Luke Rolfes: Tommy Dean is the author of the collection of flash fiction Hollows from Alternating Current Press---a sharply crafted assemblage of forty-four short pieces that work together to shine a light on the human experience and the minefield of personal struggle. These stories are short, but they carry clout. They rest heavily on reader’s hearts and consciences. Thanks for taking some time with us, Tommy!
Let’s start with a wide lens. A collection of flash fiction, in my experience, is a particular beast. The pieces are short, and therefore, it can be tricky to navigate which ones belong together and which ones would be better suited in another collection. Can you talk about the process of selecting the stories for Hollows and how you went about putting this book together?
Tommy Dean: This iteration of the book took ten years of writing, of submitting, of adding and taking out stories. I had other titles for the collection as well until the idea of hollows started reverberating around my brain every time I thought about this collection. That’s what helped me write the final stories two years before I sent it to Alternating Current Press. So, for awhile it was just a greatest hits kind of collection until I found the theme, I wanted the collection to solidify around. This idea of finding characters in these moments where they would either be found or lost in these hollow spots. I wish it had been more calculated and maybe it wouldn’t have taken so long to find this final version?
LR: Following up on that: Trying to immerse a reader in a collection (especially of flash) is much different than trying to get them immersed in a continuous novel. Every couple of pages readers are introduced to new characters and hardships. There seems to be a balance that a writer must strike when building a book of flash and micros. I’m curious: Does one emphasize connectivity and try to find the stories that flow together and “talk to each other,” or does one emphasize range and try to keep the reader surprised and guessing? Hollows is extremely well balanced to my ear. How much did you consider connectivity vs range in organizing this book?
TD: That’s so kind of you to say! Like a lot of writers, especially putting together their first collection, I had no idea how to structure the reading experience by ordering the stories. I started with what I felt were some of my strongest stories, that also fit the idea of hollows, and then my next strongest I put toward the end, and then I tried to give the reader a sense of variety in character types, in point of views, in darkness and light, hoping it would all make some kind of sense that I still can’t articulate! Add to that, that I never read story collections in order. I always read the shortest stories first, so I never help the writer by adhering to their chosen orders! So hopefully this order was chosen by some internal logic!
LR: One more broad question before we dive into a couple pieces. I’d love to hear your philosophy on creating flash fiction. Do you follow any sort of go-to generative methodology? Do you imagine a more extended narrative, and the flash is a slice of that? Or do you think of flash fiction as a squished story? A small story? Let me put it the way I sometimes describe it to my students: If you have a picture frame you are trying to fill with an image (flash fiction), and the frame is 2X2, does that mean that the image is a 2X2 cropping of a 10X10, a 2X2 resizing of a 10X10, or simply a 2X2 image. Is there even a difference in your mind?
TD: I like to think of flash fiction as its own form, with its own sense of rules or suggestions or ways to craft it. I would ask the flash writer to consider the power of implication and inference. The writer through the filtering of details, descriptions, and point of view of the main character implies feelings, tones, moods. Implies a sense of drama, of action occurring on the stage of the story. Action, reaction, choice have more power, more weight than summary, stated feelings, and details that are static.
So I don’t think flash is just a squished short story, because I think it’s always trying for more brevity, and not just less words, but also a cutting out or diminishing of the typical story structure.
What we’re looking for, hoping for is a sense of urgency, a velocity of prose filtered to perfection. The right word, the right detail, a fresh insight into the world the character inhabits, and finally a feeling of worthwhileness, a true feeling, we would call resonance.
Characters race against the outside pressure of the small word count to reveal themselves to the reader, to themselves, to the antagonist that puts pressure on them to make a choice, to take an action, they wouldn’t otherwise take if it weren’t for this narrative. In short stories, characters are given many attempts to rise above themselves, to fail, and fail worse, before coming to their reckoning. Flash relies on fewer opportunities, less guidance for the main character and the reader, more depth created by figurative language and just right details than accruement of backfill and backstory. Short stories and novels are the whole nine rounds of a boxing match, while flash is a duck of one punch, and the quick retaliation of a one-two punch for the knockout win. It’s the flash bulb and the reaction in the dark, the scene coming in and out of focus, before being lost.
Flash is not a form only delineated through its word count. A short story told in one thousand words might be a flash, but often it’s just a short story told in miniature, because it largely adheres to the typical three or five act story arc. The flash form is created by cleaving out certain parts of this structure. Namely, the opening act of exposition, and often the falling action act as well. Flash creates its structure with each new example, each story cutting out or giving more depth and power to different acts in order to make an old story new again.
LR: My favorite piece in the book is called “Baby, Alone.” This piece focuses on a woman who finds a car in a parking lot that has a baby sleeping inside. It’s winter, the baby’s parents are nowhere to be found, and the woman doesn’t know what to do. When the mother returns to the car, the woman is uncertain if she should report the mother---who is clearly struggling to make ends meet---or if she should let her take the child home. If I could pinpoint a theme in your work, it might be “glimpses” like this. We get these brief windows into other people’s timelines, and it makes us question how well we know the neighbors around us, how well we know ourselves and how we fit into this world. Can you talk a bit about this story? What drew you to this particular situation between these two women?
TD: I love that you love this story! This is one of those first flashes where I felt like I had done it right! Like a lot of my stories, this one started with the image of a woman waiting in a car in winter and noticing a baby left alone in a neighboring car. It’s a rich story occasion, because the main character has to make a choice, and a lot of my stories focus on these first choices to act as the story engine, to get my characters to break away from the safety or solace of their individual worlds and act in this messy and sometimes violent world around them. The heart of this piece didn’t come in the first draft, because I left the main character kind of hanging outside looking at this baby, and doing nothing. It wasn’t until I allowed the main character to meet the mother, for their confrontation that I had a story with resonance, with stakes for all of the characters. Stakes that aren’t quite resolved but they’ve been applied and challenged, and I think we need to do this more to our main characters, to not shy away from these moments of confrontation, because that’s where our main characters are revealed to us! So while I hate confrontation in my own life, I think it’s the heartbeat of fiction, and I try to angle my protagonists toward it from the very beginning of each story I write.
LR: Another flash I was drawn to was the title story, “Hollows.” I was struck by a character’s response when another asks him what they are doing. He says, “We’re dying. Can’t you feel it?” The two characters in this piece are lying in the middle of a road---perhaps as a dare to see how close they will allow a car to approach before getting to their feet and scampering out of the way. At first, I thought the character was commenting on the predicament of the oncoming cars, but now I wonder if he is speaking in general to one of the book’s themes. There seems to me to be a tug-of-war between folks in this book. There are those who are highly aware of their mortality and those who are not. Do you think that’s an integral part of who a person is? Can you elaborate, too, on the themes of this story?
TD: This is such a smart and generous reading of this story and my book as a whole and I’m honored by this question! So much of this was/is probably simmering in my subconscious as I’m writing, trying to get these characters to act, react, tell their perspective of their true in these moments, to put pressure on them to face a kind of reckoning, even if it’s small, even if it only changes them for a moment. I’m a very introspective person, and so maybe more worried/aware of my own mortality than others? And this worry bleeds into my stories, into my characters, who just want to do their best, but know that there’s this creeping doom even among the beauty of their lives. There’s such a well of tension in this dichotomy. And this story is very close to auto-fiction, in that this event really happened, and I really did lay down on a seldom traveled country road with my friend, and a car did come, but we got up well before the danger, but I spent years and so many drafts trying to understand and turn this event into an essay, but failed and so wrote as fiction, which I’m more comfortable with! So, I definitely was playing with both the present moment of the car coming at them, but also this idea that as we live, we’re also dying, and I know that’s cynical, but it can put a particular pressure on us, on characters to act, to refuse to stand still! One of the reasons I love writing stories is that I get to live as many lives as I can create, that I’m not stuck with just one, so I try things out, ways of acting or living that I would never do myself!
LR: There is one harrowing narrative that is broken into four sections and spread throughout the book. This story is about a young guy named Gavin whose best friend (and perhaps love of his life) doesn’t survive after she jumps from an old bridge into a river. Was this originally a longer piece? Can you talk about why you decided to present it to readers in these four episodes rather than as one?
TD: Part of the answer is that I was working on this larger story as a kind of novel in flash, but the more I wrote about these characters, the more I learned that they deserved more of a novel structure type story, let the strength of a novel is the way we learn about characters through their interior thoughts an their reactions internally to the events of the story, and for the first time I found the flash form limiting, and so I had these pieces of this larger story, pieces that I think work really well as flash, but weren’t working as well to the larger story, so the reader of Hollows gets these pieces, but I hope to write the full story as a novel someday, and give these characters the full lives I imagine in my head when I think about their story! My editor, suggested labeling them and spreading them throughout this collection, and I do think that helps kind of bind this collection thematically, and I hope readers enjoy these snippets of Candy and Gavin’s story so far!
LR: You write great endings. The stories in Hollows always land on a thoughtful note or image. They stick with the reader. How do you know when it’s time to end a very short piece?
TD: Thank you so much for the great compliment! Resonance in flash is often created in the twinning of openings and endings. Of finding a way to provide the reader with an intriguing opening with enough information to get a solid footing on the who, what, where and hopefully the ending provides a clue to the why of the story! One way to know when to end is to consider if the story has a central image/metaphor and has this image been shifted two-three times by the end? This is one way to create movement and depth and I think flash needs both of these elements! Another thing to think about is if the story has satisfied the build up of the confrontation? Has the main character had enough pressure put on them to act in a way they haven’t acted in their lives before this particular story? Stories are about breaking rituals, about seeing a character try to get out of trouble or get into trouble, to witness their choices, their actions, and the fallout from these choices. I’m always looking for this sense of fallout!
LR: Many of the characters in these stories come from tough circumstances. They often do not have a lot of money or prospects for bright futures. Many of them come from small towns. They often battle with internal demons. Is there a particular “demographic” of character you are drawn to in your fiction? What speaks to you about this particular type of person?
TD: These characters come from the well of my own experiences. I grew up in a town of 500 people, most of them struggling to get by, trying to find satisfaction in the hours they had after the working day. Neither of my parents went to college, and we struggled often financially. That being said, I’ve had a lot of privilege. Going to a private university for undergrad and my MFA, having the opportunity to take out loans, etc., but I’m definitely from a blue-collar background, surrounded by small towns and the “demons” that reside there. I think that like a lot of writers I’m working out how to understand the people I grew up with, the people I worked beside as a special education teacher in a middle school in a town of 15,000 people, of hard workers, who are trying to make their paychecks stretch beyond their means, of hateful, spiteful, proud, and also kind people, who all want more than they have, of people who would know so much more if they got out of their echo chambers, of who are easily caught up in propaganda, of who can’t face their own faults and need someone else to blame, of who as individuals would provide safety and solace for others, but as a group struggle to see everyone’s humanity. And where do I fit into all of this? I write fiction, but all writers are searching for the self, right?
LR: I’m curious---and I never ask this!---but do you have a favorite piece from this collection? Why or why not?
TD: Oh, you’ve put me on the spot! I love so many of these stories! And I loved them all at the time of writing them! But I one of my favorites is “Here” which felt unpublishable after I finished writing it, because I wasn’t sure it was a story? But it frames the collection so well. It gets back to my answer to the last question. If I’m a product of where I grew up, what is that product, who are these people, and how do I fit in, or rise above it? “Hollows”, too, is one my favorites because it eluded me for so long, and now it fits perfectly in this collection, fits perfectly with what I’m trying to do in my fiction. To show how characters can come together and fall apart, and show us something authentic about their lives, our lives.
LR: Lastly, your writing (and editing) both revolve around short narratives. What is it about flash and microfiction that appeals so much to your aesthetic? Have you tried your hand at longer form? And do you have a next project in mind?
TD: For whatever reason, I think of stories in moments, of images or conflicts that stand in for a character’s entire life in one story. I love to start with a great opening line and follow the character through their decisions, actions, and reactions to the initial conflict or story occasion and give them the chance to be brave or fall into their cowardice, to shift/change/face a reckoning they wouldn’t face if the pressure of the story wasn’t so intense. I love trying to create stories that hold both velocity and depth. I love creating implications and asking the reader to use inferences to play along with me as I create characters through ribbons of context, and through their actions. To be honest, I get really tired of exposition, of writers telling me too much, of them not allowing me to participate in the story. I often chide myself for not being able or interested in writing longer stories, but we all have to find our own processes, and writing flash and microfiction is how I write. And I love it. There’s a challenge to using brevity, to finding a story in as few words as possible, and it helps me face the blank page with a sense of play and excitement!
I’m wrapping up a new flash collection, and I’ve started submitting it to publishers, so I’m hopeful that will find the perfect home in the near future! I’m also working slowly on a flash fiction writing craft book, and I’m thinking about seriously trying a novel again. But the flash keeps finding me on the page!
LR: Thanks so much for your time, Tommy.
Bio: Tommy Dean is the author of two flash fiction chapbooks Special Like the People on TV (Redbird Chapbooks, 2014) and Covenants (ELJ Editions, 2021), and a full flash collection, Hollows (Alternating Current Press, 2022). He lives in Indiana, where he currently is the Editor at Fractured Lit and Uncharted Magazine. A recipient of the 2019 Lascaux Prize in Short Fiction, his writing can be found in Best Microfiction 2019, 2020, 2023, Best Small Fiction 2019 and 2022, Monkeybicycle, Moon City Press, and numerous other litmags.
His interviews have been previously published in New Flash Fiction Review, The Rumpus, CRAFT Literary, and The Town Crier (The Puritan).
He has taught writing workshops for the Gotham Writers Workshop, the Barrelhouse Conversations and Connections conference, and The Writers Workshop.