Midwestern Gothic staffer Rachel Hurwitz talked with authors Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan about their collaborate collection of stories Rift, flash fiction, trusting their work, and more.
Rachel Hurwitz: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Kathy Fish: I was born and raised in northeast Iowa. Though I moved away from the Midwest in my mid-twenties I feel very deeply Midwestern both as a writer and person.
Robert Vaughan: I moved to Milwaukee, WI in 2003 and have lived in the Midwest ever since. It’s the longest I’ve ever lived in any one house, including my childhood.
RH: Rift is a collection of short stories intricately woven together by form as well as repeated phrases and ideas. What inspired you to write a collection collaboratively in this way?
KF: Robert and I have known each other as writers in the small press world for years. We met personally in Santa Fe for a reading hosted by the lovely Meg Tuite. Early in 2015, I joined an online workshop with Robert, Bud Smith, and Michael Gillian Maxwell, when Meg vacated her spot to work on her novel. As we began to work together and trade stories, Bud Smith, who among a million other things, runs Unknown Press, came to us with the idea of a collaborative book for Robert and me. I loved the idea! But let both Robert and Bud know that I had very few stories actually written at that point. Just a handful of things I’d written in the workshop with them. They were very patient with me and said, well, let’s just see what happens over the next few months.
RV: When Bud (Unknown Press) first asked me would I be interested in a collaborative book with Kathy, my initial reaction was she wasn’t going to say yes! Once she came aboard, within a month or two, we created an explosion of new work. We were thrilled with what was coming out of the Night Owl Café, and it seemed, because we were working together, and sharing the weekly prompts, that certain themes and ideas began to show up in our stories rather organically. In other words, it began to feel like a truly collaborative experience, without having to force anything.
RH: Subsequently, how did you create the mirror-like format? Did one write something in a certain style and the other would try to compose something in the same style or was it more individualized?
KF: We never set out to mirror each other’s stories, actually. As we said, it evolved organically. But Robert really was the mastermind behind pairing the stories within the book. He was able to see the book from a big picture perspective and found natural pairings for our stories. It was something we discussed and worked on at length and I gave my input, but must credit Robert with his vision in this regard.
RV: Thanks, Kathy, although you also had much input about our pairing decisions. It was all so very democratic! We’d also assembled all 36 stories of our own into the four sub-sections of RIFT prior to the pairings. And fundamentally, both Kathy and I tend to approach flash with an open, experimental bent, so I think we have that in common with the stories we selected for RIFT as well.
RH: Rift is divided into four parts—Fault, Tremor, Breach and Cataclysm—forming a sort of crescendo to the stories as each builds upon the last. Did you intend for this collection to be in parts, or was that something that happened organically during the process?
KF: That was not initially something we were going to do, but as the collection grew, we wanted to find a way to organize the 72 stories. I suggested we look more deeply into the concept of “rift” and find a through-line of sorts. That’s when we noticed that some stories were, well, more cataclysmic and some much quieter. Once we settled on the four terms, it was amazing how easily the stories seemed to fall into the various categories. For my part, I laid the printed stories out on my dining room table and placed sticky notes on them, with the four words, working rather quickly.
RV: I did the same thing on my office floor! Post-it notes, and sub-sections galore. So ultimately we ended up with nice stories for each of the four parts of RIFT.
RH: Similarly, how did the process of writing Rift evolve and how long did it take to complete?
KF: I’d say it took roughly nine months to complete. It was a very focused and intense process. We were both writing a lot of new stories. And I had to as I had nothing really new that had not already been published in previous books! I wanted my contribution to Rift to be all new material. I can say for my part I’ve never worked so hard and so quickly and it was just an amazing process bringing our book together.
RV: Yes, it seemed like a flourish! We exchange full manuscripts options twice: first in July in Denver (I was there for a reading), and again in September. Continuing to write new pieces, while considering what to keep or dump from the original plan. It was organized chaos- a quick pace, which I liked, and uber-productive: non-stop and hyper- focused.
RH: The last two stories, Dream Maker and Akimbo, both end with absolutely beautiful images of a character opening their arms to the narrator and really the world. The two stories tie into one another exquisitely and are a truly powerful ending to the collection. How did these stories and this particular ending come to be?
KF: As we were looking at the stories on a deeper level, we began to order them, figuring out where to start the book and where to end it. Those two stories fell naturally into the Cataclysm section and we noticed the same similarity to image that you did. My story, Akimbo, had been written a few years ago, actually, and published in an anthology. I wanted to capture a couple painting a room, that had once been a nursery, in the nude and rather manically, when cataclysm strikes. It seemed perfect for RIFT and perfect to pair with Robert’s terrific story, Dream Maker. I think it was just one of those wonderful synchronicities that occur out of the blue. It was a gift. And we knew those two stories were exactly where we wanted to land our book.
RV: I’m so thrilled you felt these two paired together are an exquisite tie-in…certainly the imagery of Kathy’s Akimbo and my Dream Maker do have an open-ended, and worldly appeal. We were also looking for two pieces that had more open-ended finishes, to summon the mysteries of this great world in which we live, represented in a RIFT duality.
RH: What drew both of you to writing flash fiction specifically?
KF: I really didn’t start writing with any serious intent until after my last child was born. As a mother of four, I had very little time on my hands for writing and wanted to write complete stories. So naturally my stories were very short. I didn’t know there was even such a thing as “flash fiction” (this was in the early 2000’s). But this was a form I gravitated to and loved, still love. I love how close to poetry it can be. I love that it lends itself to experimentation and innovation. I’m really a writer who dislikes rules and templates and quickly grow bored with an academic approach. Flash allows me to write as I think, in snapshots and images and senses. It feels a little rebellious to write short shorts and that suits me perfectly.
RV: I had my first flash piece published in 1987 (included in RIFT, called Night Life). And I loved writers of short form that I read early on- Paley, Barthelme, Moore, etc. I wrote plays mostly until the early 2000’s. But I’d always kept a journal, and so my daily riffs were often flashes- often all I had time to write in addition to work. My first dip writing online was for a project called 52/250- a weekly themed workshop, anyone could join, and each week, work was posted (it’s still archived online!)- 250 words or less. From there, I bounced into other online writing sites (Fictionaut, Nervous Breakdown, etc.) and began submitting to online and print journals.
RH: What did you learn either about yourself or writing or collaborating through working so closely with another person on this project?
KF: The main thing I learned (and it was a terrific thing to learn) is to write very quickly and freely. Because I had to keep showing up, I did. I learned that the shittiest first drafts could be honed and made beautiful. I think for a long spell, I’d gotten very perfectionistic with my stories, and so plodded along, losing faith in them, in myself. Once I let go of that and allowed myself to have fun, the writing just flowed. I’m hugely grateful to Robert and our collaboration and working with all the brilliant writers I’ve been so lucky to work with over the years, for encouraging me, teaching me, and yes, pushing me a little. That list of writers if very long! But this project in particular taught me so much about just showing up on the page and creating and sharing with a sort of necessary abandon.
RV: I learned to trust my work more, to stay open to possibilities. I’d always viewed Kathy as a mentor, as someone who was more experienced, that I adored from afar. One we’d met in January, I realized that we are all in this together, in the truest sense of that cliche. We all question ourselves, and have insecurities, and when we acknowledge them, gain support, can push through and take larger risks creatively. I’m so grateful to Kathy, and the other Night Owl Café writers: Bud Smith and Michael Maxwell. And to my workshop members in Milwaukee, too. Were it not for them, I’d still be shoveling coal in the dark, wondering if it’s lie or lay.
RH: So both of you teach in some regard as well–Kathy both in the university and workshop setting, and Robert in workshops primarily. How has the workshop setting and teaching influenced your creative process?
KF: I feel very strongly that teaching is just another form of learning. You are reinforcing what you have learned by sharing it with others. Teaching is actually a little new to me and I feel the same rush of excitement and passion for it as I did when I first began writing. I’ve been so lucky to work with extremely talented writers. I feel that I am more guiding than teaching and we’re growing and getting better together. As a teacher, I’m reminding myself every day of what I need to do in my own creative process: show up, stay present, write without judgment, get a first draft down, then go back and polish.
RV: Those are great, Kathy, and I’ve learned so much from you already! There is an Asian adage that I’m going to butcher, but it goes something like this: ‘we teach what we know least about’. I feel this way about writing. There is always something more to learn. I teach so I can find out what it is. And our most effective tool as writers is to listen. Sometimes I just like to sit in a busy café, or on a train, or flight and just eavesdrop. It’s orgasmic for a writer. Much of my way into a particular piece, comes from one line I overhear.
RH: What’s next for you?
KF: I’ve been working on a novella, on and off, for quite some time. I set it aside to work on RIFT, but I plan to go back to it. I also have some stories I’d like to return to and polish with an eye to a new collection. I’m excited about both projects!
RV: Like Kathy, I set my own projects on hold to get RIFT out! So now, I’m focused on editing a couple of books, while working on Funhouse, my next full length collection- I’ve completed two of the three (or four) sections of the book. Also, Kathy and I are teaching a fiction workshop at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, New Mexico next August 20-26, 2016. Please come!
Kathy Fish’s stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), Yemassee Journal, Guernica, Indiana Review and various other journals and anthologies. She is the author of four collections of short fiction: Together We Can Bury It (The Lit Pub, 2013), Wild Life (Matter Press, 2012), a chapbook in A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness (Rose Metal Press, 2008) and Rift, co-authored with Robert Vaughan (Unknown Press, 2015). She has recently joined the faculty of the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver where she will be teaching flash fiction. She blogs at www.kathy-fish.com
Robert Vaughan teaches workshops in hybrid writing, poetry, fiction, and playwriting. He has facilitated these at locations like Alverno College, UWM, Fox Valley Technical School, JMWW (online), RedOak Writing, The Clearing and Mabel Dodge Luhan House. He also leads writing roundtables in Milwaukee, WI. Vaughan is the author of four books: Microtones (Cervena Barva Press, 2012); Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits (Deadly Chaps, 2013); Addicts & Basements (CCM, 2014). His newest, RIFT, is a flash fiction collection co-authored with Kathy Fish (Unknown Press, 2015). He blogs at www.robert-vaughan.com.