For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

Kim Henderson: The Short Form Interview

I find comfort in the idea that we are who we are in the moment and once it passes we may become someone else.

Author of this year's Rose Metal Press short short chapbook contest, The Kind of Girl

The Interview

Would you say “changing your mind” is a common thread running through the stories in your new chapbook, The Kind of Girl? Maybe a change of mind  is one way to measure time/life.

That’s interesting—I hadn’t really thought of that, or at least it hadn’t crystallized for me, but I think you are right.  It makes me uneasy when people too readily categorize themselves, and I am also scared of being stuck—I find comfort in the idea that we are who we are in the moment and once it passes we may become someone else, even if we are only microscopically different.  That’s one of the things shorter works can do well—capture someone right in the moment of change, when they are between two slightly different versions of themselves.

Flash fiction seems to be a great vehicle for your style. Were these stories always this short, does this length play a particular role in your writing habits?

Some of the stories were cut down from a longer length, but all were pretty short to start with.  For years, most of my stories were over twenty pages (and definitely not under ten).  Then I would get them workshopped, or get feedback from a friend, and they would either get hacked in half (they were pretty much always way overwritten), or it would become clear that there were problems with structure.  I started really focusing on structure, often physically cutting stories up paragraph by paragraph (I still do this sometimes, even with short-shorts).  Around the same time, I discovered five-hundred word story contests in literary journals like River Styx and The Southeast Review, and tried them because they seemed like a fun challenge.  I think the forced economy helped me figure out story structure, and it may have helped me realize that many of my stories were about moments, and were meant to be quite short.

When I was exposed to new literature in graduate school, I was compelled by the very short works of writers like Walser and Kafka, but I thought that kind of writing was a thing of the past, and that it wasn’t considered viable for contemporary writers (which shows my lack of exposure to literature at the time).  I really thought stories had to be long to be good, that if they weren’t long, you weren’t developing your characters or your plot or your setting enough…that something was wrong.  Maybe the short-short freed me from the expectation that I needed to expand expand expand.  Now that I think about it, in life I’ve always been fascinated by small things—small pine cones, small seashells, insects. When I was a dorky kid I collected miniatures from Hobby Lobby.  You can take me to a beautiful overlook and I’ll enjoy the view for a while, but eventually you will find me kneeling on the ground, sorting through rocks or watching bugs.  Maybe that says something about me as a writer.

You've listed Robert Walser as one of the writers to shape your work. What about his work do you hang on to the most?

I first read Walser in graduate school at the University of Montana, in a class taught by Kevin Canty on experimental fiction.  We read Walser, Babel, Kafka, Borges, Bruno Schulz.  These are writers I expose my high school students to now (and it weirds me out that they are reading stuff I knew nothing about until grad school).  At the time, in Canty’s class, I had no idea how much these works would influence my writing down the road, but I now realize that they probably shaped it more than I know.  Every week, we did these short imitations of the writer we’d read.  I think that’s actually where I wrote my first short-short story that I took seriously, which a couple years later became my first publication as a grown-up, in Night Train.

Walser sticks with me—I find that bits and pieces of his stories pop into my head like lines from a favorite movie.  When people ask that question, “If you could have dinner with any figure in history, who would it be?” Walser comes to mind as an option.  OK, maybe I wouldn’t choose him as my one dinner guest, but he’d make the top ten.  I love the guy’s brain.  I love the peculiar rhythm of his stories, the odd humor (I can just see his smirk as he wrote these pieces), the sense of quiet unease that you could almost miss in the magic of the rhythm and strangeness.

The stories read like they were ideas you've had for a long time and kneaded through the years. Is that true?

The oldest stories date back six years or so, so I guess I have been working on them for a while.  I actually started writing them when I was working on a novel and they became a break, my “fun writing.”

The Rose Metal Press contest inspired me to try making a chapbook.  I came across their anthology They Could No Longer Contain Themselves in Powell’s Bookstore and couldn’t believe a collection of short-short chapbooks existed.  It was the book I wasn’t looking for that found me (as a student of mine would say), the exact book I needed.  I looked into Rose Metal Press and discovered their chapbook contest, and cobbled one together before the deadline (that early version did not win the contest, for which I am thankful).  The AWP bookfair rolled around and I found Rose Metal Press and some other short-short friendly presses and stocked up on chapbooks. I continued to edit and write, edit and write, and began to build the chapbook in a different way.  That’s when I went more associative, more by feel, instead of trying to put it together by logic (or by piling in all the short-shorts I had ever written), and that worked much better.  I submitted it to the 2012 contest and won.

There is also the factor of who is judging the contest, of course.  If Deb Olin Unferth was not this year’s judge, maybe my work would not have been selected.

I read your Q&A on the Idyll Wild Arts website. You mentioned taking education classes while getting a degree in Creative Writing. Not every country has had the tradition of full time writers and I was wondering if you think having a separate job allows for a certain kind of freedom.

I do think there is a certain freedom in having a separate job and not relying on your writing for income—perhaps you are a bit freer to experiment and explore and fail.  Perhaps writing remains a playful act (something else I love about Walser).  I do think you need the kind of job that doesn’t impede your writing, though.  I am fortunate to have that.

I used to think that a writer should work toward a full-time writing life (and I’ll admit, at times it doesn’t seem too shabby).  But as of now, I am content with my one to three hours per day (and perhaps the pressure of a time limit serves me well), and I like the balance that going to work and interacting with people and prioritizing my students provides.  Writing full-time might pose problems for me because I could see myself disconnecting from the world.  Or maybe not.  Ask me again in five years—I may have changed my mind. 

What's next for you?

I am still writing lots of short stories, and hope to eventually make a full-length collection.  And I’ve got the novel that has been waiting for my attention since I became obsessed with these short-shorts…

Recommended by Kim Henderson

The End of FIRPO in the World
Excerpt

Well, it would be revenge, sweet revenge, when he stuck the lozenge stolen from wood shop up the Dalmeyers’ water hose, and the next time they turned the hose on it exploded, and all the Dalmeyers, even Dad Dalmeyer, stood around in their nice tan pants puzzling over it like them guys on Nova. And the Dalmeyers were so stupid they could conclude that it had been a miracle, and would call some guys from a science lab to confirm the miracle, and one of the lab guys would flip the wooden lozenge into the air and say to Dad Dalmeyer, You know what, a very clever Einstein lives in your neighborhood and I suggest that in the future you lock this hose up, because in all probability this guy cannot be stopped. And he, Cody, would give the lab guy a wink, and later, as they were getting into the lab van, the lab guy would say, Look, why not come live with us in the experimental space above our lab and help us discover some amazing compounds with the same science brain that apparently thought up this brilliant lozenge, because, frankly, when we lab guys were your age, no way, this lozenge concept was totally beyond us, we were just playing with baby toys and doing baby math, but you, you’re really something scientifically special.

We read it in Pastoralia: Stories.

Originally published in New Yorker: May 18, 1998.

Dar. War is a Voice on the Phone
Excerpt

Dr. War is a voice on the phone, he says, “Come on, baby, let’s fight.”

I say, “I don’t mind.”

He says, “What’s your address?” Then I go out on the curb to wait.

While I’m waiting I try to imagine what he looks like. I try to imagine from the six times I’ve talked to him o the phone. He says, “How old are you? Are you twelve?” he says. “What do you look like? Like, is your hair long or short,” things like that, he asks me, and “Do you like to dance?”

I asked him how he got my number. He says, “It’s a mystery how. Things like that spring up from the earth.”

We read it in Red Ant House.

The Rememberer
Excerpt

My lover is experiencing reverse evolution. I tell no one. I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month, and now he’s a sea turtle.

I keep him on the counter, in a baking pan filled with saltwater.

“Ben,” I say to his small protruding head, “can you understand me?” and he stares with eyes like little droplets of tar and I drip tears into the pan, a sea of me.

He is shedding a million years a day. I am no scientist, but this is roughly what I figured out.

We read it in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt.

Originally published in Missouri Review: Issue 20.2.

Nervous
Excerpt

I am a little worn out, raddled, squashed, downtrodden, shot full of holes. Mortars have mortared me to bits. I am a little crumbly, decaying, yes, yes. I am sinking and drying up a little. I am a bit scalded and scorched, yes, yes. That's what it does to you. That's life. I am not old, not in the least, certainly I am not eighty, by no means, but I am not sixteen any more either. Quite definitely I am a bit old and used up. That's what it does to you. I am decaying a little, and I am crumbling, peeling a little. That's life. Am I a little bit over the hill? Hmm! Maybe. But that doesn't make me eighty, not by a long way.

We read it in Selected Stories.

Waiting
Excerpt

Five days a week the lowest-paid substitute teacher in the district drives her father’s used Mercury to Hough and 79th, where she eases it, mud flaps and all, down the ramp into the garage of Patrick Henry Junior High, a school where she’ll teach back-to-back classes without so much as a coffee break and all of this depressing her until she remembers her date last night, and hopes it might lead to bigger things, maybe love, so she quickens her pace towards the main office to pick up her class lists with the names of students she’ll never know as well as she has come to know the specials in the cafeteria...