Robert Vaughan teaches workshops in hybrid writing, poetry, fiction, and playwriting. He has facilitated these at locations like Alverno College, UWM, Fox Valley Technical School, JMWW (online), Red Oak Writing, The Clearing and Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos. He leads writing roundtables in Milwaukee, WI. Twice a finalist for the Gertrude Stein Award for Fiction (2013, 2014), his short fiction, “A Box” will appear in the Best Small Fictions 2016 (Queen’s Ferry Press). Vaughan is the author of four books: Microtones (Cervena Barva Press, 2012); Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits (Deadly Chaps, 2013); Addicts & Basements (CCM, 2014). His newest, RIFT, is a flash fiction collection co-authored with Kathy Fish (Unknown Press, 2015). He blogs at www.robert-vaughan.com.
Kathy Fish & Robert Vaughan Interview with Karen Stefano
These two writers are masters of flash fiction. Their prose is consistently spare and stunning. Take a look at these lines from Kathy’s pieces:
“The man could see her breast through the opening in her pajamas and he touched it and mouthed it and she let him and she liked it and this is how they were for some time, her bent to the man, the long strands of her hair falling onto the little dog’s head and over his blind eyes, in the quiet of the woman’s abode.”
“She no longer recognizes herself. Even her voice has changed. She moves, walks, and talks exactly like her grandmother did. She feels lumpy, angry, deranged. She has begun Facebook stalking Rodney, her daughter’s boyfriend.”
And these from Robert’s:
“I was late to the square dance for guys with O.C.D. It was fully underway but before I stepped into the bar, I had to circle back to my car thirty steps one way, three times, circle the car three times, thirty steps total, then click my alarm beeper three times off/on, off/on, off/on.”
“You still walk in circles, but without our house on stilts, there is no ground to choose. I am tethered to the planet by a fraying rope. By a slate blue porcelain sheet.”
How did you two develop the idea to create a collaborative collection like this? And how did you arrive at the structure for the book?
Robert: The idea for RIFT was originated by Bud Smith (Unknown Press). Bud and I had been in an online small group called Night Owl Café, along with Michael Maxwell and Meg Tuite (2014). Meg had to take 2015 off, due to working on a novel. We asked Kathy Fish to join us for 2015, and shortly after she agreed, we were approached by Bud about doing a collaborating flash fiction book together. He approached me first, and I told him I didn’t think Kathy would be into it!
Kathy: What Robert said, except I want it known how intimidating it was for me to be following in Meg Tuite’s shoes! Workshops sometimes have a delicate balance of personalities and I was afraid the guys wouldn’t like me or dig my work or trust my feedback or whatever. However! I couldn’t have felt more welcome. And the Night Owl Cafe proved to be amazingly productive and better, it was FUN! I wrote so much. I should say though, that when Bud approached me about doing a book with Robert, I was like, well, that sounds great, but I have almost no new work (and I didn’t at that point). Bud, being Bud, said no problem, let’s see how the next few months go. And of course, it all went swimmingly and Robert and I ended up with a ton of new stories to work with.
The structure evolved from the great title that Robert came up with. We played with the notion of rifts, schisms, fractures, etc. Then at some point, I think I came up with the idea of sectioning the book into four parts of increasing intensity, the four sections we have now. We put our stories into these categories, then Robert sort of intuitively figured out the pairings, which of his stories paired well with mine and we created this dance between our stories that I think worked out really well.
I would have to agree! Tell me, both of you, what’s your process when writing flash fiction?
Kathy: I’ve said this before and I hope it makes sense, but I start with a certain sound, or rhythm of prose that may or may not have actual words plugged into it. I often already have a structure in mind as well. Then I plug in images, dialogue, whatever. What I think is going on is that somewhere buried in my subconscious I already have a “story” but my conscious mind begins with the sound, so that’s where I start writing. Prompts just help to bring the subconscious story to life. I never start with a “situation” or “plot.”
Robert: Typically, I start with some image, or a quote or a line that I really love from another author (that I take out!) I love prompts but I have to work into the dark, that is, without knowing too much where I’m heading. And I run with a first draft as openly as possible… see where it heads, and will usually write the entire piece in one sitting. Then, I will either place it up in the online group, or I also am part of a critique group here in Milwaukee, also. Getting feedback helps, and then I typically re-write parts.
What is your best advice to writers of flash fiction?
Robert: Write from your heart, as much as your head. Try sensory additions. Give a first draft your best shot, but don’t expect it to be ready to submit. Don’t forget to have enough tension/conflict. Read it out loud. Then read it again. Get feedback from others. Make changes, then re-edit it. And sometimes let it sit. There are pieces in RIFT I wrote the first draft for over ten years ago! Trust the process, and your own, also.
Kathy: I agree with everything Robert says about this. Especially, do not rush the process. Don’t be in such a hurry to amass a ton of publications, which is kind of easy to do with flash fiction. I can see the value of this. I can see the value of “getting your name out there” but try to be a little patient and only put your best work out there. It’s a glorious feeling to complete a first draft! But know that all first drafts can be made better, deeper, stronger, more resonant, etc. Also, just read a ton of flash fiction. Read The Best Small Fictions anthology that Queen’s Ferry Press puts out. (Rift has two stories in the 2016 volume!)
Kathy, “Tool” is one of my favorite pieces in this collaborative collection. What was the inspiration for this piece?
Kathy: So, “Tool” comes from a series of flashes based on a love story between two teenagers. It began as a segmented story called “Rodney & Chelsea” that was published in New World Writing some time ago.
That story includes the family dynamics of both of the teenagers. I developed the story (which I ’ m hoping to expand into a novella) with more flashes that were actually published here in Connotation Press: “Love Train / Like Copernicus / Interrogative / Spill / Buffer.” I further expanded on this story for a trio of flashes that was then published in Corium Magazine: “Ripe,” “Juniors,” and “Tool.”
If memory serves, I believe Robert suggested that I blend some of the individual pieces to make “Tool” its own standalone story for Rift. This story focuses on the mother of the teen girl. She is going through something of a mid-life crisis, brought to a head by a recent hysterectomy. There is some writing wisdom that the most interesting characters are those who are at the very end of their rope. That’s exactly what I was going for with Chelsea’s mother in this story.
And Robert, what inspired “Postcards of a Life?”
I am always struck by how parents and adult kids continue their communication after kids leave the home. I think I was attempting to show, through a lost art (postcards!) how there is more than one manner to demonstrate distance in a relationship between father and son. Both sides seem so non-reactive. Perhaps it is, on another level, how despite reaching out to another family member, how much does it matter? It’s a fairly large chunk of time that seems to go between the four postcards (white space, much?!) and that also adds dimension to the overall piece.
Kathy, Robert, why do you think fiction matters in this world?
Kathy: What a great question! You know, there are so many great quotations that speak to the importance of fiction in our world. I would say that fiction, on the most basic level, tells the truth of our humanity. What is impossible to say directly, we can address in literature. But on a more personal level, fiction teaches us empathy. Slipping seamlessly into another person’s skin. I think Joyce Carol Oates said something to that effect. In reading fiction, we can experience many different lives, worlds, points of view. We grow as human beings in compassion and empathy. Plus, it’s Art, it’s Beauty, it’s Truth. And sometimes just really fun to read and write.
Robert: Kathy’s response really inspires me, and I’d like to add that in our increasingly dangerous world in which we live, fiction offers us departures. Whether it be simply a rough day, or spell, or that we travel for work, or are forging through loss, or another grieving process, often the “right” book arrives at the perfect time. We can get “outside ourselves” for bursts of time, and live elsewhere in our minds, through the words on a page. And through this fictional transport, we are changed.
You gave great advice to writers of flash fiction a moment ago. So tell me, what advice would you give to your twenty-year-old self?
Kathy: Stop being so afraid. Believe in yourself. Also, pursue writing! You know you love it. You really don’t want to be a psychologist. Also rethink that hairstyle.
Robert: Keep dreaming that one day you will be a full time writer. Keep your imagination open to all things possible. Remember that love matters more than anything else.
Excellent advice on all fronts! Shifting gears radically here, tell me Kathy, what is the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you?
Kathy: When I was young, I had these sort of out-of-body experiences on a regular basis. I didn’t know that’s what they were called. I found them mildly pleasurable and never told anybody about them. I tried writing about these experiences in A Room With Many Small Beds and earlier in a story called How Elm Trees Die. To my dismay, I eventually grew out of it, though I tried many times to get back into that floaty state. I was a very weird child.
And you, Robert?
Robert: I lived on a nude beach (Makena) on Maui on and off for over a summer.
Um, okay. I can’t let that one go. Can you please elaborate, Robert?
Robert: Sure. In the mid 1980s, my close childhood friend, James, was murdered in Bangkok. It was a pivotal event for me. I probably had an undiagnosed breakdown of sorts, ending up in Arcata, California for a time, then off to Hawaii with two friends, where I contemplated why am I here, truly, for the first time in my life. Makena Beach provided the best healing, nurturing backdrop I sought unknowingly. Stripped down to essential elements, rocking in the Pacific, probing, questioning, letting go. Maui rooted me to the planet in a way I’m not sure I was prior to that time. Eventually, I swam my way back to the mainland.
Oh, and we are so glad that you did swim back…
Kathy, what are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel. I just learned I’ve been accepted into a workshop this summer with Jenny Offill and I’m so excited and nervous. Mostly excited. I love the challenge and I love learning something new.
Sounds fantastic! Robert, what about you?
I’m working on my next collection, Fun House. Also a memoir called Oh. It’s You. (alternate title: Who’s Been Sleeping in my Bed).
Kathy and Robert, thank you! Connotation Press is honored to feature the two of you this month!
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