An Interview with Grant Faulkner
It was recently announced that two stories from Grant Faulkner’s Fissures (Press 53), his collection of one hundred 100-word stories, were chosen by Stuart Dybek and Series Editor Tara L. Masih for inclusion in the forthcoming Best Small Fictions 2016 (Queen’s Ferry Press). Last year I reviewed Fissures for Necessary Fiction, noting that the collection “takes on the feeling of memory: glimpses, moments. They are scenes of impact and intersection, unencumbered by preamble or chronology. The meaning, what hovers in the air above the page, is vast.”
Faulkner is so committed to 100-word “drabbles” — or “miniatures,” as he calls them — that he co-founded the journal 100 Word Story. It consistently publishes exquisite little stories which prove how much can and should be expected of one hundred words. They are distilled to their essentials. Crafting them requires tremendous discipline. I was fascinated to learn that Faulkner also serves as Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It seems an antithetical pursuit: thirty days of writing at breakneck speed — no edits or hesitation — in pursuit of a 50,000-word rough but complete novel draft. He addressed this in “Going Long. Going Short.”, a piece he wrote for the “Draft” series at The New York Times’ Opinionator. But I still had questions. He was kind of enough to answer.
As someone who also writes novels and very short prose, I’m eager to know more about your approach. Do you work on novels and 100-word stories simultaneously, or in phases? How do you manage your various literary projects without sacrificing your own creative work?
I am quite scattered in all aspects of life these days, creatively and otherwise. I’ve decided that’s a good thing. Somehow it all gets woven together. I wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning to write, and I usually focus on a big project, but sometimes I’ll take a break and write some shorter stuff — just for the sake of variation, to nourish my imagination in a different way. I just sold a proposal for a collection of essays — or “insights,” as my editor has chosen to call them — on creativity to Chronicle Books. It comes out in the fall of 2017 so I need to quite doggedly focus on that for a while.
My day job is Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month. It’s a very demanding job in all ways, but it allows me to think about creativity at least a little bit every day (when I’m not doing things like fundraising or monitoring budgets). It also encourages me to write a novel each year, which is one hell of a fantastic job perk.
Tell me about writing a 50,000-word novel each November. What are the ways this process is most valuable to you?
1. I get about one good idea for a novel each year, and each November I can plow through a rough draft quickly (which is otherwise tough for me as a working parent). Without NaNoWriMo, I might have a whole queue of unwritten novels, and that would frustrate me.
2. I “write with abandon” — which is a different creative process for a somewhat plodding and ponderous writer like myself. Writing quickly, and with a keen focus on moving the story forward, actually opens me up to taking creative risks that I might not otherwise conceive of or dare to do.
3. I take part in a big, wonderful community of other writers, and I’m always so inspired to hear about their creative approaches and their stories. I think sometimes we writers emphasize the solitary aspects of writing too much and forget how a community can fuel our creativity (and just make it all more fun).
How did you come to have a foothold in these two very different fiction camps?
I was working on a big, burdensome novel for nearly 10 years when I stumbled on the 100-word form. My friend Paul Strohm had written one hundred 100-word stories as a memoir called Sportin’ Jack, and I thought it was fascinating, how his shorts captured life through a collage of snapshots, in effect. I tried my hand at a few 100-word stories on a lark, just as something to do as a break from the anguish of my 10-year novel, and I became obsessed (100-word stories can be as addictive as crack cocaine or nicotine, so beware).
The 100-word form offered a creative respite from my novel, the wonderful gratification of actually completing things, and I discovered a different type of creativity in writing within a constraint. I loved focusing on the white spaces, the gaps in a story, and I learned how to move a story through wisps of hints as opposed to the connective tissue, the expansiveness, and comprehensiveness a novel can demand. I’ve always been a closet poet, so the form spoke to that side of me. I write longer flash pieces as well, but my heart is in these miniatures which function almost as prose poems. They allow me to capture the stray moments of life, moments that often go unrecognized yet hold drama. Now, ironically, I’d say that my novels and longer short stories move to the rhythm of tiny stories.
Tell me more about your expectations of a 100-word piece, whether your own or submitted to 100 Word Story.
Most of my stories have a beginning, middle, and end — rising tension, a story arc, character change, etc. — but, that said, sometimes I write the story more as a prose poem, with disjunctive splicings, slivers of moments where an image or a mood carries the story. A 100-word piece needs to move with a precise balance of what’s left out versus what’s included. I’ve been quite influenced by Nathalie Serraute’s Tropisms, miniature stories she defined as “inner movements… which are hidden under the commonplace, harmless appearances of every instant of our lives.” She said that such small movements, which we’re barely cognizant of, form the “secret source of our existence.”
No matter the form I’m writing in, though, I always aim for what Roland Barthes called the punctum — the prick, the wound, the touching detail that jars and therein establishes a relationship.
Have you ever grown a 100-word story into a longer work, even a novel? Is that on your mind when you return to a setting or recurring character?
When I started writing 100-word stories, I didn’t have any intention of making any of them into a longer work. Each story is designed to be sufficient unto itself. But then I became intrigued by the characters Gerard and Celeste, and I just kept writing more stories about them. There are about 20 Gerard and Celeste stories in Fissures, and I’ve written maybe 40 or 50 in all.
After Fissures was released, so many people remarked on the Gerard and Celeste stories, so I ended up writing a novel about them. It’s an epistolary novel of unsent letters from Gerard to Celeste, so the letters operate almost like flash fiction, each of them a tiny story, a reflection. The letters create an elliptical narrative which lacks the connective tissue of a conventional novel. The story moves through stray moments and thoughts, the way life moves.
I’m thrilled to hear that Celeste and Gerard got their own novel! What is the status of that now?
I’ve completed the novel, and it’s with my agent now, along with a collection of short stories. She is just beginning to look for a publisher, so I’m hopeful and excited. I loved telling the story through letters. I miss writing letters like I did before the Internet, so the novel fulfilled multiple purposes.
Do you think, as a writer, you require the discipline of tight limitations — either a very short deadline or strict word count?
Because I’m a working parent with little time, the discipline of tight limitations certainly helps propel many a writing project, whether large or small. I believe in setting a goal and a deadline for most things in life. At the same time, I love letting my mind drift and meander. Once a week I go to a cigar bar and sit in a leather chair and smoke a large cigar that lasts a good two hours. I let my thoughts traipse along with the swirls of smoke. It’s a bad routine to start at an age when I should be adopting healthier habits, but it is sacred time to myself, time that is separate from all the demands of a busy life.
I like to combine approaches. I never plan the form of an idea. I write down random thoughts on Post-its while driving to work. I write sketches of ideas while watching my kids’ soccer games. I think the best way to describe my creative process is that it’s increasingly scattered — both wonderfully and maddeningly so. But then I bring it all together with a goal, a deadline, and sometimes a tight word count.
In my review, I wrote that “Fissures aches with countless stiff-lipped heartbreaks.” The desire for connection is unfulfilled. Speech goes unanswered. There is futility in trying to connect, to be remembered as we wish. Are these, in fact, the themes and questions that move you?
You definitely hit upon the themes that endlessly draw me. Part of my attraction to writing miniatures is that they allow and speak to the fragmentary nature of life — they emphasize disconnection and isolation.
I explore similar themes in my novels. One of the tragedies of life is how much we try to connect, how we yearn to be seen and understood, yet so often no one is looking or listening in the right way.
Well, these stories have definitely been seen and heard. Congratulations on having two stories from Fissures, “The Toad” and “Way Station,” selected for inclusion in The Best Small Fictions 2016. What would you guess helped these two stand out among the one hundred collected in Fissures?
To tell you the truth, I have no idea why these two stood out more than the other 98. Each time I do a reading, I have a difficult time picking my favorites. There are a good 20-25 stories that I rank as more or less equivalent. But these two are representative enough of the collection, so, yes, if you’re going to read only two of my stories, I’m fine with these two.
That said, it doesn’t take too long to read the other 98. One of the fun things about reading the reviews of Fissures is how reviewers have all picked out different stories to highlight. I wouldn’t say there has been a true consensus of favorites, which is wonderful to me.