Mini-Interview with Kim Magowan

Kim Photo 2

Why do you write flash? What makes it different for you?

The first flash I ever wrote, before I knew there was this genre called flash, is a story called “Palimpsest,” back in 2010. My writing group at the time said, “We like this beginning a lot, where’s it going?” and I said, “No, that’s the whole thing.” I had an intuitive sense it was done. Really, I became interested in flash as a practical necessity: I’m a professor, and flash is the one mode of writing I can reliably do when the semester’s on. That said, I’ve become addicted to the form. I love its precision. It forces me to choose every word, to trim all the fat, to identify the core of a story and eliminate all fluff. I’ve become a better writer (more disciplined, more particular) because of flash. Reading and writing flash requires attention. Currently, as a fiction editor, I often find long stories flabby: parts seem brilliant, but parts drag. Flash eliminates all the boring stuff.

What’s your writerly lifejacket: character or plot?

Definitely character! Plot is a struggle. A friend, not intending to be mean, once said after reading a draft of my novel, “This is great, but there’s no plot.” Which is kind of a huge thing to go missing in a novel! Whoops, forgot to include a plot! Though the English professor in me could point out a dozen novels that don’t have a plot to speak of (The Sound and the Fury, Mrs. Dalloway, most high modernism). I gravitate toward character. The reason I write is the same reason I read, and why in another life I think I would have made a decent psychotherapist: I like to figure people out. People are endlessly interesting to me, so my favorite novels (Emma, Middlemarch, The Remains of the Day, Lolita, The Good Soldier) are character studies.

Writing style: Quick and messy or slow and precise?

I veer towards quick and messy. My modus operandi with flash is to bang out the first draft in a sitting. I want the shape of the story splashed out. My revision process is all about chiseling. Even as a college student, I used to feel a dorky gratification when a draft of a paper was too long and needed cutting down. I enjoy removing flab, making stories trim and muscular. When I get a story into more or less presentable condition, I send it to my first reader, Michelle Ross, and she gives me edits. The ones I take graciously are the cuts. Whenever Michelle wants me to add or develop something, I grumble. I tend to write polished drafts, but I am a baby about doing comprehensive revisions. Any chore, no matter how onerous, seems preferable.

What element or part of your “real life” do you think most influences your writing?

Becoming a parent fundamentally changed both the way I write and the way I read. Certain books are simply not the same for me now: Beloved, always heartbreaking, kills me now—I cry every time I reread it (which is often, because I teach it). With Frankenstein, I always thought Victor Frankenstein was a self-centered jerk, but now I judge much more harshly Victor’s repudiation of the creature. A number of my characters are flawed parents. Others are struggling adolescents. Writing is a way for me to process some of my worst fears: what would it mean to lose a child, or to let down a child catastrophically? To have one’s own defects and failings damage someone else? One of the fascinating things about having children is the way it makes one confront wrapped-up parts of oneself. Kids hold up mirrors. You can’t hide from yourself anymore.

If you could recommend a few flash stories or writers, who/what would it be?

There are so many flash writers I love! This isn’t original, but I am nuts about Lydia Davis—any writer interested in flash fiction should read (and reread) her collected stories. I’ve loved Borges since I was a teenager, when his micro “Borges and I” exploded my brain. Kathy Fish is fantastic: her flash “Collective Nouns About Humans in the Wild” destroyed me. I’m obsessed with Joy Williams’ Ninety-Nine Stories of God. I teach and reteach Jamaica Kincaid’s wonderful mother-daughter story “Girl.” Sherrie Flick’s stories are whiskey shots, they burn going down. George Saunders’s “Sticks” from his Tenth of December collection is a barbed thorn of a story. Michelle Ross, Kim Chinquee, Amelia Gray, and Cathy Ulrich are among my current favorites, writers whose new work I always seek out. I love the micro of yours Pithead Chapel is publishing, “You’ve Stopped”: that was one of my favorite flashes I’ve read all year. That final line about the slowing heartbeat is devastating.

What story of yours do you wish got more recognition?

I’m proud of “Eleanor of Aquitaine.” It’s the first of the linked stories in my collection, and I suspect it gets overlooked next to other stories about Laurel that cast bigger shadows (“Warmer, Colder,” “On Air”). It isn’t as tough, repellent, or disturbing as those two. But I think it’s a strong story, and a sad one, about how a war between estranged spouses is hurting their daughter. Actually, I like the fourth of the Laurel stories a lot, too: “Pop Goes the Weasel.” That story almost didn’t make it into my collection. I worried it was too shapeless. It morphed on me. Initially, I thought I was writing a nasty stepmother story, but almost without my volition, Nina became a lot warmer and messier than my original picture of her. So, I want people to pay attention to the two understated Laurel stories! The two middle ones shout them down. “Eleanor” and “Pop Goes the Weasel” are like the quiet kids in the back of the classroom who won’t raise their hands, but should be called on anyway.

BIO: Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award and was published in March 2018. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books in 2019. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, and many other journals. She is Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. www.kimmagowan.com

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