A Conversation with Michele Finn Johnson & Tommy Dean
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. In this second installment, Michele Finn Johnson and Tommy Dean discuss saving characters, hearing voices, and giving back to the literary community.
Longleaf Review: Both of your stories in Best Small Fictions involve containment. What prompted you to write about entrapped characters?
Tommy Dean: My story, “You’ve Stopped,” started with that voice, repeating “you’ve stopped” until I had to write it. The crucible of the bunker was a gift because it helped me contain the possibilities of what the other character stopped doing. Without the bunker, there are no limits, and it would have lacked a lot of tension. Most of this analysis of what I was doing is only coming to me now framed by your question. I wrote this story in thirty minutes, I think, and only tinkered with the ending after it was accepted. Characters that are contained, though, must face adversity, must face themselves or the other character(s) with them or the writing never really becomes a story.
Characters that are contained must face adversity, must face themselves or the other character(s) with them or the writing never really becomes a story.
I love the opening of Michele’s BSF story, “Santo Spirito, 1577.” Not only is there that containment you mention, but a war between the narrator speaking for the family and the wishes of the objective character of Paola as shown in these lines: “so her duty is our salvation. When they took her away, Paola’s nails dragged across the front door’s casement, leaving ten tiny scratch marks.” Containment creates tension, and Michele has a fantastic set-up for this story!
Michele Finn Johnson: In Catholic grade school, we’d laugh hysterically if we saw a slip of a nun’s humanity—hair poking out from her habit, torn stockings. When I found a map of 16th century convents next to prostitution zones and researched further, the reality of these women’s situation hit me—their lack (in many cases) of choice. Convents as prisons.
In Tommy’s BSF story the repetition of “you’ve stopped” feels like a prayer for this trapped, doomed narrator. The dad in Tommy’s Longleaf piece also feels contained to his new, lonely life. Tommy, do you ever succumb to the impulse to “save” such characters?
TD: Such a great question, Michele! I don’t think I’ve ever saved a character. I try to imagine their trouble, this one scene that will illuminate their whole lives, and give them a chance or glimpse of hope. Characters striving to be better than they were when they entered the scene. They don’t always achieve this, but I want to give them this opportunity. They fail, like we all do, over and over.
Michele, are you naturally lured into using first-person point-of-view? And how do you find such distinct voices? Does it result in a lot of false starts? A lot of revision? Or do you only start a story once you hear the voice in your head?
MFJ: For flash, I usually gravitate toward using first-person because of the immediacy it affords, as well as the ability to get more visceral with descriptions. Tommy—how did you know I hear voices? Do you hear them, too?! Often, a narrator will pop in my head and say some odd phrase, generally an opening line. I heard the brilliant Rebecca Makkai recommend forming mental blueprints for stories and/or scenes, brainstorming pairings of characters and scenarios, working out ideas with the most potential before writing. So I’ll typically take the voice in my head and their opening line on a run or into the shower, to work out (at least) an opening paragraph before I start to write. Makkai’s advice has saved me from a lot of false starts.
100% saving a character is the equivalent of letting the air out of a tension tire.
Tommy, I love what you said about giving your characters a glimpse of hope—I suppose 100% saving a character is the equivalent of letting the air out of a tension tire. I felt such empathy for James in your Longleaf story—I want to give him a couple of twenties to help out! That story achieves such a moment of grace at the end—James has faith that he can still muster some parental respect, but we get the feeling this is likely a temporary situation. Did you edit this story toward achieving this specific feeling, or did it naturally land here? How big of a role does editing play for you in achieving the desired emotional resonance? Do you trust your own edits, or do you tend to use trusted readers before submitting your work? And please tell me you didn’t write the Longleaf story in 30 minutes too, or I’m hanging up my pen!
TD: I think most writers hear voices, right? Hard to imagine that there are people who don’t have an internal monologue? My stories often start with a voice, one that won’t stop talking until I write into that voice! The other half of my stories start with an image. I love this advice from Rebecca Makkai! I often do a lot of work in my head before words hit the page…then I second guess every sentence!
The Longleaf story definitely took longer than 30 minutes. I had that great first line and image of a teacher at school, but I needed help getting the actions and feelings of the narrator just right for the scene with his wife’s new boyfriend and the kids in the back seat. In fact, a lot of editors would probably have passed on this story, but Sarah Arantza Amador gave me a chance to really fine-tune this scene. It’s so much better due to her suggestions! I’ve slowly learned that using beta readers and working from their feelings (not necessarily every prescriptive edit) about my drafts is the key to writing stronger stories. I used to dash things off, give it a quick copy edit, and hit submit. I was impatient for success, for readers, to move on to the next story. I hope my stories are getting stronger, more nuanced, better. But I can’t always get there on my own. Without beta readers, I’d be even further mired in rejections than I already am!
Michele, I wonder how you know when a story is done or at least ready to test the submission waters? What has your process been like for finding beta readers? I’m also wondering how you make it through the writing of sad material? Is there anything you can’t write about?
MFJ: Tommy, I can tell you interview a lot of writers—you ask such good questions! I read everything out loud when editing, and when it sounds right, I sleep on it, and if I feel the same way the next day, I think about submitting it. I don’t want to waste any lit journal reader’s or editor’s time—most are volunteers, and I appreciate their herculean efforts even more since I began editing at Split Lip.
My beta reader saga is sad—I had a terrific Tucson group that disbanded about two years ago, and I’ve been both sluggish and shy about looking for a new team. I’ll workshop longer pieces (essays, mainly) online but tend to trust my gut with flash pieces. I’ve been fortunate to work with wonderful editors who point out specific areas to strengthen, like you mentioned above with your Longleaf story. The wonderful Ingrid Jendrzejewski at FlashBack Fiction did the same for my BSF piece, and I’m always grateful when an editor gives of their time to collaborate with me on my work.
Writing sad is rough—there’s generally some yin-yang of humor in my sad pieces because I truly see the world as an overwhelmingly happy place where sad stuff occasionally happens. There’s no other way to write sorrow—my mother’s death was devastating mainly because she was so incredibly positive and joy-filled. It thrilled me to capture a little bit of her childlike innocence in my Longleaf piece, along with her delight at slapping my adult butt!
Tommy, I’m pretty unrestricted on subject matter. How about you? I am always willing to throw myself under the bus when it comes to essays, and I try to be as accurate as possible when it comes to my memories. I have some current draft work that includes my husband’s family, and that does give me pause. I think I bear the brunt of ugly truth in those pieces, but I may sit with them for a while before deciding if I should proceed. Have you faced any similar dilemmas? It’s a definite bonus of writing fiction versus non-fiction, don’t you think?
TD: I’m still very much in the process of discovering my own subject matter to focus on. In the beginning, my stories were more autobiographical, thinly veiled attempts to understand my own family members, my own place in this world, but I hope my stories are more nuanced now, more creative, but probably centered around the same themes. I’m so terrified of non-fiction, trying to create story and resonance while using accurate details of the past? I’m just not ready for this challenge yet!
MFJ: I’m wondering how editing at Craft has influenced your own writing? How important is it to you to give back to the literary community—you are everywhere on Twitter promoting authors and their work, routinely conducting author interviews, publishing like crazy—are there actually two Tommy Deans??? Fess up!
TD: Being an editor for Craft has increased my own writing skills tremendously. I have a more concrete idea of what makes a story, what’s been written before, what I may have tried to get away with in the past while trying to publish too quickly. Reading or editing for a literary magazine is a win-win. You get to see what other writers are trying, what’s successful and what needs more work. You also get to give back to the same community you want to publish in. When I first started writing, living in a small town in Indiana, I didn’t have much of a community. I’m constantly trying to build the community I didn’t have when I first started. I love stories, and any chance I get to read and support writers, I’m happy! Through Twitter and conducting my mini-interview series I’ve been able to find and read more fresh and exciting stories than I would have been able to without being a part of the writing community! There’s definitely not two of me!
LR: What do you see as the importance of anthologies like Best Small Fictions in the literary landscape, as well as in your life as a reader and writer?
TD: I love that flash is gaining in enough popularity to have not only the Best Small Fictions anthology but also Best Microfiction. There’s an amazing amount of flash that is written and published each year, and even for someone like me who is constantly reading flash, there’s no way you can read it all. Anthologies have their own biases that switch depending on the series editor and guest editors, but it’s a window into the flash that is being published on any given year. I’m hopeful that these anthologies will also offer this window to the casual reader of fiction or short stories, that this will only increase flash’s popularity with all readers and not just writers. Getting a story(s) into one of these anthologies has been a big boost to my confidence as a writer. It’s a new metric for publishing success within this form of writing. Anything that increases a writer’s amount of available readers is a good thing! I hope both anthologies continue for many years and I welcome the publishing of more anthologies too!
MFJ: Anthologies are important to me in a couple key ways, one being that they provide curated excellence in one convenient package. Every year I study anthologies like Best Small Fictions and Best American Short Stories and try to dissect craft elements from such stand-out work. Anthologies also help guide some of my submission choices. I’ve been introduced to many literary magazines this way, and in the instances where those magazines have published my work, it’s felt extra-special. Mainly, anthologies give me something to aspire to, both in my roles as a writer and as Fiction Editor at Split Lip Magazine—they remind me to aim high with my own craft and to try and play a small editorial part in helping other writers achieve great things.
Michele Finn Johnson’s writing has appeared in Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, Booth, The Adroit Journal, DIAGRAM, Barrelhouse, SmokeLong Quarterly, Longleaf Review and elsewhere. Her work was selected for Best Small Fictions 2019 and won an AWP Intro Journals Award in nonfiction. Her fiction has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfiction. Michele lives in Tucson and serves as fiction editor at Split Lip Magazine. Find her online at michelefinnjohnson.com and on twitter @m_finn_johnson.
Tommy Dean lives in Indiana with his wife and two children. He is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. He is the editor at Fractured Lit. He has been previously published in BULL Magazine, The MacGuffin, The Lascaux Review, New World Writing, Pithead Chapel, and New Flash Fiction Review. His story “You’ve Stopped” was chosen by Dan Chaon to be included in Best Microfiction 2019. It was also included in Best Small Fictions 2019. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.