"Flash is a Special Kind of Magic." A Chat With Christopher DeWan, Author of Hoopty Time Machines
Christopher DeWan’s debut flash fiction collection, Hoopty Time Machines: fairy tales for grown ups has been called domestic fabulism at its finest, absurd and heartbreaking. It’s received a lot of advanced praise from authors like Kevin Brockmeier and Aimee Bender. Christopher has more than forty short stories published in literary magazines such as A capella Zoo, Bartleby Snopes, Jersey Devil Press, Juked, and Necessary Fiction. Hoopty Time Machines, available from Atticus Books, is scheduled for release in September 2016.
Interview by Brianne Kohl
You have quite an impressive and varied writing resume – brand new book coming out, academia, screenwriting, short fiction, flash, nonfiction and stage plays. So, my first question is this: Are you trying to make the rest of us look like slackers?
Thanks—you’ve picked such a flattering way to describe a “dilettante”… Seriously, I think a lot about that high school guidance counselor who told me I should pick one thing and stick with it. I never liked that guidance counselor. I know he was giving me practical advice, but I’ve never been any good at following it. I like trying new things. I’m really curious about forms and how they work and what they share and how they’re different—so I’ve tried to do a little of everything. I worry that makes me look like the slacker: “jack of all trades, master of none.” I know if I’d just picked one thing, I’d have a lot of experience at it by now.
Most days I feel horribly under-accomplished, but I guess that’s some part of what keeps me working on the next thing.
Your latest collection, Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales For Grown Ups has been described as “domestic fabulism.” Tell us what that means to you.
I’ll be honest: I get so confused by all the various labels and sub-genres in slipstream and magic realism. But what I’m hoping to do in this book is to show a lot of otherwise normal people in search of a “happily ever after.” Each of them has a plan to escape to a better life—but almost always, it’s a terrible plan.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of putting this collection together? What has been the most frustrating?
The enthusiasm of the people who have read this book has been amazing. Of course I wanted people to read and love these stories, but that doesn’t mean I actually expected it to happen. I’ve had some of my bona fide heroes tell me how much my book means to them. It’s caught me completely off-guard. If I’d known that would happen, I would have released a book years ago!
What do you like about writing flash fiction?
Flash is a special kind of magic. I think of flash as a kind of incantation, the quickest possible spell a writer can cast to shine a light, or dispel an illusion, or hurl a fireball. For me it’s a lot of fireballs: “How many things can I blow up in the shortest possible word count?”
I started writing flash in grad school, and at the time I’d never heard of flash fiction: I didn’t know it was a thing. I was just writing what I thought of as “weird little stories” and they didn’t fit into any canon that I knew anything about. Since then, I’ve found a lot of really admirable flash but I still don’t know how well I fit into any canon: it’s rare I read something and think, “Oh, that’s just like how I would have done it. That’s something I would have written.”
Did you write each piece for the collection? Or did the theme emerge organically?
I wrote these stories over a bunch of years and didn’t give much thought to them as a collection. But during those years, I was ruminating over and over on the same themes, and once I understood that, it wound up being relatively easy to thread them together into something that feels to me like a “book.” And once I knew I wanted it to be a book, only then did I start writing stories to round out the collection.
You’ve worked on a number of collaborative arts projects throughout the years. How important do you think it is for a writer to engage with the writing community?
Most of the collaborations I’ve done have been with other kinds of artists—painters and illustrators and designers and actors. I worked in theatre for a long time, which is so collaborative, and now I work as a screenwriter, which also absolutely depends on collaboration and communication. I’ve always really enjoyed collaborating. No, that’s a lie. Collaborating always drives me completely crazy, because the other people don’t want to do exactly what I want. But then, with a good collaborator, I eventually learn that their way makes the project better. The collaboration is a way to challenge me to do something I wouldn’t do on my own—so yeah, I absolutely love it.
Do you have any “white whale” publications – you know what I mean, those publications you pursue mono-maniacally every time they open their reading periods?
I’m such an idiot about literary magazines. There are so many! Like I said, I think of the things I write as “weird little stories,” and they don’t seem to me to be the same as the stories I read in the big fancy magazines like The New Yorker or Paris Review. I have this idea that I don’t belong in those so I don’t submit there. If I’m wrong about that, I would be happy to hear from them…
What are your favorite literary magazines to read?
The ones my friends are in. :)
I really greatly admire the whole Electric Literature empire: they’ve published a huge range of powerful stories, and meanwhile, they’re also creating so many other interesting thought-piece-y things. Even their tweets are great.
I think of flash as a kind of incantation, the quickest possible spell a writer can cast to shine a light, or dispel an illusion, or hurl a fireball.
What writers do you follow? Who inspires your own work?
My answer to this would be a little different every single day: I love being wowed and there are so many writers who do that for me. But some of the people who reliably wind up in my pantheon are Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, George Saunders. They never fail to amaze. I admire them so much. They use wonder to show me things about humanity that I’ve never quite realized, which is why I read in the first place.
What is the worst rejection you’ve ever gotten? What was the best?
I asked George Saunders if he’d write a blurb for my book. I don’t know him, so I wrote him this very sincere fan letter—I’m absolutely a George Saunders fanboy, and I had no shame about telling him that. I thanked him for inspiring me over the years and then I cravenly asked him to blurb my book. And he wrote back! I got a message from George Saunders! Sure, he said no—but he did it in the nicest possible way. He did it a way that made me like him even more. He did it in a way that made me want to invite him over for dinner. Every week.
What does your daily writing life look like? How many hours do you dedicate to “ass in chair” writing? How many hours do you spend on the business side of writing: submissions, queries, follow-ups, etc?
I’m spending most of my energy now on screenwriting, and that’s something where almost the entirety of it is the “business” side. There’s no such thing as art for art’s sake in TV writing. For a TV show to exist at all, it automatically involves a lot of people and a lot of money. So there’s no way to write without giving consideration to the marketplace. That doesn’t mean there aren’t fun, creative days—but it’s a way of thinking that’s very different from how I’ve approached short stories.
Now I think of short-story writing as a vacation from that way of thinking, a rare chance to make some art objects just for the fun of it, stories that the marketplace won’t know what to do with. That’s one thing I like about short stories: because there’s almost no money involved, everything is a passion project.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned about your own writing – or life! - from submitting your work to lit mags?
I’m surprised when I hear other writers talk about how upset they get, receiving rejections from lit mags. I suppose there are a handful of magazines where, if they publish your story, maybe your life will change forever. That is awesome, and if you’re one of those people, congratulations. But for most of us, that’s not what this process is about. That’s not what a lit mag is. A lit mag isn’t going to change our lives.
The whole language writers use around the submission process empowers everyone but the writer. You “submit” to them. They “accept” or “reject” you. No, I reject that. I don’t think accurately describes what’s going on. What’s going on is, I wrote a weird little story. If you like, I’m willing to partner with you so you can share my weird little story with your readers. You need content and I have content. It’s a partnership.
Thinking of it this way, for me, takes the sting out of “rejection.” Sure, sometimes the magazine doesn’t want to partner with me, and sometimes that hurts because I really wanted to work with them: I really felt I had kinship with their taste and with their readers. But mostly when they say no, it just means it wasn’t going to be a good partnership. It’s not a rejection; it’s a cue to find a better partner.
Tell us about your submission process.
Haphazard and relentless. I’m like a drunk with darts. You don’t want to be in the room when it’s happening. I do it manically about once a month, depending on a perfect alignment of the Moon, the stars, the weather, the I Ching, my lucky underwear, and of course the submission windows of the magazines.
If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would you pick?
My girlfriend is a writer. We both work mainly from home, in different corners of the house, and there is no part of the day I like more than when we finish working and come together for dinner, and swap notes on what we’ve been doing all day. I’m very lucky: I live with someone who understands me and the life I’ve chosen to live—understands it and values it and helps me find my way through it.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What is the worst?
Someone recently told me not to confuse goals with aspirations. Goals, she said, are things that are under my control: I can choose to get up early, I can choose to write a certain number of words per day and submit a certain number of stories per month. Aspirations are the things that are completely out of my control: win a Pushcart Prize, get a three-book deal, get shortlisted for a Pulitzer. Chasing things that are out of my control is a bad use of time. All the time I spend chasing aspirations is time I could be spending working on my goals.
What advice would you give to new writers just starting out?
I’m in a mood right now where the advice I’d give is that line that we all hear and think is a joke: “Don’t do it.” It’s no joke. The rewards for being a writer are rare, elusive, and mostly intangible. Whatever reason you think you want to be a writer, talk with your therapist about that reason before you take on too much student loan debt.
That’s not very good advice, so let me try another: Get a job that doesn’t drive you too crazy, so you have some of yourself left at the end of the day, and so you don’t starve.
What are your thoughts on self promotion? How important do you think “writer platforms” and social media are in publishing?
I actually love social media: I love having a forum where I can share the things that interest me and read about things that interest people. I love that. And I think of the book, promoting the book, as a subset of that: “If you like the 10,000 other articles I’ve posted on Facebook, then maybe you like the way I think, so maybe you’ll like my book, too.” Self-promotion on social media only makes sense to me in this larger context: if I like the way you think in general, then of course I’ll consider your book, too. But if I don’t know who you are, and all I ever see on your social media feed is “Buy my book,” well, why should I? That’s just an ad.
Are you working on anything new?
Haha, there’s always something new, thank god. I’m working pretty hard to sell a TV series—that’s what’s taken up most of my time lately. But I’ve started to think about what kind of book I’d want next, after I get Hoopty Time Machines out the door. I’ve got some ideas…
Brianne M. Kohl’s short stories have been published in a variety of places including Mojo, Literary Mama, The Masters Review and Stoneslide Corrective. Find her tips articles and interviews at The Review Review. She has fiction forthcoming from Menda City Review and is currently – at this very moment, probably – hard at work on her first novel. For a full list of her publications and awards, visit her at www.briannekohl.com or follow her at www.twitter.com/briannekohl.