19 April 2018

A Conversation with Nathan Alling Long

Nathan Alling Long is the author of the flash-fiction collection The Origin of Doubt, recently published by Press 53. Timothy Liu said of the collection, "He blurs the lines between flash fictions and prose poems. All of a sudden, genre distinctions start to give way, and what we thought we thought we knew is altered, transformed. These stories span the gamut from traditional to queer trans-genre forms, marvelous to behold in times like these when political discourses and abuses of language have sunk to unforeseen lows."

Nathan's writings have appeared in a wide range of publications and venues, including Glimmer Train, Tin House, The SunStory Quarterly, Strange Tales V, and NPR. He has taught at various schools; currently, he teaches creative writing, literature, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Stockton University. Though he has lived all around the country, and traveled all over the world, he now lives in Philadelphia.

I met Nathan in the summer of 2000 when we were both attending the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference — indeed, I think he might have been the first person I met at Bread Loaf. After checking in and settling my bags in my room, I went to the big barn on the grounds in search of people. I was shy, completely uncertain of myself as a writer, and not convinced I belonged at the famous Bread Loaf. But Nathan and I hit it off, and somewhere along the way he read a story I'd written, and he liked it, which made him immediately one of my favorite people in the universe. We've remained in touch over the years, and I continue to be impressed by his thoughtfulness, insight, and compassion.

Flash fiction isn't something I know much about, despite having published a couple of such fictions myself. Nonetheless, every flash (or short-short) story I've written has been an accident rather than a plan: I didn't sit down to write a really short story, it just turned out that way. When Nathan's collection came out, I read it and immediately knew I wanted to interview him, because here was somebody I knew to be thoughtful about craft and also someone who approaches flash fiction as flash fiction. Always fascinated by form, I wanted to know how he does what he does.

I’m curious about your writing process, particularly with the sorts of stories in The Origin of Doubt. Where do you begin? What happens in revision? Do you have a sense of the form and structure before you start out, or is it a matter of discovery?

Often times my stories start off with exercises or constrictions I place on myself to attempt to write something new.  The first story, “The Scent of Light” started with wanting to write about synesthesia. For  “Between” I wanted to write a story that took place in ten minutes that I also wrote the draft of in about ten minutes. “Alignment” came from a journal (52/250) prompt “Threesome”; in that case, I wanted to make the idea of a threesome beautiful, instead of its more slutty, cheesy connotation.  The last story, “A Future Story” was for a contest by the online journal Brilliant Flash Fiction: write a story under a 1000 words on “the future.”  Every idea I had about the future seemed cliche or familiar, so I decided to set it just a few hours from now, and the rest sort of wrote itself.  

A few stories in the collection are based partially on real life events, such as “How to Bury Your Dog,” or from an incident I’ve overheard, like the story of the skeleton in wall of the house in “Reconstruction,” or what the Chinese woman does on the bus in “Chicken.” But in general, I’m always trying to write something different from what I’ve written before. Then I discover that what I produced doesn’t really stray as much as I thought.

That said, I had a hard time getting this collection published at first, because editors told me they wanted the stories to be more cohesive, center around a common theme.  I’ve read many flash collections like that, but I always get bored with how similar all the stories are—forty stories of failed relationships with cowgirls, or whatever--though I’m now reading a great collection of mostly flash pieces, Doug Ramspeck’s The Owl that Carries Us Away, which all deal with the hardship of impoverished families, yet constantly surprise me.

What’s nice about flash fiction is you sort of know from the start if you have a good story or not, if the story is working.  So revision comes first by weeding out work—I have as many flashes in a computer dustbin as I do published—then on the sentence level, which is what I like most.