And, if you can stand it, another interview, this one from the current Prairie Schooner blog. Thanks to Timothy Schaffert for his thoughtful questions.
PS: There are a number of micro-fiction sites online (such as the sleek fifty word fiction, a venue for what one might call micro-minis). Your work has appeared in flash-fiction and micro-fiction anthologies. What is the current state of the genre?
Paul Lisicky: I just finished reading James Wood’s rave of Lydia Davis’ Collected Stories in the New Yorker. Among other things, he calls the book “one of the great, strange American literary contributions” and compares her to Flannery O’Connor, Donald Barthelme, and J.F. Powers. Does that translate to the form’s coming of age? Mainstream cred? I’m not sure, but it isn’t news that the short from is everywhere these days, both in print and on-line. I think readers are hungry for something new, something that doesn’t feel like it’s repeating the same old patterns. Of course there are probably curmudgeons out there linking the trend to the decreasing attention span in the age of the Internet but I think the explanation is more complicated than that. A good short might ask the mind to work harder than a story of more conventional duration. And maybe that’s central to the appeal of the form: the puzzle and play of the reading experience. It’s like reading poetry. If you’re not paying attention, the work’s going to go right over your head.
PS: What are some particular qualities of the short-short form that appeal to you, as a reader and as a writer?
Paul Lisicky: I’m drawn to any kind of work that invites me to reread it again and again. Compression, musicality of language, potency of image—those things are important to me. The best shorts feel like they’re making themselves up, at least structurally. Part poem, part story, part essay. There’s something compelling about participating in that energy, or more precisely, watching a hybrid come into being.
I just wish we had a better name for them. I can’t think of short-short without thinking, I don’t know, Daisy Dukes.
PS: Your story, “What Might Life Be Like in the 21st Century,” appears in the Baby Boomer issue of Prairie Schooner. So here’s an impossible question to answer: How has being of that generation informed your fiction?
Paul Lisicky: Well, I was a teenager at the height of the era depicted in The Ice Storm. By that I mean I saw sexual mores changing overnight. My father, for instance, was someone whose look couldn’t have been more conservative during my childhood: big blocky glasses, flat-top crew cut. And he became someone else in the matter of a month. He grew his hair long, exchanged his old glasses for wire-rim aviators, and started wearing patterned shirts. I remember my parents deciding to see Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones, which in those days played in the cinema at the shopping center down the street. And that seemed like a perfectly fine thing to do. They were like new people. That seemed huge and bewildering to me at the time. I think most of my writing has been about the tension between control and letting go of the old systems that have constrained us. Which is an ongoing story, of course.
PS: The writer Francisco Goldman once wrote that “First novels, as I understood it back when I first dreamed of writing one, were for getting back at everybody you hated in high school.” Your short story, contrarily, is a reflective meditation on a high school experience, the narrator glancing back at a particularly difficult moment for the narrator and his mother. Yet the narrator seems to almost cherish this miserable moment, and the insights it eventually offers him. How did you arrive at this particular story, and this particular moment? What was the genesis?
Paul Lisicky: In seventh grade I actually worked on a school project called “What Might Life Be Like in the 21st Century.” The mother was based on my late mother, and Mr. Science was inspired by my teacher, Mr. Fitzgerald. There also was a science fair, but for some reason, I wasn’t there. Mr. Fitzgerald was one of those strange male junior high teachers who made a habit of pinpointing the freaks and gayboys in his class and doing what he could to get them to conform. But what interested me, in memory, was my mother. Why would she pass on his words to me, especially without any overt resentment of him? That wasn’t like her; she was incredibly protective of her sons. I thought of Mr. Fitzgerald’s blue eyes and black hair and wondered, could my mother have been attracted to him on some level? For some reason that notion struck me as poignant, especially from the distance of so many years. That speculation became the kernel of the story, which is otherwise an act of imagination.