A Conversation with Tara Isabel Zambrano & Christopher Allen

Cover of Best Small Fictions anthology
The Best Small Fictions 2019
Sonder Press, 2019 (427p)
ISBN: 978-0-9997501-5-5

Eight Longleaf Review contributors are included in the 2019 edition of the Best Small Fictions. This winter, editor-in-chief Kate Finegan conducted a series of four digital roundtables with them via email. First up, Tara Isabel Zambrano and Christopher Allen discuss expanding The Moment in flash fiction, stirring the bubbling pot of character, and knowing when a draft is done.

Longleaf Review: Both of your stories in Best Small Fictions deal with who we might become – Brandon growing a beard and both boys flirting with violence in “Target Practice” (from Other Household Toxins), the bride in “A Thousand Eyes” wondering “if we’ll ever have what Sati and Shiva had or if we’ll drift away and I’ll become compromising like his mother.” Flash fiction is compact and often hints at worlds beyond its words. How do potential futures play into your work in flash?

Christopher Allen: First of all, what stunning work, Tara. I’m using “A Thousand Eyes” in the SmokeLong Quarterly Flash Fiction Workshop online to discuss how using the future tense can expand The Moment of the story.

In “Target Practice” half the story takes place in the future, and I’m sure I’ve used this device in other stories. The Moment in “Blood Brother” is happening mostly underwater while the narrator fills in what has brought him to this place. The future will definitely be messy . . . but satisfying? I think considering how/why characters arrive at a moment as well as how this moment might affect their future is a great drafting technique. This expansion separates flash fiction from scene and excerpt.  

Tara Isabel Zambrano: Thank you, Chris. I think both our stories in BSF have a strong element of what might be and will be. A chain of events that shows a glimpse of what’s buried deep inside our characters: expectation, hope, longing crisscrossed with each other. “Target Practice” showcases more of it, better and precise, as if it has locked the time-space coordinate perfectly. It’s in my folder of perfect flash fiction pieces.

In “A Thousand Eyes” most of the story is sensory observation of the external world and the conflicts that reside inside. I have tried to run a spiritual thread across them as that’s one of the aspects of our lives that makes us find peace with future and it’s messiness, just like you mentioned, Chris. What is to come and will we be deserving of it’s challenge? I believe we find ways to cope and that is the weakness/strength our characters need to demonstrate: sinking, soaring, breathing so close, we can almost smell them.

LR: I love how much you both love each other’s pieces! Certainly well-deserved love. I love this idea of expanding the Moment of the story, even as that moment becomes so huge, with characters “breathing so close, we can almost smell them” (I love this, Tara!). Often, characters that I’ve spent 1-3 minutes with (in terms of reading time) stay with me for years, and I revisit them. How does flash convey such an intimate understanding of characters in so few words? How do you personally approach character and honing in on the salient, singular details of a character?

CA: This is such an important question for every writer of fiction. I think I most often approach characters through the emotional impact of their voices and what they need, which is more revealing to me than, say, how a character looks. It’s rare that I need to describe physical characteristics like hair or eye color. Kyle, the boy in “Target Practice,” is a plastic toy soldier/boy in need of a father, and everything about his character is grounded in that.  

TIZ: I keep writing and rewriting characters. It’s like stirring a bubbling pot. Let it reach a point where I am satisfied with its consistency and color. And that varies from one flash to another. I, always, ask myself – what is it in this character that I care about most? What is that one salient feature that makes sense in this plot? What is it that doesn’t make sense in this plot? And I create a mix of it, sort of like running a tangent to the circle, touching at a point that matters the most and then deviating away. Perhaps, it is the combination that makes it work:  an exquisite brevity, an extraordinary glimpse that refuses to fade. 

LR: If I can find the voice of a piece, that’s huge. If I hear a clear voice in my head, that’s when I run to the page. Tara, what you said about “touching at a point that matters the most and then deviating away” fascinates me, especially because so much good flash fiction works in the unexpected, in juxtapositions. When have you been the most surprised by your own work? 

TIZ: I wrote a flash called” Up and Up” more than a year ago, and that’s the one where I was surprised where the story took me. I usually start with some sort of ending in my head and work my way backwards but this one just took a walk into the deep woods: an unknown, strange destination. And while I was uncomfortable in the beginning, I am glad I took the road less traveled. How about you, Chris? Has there been ever a story of your own that made you uncomfortable at first and then satisfied?

CA: This is a really difficult question. I’ve been racking my brain to think of an example. I’m not surprised by many of my stories. I write slowly, put drafts away for long periods of time when they hit a wall. I forget about stories. And when I finally force myself to drag out stacks of journals, I edit mercilessly and rarely find much to salvage. It’s hard to feel surprised when the process takes so long. I think I’m most surprised by the stories that just happen, the voice that arrives fully realized and ready to go. The story “Fred’s Massive Sorrow” was like this. Some people have called it a short story in flash. The tone, voice, humor, and structure came immediately, and I stuck with it for 6000 words. 

LR: A lot of my drafting process consists of freewriting, of writing a question about the piece and then trying, messily, to find an answer, so I tend to surprise myself quite a bit along the way. My most recent piece in SmokeLong Quarterly, “Kudzu,” was like that. It just came out of a bunch of research, and then I followed the voice where it took me.

Chris, you mentioned editing mercilessly. I’d love to know what the road from draft to “done” looks like for both of you.

TIZ: “Edit mercilessly” is a goal for me. I find it harder to let go of the phrases I like, but I am getting better at separating my preferences from the direction and mood a story wishes to take. I have been notorious in submitting too early and getting accepted even. Often the editors have been kind to look at the latest version of the story and picking that up.

Lately my process from draft to done, thankfully, is a long one. I don’t think I have matured much from being an impatient writer but it’s because I have been busy at my day job. Somehow, all of that has demonstrated how much letting a draft sit, works in my favor. 

I know a story is ready when it sends a shiver down my spine, when it sings every time I read it.

CA: I’m embarrassed to say that I “sometimes” submit my stories too early. I don’t think I’ve felt completely satisfied about many of my stories. Something always needs fixing 2 years after it’s been published, and I guess that’s what story collections are for. 

The road from draft to done: STUNNING IDEA gets scribbled in journal -> Journal is packed away in cellar -> Life happens. Many countries are visited. -> Cellar floods, requiring my husband and me to clean out cellar. -> Journal is found. -> I attempt to decipher my handwriting. I realize that STUNNING IDEA was only stunning because I was drunk. -> Process starts all over again. 

That’s all completely serious, so I can’t say But seriously… Maybe less entertaining: Once I get a draft of a story in the “might actually lead to something” zone, I tweak and tweak and tweak, changing the word count notation at the top daily–842, 845, 900, 842, 878, 430, 499, and so on until I hate the story and want it to die. Then it’s done.

LR: What happens when all that hatred and that death wish somehow churn out something that gets picked up for publication, then edited, then maybe nominated and anthologized in, say, Best Small Fictions? How does all that fit into your creative life?

CA: Actually that one that made it into the Best Small Fictions never got to the hate phase. I still like reading it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that a writer has to separate the creative act from the passive reading act. The creative act is muscular, which can be exhausting right there at the end when you have to let the story go.

LR: The creative act certainly is muscular! I’d love to know which pieces in the Best Small Fictions anthology are you favorites and what it means to be published alongside them.

CA: And the most difficult question yet! As an editor at SmokeLong, I saw many of these stories before they were published, and I’m thrilled to see them in the Best Small Fictions.

I love “Abstinence Only” by Meghan Phillips. Meghan is a virtuosa of voice and tone. I love “Madlib” by Kim Magowan. No one will ever be able to do that again. Readers will always say, “Oh, you did a Magowan.” And I have to shout from the mountaintops how much I love “Whale Fall” by Alvin Park. This story pushes the limits of flash fiction in terms of word count, but there is not one word out of place. It’s art. It’s amazing. And it won the SmokeLong Award for Flash Fiction in 2018.  

I’m thrilled that this year includes the global community of flash fiction writers, and as I always say, “I’m just happy to be at the party.” 

TIZ: I have to agree with Chris about “Whale Fall” from Alvin Park. When I first read it at SmokeLong, I told myself, I should aim for this. Another is “Persimmon” by Raven Leilani. Muscular voice. Another and  “Film: Nox Transfer” by Karla Kelsey. 

I am in awe of a lot of stories in this anthology and feel fortunate that my work is featured alongside such stellar art. 

Tara Isabel Zambrano works as a semiconductor chip designer. Her work has been published in Tin House Online, The Southampton Review, Slice, Triquarterly, SmokeLong Quarterly, Passages North and others. Tara moved from India to the United States two decades ago and holds an instrument rating for single engine aircraft. She lives in Texas.

Christopher Allen is the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins. His work has appeared in The Best Small Fictions 2019, Booth, Split Lip Magazine, Indiana Review, Lunch Ticket, and others. Allen is a nomad and the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.

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