Shoot ‘em and Bury ‘em: An Interview with Paul Beckman
Let’s talk about family. We all have one! We all love one (or two or three)! They all are infuriating and lovely and difficult and unique! Your stories in this issue (“Then They All Went For Dessert,” “Birthday Puppy,” and “A Flock of Mortimer Snerds”) deal with families in various ways, from long lost fathers to unusual family gatherings. What makes family a topic you return to often?
There’s a fascination I have for other people’s families as well as my own. The strange rituals that they accept as perfectly normal are gifts to writers who choose to accept them and chronicle them into our fictional stories. And I certainly do choose to accept them.
I come from a large family that unfortunately is no longer large or accessible. The current generation is scattered by the winds from too much familiarity.
Factions—I’m amazed how little it takes to turn families into factions and often it’s money or more likely the perception of and it could be a recipe, a telephone call with minor information that came a day later than the one to another sibling.
I am a child of early divorce so that certainly plays into my work.
The Yiddish word for crazy (not institution crazy—but day to day crazy) is mischegas and mischegas blooms like weeds if you’re attuned to observe it and observe it with a klaxon horn going off is what I do and how I think. Thankfully.
You are a prolific flash fiction writer! How many flash stories have you published (ballpark or actual figure)? Tell us about your writing habits when it comes to flash (for instance, do you write quickly, slowly? Do you revise, revise, revise, or do stories come out pretty polished in the first instance?). Tell us what a Paul Beckman Writing Day looks like.
I’m pretty sure that I’ve published between 400 & 500 stories and probably I’ve had to take double that amount out to the back yard shoot ‘em and bury ‘em as not being story-worthy.
I tend to write flash quickly and don’t leave it until it is finished. I need to have the same feeling all the way through even though I don’t know what the next word, sentence, or happening will be. After that I revise, read aloud, revise and repeat. I’ve been fortunate to have a few stories birthed and ready to submit but it’s not a good idea for me. A little time and some reading aloud keeps me on my writing toes.
A writing day, now that I’m retired, consists of me going right to my office and checking my emails for acceptances and the dreaded all-too-common rejections. Next I will start off with a revision or two and start a story if a good prompt word or phrase or nifty thought has popped into my head like listening to a tune you can’t shake. Then I will write a story to that prompt or to other prompts that have come to me via some of the great writing classes I take.
Before I knew what a prompt was and I would find myself staring at a blank paper I would grab a book at random, flick through the pages until a word loomed large and then I was back to my desk writing to that word. It was years later before I found out I didn’t invent this concept.
Most writers agree endings are hard! I love the way you end “Then They all Went for Dessert” with the same line as the title--it leaves so much room for possibilities. What’s your process with endings? Do you have any favorite ending lines from any written form?
“A group of schoolchildren is a target.” Kathy Fish, from Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild, Jellyfish Review
“But that is not what happened.” Karen Donovan, Moon City Review
“In a moment, she slides my plate onto her empty one and begins to eat.” Jayne Anne Phillips from Something That Happened in Fast Lanes
“The books tumbled out from under my feet, but I stayed floating in midair, hanging just from her lips.” Etgar Keret, from Crazy Glue.
For those unfamiliar with your work, could you provide us with some extra reading (links to stories/ books/ articles):
Paul Beckman Published Story Website
Paul Beckman Blog
What are you reading at the moment (or have read recently)? If you could save one book from the burning flames of the apocalypse, what would it be?
Nancy Stohlman: Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities
Meg Pokrass: Alligators at Night
James Claffey: The Heart Crossways
Kathy Fish: Wild Life Collected Works 2003 – 2018
Joshua Beckman: The Lives of the Poems and Three Talks
One book from the burning flames: Today that would be: The Collected Works of Isaac Bashevis Singer (In a couple of hours it’ll be a different one and so on.)
What’s in the pipeline? Any upcoming projects or publications?
Upcoming publications: Fleas on the Dog, Spelk, New Flash Fiction Review, Potato Soup Journal, Lost Balloon, Fictive Dream, Blink-Ink, Worthing Flash, Flash Fiction Magazine, Literally Stories, Thrice Fiction, Mark Literary Review
Upcoming: A publisher wants me to write more stories about growing up in the projects to make it book length.
I want to do a flash novella featuring Mirsky and Elaine—recurring characters for 30+ years.
Thanks so much, Paul, for joining us this month at Connotation Press!
Thank you, Jonathan, for these thought provoking questions.
Then They All Went Inside for Dessert
My parents told me to come home no sooner than 11pm since it was their turn to host the quarterly party. What’s the big deal if I come home earlier and watch TV or go to bed? Don’t even think of it my mother said so naturally I could think of nothing else so at 8pm I parked my car around the corner weaved through yards and watched as a dozen so called adult men worked on shimmying up ropes tied to branches of our white oak trees. They were yucking it up until Mr. Shore reached his branch and everyone else froze. Mr. Shore then slid down and after a few moments of silence the other men slid down and clapped. Meanwhile Mrs. Shore was busy making a noose and positioning it seven feet off the ground. The women dragged Mr. Shore over to the kitchen chair, stood him up, and then Mrs. Shore gave him a shot of Jagermeister, a kiss on the cheek, and ruffled his hair. Like a field goal kicker she stepped back two paces then two to the side blew her husband an air kiss, ran at the chair and kicked it out from under him. Then they all went inside for dessert
A Flock of Mortimer Snerds
My family started with the giggles as soon as they sat down. The goofball cousins tried to take the first row but were ushered out and they moved behind us to the third row. I didn’t want those freaks sitting behind me.
They Aunts and Uncles came in— the Aunts all lipsticked and rouged up wearing new hats they thought made up for their old dresses for this special occasion. They were actually smiling, the Aunts were, something not seen all that often whereas the Uncles always had a goofy look that made them appear to be smiling. I don’t know how the hell all six sisters ended up with a flock of Mortimer Snerds. Some might say they were lucky to end up with anyone being the toughsters they were.
Other people walked in solemnly and dressed in new suits and hats both the men and the women and the kids in white starched shirts and bow ties. One of the women took over and pointed at rows for people to sit in and she didn’t have to holler or hit anyone they went where they were pointed. You couldn’t find a smile in the lot of them. The looked straight ahead and sat upright and no one fidgeted or gave an Indian rope burn to a cousin not like what was going on in our side of the church.
My family was so happy with this upcoming wedding and theirs was equally unhappy, maybe more so. We acted like we were the one marrying into money not just Bernie who could’ve cared less about the Potters and their money. The Potters were unhappy about marrying beneath their status and a Jew to boot. My family didn’t know squat about Episcopalians except that soon there was going to be a mess of them in the family.
The wedding was scheduled for noon and it was ten after and people were still straggling in which didn’t make my uncles very happy. They ate by the clock and right now the clock was telling them they were hungry. They wanted the ceremony to be over and to be in the Elks Club for the bounty that Mr. Potter was sure to have.
The Rabbi and the Minister came out from behind the curtain and neither looked happy and wouldn’t until the ceremony was over and they were given their envelopes. The organ player played a song and we looked around for the monkey since none of us ever saw a organ player without one. Mom and Bernie walked up the aisle first and stood in front of the clergy guys and Mom stepped back two steps and waited.
Next a little girl carrying a basket walked up the aisle and tossed out rose petals as she went and when her basket was empty she stood still and the organ grinder played Here Comes the Bride. Teens in tuxedos escorted girls in gowns up the aisle and then Mr. Potter and Missy walked up stopping every other step. She was really beautiful. Bernie turned to greet them, shook Mr. Potter’s hand, and then took Missy’s hand and they stood facing the clergy guys.
Mr. Potter took two steps back and then, since his legs were longer than Moms, took a half step forward and they stood side by side not looking at each other. The Rabbi said mumble mumble mumble and then the Minister said his mumbles and then the Rabbi put a 30 watt light bulb in a napkin and Bernie stomped on it and Mom almost jumped into Mr. Potter’s arms. Then Bernie kissed Missy and Mr. Potter shook Mom’s hand and our side piled out while the other side stayed in their seats until the pointer lady pointed at them to go.
Bernie and Missy held hands as they walked to the Elk’s Club and we all followed them. Inside the Rabbi mumbled over the loaf of bread and the Minister mumbled over the wine and then the band started playing while waitresses passed around food from large platters and then the hushes broke out as Bernie and Missy danced while everyone stood around the dance floor and watched. After a bit Bernie took Mom’s hand and danced with her and Missy danced with Mr. Potter and then Bernie and Missy went back to dancing and Mom walked over to Mr. Potter and put her arms out and he danced with her. I have to tell you that they were way better at this dancing thing than Bernie and Missy.
Someone announced that the bar was open and people lined up to get their free drinks. The band stopped playing and Mr. Potter made a short speech welcoming Bernie into his family and Mom followed him and said, “Welcome, Missy. We love you.” Then Mr. Potter took the mic and said, “The open bar will close in a half hour and dinner will be served.”
I didn’t recognize the man who was standing in front of me when I opened the door, battered fedora in hand a mutt puppy in the crook of his arm.
He spoke in an unfamiliar voice. “I was once a good father and you can repay me by giving me a place to stay. Here’s the puppy I promised you for your tenth birthday.”
I took the puppy, let him lick my face as this stranger unwrapped a cigar and stuck it in the corner of his mouth without bothering to light it. I noticed a large well-worn leather suitcase and as he reached down for it I shut the door on him.
He opened the unlocked door and muscled his suitcase inside. “At least thank me for the puppy or give it back,” he said. “How about a drink or do you want to show me my room first?” he asked and sat on the couch,
I held the puppy and didn’t look at him.
“The same old silent treatment your mother used on me. She taught you well.” He handed me a wrinkled envelope from his inner pocket. “Your mother sent me this letter years ago; I want you to read it.”
I’m sorry I kicked you out of the house. You were right. I shouldn’t have spanked and yelled at Larry so many times. I treated him like my mother treated me. That’s all I knew about being a parent.
“How about that drink?” he asked.
I poured us each two fingers of bourbon, neat. I handed him his drink and he held it out to clink. I ignored the clink and drank mine down. I punched in Uber on my cell and carried his suitcase out to the front steps, then took his glass, still with his unfinished drink, and handed him the puppy and hustled him out of the house.
He started to say something and I put up my hand and said, “You are not my father, I am not your son.”
After I heard a car pull up in front of my house I pushed the drape aside and watched him get into the car and drive off. I went out to have a smoke and as I sat on the steps the mutt puppy came over and sat next to me.