: “Tradition & Transition” and “Love & Consequences.”

Let’s talk about “We are Twenty-Six,” one of my favorite pieces in this collection. It’s a deliciously fabulist meditation on stagnation and addiction—told from the perspective of twenty-six renegade teeth. How did you combine these two seemingly disparate ideas: stagnation and teeth? 

I tend to fixate on the worst-case scenarios for any situation that comes my way, no matter how unlikely I know my imagined outcomes are. I’ve always ground my teeth in my sleep, but for some reason, I didn’t really stress about it that much until I went to a new dentist. She’s very thorough and competent, and explained to me what grinding was doing not only to my teeth, but also to my gums. So of course my brain created the most ridiculous image of all my teeth spontaneously spilling out of my mouth, and I suppose that combined with my concern about becoming stagnant as a writer (I see all my fellow writers’ heads nodding out there), and this story is the result of those two anxieties. Because that’s what writers do, isn’t it: we fixate on something and then have to write through it.  

Along those same lines, the title story, “Circe’s Bicycle,” evokes the siren call of a particular form of escapist grief. A giant bee that carries away a mother who is mourning her child. Can you talk a little bit about how that story came together? 

This story came out of a dream where I was in a room with a small insect that was growing gradually bigger and more threatening, and I was trying to figure out what it wanted from me. I usually don’t write from dreams because the resulting stories can so easily wind up going nowhere. But there was such a curious combination of dread and fascination in the dream, I had to figure out what that was about.

I suppose it’s also about love and vulnerability. When you really fall in love, whether with a partner or your children or whomever, it’s like a little piece of your heart is no longer safe inside your chest, but walking around on its own. It’s a beautiful and terrifying thing. You start to think about how easily everything could change, and while on the one hand you’re happy and grateful, you also have to face the realization that there’s no way keep your loved ones completely safe in the world. 

Flash is having a moment these days, but you’re not new to the form. You teach flash in various places, including The Writer’s Center, American University, and the National Gallery of Art. What do you think it is about the form that appeals so much in 2018? 

Well, the first thing that comes to mind is the trend toward distraction (i.e. multitasking) and shorter attention spans, and some people may feel that’s a simplistic answer, but I think there is something to it. It speaks to a deeper anxiety about not having enough time to absorb all of the information coming at us today. Books, TV, movies, music, news, fake news—it’s no longer enough to read; we have to read even more to figure out if what we’ve just read is real. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and stressed, and flash fiction can be a brief respite from that. It’s not written as fact, yet it can express truths that are often drowned out in all the media whizzing around us.

Flash is also super accessible. There’s lots of amazing flash online, most of it for free, which means readers can experience a story at any time on their phones wherever they are. Perhaps there’s an element of commitment-phobia or FOMO to the trend toward shorter forms, but I view that in a more positive light. In a world where we all feel pressed for time, flash allows readers and writers to experiment without inhibition. We can try a new author/voice/form, and concentrate entirely on that one thing, without fretting over “losing” the time we’re dedicating to it. If someone who doesn’t think they have time to read a whole novel still carves out time for flash fiction, that’s a good thing.

The prospect of resolution is also a powerful motivator. There is peace in being able to complete something, read or write this one little story, to feel like you’ve understood at least one thing in an endlessly complicated world.

Your first book was a novel (TreeVolution, Lillicat Publishers 2016). How did you transition from writing long to writing short and back to long again? How do the demands of long-form work differ from those of flash for you? 

I have to admit that I don’t normally start a story knowing exactly where it’s going or how long it’s going to turn out. Most of my work starts out with a “what-if” and I spin out various solutions until the story sorts itself out in my head. Poems are a little different, because they usually come to me when I’m pissed off about something. But if I figure out I’m writing a book, I’m like, “Oh crap, here we go,” because we all know novels aren’t easy. When you’re lucky, it’s the subject matter, the problems you throw at your characters and solutions they come up with, that keep you going, no matter what the length.

I’m usually working on both short and long projects at the same time. Quite often the poems and stories are safety valves for the longer work. When I get stuck on a book, being able to turn to a more immediate goal like a story is much better than shutting down altogether. Above all, I try to keep writing.

Even as you move across forms and genres, are there themes and questions that consistently spark your curiosity and drive your work? 

As I mentioned earlier, I often write poetry in response to something that pisses me off—violence, racism, sexism, all the -isms. That doesn’t necessarily mean an angry poem comes out of it. Some poems come out playful and hopeful, imagining the world that might be if those various -isms were kicked to the curb, like “When Peanut Butter Baby Ruled the World.” Sometimes real-world problems morph into imagined worlds, and other times imagined worlds become places to speak to real-world problems and examine human nature. 

I get a lot of ideas from the news and popular science articles. Yes, of course additional research is required, but things like IFLScience and stories on NPR fuel a lot of great ideas. In fact, it was a radio segment about scientists listening in on thirsty trees on that inspired my novel TreeVolution

In short, the overarching theme of my work is “what if?”

What do you read to fuel your work? Do you read flash when you’re working on flash, for example, or do you read across genres? Whose work inspires you?

I often say I write science fiction for people who don’t think they read science fiction, and that’s what I like to read as well. My favorite speculative fiction considers possible futures while remembering that the science should be in service of the story, not the other way around. Margaret Atwood is a master of this, whether the primary focus is political, as in the The Handmaid’s Tale, or our bioengineered world, as in her MaddAddam series. Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel is another example of speculative fiction that crosses genres: dystopian with a lush, literary feel.

I’ve always read across genres, and all over the map: Ray Bradbury, Alice Munro, ZZ Packer, Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula le Guin, Mitchell S. Jackson, Octavia Butler, Joyce Carol Oates. I went through a big John Irving phase, and Christopher Buckley’s always good for a laugh. Hitchhiker’s Guide was huge for me, naturally, and I read all the books in the series.

And I’ve found wonderful additions to my reading list by going to local readings. I encourage folks to support their local authors, not just the big names, because there’s a lot of talent on the ground. I think at last count there were approximately eleventy-billion amazing writers in the DC-metro area.

What books do you recommend to writers interested in exploring flash? 

Reading lots of flash and finding stories that make you shiver is the best way to go. There are lots of journals available online, mostly free, so enjoy! Of course, I have to start with Barrelhouse (full disclosure, I’m a fiction editor there). But there’s also (b)OINK, Brevity, CHEAP POP, Cotton Xenomorph, Ellipsis Zine, Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, Heavy Feather Review, Jellyfish Review, jmww, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, KYSO Flash, Literary Orphans, Lost Balloon, Matchbook, PANK, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spelk, Split Lip, Tin House, Vestal Review, WhiskeyPaper, and Wigleaf. And then there are the compilations like Best Small Fictions, Wigleaf 50, and Best of the Net (this last one isn’t restricted to flash).

I always hesitate to single out individual authors, because I know I’ll remember dozens more I should have added once the thing goes to print. But I will mention some contemporary writers whose stories I’ve taught in flash courses: Amber Sparks, Rion Amilcar Scott, Kathy Fish, Jan Elman Stout, Kathryn Kulpa, Brynn MacNabb, Christopher Gonzalez, Tyrese Coleman, Tessa Yang, Dorothy Bendel, Cathy Ulrich, Jennifer Young, Megan Giddings, Ben Loory, Miranda Stone, and Virgie Townsend.

What are you working on these days? Any new projects on the horizon? 

My eternal book project still looms large: a historical novel about a “troupe” of Ashanti (now Ghana) on an ethnographic tour to Vienna, Austria in the late 19th century. I came across an Austrian author’s account of this exhibit while working on my MA in German, and I couldn’t believe what I was reading. These ethnographic exhibitions, in which human beings were put on display, sound more like an episode of The Twilight Zone than history. But they actually happened, often taking place in zoos. I wanted to know more, and particularly from the perspective of the people on display. This project a bit of a departure from anything I’ve done before, but the story so captivated me, I have to keep chipping away at it.


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