Short Story Month party here at the blog, I sat down last week with Lou Beach's flash-fiction collection 420 Characters. It was a mind-blowing experience.
And when I say that, I mean Beach's book left my skull a smoking, hollowed-out crater, marveling at the possibilities of fiction. What he does on the page, within the straitjacket of 420 characters (including spaces and punctuation), leaves me in awe and admiration. This short story collection began as status updates on Facebook, back when Mr. Zuckerberg and Co. limited updates to the constraints of 420 characters. Beach began it on a whim, out of boredom with the social networking site, but it quickly turned into an enjoyable challenge to see just how well he could create miniature works of art. The author is, by trade, a visual artist and several of his collages are interspersed throughout the book, serving as a metaphor for the fragmentary nature of the fiction.
Beach's short-short stories may appear to be vignettes, Polaroid snapshots of scenes caught from the corner of an eye, but they have the emotional depth and heft of 300-page novels. His subject matter ranges across a huge spectrum of setting and style. In one story we read of a husband accusing his wife of messing with his tools ("How is that possible? Did you dip them in the bathtub like a tool fondue?"), and in the next we're on horseback with a cowboy in the Old West. Or we'll meet a skydiver whose chute fails to open and he crashes into a pigeon on his fatal plummet ("He felt the pigeon's heart beating against his own") and then later we're backstage with the Rolling Stones discussing women, drugs and clothes. And I haven't even mentioned the miniature person who lives inside the bright paisley shirt pocket of another man. Each of the one-page stories in 420 Characters gives readers a crumb, a sip, one nostril's-worth of breath, to an entire world which lies just beyond the door of the story. There is clear movement--physical and emotional--within each of these stories. As in the best short fiction, we "join the story in progress" and leave it just before a crucial denouement. Here's a good example of how well that works--this is the entire story as found on page 4 of the book:
I am exploring in the Bones, formations of caves interspersed with rock basins open to the sky. I hear a sound like a turbine as I exit a cave and approach the light ahead. I'm sure it's a waterfall. What I encounter is a massive beehive, honeycomb several stories high, millions of bees. I crouch down to avoid detection and notice a shift in the tone of the hive's collective drone. I turn around and see the bear.
Would it be fair to say Beach draws the lines in the coloring book and we fill in the spaces? Yes, that's accurate, I suppose, but it sounds a little like I'm reducing his artistry to mere scaffolding. Let me be clear: each of these tales is complete and satisfying in and of themselves. Do all of them succeed? Not always; there are some which come across as clever jokes or odd, failed experiments--but that's a very small percentage--maybe 3%--of the 169 stories in this book. Everything else is a red-carpet invitation to a fully-formed world, sprung whole and complete from Beach's rich imagination. Like this story found on page 42:
Huey "Pudge" Wilson, county sheriff, never met a man he didn't like to handcuff. What he knew about law wouldn't fill a thimble but what he knew about power would overflow the rain barrels between here and the river. Justice was just a tool of power, meted out in back rooms and measured in bruises and broken bones. When he was found slumped over in the cruiser, dead, Happy Hour took on new meaning.
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Lou Beach was kind enough to answer a few questions via email. Here's our conversation:
Was this a deliberate plan on your part, or was it something that just happened one day while you were posting to social media? In other words, tell me the birth story of your flash-fiction collection.
It evolved from an amusement, a goof really, writing something fictional as a post, into an actual experiment where I'd write a piece every day. It was a challenge and on-the-job training, learning to write in front of an audience. The positive response to the posts definitely helped fuel my resolve to keep at it. ("Like"! ) I was excited by this new-found facility to squeeze a narrative into a limited format. It was the perfect storm too, a felicitous zeitgeist. It would not play today, given that the character limit has been so expanded on Facebook. Also, the film The Social Network was fresh in the public consciousness then so I think it was attractive to publishers. It also didn't hurt as well to have a website which was fashioned as a book. It made it palpable and included some celebrity readings that drew attention.
Are all the stories in the collection exactly 420 characters long? I've been too lazy to actually go in with a pencil tip and do a manual count by hand.
In spirit, yes. I believe there are a few that were massaged to include a few more characters to make the story clearer, but I was scrupulous to stay within the 420 limit on Facebook, which of course wouldn't post if I was over by even one character. There are some that are shorter...it seemed silly to pad out a story just to hit the magic number on the nose. It was more often a process of paring down, editing, than adding.
Your range is so varied and full of surprises. What triggered you to bring so many different characters to life (human characters, in this case)?
I have no idea. I operate on a purely intuitive level, listening to my dreams and snatches of dialogue from films or songs that trigger something that has the germ of a tale, then I get to work on it, pulling out the story. I have found that often reading some great author's work will compel me to hit the keyboard, not in imitation of their voice or plot or whatever, rather an excitement to create. Other writers inspire me very much, but so do film makers and painters and musicians, and chefs and athletes....Man, it's a world of wonders, isn't it?
Do you have a daily routine as a writer? I picture you carrying a notebook with you everywhere, jotting ideas and fragments as they pop into your head.
I wake up quite early, sometimes before five, and my mind is working on a story that I'd thought about before going to sleep. I lie there and move words around in my head, actually see it on the page. Then after breakfast I'll type it out and read it aloud, then revise and maybe think it stinks, then do something else, walk the dog, whatever, then come back to it and hope it's better, keep returning to it day after day until it rings true. That's speaking for what I'm doing today, which is writing longer pieces. The 420 stories were much more spontaneous and were often posted with no editing, sometimes to my chagrin.
What was the revision process like for 420 Characters?
Really not much. My editor at the time, Tom Bouman, was a fan of the work and except for a few push-and-pulls on what to include, we agreed on the format. He was good at choosing the sequence so that there was some kind of rhythm to the book, so that not all the western-themed ones were clumped together, for instance.
I only ask about revision because, as we all know, in fiction every word matters--from word choice to word placement. There is not a single syllable out of place in your flash fiction--entire worlds, pages of exposition, fully-realized characters are created in such short, tight spaces. Did you think about how readers' imaginations would start spinning and weaving secondary backstories to each of these pieces?
No, I didn't think about that, but for a long time there were a number of people who felt compelled to "finish" the stories or at least add on to them, a few at length, as if it were an interactive game. I didn't want to be a churl about it and ask them to stop--after all it's an open forum, but it was annoying at times. I had to not take myself too seriously...it was obviously something they enjoyed doing and ultimately it didn't really matter, didn't take anything away from the bigshot author.
How long did it take you to write these stories?
Sometimes a story would take 20 minutes to write, others an hour or two, others a day. It was probably two-and-a-half years from inception to completion of the book. After it came out and Facebook expanded the character limit, I was less interested in that concise form, though I would still try my hand at it. I wrote one the other day and was surprised at the difficulty I encountered. It's good practice though, like playing scales. I'm focusing now on longer pieces. They are still short, but I've managed to stretch out to several pages. As we say in Authors Anonymous, one sentence at a time.
I'm assuming there are others which never made it into the collection?
Oh yeah, there are hundreds.
At your website, you say you came to writing fiction as a surprising and "miraculous second act." In what way did the fiction grow out of your years as a visual artist?
I'd always entertained a fantasy of being a writer because I'd so often been astonished and intrigued by how a great writer can illuminate aspects of human nature, can use language in unsuspecting ways, can create worlds that are emotionally true. There are two aspects to my visual work. One is as an illustrator, primarily an editorial one, where my job is to find the kernel of the article and make a picture to go with it to draw the reader in, to advertise the article, basically. The other is my personal work, which is much closer in method to the writing. But in each aspect of the visual work, I create a narrative. The individual images within the composition are characters on the little stage set that is the page. And in the writing, I often "see" something from which I springboard into a tale. The other day I had a vision of a woman standing at the end of a dock on a lake. Where that image came from, I don't know, but I used it as the basis of a little story. Also, the making of a picture is an exercise in editing, removing elements and distilling the image, which is what I do in the writing.
The book really works well as a visual work of art--from the half-band dust jacket, to all the white space surrounding the stories, to the full-color collages included throughout. Did you have a hand in the design of the book? What feeling or message did you want to convey to readers about how fiction is bundled and packaged these days?
The cover was a recreation of the one I created for the book's website. The idea of the belly band came up in discussions with Martha Kennedy, an art director at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and the page design was done by Melissa Lotfy. They are pros. I chose which collages to include. Everyone at Houghton was very supportive and excited about the book and made me feel that I was, indeed, a writer, when my own inclination was to think of myself as a lucky wanna-be. I love books, the physical feel and I wanted readers to have a satisfying tactile and visual experience in addition to the content, and I think we succeeded.
Are there any authors who specifically influenced your writing?
Oh man, I hate that question because there is always someone I feel I've left out or remember once the answers have been printed or posted. I admire George Saunders for his imagination and humanity, Elmore Leonard's mastery of dialogue and unfussiness, J. Robert Lennon, Jonathan Lethem, Pete Dexter, Carver (of course), Denis Johnson, Russell Banks, Alan Heathcock, the two Andre Dubuses, Scott Bradfield, Hemingway, Daniel Woodrell, Larry Brown, James Salter, Charles Baxter, Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Robert Stone and on and on...where do you stop? It seems with each book I pick up I find something that knocks me out, some passage, some turn of phrase, some insight into character that makes me want to be able to do THAT.
Do you have any favorite short stories or collections you typically recommend to readers?
Well, I don't typically make recommendations to readers, but any of the writers I just mentioned offer a wealth of treasures. In particular, I've been recommending Alan Heathcock's great Volt lately. It's a marvel.
Artwork: "The World of Men" courtesy of Lou Beach
Author photo by Issa Sharp