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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 writer. There was the realization for me that collaboration is a huge joy. I love it, because, just like a prompt, it gets things out of my head. When I’m working with another writer, it is much more playful. It’s like improvisational theater.

Tony Huang: I’m very curious about how do you collaborate. Do you write about the same topic? Do your pieces appear dialogic?

Meg Pokrass: There are a lot of different ways to do it. With Aimee Parkison, my original collaborative partner, I will often write the beginning of a story and she will write the end. With Jeff Friedman, we use many collaborative approaches. For example, Jeff will send me two lines, and then I will add two lines to what he sent me and send it back. We go back and forth and each time we have two more lines. We also gave each other permission to change the story. So if he sends two lines to me, and I add two lines to it, and he adds two more, and if they don’t feel good together, I can do a little bit of changing before I write two more. There is a layered effect. Jeff and I are very playful with each other, we have fun.

Tony Huang: Great to know such wonderful ways to get through the time of the pandemic! And I’m really excited to know that you will have this new book out in June. There are more than 60 stories in the collection Spinning to Mars. Is there a special patter in which the order of the stories is arranged?

Meg Pokrass: The stories were not consciously written to fall in a particular order when I wrote them, as they were created over a 10-year period with no collection in mind.

When I first put the collection together, I experimented by unifying the perspective in each microfiction, but it ultimately endangered the mood of the little pieces.

I would read it back to myself and for a sense of the flow. There is an intuitive process, working out how the way stories feel next to each other, and I prefer this to having a detached, intellectual concept of how a collection should read.

This collection involves dream logic so I kind of let that intuition guide the way I put the collection together. I tried not to think too much, instead to feel my way through those decisions.

Tony Huang: When I was going through the collection, I was driven by a desire to sort out a certain kind of logic. I was thinking who are these women, are they the same woman or are they different.

Meg Pokrass: There is a kind of kaleidoscope effect, because I had written it over many years. It’s the same woman but this is not always clear, because even in her mind she goes to different places and becomes different people.

Tony Huang: It’s intriguing. Another thing is it seems that the father who left in the first stories (“Ride to Mars” and “Lost Marbles”) does reappear in the last story (“Truce”), though it seems there’s no guarantee that he will stay. Do you manage to bring the whole collection to a somehow happy ending? To a reconciliation, as is suggested by the title “Truce”?

Meg Pokrass: I don't often do happy endings. I don't think life has happy endings. I think we arrive in happy places and they often fade into something else.

I didn't have a father. I had a father who disappeared when I was 4 years old. I used to think about my father, things I make up about my father, make-up stories about him. So this influenced the collection, which is really about myself.

Fiction involves creating meaning and metaphor. For example, there was no moment with the father sharing a lobster. That never happened in my life, so that's like a wishful dream fantasy. I work with a lot of the things that have happened to me in my life. If I didn't use my life in fiction or in making art of some kind, I wouldn't be a very healthy person.

Tony Huang: I really admire the way you hide things beneath the surface while making it possible for readers to feel even more strongly about the things hidden. For example, in “Truce” the reasons behind the father’s leaving are encrusted like lobsters, while the daughter who is better with “these prickly things” tears the legs from the lobsters and “pries out the meat.” How do you weave the images together so that readers are sent automatically to a symbolic layer of the story while the tension begins to loom beneath the horizon?

Meg Pokrass: I don't go about it consciously. It began as a prompt I gave myself, the word “lobster,” probably because it's one of my favorite foods and I hardly ever eat it. Also, I feel guilty about loving the taste of it. Poor lobsters. The idea of eating a lobster is a loaded one.

When I was writing, it just came to me that this spiny creature was the way to show the relationship. It was magic.

As I tried to explain earlier, I don't sit around thinking too hard about metaphor. I find it in the writing. That’s how it works for me.

I’m happy with how that worked out. It was accidental, and I don't know if it’s advisable for a writing teacher to say this, that accidents in writing produce the best results, but I do believe that this is a hopeful idea and should help to encourage new writers to leap in and not overthink.

And thank you so much for your deep reading of Spinning to Mars. I agree with what you say about it and about how much is unsaid. As writers of microfiction we have to trust a reader to understand what we're saying. It will draw the reader in only when we trust them.

About perfecting these stories: I edit my stories until they feel “right.” Almost always they originate as a much longer piece and I distill it down to the sweet spot, to what was going on in the emotional life of a character, and I trust the reader to see it. It is intuitive, this idea of not telling, and how the unsaid is essential in flash fiction.

How a writer chooses to create that space is interesting. I'm fascinated with it. When I read new pieces, I'm always looking for how did they do that, how did they create such emotion.

I think every writer has to come to this on their own, but it seems to me that the trick, if there is a trick, is in trusting the readers to get it. If you don’t do this you're going to lose the reader. Instead of overtelling, learn to create a feeling of absence which is a lovely thing in flash and micro.

Tony Huang: Loneliness, yearning, desires, trauma, betrayal, experiences that encompass many of the stories in this collection do set the tone of the whole collection, even though the last story may give a certain vague promise of reunion. Against such a gray emotional backdrop, what do you think is the thing that enables the protagonist(s) to keep going?

Meg Pokrass: Readers don't like characters who sit around feeling sorry for themselves, or angry about the way the world is treating them. Readers really like characters who are finding ways to cope with what's happening, and that's what makes fiction interesting—seeing how characters cope. We like to know how people get through the hardest things.

I always look for two things. I look for the love, the broken love, the messy love. I also look for the humor, for levity and lightness, because that's how we learn to get through hard times. We find the ridiculous in it; we find what's funny.

And those are my own survival strategies in life. I just read something really great. There's an American short story writer, Richard Bausch who writes wonderfully about writing. He says that plot is merely whatever the characters try to do or have to do to get themselves out of the trouble they're in. This is exactly how I write my stories. My characters are always getting themselves into and out of trouble.

Tony Huang: This is quite philosophical.

Meg Pokrass: Yes, you’re right. When writing it doesn’t feel that way, but when one sits back and looks at it this way, it definitely is.

Tony Huang: You know this is so beautifully put. Also, in this collection, we find you adopt a second-person narrative point of view in many of the stories. What is the reason behind this decision?

Meg Pokrass: This point of view will create a suspension of disbelief because the second person perspective invites a reader to become a character, and it works quickly. It will draw the reader in and lend a sense of dramatic urgency. Using the second person point of view makes a story feel more immediate. What’s more, it’s also a helpful way to get the stories out in first drafts. It feels like you’re talking to yourself.

Tony Huang: In many of the stories, the protagonists are either keeping a cat or thinking about a cat. I think many readers (especially young readers here) may feel curious why cats, but no other pets, can arouse such emotional attachment? Is there a special meaning behind cats?

Meg Pokrass: Good question. My last two collections were focused on dogs. There was a dog seated next to me and the dog who looks happy upside down, and so it was time for a different spirit animal in this collection.

I've written a lot about “a cat,” “one cat” and this is based on a cat that I used to have. She was middle-aged and had some health issues, and my ex-husband was critical of her. I believe it is that identified with the cat. Her problems made her more endearing to me, her vulnerabilities, her tentativeness. I was in love with her. To him, she felt like a burden.

I became interested in the idea in fiction that a couple owns a cat and one of them has doubts about her and can only see her flaws while the other loves her even more because of her flaws.

I write a lot about that, so that's how the cat ended up in this book. I don't really think it matters what kind of animal it is. I think what matters is that one uses an animal in writing to represent vulnerability. And if a character reminds another character of an animal, that can change the feeling of a story or can change the nature of a relationship.

Animals are very powerful to use in writing at least and sometimes I don't notice that they're sneaking into my stories. All of a sudden there will be a bearded dragon lizard in a story, or a cockroach and it happens when I'm writing, so there are these unconscious symbols of different parts of characters.

Tony Huang: It’s also so exciting to know that you have these two collections that will come out soon in which you collaborate with Aimee Parkison and Jeff Friedman. Is there a specific date for their release?

Meg Pokrass: The collection I co-write with Jeff Friedman will come out in February 2022 with Pelekinesis, and the collection with Aimee Parkison, Disappearing Debutants, is coming out in the fall of 2023 from Outpost 19.

Meg Pokrass is the author of seven collections of flash fiction and two award-winning collections of hybrid prose and two novellas-in-flash. Her flash fiction has been anthologized in two Norton Anthologies, Best Small Fictions 2018 and 2019, and the Wigleaf Top 50 and has appeared in over 500 literary magazines. She received three Best British & Irish Flash Fiction Awards in 2019. Meg is the Founding Editor and Co-Editor of the Best Microfiction Anthology Series.

Tony Huang, Ph.D., is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Hong Kong Review. He is also the founder of Metacircle, Metacircle Fellowship Program and Metaedcuation. His poems, translations, and scholarly works have appeared in The Hong Kong Review, Tianjin Daily, Binhai Times, Nankai Journal, Large Ocean Poetry Quarterly and other venues. He teaches British and American literature and literary theories at Nankai University.

Edited by Nancy He, Nina Zhang, and Pengjun Qin

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