“The wall between fantasy and realism isn’t a wall for me at all.” In Conversation With Ron Koertge
“I speak to you from heaven because I’m dead. Gored by an enormous billy goat (number three to be exact) and tossed in the stream. Why did I wait for him? Why didn’t I gobble up the first Gruff and call it a day?
It was the way he lowered his eyes. I thought I might get to know him on the way back from the hill where he planned to eat until he was fat. And the second Gruff? I loved his nonchalance. The way the sun lit up his little beard. And he’d come back, too, eventually, sated and sluggish. More to love. I was interested in love.
And Gruff number three? He was a worthy opponent. He made my trollness rise and darkness spring out of me. But before I knew it, I was dead and all awash in spring water. Well, I’m pretty now. We all are. That’s my heavenly reward. Plus an attractive townhouse. No more damp places underneath anything. The Gruff brothers? They’re all roly and poly. Still grazing on those verdant hills and clattering across my bridge at will while in the village butchers sharpen their knives and grease the wheels of the death cart.”
“Troll Soliloquy,” excerpted from Sex World (Red Hen Press)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: As a poet and novelist, do you view flash fiction as a marriage of genres or its own beast entirely? What draws you to flash in particular, and what do you view as the challenges inherent to this form?
RON KOERTGE: As far as Flash Fiction being a beast all its own or some lumbering hybrid with a grudge, here’s the short answer: the poet always shows up in everything I write. My FF usually depends on intrigue and speed, but so do lots of my long, narrative poems. I’m always interested in figures of speech and the rhythm of my sentences. I started to write FF pieces after reading some on-line and remembering O. Henry and Saki. I also remembered how, in college and grad school, short stories with a twist (sounds like a tasty drink, doesn’t it?) were basically denigrated as formulaic and somehow beneath serious fiction. Some part of me, the anarchistic part that also wants to drive a big shiny car, wanted to celebrate the old-fashioned short, short story and to see if I could earn two adjectives usually describing O. Henry — playful and witty. We’ve all seen bullshit blurbs along the lines of “powerful,” and “earth-shattering.” I never aspired to those. Readers were going to give me a few minutes of their time. I wanted them to be glad they did.
AR: In past interviews you’ve mentioned that you don’t try to write fiction and poetry on the same day. I wonder whether you feel similarly about the process of writing longer and shorter prose. Do you set out to write knowing that a piece is going to be a flash piece? Or did any of these grow out of attempts to write them in longer form?
RK: I did set out to write FF as wham bam stories. They were never flotsam (a deck chair, a life preserver) from a larger vessel that had floundered. Once I’d written a few for fun, I pretty much caught fire and did one a day for about three months. (I’m a Platonist in the sense that the artist is the doorway between the finite and the infinite. That door got propped open and I just left it that way.) Some were good right out of the gate; some needed revision; some were terrible. I didn’t write poems or longer pieces. I didn’t fool around with other genres and come in at 3:00 a.m. smelling like a sestina. I was faithful.
AR: Ha! So once you realized you and Flash Fiction had a good thing going, at what point did it occur to you that you might have the makings of a collection? And did that prospect change how or what you wrote as you moved toward that goal?
RK: Once I’d written twenty or thirty I imagined that if I could come up with eighty or so I would, in fact, have a collection. Some people freeze when the prospect of success presents itself in all its finery but I’ve been writing a long time so I just kept my head down, did one a day, then went to the races.
AR: Are there other FF practitioners (contemporary or past) whose work you admire, and why?
RK: A few years ago I found myself tinkering with longer poems that wouldn’t surrender to me, so I turned them into tiny stories. Since they weren’t poems anymore, I figured they might be FF, so I read a few of the Big Guys: O. Henry, Lydia Davis, Julio Cortázar, Augusto Monterroso. But only a few. And I read quickly. Their stories were a kind of imprimatur, and I thought, “Okay. I’m doing that. I don’t need any more models. Now get on with it.”
AR: Many of these stories are really funny, in spite of (or because of) their dark themes and you have a knack for ending your tales with a twist. In spite of the short-short nature of the stories you set all the details in motion that lead to an ending which, like a well-delivered punchline, still surprises us. I’m curious about your drafting process here, because you’ve mentioned in other interviews that you generally avoid outlining or planning too much in advance. Is your approach any different with flash pieces, where every detail counts and the ending feels like such a payoff? Do you begin with a known or specific ending in mind?
RK: I tended not to begin working knowing what the ending would be. It’s fun for me to surprise myself. In “Fund Raiser,” for instance, I wanted to know what would happen if…. So I created an unlikely guy, put him in a kissing booth and, scientist-like, watched what happened. In “Flannelgraph Lesson,” though, I used a vivid memory of sitting in the Baptist church basement while some emasculated capon taught us lessons from the Bible. But scorn or rue never worked in that story and it was only when I made the boys rescue the stricken teacher before he lost his faith entirely that the story came together. So I tried various endings until the right notes fell into place.
AR: “Flannelgraph Lesson” is one of my favorite stories in this collection. The end of that last line, in particular, really resonated with me: “we threw ourselves at him before he could get his hands on God.” Though the narrator is now an adult who understands the situation in retrospect, the words you use to describe the scene are mostly limited to what “exists” in a child’s consciousness– in a way two stories are being told in parallel. The idea of Mr. Powell having a life outside of the Sunday school classroom is somehow more preposterous to the kids than the idea of a worn piece of felt standing-in for God. And as his heartache threatens to intrude on their reality they close ranks, heroically! to rescue the flannelgraph God.
Though this is a story for adults it really evoked (for me) that impression that I think many kids have: that adults are a different species entirely. So I wonder how you re-enter that space as an adult writing for children and teens. What are some of the challenges you face in terms of getting the details right, getting your work past the teenage bullshit detectors? Do you ever solicit feedback from your YA readers?
RK: I never grew up, so it’s no great feat for me to re-enter the “space as an adult writing for children.” I just have a better vocabulary now and I’ve learned some tricks. For example I know what synecdoche is so I pick the details that really count. But I obviously knew the details that counted then; I just didn’t know what they would someday be for as they impressed themselves on me. I can step back into the clammy church basement anytime. (As far as soliciting advice from YA readers, I tend to trust myself and two or three other people. Too much advice reminds of the Seven Dwarfs squabbling over Snow White. Those piping voices. Those tiny, selfish agendas.)
AR: I’m curious about the role of fantasy and magic in your work. In many of these stories, an outsider or relatively powerless protagonist is able to access an element of magic that helps him change an outcome he would normally have no control over. Robyn, in “Willful Crayons,” a casualty of her parents’ crumbling marriage, creates macabre drawings that come menacingly alive. Barry, in “Pygmies of the Rainforest,” whose hospitalized mother is near death, believes that the figures in a painting may be controlling who lives and dies, and takes steps to “fix” the situation. And Melanie, the long-suffering office drone in “Perfect Copies,” discovers an unexpected way to escape her tedious job (and life). Yet the world these characters inhabit is decidedly unmagical. The boundary between real and fantasy is permeable, but only your most disenfranchised characters appear to notice or test it. Because of the brevity of these pieces it’s hard to tell whether you’ve given your characters a true “out” or simply an alternative reality to retreat to in their minds. Can you talk a little bit about this mix of fantasy and stark realism in your work, and the intentions behind those ambiguously “happy” endings?
RK: I’m always a little unhappy. Discontent is my default emotion. I write and search, in a way, for equilibrium and poise. So my life-when-I’m-writing isn’t a fantasy life to distract me from what is solemnly referred to as real life. It is my real life. The wall between fantasy and realism isn’t a wall for me at all. It’s a porous membrane. And as far as I’m concerned that’s true for Melanie in “Perfect Copies” and Barry in “Pygmies of the Rain Forest” and Robyn in “Willful Crayons.”
AR: I guess, then, my question has to do with the moment that you choose to pull away from these stories– just as the characters seem poised to “act” on their fantasy. You leave the reader with a choice about how to imagine these endings. “Pygmies” and “Willful Crayons” reminded me a bit of Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt”–there’s that tipping point in the story where the childish fantasy slips its bounds and crosses over to the “real” world, shifting the power dynamic entirely: the parents in the Bradbury story, we believe, have been eaten by lions. In “Pygmies…” Barry leaves the hospital confident that his action (of defacing a painting) has saved his mother from dying. But the story ends without our knowing whether his solution “worked” or seeing the unintended consequences if it has. I liked the ambiguity of not knowing whether the characters had “succeeded” outside of their own internal reality. But I also wondered if you were tempted to play the scenarios out further?
RK: When, a time or two, I teased some more story out of an ambiguous ending, the thing collapsed. I didn’t need to see Melanie chatting with a travel agent as her clone trudges to work. I don’t want to hear Robyn’s mother phoning her gun-toting boyfriend and breaking up with him as Robyn either gloats or looks at her mom in bewilderment. In “Pygmies,” I believe readers simply enjoy Barry’s confidence. Flash Fiction in general has a momentum that carries readers beyond the end of the story, anyway. If a piece of successful FF is song-like, the last thing it needs is four more bars.
AR: Some of my favorite pieces are set in the classroom and I love in particular the attention you give to the questions of privilege and class—who gets to study writing and how, and what does it mean in the greater context of their lives? In “Seminar” the narrator is part of a group of relatively privileged students (“For people who claimed to be interested in originality, we were a collection of clichés”) whose bored, “famous” creative writing teacher decides to spice things up at the end of the term party by asking them to savagely critique each other’s pre-workshop pieces. (She then advises them to “Marry up if you have to.”) And in “Re-Entry Women” a community college professor who teaches basic composition to an all-female class of adult learners is menaced by their suspicious husbands who view him as a threat to their status quo: (“Did Mrs. G show her husband the journal where she’d written, “I am not taking no shit, no more, from nobody!” And did that explain the black eye?”)
As someone who’s taught writing both in MFA programs and on a more remedial level, how do you address these questions of financial and educational privilege in the classroom, and how do these shape your teaching approach?
RK: I don’t think much about shaping my teaching approach. Except for different skill levels (learning not to write sentence fragments vs. learning how to calibrate Tone in fiction) I’m the same nuts-and-bolts teacher. I liked working with remedial students; they were often street-wise and profane and once I convinced them that standard English was another language to be used only in the foreign country of College they settled down and gave the comma a well-deserved beat down. For MFA students the lessons were more sophisticated but I was still me — funny and reasonably patient. For the record, “Re-Entry Women” is straight up autobiography. I taught that class. The women — with names changed — were those women. But the piece was braying and unmusical until I was reading a sci-fi story and the muse tugged at me and said, “Now, Ronnie.”
AR: There’s a tension in these stories between working class and middle class notions of work, identity, and achievement–whether, for example, paid work needs to be “meaningful.” For many of your characters work is neither a whim nor a “calling” but an economic necessity, and the idea of working a job purely for the novelty of it (or abstaining from work to focus on one’s art) is absurd. In “Sex World” Ronnie holds down a job at a sex emporium, in his words, “because it was easy and paid fairly well.” His girlfriend hangs out there more as a voyeur, a thrill seeker. As the narrator puts it, “she liked it that my job was “interesting.”” And in “Money and a Room of One’s Own” the grad student narrator views the pretensions and studied asceticism of his peers with skepticism. Your writer-protagonists often seem caught between these worlds. Can you talk a little bit about the themes of work and privilege in your writing?
RK: I’m probably still caught between two worlds. It’s likely I have enough money now to, within limits, do pretty much what I like. (A really amazing thing for anyone to be able to say, by the way.) But I never forget what my early life was like – both my parents worked and so did I. I saw my dad fail and, at sixty, work as a maintenance man in the middle school sprinkling sawdust on vomit. As a teenager I worked on farms. Buck a few hundred hay bales or muck out a barn and college looks pretty good.
I taught for thirty-five years at a community college, so I had affluent students picking up three units and people who’d done hard time trying to get back into the workforce. The latter’s attitude about meaningful and meaningless work might be this: how meaningless can it be if it pays the bills? I didn’t think helping people with basic skills and seeing a light come on was particularly rewarding. I was glad for them, but I got paid to do that.
Many teachers are sick of having folks say how rewarding teaching must be when those same people voted against everything that might make a teacher’s life easier. Thousands of citizens assume psychic income (“rewarding”) is as good as real income though only the latter might help buy a better car or a pay a bill.
I wrote for a TV cop show a couple of decades ago. The work was hard and time-consuming. The money was really, really good. Did I think that was rewarding? I thought I was writing reasonably high-quality entertainment. I liked the guys I worked with, I liked the Polo Lounge, I liked being a member of the Writer’s Guild and after six months I went back to teaching. But not because it promised to be more rewarding. TV work often took up twenty hours of the day. There were other things I wanted to do with my time. Time is the currency I value.
As far as identity goes, I’ve seen too many teachers retire, totter back to the cafeteria during lunch to tease their former colleagues, and then wither and die. When I left PCC, I literally never went back. I had other work to do.
You know what it is. That’s why we’re writing to each other.
Find a copy of Sex World on IndieBound
Ron Koertge teaches at Hamline University in their low-residency MFA program for Children’s Writing. A prolific writer, he has published widely in such seminal magazines as Kayak and Poetry Now. Sumac Press issued The Father Poems in 1973, which was followed by many more books of poetry including Fever (Red Hen Press, 2007), Indigo (Red Hen Press, 2009), Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses (Candlewick Press, 2012), and The Ogre’s Wife (Red Hen Press, 2013). He is a contributor to many anthologies, such as Billy Collins’s Poetry 180 and Kirby & Hamby’s Seriously Funny. Koertge also writes fiction for teenagers, including many novels and novels-in-verse: The Brimstone Journals, Stoner & Spaz, Strays, Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs, and Coaltown Jesus. All were honored by the American Library Association, and two received PEN awards. He is the recipient of grants from the NEA and the California Arts Council and has poems in two volumes of Best American Poetry. He lives in South Pasadena, California, where he is seriously funny.
Photo credit: Sonya Sones