The Pressure and Pursuit of Desires: Talking Flash Fiction with Tommy Dean
An award-winning writer, editor, workshop leader, and teacher of flash fiction, Tommy Dean is known throughout the literary community as someone who understands and elevates the flash fiction form, as well as someone who always thinks about other writers. He’ll be the first person to retweet a new story, tag his appreciation for a fellow author, and spread the word about upcoming publications and events.
We, as writers and humans, continue to navigate this unsettling, isolating pandemic. So, it was a particularly interesting time to discuss the theme of searching for connection, both on the page and in our own lives, including our connection to the literary community at large. As someone who has attended his workshops, and long been a fan, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with Dean about his new flash collection, Hollows, out this year from Alternating Current Press.
The Rumpus: You’re known for your flash fiction. What draws you to flash versus longer stories?
Tommy Dean: I love the idea of working with the reader to create the story, for them to help reveal the character and fill in the white space as they read. There are more opportunities for this to occur in flash than short stories. I love to cut summary and exposition and put my character directly onto the stage of the story—to see them act, react, and make choices. I love the velocity, but the depth this creates. Short stories have a slower build-up, and often I want the knockout punch.
Rumpus: What, if anything, were you worried about regarding publishing a flash collection, specifically?
Dean: That no one would read it! A lot of these stories have been published in literary journals, which I’m so grateful for, but for some readers, this can feel redundant. I love holding a flash writer’s collection or chapbook in my hand, reading them in order, spending time with a wealth of a writer’s stories even if I’ve already read them in separate literary journals. I also worried that a flash collection wasn’t a serious book. It’s not a novel and it’s not a short story collection, but flash is the form I love to write, the form where I think I’m doing my best writing.
Rumpus: There are so many pieces in Hollows because of the short length of each. How did you choose, sort, and organize such a diverse array of stories?
Dean: A lot of anguish. How does anyone know how to order forty-five stories? I didn’t type them all out and lay them on the floor, though maybe I should have. I tried to pick some of my strongest stories, my favorites in the beginning and at the end, and then build out from there, trying to change up the point of view or maybe the age of the main characters. I rarely read collections in order, so I’m not too worried about the order for my readers. I just hope they enjoy the stories, that if they did read in order, they would get a kind of roller coaster effect! One thing I did over the last ten years is add pieces to the collection and then take them out as other ones fit the theme better. It’s been like creating pieces for five different puzzles at once and not knowing where they go until I have other pieces for them to cling onto.
Rumpus: How did you decide what stories did and didn’t make the cut?
Dean: I grappled with wanting my very best writing, my best storytelling, and also those that fit this theme of searching for connection but often missing it in some way. Also, I had carved out my more dystopian pieces to create the chapbook, Covenants, which I published with ELJ Editions in November of 2021. Those stories felt heavy and needed their own small space.
So, an alchemy of timing, of writing about wide-ranging themes and protagonists, and hoping that these stories make the best book surrounding the theme of the title.
Rumpus: As the reader, it’s the feeling of each story that seems to connect the pieces in this collection. A group of girls casting out one of their own because of her grieving father, the slow loss of a partner during the apocalypse, the act of facing one’s own mortality through a friend’s potential illness—there’s a deep longing, and maybe even acknowledgment of universal grief, that runs through this book. Can you talk about the title: Hollows? And maybe about where you were in your own life when you wrote some of these stories?
Dean: These stories are connected by characters searching for connections, and often missing out on them by mere moments or finding connections much different from the ones they desired. There is something about hollows as an empty space, a space we might try to invade, sneak into or out of, a space that holds us a bit restive or hostage. These characters usually have to overcome the miasma of that space to move on or up in their lives. They want to feel whole, but often get lost in the hollows between connections with people, with nature, with grief or loss or the potential for violence in a dying world. As for how they represent my own life, I’ll say that like a lot of writers I lean into my fears, my anxieties, my own clumsy ways of trying to connect with the world, with people, with nature. How often I fail, but still flounder on! I care deeply about these characters who decide to act and react to the conflicts and tensions around them even if they fail, especially when they fail.
Rumpus: How do you approach character development, beyond that search for connection? Can you go through your process with us for one or two of the characters in this collection? You wrote forty-five stories, so that is a lot of characters to think about and bring to life!
Dean: The fun and frustration of writing flash is that you get to create hundreds of characters, but you form them out of small actions, pieces of language and detail, and a bit of context that you hope you discover as you’re writing subsequent drafts. Let’s take a look at the female first person narrator of “An Approximation of Melody” for example. She starts to reveal herself in the very first line when she says, “I wanted to live on an alley when I grew up.” Already I’m wondering what else she would like to tell me (the reader) in service to creating this story? She already is giving away a secret desire! That’s something we can work with. Desire, need, fear, anxiety, things to pursue, and things to avoid are all the building blocks of action and reaction that help to make characters unique and specific. Then we learn some specific details about what this alley looks like, and most people would think it’s ugly, but it holds some value for her. Then we see her through the lens of her relationship with these slightly awful parents who refuse to pay attention to her. She doesn’t tell us she’s seeking attention, love, value of herself as a person, but it’s all simmering there in the details of looking out, of looking in. This is what I call filtering through a specific and unique point of view, only this character is seeing her life this way in this moment, for this story. I then used the paragraph break to have time pass, to create some white space that we aren’t privy to about her life. But here’s another way, an object that she uses to try to escape, and the details show us how much she tries with this guitar, how she wants it to be her ticket out, and this mini-scene only works because I revealed this desire in the opening of the story. Each paragraph now should reveal more about her, more about how her desires are not being met, even though she is acting; she is trying. How can I make her continue to show us her desires and show her acting, and show her failing? The pressure of desires—and these desires met by failure—reveal who she is and who she wants to be, and how she ends up somewhere in-between. I don’t know everything about her, but I know enough to care about her pursuit of these desires. And then I put her back in an alley, I make the story seem like it’s full-circle and we get to see her anew in this alley. She has escaped, but did she do it through music and song? Not quite. Always, not quite.
Rumpus: Which of these stories was the hardest to write and/or finish? Why?
Dean: “Hollows,” the flash, was one of the hardest stories to write because it took years to get it right. I tried to write it as a piece of creative non-fiction, as this event mostly happened, but the non-fiction angle didn’t give me enough distance from myself as a character in this event. I needed time and distance to help realize the fictional possibilities to make this scene come alive, but also give it resonance and nuance.
Rumpus: Which of your characters felt the most personal to you, however you define that?
Dean: I love the first-person narrator in “The Bridge” stories. I love how he yearns to connect romantically with Candy, but also how he is striving to understand her choice to leave him behind. These are pieces of what still may become a novel someday.
Rumpus: You write with a such a sensory lens:
The gravel is hot on my shoulders, the sweat gathering and
pasting grit from the tarmac onto my elbows and calves.
That’s hard to do in the flash form because of the word count. What advice do you have for writers as they approach flash fiction, both in terms of what to include/exclude and also in terms of developing a plot with actualized characters within that small window?
Dean: Always consider the lens of the point of view character or narrator of each flash. What are they sensing so the reader can feel as if they are on the stage of the story with the character? Pay attention to what the narrator is paying attention to; feel your way through the moment. I try to assume the role of the main character and narrator as I write, filtering out conventional details or language and constantly strive to use language that is unique, but specific to these characters in this moment during this conflict. I love to create characters that make choices, take action, and react to the conflict I place them in. I refuse to let my character do much ruminating or remain static. They must act.
Rumpus: Do you have any interest in writing a novel, as well? A collection of longer stories?
Dean: I’d love to write a few novels. I think I have some stories of that length and depth in me. I struggle with writing a novel because it requires some different skills than writing flash. A lot less is left out of a novel. There’s less white space, and more use of interior thought and summary that helps the reader feel as though they are in the head of the character, but also constantly considering the context of each character’s choice and action. Novels aren’t just a string of scenes, though that’s what my failed attempts have been so far. Interiority is the power of the novel—it’s why movies translated from books often don’t work as well. We want those deep thoughts, insecurities, choices from our main characters!
Rumpus: Have you considered writing a novel in flash?
Dean: I have. I wrote around fifteen thousand words of a novel-in-flash, but I felt as though the flash restrictions were holding me back from getting to know these characters. The novel begs the writer to add interiority while flash eschews it. I felt torn to stay in the box of flash or blow it all up with more interiority, more exposition, and backstory. I love this story I started creating and I hope to go back to it as more of a traditional novel. I’m hoping another story idea presents itself as a future novel in flash.
Rumpus: What are the skills of a flash fiction writer versus a longer short story writer? Where is there overlap, and where should writers focus, in terms of their craft in these different genres?
Dean: One aspect that delineates flash from longer forms is its desire for urgency. Flash moves the reader forward faster than the novel. Flash doesn’t provide time for rumination. We’re exploring a small moment or scene but in as much detail as the story can handle while still moving forward. There is no bogging down, no precise planting of context or seeds to be sown later in the plot. This is the moment! Each line or sentence must carry the weight of the story.
One way to create exciting flash is to give the character something they must deal with now because the pressure of the conflict forces them to act. Novels can put off this action, can slowly build the pressure, while characters in flash have to act, react, and make choices quickly. From sentence to sentence sometimes, where the novel can develop these actions over hundreds of pages. As a writer, I’m trying to force my characters to perform as many actions as possible to see what these actions reveal about the character. As a teacher of flash writing, I try to help my students see where they can add action, where they can cut exposition, where their lines are really humming and carrying weight, and when the language is a bit bland. As an editor, I’m looking for writers who have a beautiful control of the language, who respect the weight of each line, who force their characters to act, who reveal something about themselves, and create these feelings of emotional resonance.
Rumpus: How do your jobs of writing and teaching inform each other, and your writing?
Dean: I absolutely love working with other writers whether it’s through inspiring prompts or breaking down how I think model flash works. I love helping writers see how craft moves can be used in their stories and how these moves can create more resonance and more engagement from readers. My own writing has been improved greatly by my teaching. In order to teach, you have to be able to do it yourself. I’m constantly teaching myself by analyzing flash and then I hope to share the lessons I’ve learned with other writers. I’m thrilled that so many writers have trusted me with to help them with their own writing.
Rumpus: What’s in your TBR pile right now?
Dean: Currently, I’m reading Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson: A flash writer moving onto writing novels creates some beautiful writing, some deep characters, and characters acting under the pressure of the conflict; Nothing Short of 100, which is selected tales from the literary journal, 100 word Story—flash at its smallest; The Other Ones by Dave Housley [interviewed by The Rumpus in January]. I loved his short novel Howard and Charles at the Factory and I expect his new one to be just as good! Shit Cassandra Saw by Gwen E. Kirby [also interviewed by The Rumpus in January], a mixture of flash and longer stories. We got the privilege of publishing one of her flashes at Fractured Lit. And Out from the Following Sea by Leah Angstman. From the maps to the first page of sparkling language, you can tell that Angstman put her whole heart into writing this book.
Author photo by Jamie Johnson at Signature Studios