In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Libby Flores
In “Safe”, your first of two flash fiction stories in Volume 23, there’s a palpable amount of tension simmering as the unnamed narrator unveils a fractured relationship with their partner. Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind the story?
I think at the time I was interested in the idea of the snapshot or vignette in flash fiction. Some of my favorite pieces are scenes or tiny moments slowed down… magnified. The opening line, “Our anger kept us safe for a while that summer” was humming in my head for a while. It became this story of what happens to these two people when a cruelty, an affair, happens in a relationship and yet the kind, strange, and quotidian movements of life continue.
I think one of my favorite things about “Safe” is its compression of time. The story spans a great width of time and space and yet it’s only three paragraphs long. I’m curious—can you talk about your drafting and revision process in how you whittled this piece down to its core without stripping away too much of the story?
When I write flash it comes out pretty contained. (That might just be an annoying answer.) The landscape of writing a short-short feels like whittling from an already small piece of wood. From the opening line I sense that the story will be finite. So in my case (if I am lucky), the first draft is already at a word count that satiates the course of the characters, the scene, and the heat of emotion. Then the pruning shears come out, the fat is found, the bad metaphors, the sentence that over explains, the one that lies there not moving anything forward—those get cut. Revision after that is putting the draft out to my shrewd readers. I have dear writers that I trust, that level me, and also I get a gut check—is this enough? Do you feel pushed out of a moving car? Does it roll to a clean stop?
Let’s move to “Toast”, your second piece in Volume 23. I love that in his editorial letter, your friend and contributing fiction editor Keith Lesmeister described your work as a “swirling nontraditional, nonlinear narratives driven more by language and lyricism than what we often think of as a narrative arc.” What does flash fiction mean to you, and what does it need in terms of craft in order for the story to be complete?
Well, I just love Keith even more so now after that wild and lovely description. Flash fiction always reminds me of play. When I teach it, my wish is for the writer to move with the language, follow it, don’t think, and forget the fences. I suggest exercises: encapsulating a whole person’s life in a page, describing your character’s favorite object in two paragraphs without missing a single detail. I cherish breaking rules, testing false walls, and surprising yourself. When it is done right, flash does all of that. As far as it being complete or solid, I return to my professor Amy Hempel’s advice on the last line of flash being a “punchline.” That is always a good test to see if your work is done in an early draft. Did you stick the landing?
Recently, after years of directing audience engagement and digital projects, you were named the new Associate Publisher of BOMB —congrats! I’ve always loved BOMB for its multidisciplinary approach to arts and culture. Are you able to share with us a bit about your vision and approach in your new role?
Thank you! I feel lucky to work at an organization that never fails to broaden my knowledge of the arts. For anyone that does not know BOMB Magazine, its mission is to place artists in conversation and to preserve and elevate the artist’s voice. I’ve learned so much from visual artists, and performing artists in particular, in reading and hearing their approach to craft.
BOMB turned 40 this year so we are busy prepping more surprises that culminate our past and celebrate our future. We have just finished our second season of FUSE: A BOMB Podcast, and that I feel particularly proud of. In each episode, BOMB invites an artist to choose a guest from any creative discipline —an art crush, a close collaborator, or even a stranger they’ve admired from afar—and we bring them together. The result? Candid, unfiltered conversations on art, what inspires it, how it’s made, and what we can learn from it.
[Editor’s Note: Season 2, Episode 4 features a conversation between choreographer Miguel Gutierrez and Water~Stone Review contributor Gabrielle Civil. You can subscribe to FUSE on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.]
This issue was birthed during this pandemic and the political and social unrest that’s been spilling over on the streets in cities nationwide. It feels like day after day we witness more violence and division, and we felt that the title “hunger for tiny things” took on a multi-faceted poignance for this issue. I’m curious—what tiny things do you hunger for these days?
Hmm, well I am writing this as the world has started to open up. So I have savored the hugs and recently got to return to Texas to see my family. I am finishing my book— so that definitely requires a daily yearning and hunger.
I’d also love to see us continue the vigilance and attention we paid last summer and to hold on to this idea of individual responsibility. Specifically what one can do in their own world to support BIPOC communities. I mean the small choices that can make change. I think people can get overwhelmed about what to do next—but who you hire, what books your children read and how you speak to them about race, where you volunteer your time, who you vote for, how one can continue to educate themselves, all are possible tiny sparks of light.
Writers tend to write what haunts or obsesses them. What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing, or tend to show up a lot in your work?
I’ve been writing a book about men for too many years to count, so in that regard I have been focused on the question: what does it mean to be a good man? I started it before the #MeToo movement and it has only become richer because of its existence.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
I’ve been lucky to have studied with people whose work I admire: Aimee Bender, Paul Yoon, Bret Anthony Johnston, Amy Hempel to name a few. As far as inspiration in art I wrote a story about a J.M.W. Turner painting I could not let go of and more recently seeing his painting, Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, was a real gut punch. The Julie Mehretu show at the Whitney was a stunner and mystified me.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
Dialogue can be a torture. I read better works to overcome the sheer stupidity I feel in writing first drafts. Keith is in fact a true master of dialogue—in his work it is seamless, true, and stirring every time. I recently listened to Tin House’s Podcast Between the Covers. Their episode with Dorothy Allison on dialogue covers so much ground on this topic.
I am not sure it is a quirk but, I listen to music every time I write on repeat. I have songs for my stories. Dustin O’Halloran, Devonté Hynes, and Max Ritcher are favorites. I am a contemporary composer collector.
Libby Flores is a 2008 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Her short fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, Post Road Magazine, Mc Sweeney’s, Tin House/The Open Bar, The Guardian, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She is the former Director of Literary Programs at PEN Center USA (now PEN America Los Angeles). She is currently the Associate Publisher at BOMB Magazine. Libby holds an MFA in creative writing from Bennington College. She lives in Brooklyn, but will always be a Texan.