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.  

Did organizing the material for The Origin of Doubt give you a new perspective on any of it, or, for that matter, on yourself?

Organizing the stories was really the hard part, like gathering fifty sheep into a pen, and arranging them by size or color or personality—but not knowing which method will work out best. In the course of this process, the collection went through many iterations.  I often rearranged stories to fit the parameters of a specific contest—page length, or theme, or general topic (queer stories or stories about nature, for instance).  

At some point, I had a small collection centered on adolescence (“The Origin of Doubt”), and another one on domestic relationships (“A House Divided”), and then some miscellaneous stories, when I decided I wanted to try and put them together into one large collection of fifty flash fictions, published by the time I was fifty. The first two sections of the collection were mostly set, as was the general trajectory from childhood to old age.  The last section, “The Fortunate,” then became  about death and dying, but was also more international—really just a hodgepodge. 

I put each section into workshops then, and fellow writers offered valuable advice, which stories felt the weakest, which might be good to start or end the section with.  I sent the manuscript out for a while as “Fifty/Fifty,” the idea being that the reader would maybe like half of them.  But then I turned 51, and then 52.  I stopped liking the title, and went back to “The Origin of Doubt,” which just seemed more interesting.  Nickole Brown at Marie Alexander Press was very supportive and offered great edits. She sent it to Press 53 (which accepted it the day before my 53rd birthday).  Even after it was accepted, I switched a few stories out, after writing something new that I thought would be stronger.

Putting the stories together by theme/age made me see what stories were similar, not just in topic but tone.  I realised I write a lot about guys who fail to see what’s going on in a relationship. And only after the collection was finished did I see that I’d written about ten second person stories, something I never consciously set out to do.

You’ve published in a dizzying amount of places. How do you find markets for your work? Do you write with a publication in mind, or do you wait till after you’ve finished a piece?

I use Duotrope to search for journals open on a given week or that have upcoming themes.  I’m constantly sending out things and like exploring new places. For instnace, I just discovered a great journal called The Coil, which posts daguerreotypes as a prompt for writing.  I recently wrote a short piece based on a photograph taken around the 1900’s they posted of two singing clowns.

Otherwise, I write a piece and then send it out to whatever journal seems apt.  Some stories, like “A Box of Things,” are accepted right away.  Others, like “Lindsey and I,” I sent to 68 places over ten years before the Portland Review kindly accepted it.

Are there stories you give up on after a certain amount of rejections? What keeps you submitting something 68 times?

I have an elaborate system of recording submissions and sending them out.  I note when I’ve made revisions and when journals have given positive feedback.  If I’m at 20 submissions in with no positive feedback, I’m likely to revise the story completely or retire it, but if I get some encouraging feedback, I figure it’s just a matter of time before the work finds the right home.  That said, generally, the 70th submission is the last straw.  “Lindsey and I” just barely made it.  My story “Arctic” was also rejected 68 times, then won a small international contest.  Maybe 68 is my lucky number. That’s exhausting to think about.

I heard somewhere that Tom Perrotta’s story “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face,” one of my favorites, was rejected 40 or 50 times before Post Road took it.  Some just have to travel long and far to find their home.

As a reader, when do you get excited by a piece of flash fiction?

I get excited feeling a sense of richness—of place, of character, of detail—and then of witnessing surprise.  I like an end that surprises without being corny or just a punch line, although some of my stories I think are corny, to be honest.  The difficult thing about flash is it has to go some place new, but the reader shouldn’t be able to figure it out before the end.  Longer stories often have three or four themes/ideas/subplots that the author is weaving together, which makes it more challenging for a reader to guess the end. With flash, there’s often just time to develop seemingly one idea, so the end can be easier to guess.  This often leads to a trick ending, which can make it feel like a joke rather than a story.  And generally, the shorter the piece, the more punch-liney the end can feel.  I wrote “Fireflies,” which is 59 words, to try to  go somewhere serious, using the images in the story, but create an end that people wouldn’t have time to figure out before they got to it.

I imagine everyday readers struggle somewhat with very short fiction, as it may not be a familiar form. Have you developed any good ways either of helping readers appreciate your type of work or of preparing them for it?

It’s a good question. I think flash fiction is more foreign to to readers than regular short stories, for sure.  But I think that actually makes some people intrigued.  What could he possibly do with 59 words?  With 100?  One thing I say at readings is, the stories work out to be only 30 cents each, so if you don’t like one, just skip over it and try another.  It takes the pressure off a story to perform.

You’re a teacher as well as a writer, and I’d love to know if you have any favorite exercises or approaches that help students write flash fiction.

I developed and teach a flash fiction workshop every other year, and it is my favorite.  I have fifty assignments, and a zero late policy.  I ask students on the first day to sign a pledge to complete all fifty assignments.  I tell them, their stories don’t have to be good, just be one time.  What I’m doing is trying to reclaim the idea of workshop as a place where people try out ideas, experiment. It’s not a critique shop; there’s hardly any critique.  It’s generative and we laugh a lot. 

Fourteen of the assignments come from a weekly prompt for which students submit a story up to 250 words to me.  I send out the stories in one document, without names attached, and we read them in class, anonymously, offer 30 second critiques, and then voting on the best.  They all want to impress their classmates, and in the end, I have it rigged so that everyone is a winner once.

Students perform better (in terms of getting assignments in) than in any of my other classes.  And they come up with some great work.  Having the permission to “write the worst thing possible” as Natalie Goldberg says, is freeing.  And they’re writing so much, their writing muscles really get exercised.   In the end, they all come up with a handful of good stories.  I ask them then to revise the best and submit to at least nine places as their final project.  Usually a couple students get published every year.

How do you help students recognize when a story should be revised and when it should be abandoned? How do you know with your own work when a story is working and when it’s not?

Reading stories to the entire class is a good barometer of a story's success.  Often students think their story sucks then are surprised by the warm reception.  For me, I like to think I have a small barometer in my head, but submitting to journals is always a strong counter balance. A story ultimately is never successful in any objective sense. It’s always a matter of whether it resonates with readers.  Even pieces I’ve published I think as failing if they don’t seem interesting or important to readers.  

I know that flash isn’t the only form you write in. Do you find that writing flash fiction helps you with other types of writing, or vice versa?

Well, I might only write 2-3 longer stories a year, so I think flash makes me feel productive, investigative (if that’s a feeling), engaged.  They seem close to being different animals altogether, though they are housed in the same skin--which is to say,  careful sentences.  The practice of writing thoughtfully is the same, and the idea of creating some kind of story is, but a longer story seems like riding in a truck, and flash is like zipping along on a motorcycle.  Same road, same rules of the road, same general idea of transportation, but a pretty different experience.

Do you see a difference between flash fiction and prose poetry?

Yes. Completely. And, no.  

Which is to say, for me personally, yes.  I’m always thinking in terms of story, even if nothing seems to happen, like in “Portraits of a Woman,” a story which  I just realized is literally equivalent to watching paint dry. Language serves the story, but it is never enough by itself.  I don’t want it to take center stage, even if I do want people to notice it.  I don’t think I’ve ever consciously, or actually, written a prose poem.

Actually, I take that back: I think I wrote one, “When My Mother Died,” which is in the collection.  I wrote that piece with the intention of trying to write in a non-cliche about the death of a parent—my parents are, thankfully, still alive.  For that piece, I didn’t think of story, but rather only of image and sentence. 

I also think there is work that resides between the genres.  Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel” has been published as a prose poem and as flash fiction, and that makes sense to me.  It seems to fit comfortably in either skin.  It can mingle well at both parties.  So, I ultimately think there is an overlap, but a difference.

What’s next for you?

This question exposes all my insecurities—not that I don’t have ideas or think I won’t be able to write in the future (which really, always, just means, today.  Today, today, today.)

What I mean is, I (embarrassingly) tend not to have big ideas, a “project”—or if I do, I rarely complete it.  A few years ago, I challenged myself to write a collection of short stories about sleep.  It was a fun project, and I got a dozen story ideas and a few good stories out of it, but I ultimately lost interest.  In organization and project scope, it resembled too much a novel for me.  Half way through, I retreated back to individual story writing, without any overarching theme.

That said, I have taken my previous manuscript of longer stories and made it into two collections.  One is shorter (2000-3000 word) stories, realist and interior.  The other collection is longer stories, many which slip into slipstream and humor.  People who know me know I’m obsessed with word play, but up until now that obsession hasn’t migrated onto the page.  I’m writing more long stories and trying to hold the reins more loosely, letting the story breathe a little, buck a little.  I think the humor comes out when I’m not intent on honing the sentence down to the bone, when I’m not starving the thing to death.

What are 5 books (or stories, if you want) you would recommend to a reader who’s thinking about getting involved with flash fiction?

First, I have to say that I love that phrase “getting involved with flash fiction”—it’s like deciding to commit yourself to a hundred one-night stands!

Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories (Norton, 1992) is a good start, an anthology that popularized the term and virtually launched the movement into the mainstream.  There’s a pretty wide range of stories in this book, from traditional to experimental, and it includes some real gems. 

But if you read it and feel the strong presence of the straight white (mostly male) editors--though it’s by no means a sexist or offensive collection—I’d suggest next Stripped (2011), edited by Nicole Monaghan, a clever, gritty, alternative collection with a gender-bending conceit: the stories are “stripped” of their author’s names, so while it’s divided into four sections (It, He, She, and They), you don’t know the gender (or anything else) about a stories’ authors.  You can certainly feel the difference that a female editor, and nearly 20 more years of cultural dialogue, makes on the content of this collection.  It’s more queer, multicultural, and class conscious.  It’s also more sensual, sexual, and poetic.  [Disclaimer: I have one piece in here, but it’s one of the weaker ones in the collection, so I’m lucky my name isn’t attached.]

I’d also recommend a precursor to the 1990’s flash phenomena, W.S. Merwin’s Miner’s Pale Children (1970), a singular, less narrative volume which is often experimental yet haunting.  One memorable “story” is simply an instructive guide to “unchopping a tree,” from collecting the sawdust and gluing back on all the branches, to removing the scaffolding and unpacking the ground after you are done. Like a few others in the collection, this piece really pushes the edge of the genre. Not quite poem or story, it’s a short but powerful meditation on how difficult it is to undo what we have destroyed.

To experiment in another direction, I’d recommend Paige Erickson’s The Nice Thing About Strangers, a self-published collection of nonfiction vignettes gathered from her extensive travels through the US, Europe, and Turkey.  Each story has an insight on the nature of human (or canine) interaction.  The stories are perceptive and delightful in their straightforward honesty and unabashed love of humankind—the title is not ironic in the least—but they are so well written, one feels one has been on the same buses and trains, walked down the same streets, and experienced the same chance encounters as Erickson has.  

Lastly, to get diversity and to feel the current pulse on the genre, I’d recommend some flash journals, including Smokelong Quarterly, Flash Fiction Online, Brevity (nonfiction), Monkeybicycle, Wigleaf, Nanofiction, and Fiction Southeast, to name a few.

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