Interview with Libby Flores, author of “Legs” published in Tin House Open Bar

Libby’s story “Legs” clocks in at just over 100 words and will take you a minute or two to read. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll read it over and over again, trying to figure out how she accomplished this in so few words. Read Libby’s story here. And check out our interview below.

Keith Lesmeister: There’s a kind of sensual ache in “Legs,” maybe even a touch of desperation, but it’s not romantic in the least. And you accomplish all of this — this mood — in just over 100 words. I’m not sure what I’m asking here. I guess I want to know: how the hell did you do that??

Libby Flores: First off, thank you for those kind words. Truth be told, I have no idea how I did it. I think there are weird windows in writing where you step into something that feels like it was already happening and you are just lucky to be there in time to put the words down. I remember sitting down that Sunday to fulfill my daily writing routine, and I was stuck. I texted a friend and said, give me four words. My promise to myself was to use those four words (all W words go figure) and then I could go about my day. I have since thanked that friend for those four words.

KL: You create these two characters, their lives, their situation, and render it so completely. Again, in so few words. Did you just drop in on them? Have you been living with these two characters for a while? How much (or how little) did you know about them before this story took shape?

LF: I didn’t know them before. I do feel like I happened upon two people in a state of disrepair. Maybe after a fight, or maybe after the last time they would ever sleep together. Now looking at it: the opposing factors at work were her last smidgen of hope and the stagnation that had taken over their lives, the world moving on without them. That need for a glass of water, well we know that expression —give a character something to want. In her case, that water represents so much more that just relieving a momentary thirst.

KL: Did you always know it’d be a short piece?

LF: Yes. When I write flash it tells me— rather than something I decide beforehand. It’s rare that when I am writing for me not to know it’s a flash piece. The last line never lies. If it rests, or as Amy Hempel used to say, “lands” that is always a great indicator to stop.

KL: The short form is such a wonderful, mysterious alchemy of just the right sounds and details, not unlike poetry. How conscious are you of these sounds and details while in the actual act of writing?

LF: For readers, I believe that is where the connective tissue of writing is found. Or as Sorkin would say that is where the writer eats. I have done some odd things to assure I’ve gotten a detail or sensation correct. The experience of a story, when it is at its best, is an accumulation of all the details so then it can deliver an unmistakable hurricane to your chest.

KL: “Knees like turned down saucers.” How did that wonderful simile reveal itself?

LF: Thank you, Keith. Oh dear, I don’t know. I can say this: I’ve had bad knees my entire life. I may be a writer that has had to think more of them than most.

KL: Other flash pieces or authors you might recommend?

LF: Lydia Davis, Joy Williams, Agatha French, Kristen Arnett, Jamie Quatro, Jamaica Kincaid, Grace Paley, Amy Hempel, Tin House Flash Fridays have excellent taste :). George Saunders “Sticks” splits me wide open every time. Anne Bettie’s “Snow” will peel the paint of your soul.

KL: What are you currently reading?

LF: Lots of poetry. Carl Phillip’s Reconnaissance. That book. Wow.

KL: Last question: turkey, ham, or vegetarian/other option for Thanksgiving? And what’s your favorite kind of pie?

LF: Turkey always. My mother’s butterscotch pie— every time.

Libby Flores is a 2008 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Her writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, Post Road Magazine, Mc Sweeney’s, Tin House /The Open Bar, The Guardian, The Rattling Wall, Paper Darts, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

Interview with Jason Lee Brown, author of “Left Leg, Just Above the Knee” published in Kenyon Review Online

Jason Lee Brown was kind enough to answer a few questions about his story. He’s open to others if you have one of your own — feel free to leave your comment or question in the “comments” section below.

Keith Lesmeister: The opening line is a beauty, “Life would be livable if I could relieve this inner pull to amputate my left leg.” This sentence provides a sense of internal conflict, which starts the story in motion and drawing the reader in fully. It also introduces this distinct and unique voice — humorous, observant, and always honest. Could you discuss this narrative voice, perhaps offer a few thoughts about how it emerged.

Jason Lee Brown: I think the twist in the last four words of the sentence, “amputate my left leg,” is what blends tragedy and humor into the voice. I like rhythm and hidden musicality in my short prose, and this first line contains alliteration, assonance, meter, rhyme, and half rhyme. These poetry elements give the first half of the sentence an almost upbeat feeling before the grotesque twist of the last four words. I think that juxtaposition gives the line its voice.

KL: You accomplish a lot here in just under 700 words. Could you discuss how this story took shape. Did you start off knowing it would be a flash fiction piece?

JLB: I knew it would be a short piece, and by looks of the first line, it might have started out as a poem, but I’m not sure. I had run across this list of bizarre disorders, and BIID was one of them. I tried to write about four of the disorders, and this story is the one that took off. Once the first couple paragraphs took shape, I stayed with 100-150 word paragraph scenes to keep a consistent pacing. The most difficult part was finding an ending paragraph I was happy with.

KL: There’s a deft use of subversive humor in the piece that seems to underlie something…. a kind of melancholy, I think. Could you talk about how those two ideas work in tandem with each other in your story?

JLB: I try to use levity in the same way I use rhythm, musicality, and other poetic devices. Levity can help make tragic subject matter easier for the reader to ingest, but that has to come through in a way without marginalizing the character or the illness. This character’s underlying humor also comes from this place where his desire is considered a disorder, yet in the face of all opposition, he has this fuck-you attitude and determination that doesn’t stop.

KL: Since this is a blog celebrating short stories, could you share some thoughts about the short story, generally. Any favorites? What do you like about them? Do you find them challenging to read/write? Other thoughts?

JLB: Well, I like short stories enough to start my own anthology, so I am going to take this question as a chance to blatantly promote the soon to be released New Stories from the Midwest 2016 (New American Press), a best-of anthology that presents the most recently published short stories set in or inspired by the Midwestern United States. Here is the TOC.

Thomas M. Atkinson                         “Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills”

Charles Baxter                                   “Forbearance”

Catherine Browder                           “Departures”

Claire Burgess                                   “Upper Middle Class Houses”

Peter Ho Davies                                 “Chance”

Stephanie Dickinson                         “JadeDragon_77”

Jack Driscoll                                       “All the Time in the World”

Nick Dybek                                         “Three Summers”

Stuart Dybek                                      “Tosca”

Abby Geni                                           “Dharma at the Gate”

Albert Goldbarth                               “Two brothers”

Baird Harper                                     “Patient History”

Rebecca Makkai                                 “Dead Turtle”

Monica McFawn                                “Out of the Mouths of Babes”

John McNally                                      “The Magician”

Emily Mitchell                                    “Three Marriages”

Devin Murphy                                    “Levi’s Recession”

Joyce Carol Oates                               “A Book of Martyrs”

Lori Ostlund                                       “The Gap Year”

Nicole Louise Reid                            “A Purposeful Violence”

Christine Sneed                                 “In the Bag”

Anne Valente *                                   “The Lost Caves of St. Louis” *

Lauren van den Berg                        “Lessons”

Josh Weil                                            “Long Bright Line”

Theodore Wheeler                           “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine

Guest Editor Lee Martin                   “Introduction”

* Winner of the inaugural Jay Prefontaine Fiction Prize

Jason Lee Brown is the author of the novel, Prowler: The Mad Gasser of Mattoon, the novella, Championship Run, and the poetry chapbook, Blue Collar Fathers. He is the Series Editor of New Stories from The Midwest and a contributing editor of River Styx. His writing has appeared in numerous literary journals, including the Kenyon Review, Literary Review, North American Review, The Journal, Southern Humanities Review, and Ecotone. He earned his MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.