Not Broader, Deeper
A Conversation with Teague von Bohlen
by Kaitlyn Andrews-Rice
In 2018 at AWP in Tampa, Florida, I asked Teague von Bohlen why people from the Midwest are so tall and he laughed—surprised by my height, I think. I’m short. So short my parents used to joke that something must’ve been in the water in our Boston suburb. Then Teague said, “I think it’s all the corn” and mentioned a book he was working on about the Midwest, one that would pair flash fiction with photographs. I knew immediately I wanted to read it.
Flatland is a funny and tender collection, nostalgic but not sentimental. Teague writes stories about a place that’s disappearing and people who feel left behind, stories we tell about life in America and why. Britten Leigh Traughber’s accompanying photographs add a fascinating third element in a collaboration that is as successful as it is haunting.
image credit Britten Leigh Traughber
Over the last few months Teague and I communicated via email, chatting about nostalgia, how to write with humor and emotion, and whether anyone can truly define flash fiction. What follows is a condensed version of that conversation.
Kaitlyn Andrews-Rice: In the book's preface you mention the importance of writing about the Midwest and small-town American life because it's disappearing. It's interesting to think about how writers write about that which they miss. Almost like we write what haunts us. Flatland is a nostalgic book, but not overly sentimental, which makes me wonder about the difference between nostalgia and sentimentality. Is there a difference? Were you thinking about this while writing?
Teague von Bohlen: Nostalgia and sentimentality are neighbors with a shared fence, and they sometimes cross over. When there's a difference between the two—and yeah, I worked hard in this book to keep that fence strong—it's about honesty, I think. Sentimentality only remembers the good, the warm, the charming and happy. Nostalgia—when it's healthy—remembers all that, but also the not-so-good, the sometimes cold, the sorrow. There's a fuller measure to the memory, and in that, it means more. Lasts longer. We hold on to memory because it's what builds us, but in order to make that construction sound, it has to remain honest. Luckily, there's a raw nobility in an honest life, which is one thing I wanted to honor with the characters in this book.
I think your statement that "we write what haunts us" is well put. I certainly do. We're all haunted by these ghosts of our past—a history that may literally have only been our own, with some shared edges. We've all experienced this: we share a memory with an old friend, or family member, and we realize that we remember the same event very differently. The old saying is that you can't step into the same river twice, and that's part of what this book is about. But it's also about the idea that we're all stepping in different rivers, independent and solitary rivers defined and limited by our own perceptions. It's good to witness someone else's river now and then.
KAR: I love thinking about how we remember events differently. I'm working on a story (somewhat) about extinct bugs and how we'll die if all bugs go extinct. Very glamorous. But I was reading about climate change and insect extinction in The New York Times and this quote about climate change made me think of your book: "The world never feels fallen, because we grow accustomed to the fall." These subtle changes to small-town life are likely only noticeable if you live there. And maybe not even then. That's why the paired photography works so well, almost like an artifact to say this is what it looked like. Talk about that process. Did you write the stories first and pair with the photographs? Or did the photographs inspire the stories? Did you and Britten ever have different interpretations of the images?
TvB: Such a great quote from The New York Times. So damn true, from our personal lives to American politics. There's so much loss we just plain get used to. It's a blessing, of course, in most ways—if we constantly lived in the same pain that we experience in loss, we couldn't go on. But there's a certain beauty in remembering the pain, I think. Not beauty in the pain itself, which is the mistake too many of us make in our darker and more indulgent moments, but beauty in the knowledge of the pain, in understanding it. Recognizing that it's part of the human condition.
Whether you see the changes or not depends mostly on your level of attention, I think. That's the opportunity of art: to pause in the tornado of the everyday and take a moment to really look at the things and ideas and people around us. And that's why I loved the idea of combining visual image with story; they complement each other in a way that surpasses illustration. They create, like I talk about in the preface, this third effect, this synthesis that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The stories and photos were taken very independently; despite how perfectly some of the pairs seem to line up, none of it was really planned. I wrote, she shot film, and we brought things together to see where the edges found congruence. Like I said, sometimes the matches were almost too perfect. Some of those we rejected, because they looked too canned. Others we loved too much to give up, and just went with it. But generally, there's some small thing linking each photo to each story—sometimes more than one thing. Part of the fun of the book is trying to suss out the connections.
image credit Britten Leigh Traughber
KAR: The images really do create a third effect, almost like a third character, and it's quite powerful. I'm wondering about your thoughts on the relationship between photography and flash fiction. I love flash and write flash but often struggle to define it. Doesn't seem like enough to say that it's a "shorter story than a story," because that's like saying a photograph is just a copy of what the photographer saw—exactly how they saw it. Flash is something else entirely, but what? How do you explain flash fiction to students?
TvB: It's the eternal question, right? Especially for a form that still in its comparative infancy. The literary world can't even agree on a formulaic word-limit. Glimmer Train capped flash at 2000 words. The very-much-missed journal Quick Fiction, where I cut my teeth on the flash form as a reader, defined the form as under 500 words. I tend toward the latter as a word-count guide, though there are a few stories in Flatland that exceed that. But length isn't the sole determining factor; I find it almost indistinguishable from the prose poem, from a broad view. I talked about this at the University of Northern Colorado's Rosenberry Conference just this past February—flash is so tough to pin down.
But the flash form's nature is very much akin to photography too: there's something looming over the central image, something that portends a larger narrative. We might not get that whole larger narrative, but we do get something of it, enough to both tantalize and satisfy at the same time. It's a delicate balancing act, which is what I tell my students when I have them try it. What's beyond the page has to be the equal—at least—to what's on it.
KAR: Yes! It's the "beyond the page" part of flash that can be tricky. One thing we often see in the Split Lip Submittable are stories that should really be flash and flash that really wants to be a story. How do you know when a story is flash? And vice versa? Any tips for knowing when to leave something off the page? I'm thinking of "Linn & Scruggs Chubby Shop," one of my favorites from the collection. It's one of your longer stories, but still falls into the flash range and is incredibly effective because of its brevity.
TvB: It's funny; I think of that story as intensely personal, since it's based on a real (now gone) place in Decatur, Illinois, a fancy department store with a section called the Chubby Shop. I get to name-drop a lot of old Decatur retail institutions that we lost decades ago: Linn & Scruggs, Applebaum's, Elam's Silverfross Root Beer. My family comes from there, and it's an old family joke, the Chubby Shop—relatives of mine who wish to remain nameless shared the main character's fate in being forced to shop there—and there must be a number of other families in the region that share that same experience. That story is me talking directly to the people who recognize those details as memory, and saying I'm one of you. This is us. Which, of course, is the power and the invitation of regionalism.
But to answer your question, I'm of the mind that fiction is nurture, not nature. I don't think I believe that a story has to be flash, or has to be 4600 words, or anything like that. There's no singularly correct way to write it, and no incorrect form for it to take. "Linn & Scruggs" could be told in the longer form, I'm sure; a broader window would bring in more on setting, more on those characters, all that. It might deepen the mimetic texture of the piece, and there's value in that. But for me, for this project, I wanted moments. It's like I say in my dedication: every one of these stories is a love song. Songs average what, three minutes? But their impact: monumental, and lasting. That's what flash can do.
How you know what to cut away is an interesting question. Flash isn't just precision in diction, of course; it's more about selecting the exact right narrative window through which we can see that story, and take its full measure. Writing good flash fiction is like a puzzle: how little can I tell you, and still achieve the narrative results I want to communicate? My answer to that goes back to Keats' advice to "load every rift with ore." I remember that when I'm writing: not broader, deeper. But I also remember what Ray Carver said about telling a story: "Eat cereal for breakfast, and write good prose." As in: keep it simple. Reconciling those dueling strategies is how you narrow that window to the exact-right dimension to just tell the story, and constructively ignore what you don't need. In flash, the narrative window is more an arrow-slit. Functional, not panoramic. To write flash fiction is to be an archer in a castle; you don't need to see the full landscape. You just need clear line-of-sight.
KAR: "Load every rift with ore" is one of those phrases I might have to print out and tape to my computer, my fridge, and my mirror! I'm curious how you would apply "not broader, deeper" to humor in writing. This is something I struggle with—knowing when to stop and when to take the humor to the next level. "Jesus Wants Me to Refinance" and "Now Hiring at the Hog Through" are two stories in Flatland that made me laugh out loud yet both feel fiercely human. What are your secrets? In "Now Hiring..." specifically I'm thinking of the line, "Brenda, we're serious," followed by "Tell your dad I say hey." These lines are funny but also made me realize there was a real person behind this story, and I think that's the trick to writing humor, though I often have to work to get it right.
TvB: Depth in humor completely depends on form. One of the things I write for the alt-weekly Westword here in Denver is comedic commentary, and a lot of what I employ there are just jokes: sort of a textually-expanded version of the old Dave Letterman Top Ten Lists. But that won't fly in literary terms, not even when the forms look similar, like with some of the best of what McSweeney's does. There has to be humanity implicit within it. It's not enough to just evoke a laugh, though that's a tough enough job sometimes. There's a very basic gut-level human response at work there to which a writer has to maintain connection. Without that, it's just a silly joke. It's the difference between cartoon slapstick and character-based comedy. The good sitcoms teach us this pretty well, I think: WKRP in Cincinnati, Cheers, The Office, Parks & Rec. None of these shows would have been nearly as genius if they didn't marry the laughter to a sincere love for these flawed human beings. Since the predicate to all love is revelation, our job in story is to focus on what reveals.
So yes, deeper, always. Even when it's supposed to be funny, there has to be character there, and the story has to remain perceptibly true. So the narrator in "Jesus Wants Me to Refinance" is at a crossroads in nearly every part of his life; that last line says it all: I want to be saved. Who hasn't thought that? Who doesn't feel that? And the narrator in "Now Hiring..." is just a guy in a small town who's trying to run a restaurant. The final line there, Tell your dad I say hey, sounds like an afterthought, a throw-away line, almost reflexive. For that guy, it is. It's both comedic—I mean, he's writing a job ad, and ending it with a personal message to the father of the person he's specifically dis-inviting to apply—but it's also just who he is as a person, and what people do in that small town. They say hey to each other; they maintain connection, because that's the way people survive. It's the undercurrent of humanity that allows the funny to happen, gives it a place to live. Given the authorial choice between making the joke or revealing character, I always choose character. Sometimes that's a tough choice when I think the joke is solid. But it's always the right choice for the story.
image credit Britten Leigh Traughber
KAR: Going deeper makes me think of "Tell You More." There's the literal interpretation of the narrator's father telling him more about this pilot's death and there's the figurative idea that all of the stories in Flatland are about how there's always more than the story. There's more to Britten's photographs and there's more to your stories and to these characters, which I think is the appeal of flash. An author chooses what to reveal, and if done right, the reader will be looking for what's not on the page. "Tell You More" also makes me (an East Coaster born and raised) think about how we understand or misunderstand "flyover country." Were you thinking about how to humanize characters and settings many of us know only from TV or movies?
TvB: That "more to the story" idea was exactly the reason we led the collection with "Tell You More," so I'm happy that connected. And yes, portraying the heartland in an honest and incisive way was central to my goals in telling these stories. We all seem so separated in the modern world; everyone who's not living in your circle, whatever that circle may be, is "the other." And the only way that I see to defeat that damaging mindset is to come to know each other better as people. Knowledge of each other is one of the few blessings of the worst of times—these moments that are full of horror, and yet bring us together. Luckily, we don't need a World War to achieve familiarity with those outside our immediate experiences—we just need to see the people we don't know as just as worthy of respect as we do the members of our own family with whom we might disagree. Those exceptions we make—we can love someone without having to agree with them on all things—has to become more broad, has to extend beyond blood and marriage. It's my hope that Flatland and the stories and photos within it might be a part of that necessary process.
The other reason that I keep coming back to this part of the country is that it is, down to its soil, worthy of note. There's too much being lost every day, too much history that's passing along with the generations that lived it. This is America, just as much as the coasts, just as much as the cities that anchor these vast plains. It's a way of life that's threatened by the passage of time, for sure, but also by inattention. When I ask my grandmother about some old story—and I do, often—she'll as likely as not start by saying "oh, you don't want to hear about that old thing." But of course I do. And we, as an American culture, should, while we're able.
KAR: I'd like to believe that modern inventions (e.g. social media) could in theory bring us together, allowing us to understand people not in our circles. But unfortunately, and this is just in my experience, I think it's only served to exacerbate our separateness. I see this even within the writer world of social media, with writers sticking to their friend groups, tweeting about their friends' work and not much else. I first loved literature for its ability to expand my understanding of the world. Now it feels a little like we're contracting, all of us in our separate corners. One way I combat this feeling is to read. Sometimes I write too, although not as much lately. For me it has been cathartic and healing to go back to the nuts and bolts, to remember why I wanted to do this in the first place. What do you think? Was writing this book cathartic? Did it feel like something you had to do?
TvB: It always feels like something I have to do, to return to this part of the world, to know it again, and to work to reveal its heart to people who've never heard it beat. So yeah, it's always cathartic, and in some ways too it's never enough. I always feel that tug—the title of my first novel, The Pull of the Earth, was really all about that yearning. Back to the soil. Maybe it's the farm family in me, or maybe it's just what I'm supposed to do with my fiction. I've thought about this a lot, and I don't think writers choose to be regionalists. Regionalism chooses you. I've written stories set in other places, sure, and I will again. But there's a reason that I keep returning to Illinois, and it's not just choice. It's need.
KAR: Speaking of needs, I need to ask you my standard Split Lip interview question. Do you write to music? And if Flatland were an album, what would it be?
TvB: I don't write to music; I need the quiet, and I tend to read things out loud, act them out to get the lines to sound right. But music is integral to my process; I always have a soundtrack for every book I work on. It's how I clear my head when I feel stuck, how I get back in. If Flatland were an album, I'd like to think it was Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. The visual on the album cover is probably what makes the initial connection, but the hearts of both works are in the same place. All these stories in Flatland could be told with one guy and a guitar. And the occasional harmonica.
Teague von Bohlen is an Associate Professor of Fiction at the University of Colorado Denver, where he also serves as Fiction Editor for the literary magazine Copper Nickel. His first book, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award, and his short fiction and commercial work can be seen in venues nationally. His most recent book is a collection of Midwestern flash fiction and photography called Flatland.