It’s a huge pleasure to welcome Christopher Allen to the blog. Not only is he one of the people I’ve known, and liked, the longest in short fiction, he’s also a genuinely terrific writer (and editor – he’s managing editor over at the wonderful Smokelong), AND he has a new book out, Other Household Toxins. So it’s extra brilliant to give the book, and his words, some space here. True to form (or my own at least) we’re doing things a little differently – as I’ve been darting all over the country on trains, time’s been limited so Sophie van Llewyn has taken the reins and it’s her who’s interviewed Christopher, especially for the blog.
Over to them…
Household Toxins, Massive Sorrows and Otter Babies — an Interview with Christopher Allen
Sophie van Llewyn: Your collection, Other Household Toxins, is an eclectic mix of energising, poignant, insightful, gut-wrenching stories. But what stood out for me from the very beginning was the longer narrative, ‘Fred’s Massive Sorrow.’ It’s so quirky, and imaginative, and takes the reader in such unexpected places with an incredible amount of confidence. You change between characters and perspectives with such a light touch. How do you define this type of longer narrative, and how did it come together? And could you please tell us more about what sparked it?
Christopher Allen: Thank you, Sophie. I’m so glad you’ve started with the 6000-word elephant in the room, smackdab in the middle of a flash fiction collection. ‘Fred’s Massive Sorrow’ is a fabulist tale made up of smaller fabulist tales, ultimately comprised of units shorter than 1000 words. I suppose you could call this a novella-in-flash, but a rather tiny one. Maybe a short story in flash? I’ve included it in Other Household Toxins to show how flash technique—tight arcs, tight dialogue, and the urgency of the form—can be used to create longer narratives, and I’m fortunate that my publisher, Randal Brown at Matter Press, went along.
‘Fred’s Massive Sorrow’, originally published in Eclectica Magazine and then subsequently in Eclectica’s 20th-anniversary speculative anthology, happened so organically that I only vaguely remember having written it. The voice came immediately, which made writing the story something like channelling rather than writing. Originally there was another character, an online librarian who rarely left her flat and was in love with the guy who delivered Mexican food to her door. Her story was fun but also a tangent—so she had to go. In the end, I decided to focus on the toxic effect ignoring sorrow has on the families living in the building.
The story came to life in Vienna. I was walking through the centre of the city when I saw a very large tree growing on the roof terrace of one of the buildings. I asked myself where the roots would go, and that’s when the voice came and answered, ‘Sorrow knows its way.’ And, yes, this is creepy. I hope it’s also humorous.
SvL: Also in ‘Fred’s Massive Sorrow’, you use expressions in German, when some of your characters speak (Justice and his grandmother, Angel). Using foreign expressions is a very disputed point in literature, but you sprinkle them so skilfully to add colour to your characters. How do you think they came to seep into your work, and what do you think their function is in the longer narrative?
CA: German is such a part of my life that it sometimes appears in my writing, but I know it’s a risk. In ‘Fred’s Massive Sorrow’ Angel and Justice share a secret language. They also share the language of sorrow and the language of the clicking termites. They share a hunger for understanding their situation—something no one else in the story does.
Words, the misunderstanding of words, and the meaninglessness of words are all central themes in this story. I guess that’s why using German (and of course the clicking language of Justice’s grandmother) felt right.
SvL: If your book was a baby animal, what would it be?
CA: A baby otter of course.
SvL: I’ve noticed the most powerful stories in your collection, Other Household Toxins, draw on family relationships (father-son relationship, as in ‘The Ground Above My Feet’, ‘Wile E.’, ‘A Practiced Silence’), or on family tragedies (the loss of a twin, like in ‘To Carry Her Home’ and ‘What I Need to Tell the People on the Train’). All these stories ring so emotionally true, and the pain in them almost palpable. How did your own personal experience find your way into them, and how did you manage to sublimate painful personal experiences into fiction?
CA: Well, first of all I’m a big sap. Second, thank you. I’m grateful for your encouragement. Third, I may not have the answer you’d expect. The stories you’ve mentioned here are a mixed bag of reality and pure fiction. The three fathers in ‘The Ground Above My Feet’, ‘Wile E.’ and ‘A Practiced Silence’ don’t share much in common (except that maybe they’re all assholes?)—and they’re all very far away from my personal experience (my own father is a good man). In these stories I hope I’ve found the personal, compelling moments between the characters even if they don’t originate from my personal story.
‘To Carry Her Home’ is pure fiction but sparked from a real experience. After a month-long visit from a perfectly healthy relative, I kept finding her long black hair around the house. This quickly became fiction. You’ll be relieved to know that I did not collect the hairs. The part about radishes is real though: I hate radishes. Radishes were never meant to be food: discuss.
‘What I Need to Tell the People on the Train’ comes kind of close to my own experience, but also falls just short of being about my own pain. My brother died 10 years ago suddenly. We were estranged, so there is that overlapping with my personal experience. I feel some of the character’s shame or regret, but in the end he’s not me (I’m not preoccupied with my brother’s death), and the twin brother who’s dead in the story is not my brother.
My own painful experiences have yet to be published. I’m working on a linked short story collection about the sexual abuse/manipulation I suffered as a teenager. Writing about my own pain has proven to be game-changing difficult. I’m much better at making stuff up.
SvL: Many of the flash fictions in your collection have a dream-like quality about them (like ‘My Boy Winston’, ‘Dothead’, the quirky, strange ’When Susan Died the First Time’, the heartrending ‘Out and Away’, the spiralling ‘When Chase Prays Chocolate’, and one of my personal favourites ‘The Raging, Melting Space Between’). They’re hypnotising, and they take us to unexpected places. They’re written in a precise, sharp language. What can you tell us about your approach when it came to writing these pieces, and to what triggered them? How do you reach that state of mind necessary to write them?
CA: Great questions. My answer, again, might be a bit unexpected. It’s quite possible that I am usually in a dream state, that reaching a state of mind where I can write a purely realistic story is the feat for me. I’ve walked in my sleep since I was eight years old. I probably write in my sleep as well.
I’m not sure what to call these stories. A couple are clearly magic realism: ‘When Susan Died the First Time’ and ‘The Raging, Melting Space Between’; the others are actually realistic stories in which the main characters are experiencing a quirky or dreamlike psychological episode. And they all have their own inception stories: one came from another story I was writing about a baby being taken by the waves, one from a Snapple wrapper, one from a death at work, another from my research into the ingredients of chocolate, one from a story my grandmother tells over and over, and another from a prompt.
If I have a unified approach, I’d say that it’s to settle into the story’s voice, to establish who’s telling the story and why—like an actor. I—Christopher Allen—am rarely the storyteller in my stories. And I rarely sit down and force myself to write a story. I’m more like a sponge waiting for water. Stories occur to me when I’m hiking, walking through Munich, mowing the lawn, listening to music, and ironing. Ironing helps a lot.
Ideas knock around in my head a long time before I start writing. This is how I know there’s something there. Ideas come and go, and the ones that go usually lack that memorable quality that makes good fiction.
SvL: Authors are expected to put a lot of effort into promoting their own books nowadays. It’s miles away from the times of Balzac and Jane Austen. Do you feel it’s a burden, or is it something you enjoy?
CA: I love it. Well, to be more precise, I love publishing. It doesn’t have to be my own book. I have no problem promoting my own work, but I love sharing the work of others. I’ve been involved in publishing flash fiction for a decade. First at Metazen, now at SmokeLong Quarterly, and in 2018 as a consulting editor for The Best Small Fictions. I’m thrilled that so many of my nominations were chosen to be in BSF 2018 or made it to the semi-finalist and finalist lists.
SvL: Did the ‘style’ of the literary journals you edited/edit change your own style, or approach to fiction? Did you ever have the feeling that you write more ‘towards’ the kind of work you tend to accept for these journals?
CA: Not consciously. But as anyone who has read 5000 submissions a year will tell you, you can’t help being influenced by the reading. You learn what works but much more often what doesn’t. I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but it bears mentioning a million times. In flash fiction, there is little time for scene-setting, no time for throwaway dialogue, and zero tolerance for lazy sentences. Few writers—no writers?—achieve this in every story, including me of course.
In terms of style, I think Metazen and SmokeLong Quarterly and I chose each other. Both had published my writing before I started working with them, so they knew I was crazy.
SvL: Do you think that having a book out changed anything for you as a writer?
CA: Having a book out changes the way some people view an author’s writing. It’s a symbol of success for them. I see my successes more at the sentence level. A great ending. Finding that perfect word. A rhythm that feels natural and urgent. I’m thrilled when someone buys my Baby but more thrilled when they write and say something I wrote made them feel something.
SvL: Finally, what advice can you give writers who are putting together their first collection? Do you think there are any ‘shortcuts’ to help them find a publisher?
CA: Send it to everyone who’s a good fit for the collection. Don’t be afraid to simultaneous submit. You can’t wait three months between submissions.
Look at the other collections the publisher has in their catalogue. Do you love these writers?
Similar to a story, sometimes a collection can be improved by leaving something out. Don’t think you have to cram everything you’ve written into the collection. If you don’t love the story, leave it out. I love all the stories I included in Other Household Toxins, so even if a reader hates it I know I do.
In the UK, Other Household Toxins is available through Helen Rye (firstname.lastname@example.org). Christopher Allen will also be leading a workshop, speaking about SmokeLong Quarterly, and reading from Other Household Toxins at the UK Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol (July 20-22 2018). If you live in the US, Other Household Toxins is available on Amazon.
About the author: Christopher Allen, the author of Other Household Toxins, is also the author of Conversations with S. Teri O’Type (a Satire). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lunch Ticket, [PANK], Indiana Review and lots of other journals and anthologies. Allen is the managing editor of SmokeLong Quarterly and a consulting editor for The Best Small Fictions 2018. Originally from Tennessee, he now lives somewhere in Europe.
About the interviewer: Sophie van Llewyn lives in Germany. Her novella-in-flash, Bottled Goods, will be published by Fairlight Books in July 2018.