Why do you write flash? What makes it different for you?
I like to be able to complete a story or two in a single writing session, so because of that, my stories almost always end up being very short. It’s my big limitation as a writer, and it’s a preference that has really shaped me. I like that we have a name for it now. Back when I started writing these types of stories, we hadn’t quite agreed on what to call them, even—I still remember not knowing whether to call my stories “quick” fiction or “sudden” fiction or “micro” fiction. There were so many names at one point. Love that flash has become a thing. It has been really cool to see the form take off in the last 10 or so years.
What’s your writerly lifejacket: character or plot?
Character. When I’m writing around a particular plot, my stories end up reading like shitty Madlibs. Though I think finding a voice or a tone is even more important than finding a character. For me, the voice of the story needs to be fully realized in the first sentence. If it’s not there in the opening line, the story is doomed.
Writing style: Quick and messy or slow and precise?
I’m quick. I try to write 1000-1500 words a day when I’m working on a project—when I do flash stories, for example, it’s always in connection to a larger project. I don’t write every day though. I’m not a day-in-day-out, ride or die kind of writer. That used to bother me about myself—it felt almost like a moral failing—but writing every day is exhausting, at least the way I work. I just get fatigued. I work every day for a month or two and then take a month or two off to read what I’ve written and try to figure out what it means. That’s my process right now, at least.
What element or part of your “real life” do you think most influences your writing?
This is something I try not to think about, lest I end up using my stories as some kind of cheap therapy. I certainly don’t try to bring in elements of my life, but of course, I do. Everyone does. I have no idea how successfully I bury the true elements of my stories, and I’m too embarrassed to ask my friends and family. The idea of someone recognizing a shared, real life experience in a piece of my fiction fills me with shame. It feels like a failing of craft.
If you could recommend a few flash stories or writers, who/what would it be?
My favorite flash story is “Crossing the River Zbrucz” by Isaac Babel. My second favorite is “The Cats in the Prison Recreation Hall” by Lydia Davis and my third is any page of Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan. Honorable mention: “A Gentleman’s C” by Padgett Powell.
But here’s the thing…a giant caveat here. I love these first three stories mainly because they are a part of larger works that I love. I think this is something people get wrong about flash. To me, at least, one flash story isn’t much taken on its own. Even a perfect flash story like “A Gentleman’s C” won’t stick with me unless I really study it. In general, I think flash stories are too slight to have much impact by themselves. The real power of flash is the power of a snowball rolling down a mountain. It comes in the aggregate of many flash stories read as a single project. For example, in that giant orange brick of Lydia Davis stories, there are good stories and great stories and some not so good stories, but all of them together present a portrait of a powerful and restless mind at work. For me, that’s what flash can do best. I love reading collections of flash for that reason. I think more than in novels or collections of longer stories, a body of flash work can provide a portrait of a living human mind moving through the world.
What story of yours do you wish got more recognition?
I think my stories get what they deserve. I’m not too precious about them. If I find myself getting annoyed about how my stories are received, I go write something new. You can’t really control reception or likes or shares or awards, but you can keep writing. That’s always the consolation.
BIO: Kaj Tanaka is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Houston. His stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is the fiction editor at Gulf Coast. You can read more of his work at kajtanaka.com and tweet to him @kajtanaka