It Can't All Be Life or Death
A Conversation with Kathy Fish
by Tyler Barton
In 2012, before I knew I wanted to pursue writing seriously, I came across Kathy Fish’s work online and quickly purchased her flash fiction collection Wild Life. The book was full of a kind of writing I had never read—quietly powerful, intuitive, and so beautifully brief. Needless to say, it shoved me hard toward the dream of being a writer. For me, the slim book is both a craft manual and a symbol of that dream.
Imagine my delight, surprise, and confusion when I saw that Fish was publishing a brand new book called…Wild Life. But wait—this Wild Life is a new-and-collected (a “best of,” as Fish describes it) encompassing her original book, plus some of her favorites from the subsequent seven years. It was published by Matter Press this winter, and I had the pleasure of talking to Fish about the daunting process of carving a book of fifty stories from a bibliography of over 200.
T.B.: Where did the idea for a collected works come from? Is it something you'd been thinking about doing, or was it an idea the publisher came to you with?
Kathy Fish: Randall Brown (publisher of Matter Press) wrote to me about this a couple of years ago, actually. The original Wild Life (2011) had been sold out for a while. At that time we were just looking at re-publishing the original with a few newer stories added. It was a few months before I was able to sit down and look at the book. What I realized was that I'd very much
"grown out of" some of the work in that original book. I knew then I wanted something more along the lines of a "best of" collection that drew from my other books and more recent stories.
I ended up taking out a fair number of those original stories and began a process of sifting through my work from the last fifteen years. I included stories from other collections, but I did want to keep to the original aesthetic of Wild Life, going for stories with a more wild, surreal, and deeply sad bent to them.
T. B.: That's really interesting—I had assumed the new book was just the original Wild Life (which was about thirty-seven stories), plus some new favorites. But it sounds like you totally re-tooled it. What does it mean to grow out of a story?
K. F.: Yes, that was the original intent. But Wild Life had some very old stories in it. One thing I noticed, going through all my stories, was that some are more enduring. The writing in the stories that endured is more precise, sharply honed, and focused. Other stories have a looser feel to the prose. A lot of them were very funny and weird. Those are pieces I enjoyed writing, but looking at them now, they feel too "easy" and not really worthy of a book.
T. B.: One thing I think about a lot is the idea of “stakes” in flash fiction. Did it seem that some stories didn't have the stakes that others did? Like, some stories weren’t answering that dreaded “So what?” question?
K. F.: For my own aesthetic, I'm not as invested in the idea of "stakes" in flash fiction. In this new collection there are few pieces that are very close to being prose poetry, where there is less of a sense of stakes I guess. I like the idea of "emotional urgency" a bit more when it comes to flash. But even with emotional urgency, there is a sort of continuum, you know? It can't all be life or death. It comes down to the feeling of a book or collection as a whole. I think of it as its own piece of art. So to me, a collection of thirty or more very intense stories doesn't work. You want it to play like a long piece of music or symphony. You want to give your reader a textured experience. Highs and lows. Intense and "softer" stories. So no, it wasn't based on every piece needing "stakes." I wanted stories that were strong, polished, focused, emotionally urgent, as opposed to having heavy stakes or plotlines.
T. B.: That makes a lot of sense. I like to hear that too, because I can get caught in this mental trap while writing flash where there's this voice telling me, "Make it more dramatic!" Haha. And I don't always want to let that voice win.
K. F.: Yes! I think there are many definitions of flash fiction that play into the notion that they need to be intense to work, and I don't agree with that.
T. B.: Can you talk in literal/physical terms about the ordering/selection process?
K. F.: It's absolutely a physical process for me. There is no way I could do it without printing the stories out. I have a very large dining room table and that's what I did. I laid them all out on the table in a circle, some overlapping, and looked at them. I mean, over and above reading them, I looked at them. I looked at how much space they took up, how long the titles were and so forth. Then I used Post-its to give a sense of what "kind" of stories I had. Again going back to the idea of creating an object of art for the collection, I wanted varying lengths and speeds and emotional complexity to the stories. I wanted the sections to work on their own too. I treated each of the three sections like its own little chapbook. So I was looking at things like POV, or traditional versus experimental structures. I looked at things like the age of the narrator. Oh, haha, at one point I was putting "DEATH" on the Post-its because I realized I had an awful lot of stories dealing with death and I didn't want to have death stories stacked up against each other. I didn't want to end up with a totally morbid, depressing book.
T. B.: It sounds like fun. Was it fun?
K. F.: I found it hugely fun. It's a really creative process. You're making something new. The stories take on a new life as you consider them for inclusion in a book and how to order them. I feel very strongly that a collection should not just be: "I wrote thirty stories, here they are."
T. B.: Do you have any idea of how many stories you've published since 2003?
K. F.: Honestly I don't know. For a very long time, I simply wasn't keeping track. A lot of those early publications were in journals that no longer exist. On the other hand, I'm also not that crazy prolific. I'd say I've probably published a couple hundred?
T. B.: Can you estimate a ratio of Finished Stories to Published Stories?
K. F.: Oh, that's an interesting question! I've published most of the stories I've finished. Probably ninety percent.
T. B.: Choosing fifty stories from a bank of 200 has got to be difficult. Are there any stories that it was really hard for you to not include? Any "darlings" you had to cut to make a cleaner, slimmer manuscript?
K. F.: Yes! I had to remind myself that Matter Press's vision is to publish collections of flash fiction only. So I couldn't include any short stories, and some of those are my favorites. My collection, "Together We Can Bury It" includes short stories, like "Orlando" and "Blooms" and "Snow" which are among my favorite stories. I also published a play at Hobart a year ago, "Stop Dragging," that I would have loved to include. Aside from being a play rather than a flash, it had it's own strong aesthetic and vision that wouldn't have fit the collection.
I have stories I love that are kind of wacky and weird that just didn't feel like they'd work either.
T. B.: Speaking of weird stories, can you tell me about a specific story that “works,” but you have no idea why it works? A story that's smarter than you?
K. F.: Oh I love the idea of a piece that is "smarter than you" and somehow works. I have a story [in Wild Life] called "Foreign Film" that has always felt very "right" to me, as if somehow I just nailed a strange moment that worked beyond the scene at hand (a lot of flash fiction you see published is really more of a scene than a story). But this one seemed to have its own strange diction and vision to it. A couple has been arguing all night long and the television is on and it's showing an art film, something by a Yugoslavian director. And this couple is worn out, sleepy, bedraggled from fighting all night, when the man in the film starts to try to communicate with them to no avail. It's such a strange concept and it's only maybe 300 words, but I've always felt that that story is as close to perfect as anything I've written and yes, it feels "smarter than me" in that I can't quite pinpoint why it works so well.
T. B.: Back in 2003, what was your dream publication for your work?
K. F.: I was so very new to things then, but I remember just adoring a small print journal called Quick Fiction, published by Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney out of Emerson College. I think Pamela Painter had a hand in overseeing it. It was this pocket-sized, beautifully-designed journal of only flash fiction, which was, at that time, still fairly new. Yes, that was my dream. And I ended up publishing in there three or four times before they sadly shuttered.
T. B.: Can you tell me about something you believed about writing/writers/the writing life back in 2003 that you totally disavow now? Or maybe something that disillusioned you?
K. F.: I am still a bit disillusioned at the perception of flash fiction in the larger literary world. I think some strides have been made (flash has appeared in the Pushcart Prize anthology, for instance, and The New Yorker did a summer series of flash fiction online awhile back), but it still doesn't get a whole lot of respect out there. I think it's still largely a misunderstood form in some circles. Flash is mostly read and appreciated by other flash writers. But I do think we're getting there, slowly.
T. B.: Yeah, it was an awesome victory for flash to see your story "Collective Nouns" make it into Best American Non-Required.
K. F.: Thank you! But yes, [flash is often] seen as lesser because it's misunderstood. So the thinking is...well, it's shorter so it must have been easier to write. Or it's shorter, so it doesn't have depth. And I think that those who misunderstand flash don't actually read it.
The other thing is that flash really took off when the Internet happened, and all the online journals sprung up. Old school writers still believe that print is king and anything published online is of lower quality.
T. B.: Having published a couple hundred stories, you must have felt this thing that I'm sure all writers have felt, where a piece is published and is immediately lost in the cascade of the Internet, seemingly ignored. How did it feel to then have "Collective Nouns" just explode the way that it did?
K. F.: Oh, I never anticipated the response to "Collective Nouns." In fact, when Christopher James at Jellyfish Review agreed to publish it, I felt an overwhelming sense of dread. I thought I was going to embarrass myself. I'd never taken on a current event or controversy like that before. I was sure I'd done a poor job of it. The response overwhelmed me. This was largely due to the timing: all those mass shootings in 2017, and the piece was published soon after the Las Vegas shooting. I was getting emails from all over, from gun sense activists and teachers, and the piece was being read in church services and at protests and…the thing that was strange for me was how it took on its own life.
T. B.: It must have felt like, after a certain point, it wasn't even yours anymore.
K. F.: Yes, exactly.
T. B.: I want to end by sharing with you my favorite sentence from Wild Life (2011), if you will you share with me your favorite sentence.
K. F.: Sure!
T. B.: “Biopsy is whimsy’s first cousin.”
K. F.: Ah! Thank you. I like that too. Ok, let me think a second…
From “Space Man”…"Jane would tell him not to be afraid, that this is an infinite universe and in an infinite universe all things are mathematically possible, even certain."
Kathy Fish teaches for the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. She has published five collections of short fiction. Her book Wild Life: Collected Works from 2003-2018 was just released by Matter Press. Three of her stories have been Best Small Fictions winners, most recently “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild,” chosen by Aimee Bender. This piece was also chosen by Sheila Heti for Best American Nonrequired Reading 2018. Additionally, two of Fish’s stories are featured in the W.W. Norton anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction. For more information, see her website: kathy-fish.com.
Tyler Barton (@goftyler) is the author of the chapbook of flash fiction, The Quiet Part Loud, which won the 2017 Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest and will be published this winter by Split Lip Press. His stories are forthcoming in The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Subtropics, and Paper Darts. He's the co-founder of Fear No Lit, the organization responsible for one-of-a-kind literary experiences like The Submerging Writer Fellowship and Page Match. Find him at tsbarton.com.