By Brittany Kerfoot
James Thomas, editor of the Flash Fiction and Sudden Fiction volumes of very short stories, was on campus March 24 sharing his advice with George Mason University MFA students on the form of flash fiction and several readings from his newest addition to the short fiction family, Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton 2014) which hits shelves April 13.
Thomas, who completed his own MFA with Bowling Green State University in Ohio, opened the workshop with a reading from “A Fable," a story from the inaugural edition of Sudden Fiction (Gibbs Smith 1983); “The young man was clean shaven and neatly dressed,” Thomas read, the description a stark contrast to Thomas’ own thick, graying beard, gold necklace, and brown suede vest and T-shirt. His demeanor was laid-back and he was immediately approachable, frequently cracking jokes and encouraging conversation within the group.
As the afternoon moved on, Thomas proved to be a wealth of knowledge, detailing the appeal of short fiction (or “subway fiction,” as he put it): “People can get to know a character and even see that character change in a short amount of time, like during a subway ride." And with readers’ attention spans seemingly getting shorter and shorter, micro-fiction is increasingly growing in popularity. For those looking to try their hand at writing a very short story, Thomas advised that “flash fiction relies heavily on tension and metaphor. You can have a story without a conflict, but you can’t have a story without tension.”
Thomas read several stories from other volumes he has edited, all with an apparent shared theme: suicide and death. “We are as interested in sex and death in fiction as we are in life,” he said. “It’s something we’re both obsessed with and something we fear.”
When asked what advice he would impart upon aspiring writers, he had several shades of wisdom, including perhaps the most painfully obvious one for any young writer: “Chain yourself to your chair, because almost anything can tempt you away from writing.” Thomas warned about the importance of perseverance and, as most writers can attest, the necessity of revision: “It’s all about going there, doing it, and revision, revision, revision. If you feel you’ve got it on the first draft, you don’t.”
After a quick break for a bit to eat and a smoke, Thomas’ more formal reading began. Following a short introduction from friend and fellow writer Alan Cheuse, Thomas read from his newest collection, which he co-edited with Robert Shapard and Christopher Merrill. One of the stories he read detailed an insomniac who can’t sleep even after he commits suicide, while another, “The Light Eater” followed a woman who eats light bulbs to summon home her lost lover. Most of the pieces contained elements of magical realism, a genre that seems to be making a popular comeback, perhaps especially with the short form.
Thomas concluded the reading, quite appropriately, with a quote from Raymond Carver’s wise advice for short story writers: “Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.”
Go on, indeed.