Spinning: An Interview with Meg Pokrass
I’ve known Meg Pokrass for more than four years. My first Skype interview with Meg occurred during one of my classes for graduate students who majored in British and American literature at Nankai University. During these years, Meg kept surprising me with both the quality and quantity of work she publishes. I’ve long been wondering what is the source of inspiration that enables her to have such prolific writing career and I was thinking about having an interview with her after we featured one of her stories in The Hong Kong Review last year. Sadly, our schedule was disrupted completely by the pandemic and I would have to keep my curiosity all to myself until almost a month ago when I learned that her flash collection Spinning to Mars would come out this June.
Tony Huang: It’s been slightly more than four years since our last interview in 2017. Did flash fiction, as a genre, continue to evolve in the past four years? What are some of the new things about this genre that you’re interested in especially?
Meg Pokrass: When I began writing flash fiction, 11 years ago, there were around 12 magazines in the world that would even publish it. You send a flash fiction out and they say what’s this? Writers that were writing flash were marginalized, and they were considered to be niche. A decade later now, the form has exploded, and as many magazines are publishing flash and micro as they are publishing traditional lengthy short stories.
Back when I just started writing flash, it would have been inconceivable to imagine this. No way around it, the internet has really helped the form. This allows people to read the best out there online in these small literary journals that have been believing in it, publishing it all these years. In comparison to the 12 journals that accepted flash when I started submitting, there are endless literary magazines who are hungry for flash fiction. It’s really exciting to see this. Along with this, it’s useful to have some kind of curation, a process of sifting through to find what's exceptional on a yearly basis, a hard job because there's currently so much of it.
Working as the editor of Best Microfiction Anthology, it’s always imagining this: how are we ever going to sift it down to 90 pieces of the best of the year when there are thousands and thousands of pieces to sort through. That’s why editors’ nominations are important.
Tony Huang: Yes, last year, or the year before the last, when I was working as a guest editor for The SmokeLong Quarterly. I was impressed by their output. It’s growing big.
Meg Pokrass: Exactly, it’s incredible what’s happened. As an editor, I find every year some of the most surprising pieces come from writers I have never heard of. There are 3 teenage writers who have work in Best Microfiction 2021! I have an editor colleague who says, “We’re only going to query the best writers. The ones we know of.” My response to this is that they will be cutting out many strong pieces, because the best often come from completely unknown writers. And this is the beauty of it.
Tony Huang: Do you still remember about four years ago we talked about the possible boundary between poetry and flash fiction? We were saying that the boundary was actually so vague. I think this may in some way explain why flash is such a vigorous genre.
Meg Pokrass: Yes, I remember that discussion…
Tony Huang: In the past few years, you’ve published seven flash fiction collections, two novellas-in-flash, and thousands of other pieces that appeared in around a thousand literary journals around the globe. We are curious about how do you keep such high productivity. What are your sources of inspiration?
Meg Pokrass: I’m obsessed with writing it, I suppose.
Tony Huang: That’s not too bad though.
Meg Pokrass: True. The fact that there is not the right way to do it and that you have to make it new every time makes it really fun, so whatever works last time you know it will never work again. It’s always interesting to write, because there’s no formula and it calls on creativity.
Often, aspiring writers feel that they need deep inspiration in order to write (and I want to talk a little bit about that). They sit staring at a blank page on the screen with nothing to say, because they think they need to have something that has deeper meaning to feel inspired. For me the way to get there is to find ways to coax the material out. I have always needed some kind of prompt to get the words to flow.
I assign myself prompt words or prompt exercises every single day when I write, and instead of sitting waiting for an idea to occur, I will tease the story out.
Writers I admire, who have made a life writing, do not wait for inspiration. They give themselves something to do. You give yourself a task, and through doing the task, moving the fingers, that’s how the writing comes out. I think that’s also how our deepest, the most interesting work will emerge. When we give ourselves a creative task, it feels safe to create. Our internal editor goes to sleep, as if we have given it permission to come out.
I also think that there’s no perfect place or perfect time to write. A lot of people feel that they need to be in some beautiful place to feel inspired. That’s not true. Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye two o’clock in the morning between her jobs as a book editor and a new mother. She wrote it when she should have been sleeping. A recent novel, which was nominated for the National Book Award, was apparently written on a telephone while its author was nursing a child. This reminds us that we do not need to be in a perfect place or time in order to write. The “it has to be the right place to feel inspired” bit is an excuse.
Tony Huang: You just mentioned about prompt. Would you be a bit more specific? This can be helpful to writers who visit our website. What kind of prompt do you think will work well? How long should be the prompt?
Meg Pokrass: My favorite prompt is to jot down five to ten random words and to try and make use of them in a story. I look for words that are a little bit juicy—sensory words help. I’ll pick up a magazine or look around the room and jot down words. They don’t have to be big, special words. And they should not be “writerly” words.
I prepare myself with 5 – 7 random words, and it can also be fun to work with an unusual photo to “try and make sense of.” It’s good to set a timer and set it for ten minutes.
Very often my stories will have a sentence at the beginning like “I remember…,” or “It has something to do with…,” or “That was the year I….” I will give myself a fragment to launch off with. Sometimes closing my eyes and allowing the fingers to move is useful. The idea is not knowing what you’re going to write about and to allow oneself to discover. Here is how the best stuff always comes out, not planning anything.
Tony Huang: That’s quite amazing! Thank you for demystifying the whole process of writing! This is really helpful!
Meg Pokrass: I like to show new writers that this is attainable. I think everyone who loves writing can create good stories once they get rid of their lofty expectations.
Tony Huang: Since the beginning of last year, people here realized that the pandemic was going to be big. Almost throughout the whole year, we’ve been hearing that writing programs and journals were interrupted, print houses were closed down, workers were quarantined. So last year and a huge part of this year was quite interruptive. However, as a writer, do you think your writing was affected in some way?
Meg Pokrass: I live in a small village in Northern England, up near the Scottish border, and was already isolated. This period of time has opened me up to the world because of Zoom events, so I’ve been more social and more active since the pandemic. I did ask a few great writers to collaborate with me.
Tony Huang: This is wonderful!
Meg Pokrass: Thank you! I’m working on a collaborative project with 2 writers now: Jeff Friedman, wonderful U.S. poet and micro writer, and Rosie Garland, a brilliant U.K. fiction writ