Mini-Interview Series_2 (1)

A Flash Perspective: Interview with Kim Magowan

What are your favorite things to write about? Those topics or items you can’t stop thinking about!

“Favorite” implies that I have a choice about the content of my fiction, and frankly, I don’t believe that I do. I read an interview with George Saunders where Saunders observes his stories are always about class struggle, and explains that he doesn’t feel like he chooses that subject matter—it’s hard-wired. I deeply relate to that. The things that come up in my fiction (infidelity, dysfunctional parenting, strained friendships, to name a few main chords) are subjects I have as limited control over as the content of my dreams. I’m sure a therapist could track down their origins, but I’ve been writing about this set of topics since I first started writing. If there’s a “thing” I write about, it’s how people treat each other, how people both elevate and disappoint each other. I’m very interested in locating the dime on which things turn. The shorter the piece, the more crucial to hone in on it immediately and to show every radial angle of that turn.

What’s your favorite point of view? Why are you drawn to this particular voice/perspective?

I have many different first-person and limited third POVs, of all ages and both genders (though women more than men), and many of those POVs are quite similar to me (teachers, writers, parents). But oddly enough, the point of view I most enjoy inhabiting is that of a young woman making bad choices, and possessing a kind of “damn the torpedoes” attitude about those choices. As a human, I’m such a ditherer and second-guesser, and I constantly worry about how other people feel. So perhaps that middle-finger-up attitude is pleasurable for me to try on because it’s so not me. I’m thinking here of my narrator in “Useful Information,” who has an almost clinical approach to her two lovers (Boyfriend One and Boyfriend Two), or Sarah in my story “Impulse Control,” who gets caught by her ex-boyfriend sitting in his empty office. Those two women are tough; I envy them. I also love to write unreliable narrators. It’s challenging (and fun because challenging) to lay out the clues for readers that elucidate the narrators’ blind spots. Liz in my story “Squirrel Beach” is oblivious to some of the most pertinent information she’s disclosing. My favorite short stories and novels often feature unreliable narrators or limited-third protagonists, characters who don’t understand themselves well (The Good Soldier, The Remains of the Day, Emma).

What’s your favorite craft element to focus on when writing flash? Is there an element you wish you could avoid?

I love similes! They’re the most fun, imaginative, and artful thing to write, as well as one of the most pleasurable things to read. (I’ve been rereading Lorrie Moore’s masterpiece collection Birds in America, and Moore is a hand’s-down master of weird, shocking, scalpel-blade similes). My friend Michelle Ross and I prune similes for each other because we go a little simile-nuts. As far as an element I wish I could avoid, I don’t much like describing how people look. It’s hard to make it not sound like a driver’s license (blue eyes, brown hair, blah boring blah). Because of that aversion, my characters are often faceless, or I’ll hone in one specific, strange, defamiliarized feature (bulbous eyes, sagging breasts).

How you know when a story is done or at least ready to test the submission waters?

My breakthrough as a writer was finding a first reader whose judgment I absolutely trust, and that has exponentially condensed my draft-to-submission time. Once I’m done with a draft, I send it to my good friend, the super talented, afore-mentioned Michelle Ross. (Well, sometimes I’ll send Michelle five versions of that same draft in an afternoon: “read this one,” “no read this one”). Michelle gives me edits, I take most of them, and then off my little paper airplane flies. I also have a writing group with Katie Flynn and Katherine Leiban, two San Francisco writers whose work I love. I’m a teacher; I’m a huge believer in the fact that you need other eyes on a piece besides your own. But I also try to avoid the too-many-cooks paralysis (anyone who’s been in an MFA workshop might identify with that).

When looking for places to submit your flash, what are your priorities for finding a good home for your work?

I have my favorite places to submit to—the Usual Suspects. I tend to prefer online journals, so more people can access my work. I love editors who are encouraging and respectful and don’t take forever to read work (big shout out here to Christopher James of Jellyfish Review, who has the world’s fastest turnaround, and Christopher Allen of SmokeLong Quarterly, who never made me feel like an idiot-pest or a puppy dog at the gates for sending him story after story after story).

What do you know now about writing flash or other forms that you wished you had known from the beginning?

I think I *knew* these things about flash, but the more I write flash, the more I understand how crucial they are: start strong; stick the landing. I’m an editor as well as a writer, and I can’t emphasize enough how crucial those book-ends (sharp opening, killer closing) are. My big discovery about flash, and why I’m now so obsessed with it, is that the skills it hones are portable skills. Writing flash will make you a better writer. My novel The Light Source is a better novel—tighter, crisper, more elegant—because after immersing myself in flash I cut 8,000 words from it.

What resource (a book, essay, story, person, literary journal) has helped you develop your flash fiction writing?

I really like David Galef’s Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook, and The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. In general, though, I learn less from craft books and prompts, and more from reading great work. I’m an English professor; I’m a firm believer that the best way to improve as a writer is to read, read, read. So I do—both what’s out right now in journals, and excellent collections that feature a lot of flash. Among my favorite writers of books with flash, though this is a far from a complete list, are Lydia Davis, Amy Hempel, Kathy Fish, Sherrie Flick, Michelle Ross, Grace Paley, Sandra Cisneros, Joy Williams, Cathy Ulrich, Michael Czyzniejewski, and Amelia Gray.

What’s your favorite way to interact with the writing community? Do you have any advice for writers trying to add to their own writing communities?

I love being a fiction editor. I recommend volunteering to read for lit journals. It’s energizing for me, and always thrilling to find some sparkly gem in the Submittable queue. I’m grateful to work with my team of editors at Pithead Chapel, all themselves talented writers. I’m proud of the work Pithead Chapel has been publishing; that’s my main way of feeling like I participate in (and hopefully give back to) the literary community. Advice? Well, I live in San Francisco, so I’m lucky—but go to readings! Support local bookstores! And here’s one thing that worked for me: submit to the Sixfold contest—$5 submission fee, the contestants are the judges, it’s all anonymous, you’ll read a total of 18 stories—and be generous and detailed in your comments to other writers. If you like a story a lot, sign off with your contact info. Sixfold is how I “met” my sometime writing partner and first reader. Every writer needs to find their perfect first reader. It has seriously made all the difference for me. If I had a magic wand, I’d bestow on all writers as gifted, witty, and blunt a first reader as I have!

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf’s Top 50. She is the Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.

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