We talk to Eric Shattuck (whose stories appeared in issue forty-four) about Presidents, freelancing, and the art of the short story.
In your story “Signals Of Fear And Uncertainty” the narrator runs into the President Of The United States. When you wrote the story, were you imagining any particular living president?
I started working on this story during the home stretch of Obama’s presidency, and so a bit of him inevitably crept into it, especially in terms of the cadence of my President’s dialogue. There are also bits and pieces of Presidents who are no longer with us – LBJ and Nixon in particular were always at the back of my mind while I was writing it. Though oddly enough, I never had a clear image of the character’s physical appearance in my head. It was always a bit like looking at a blurry photograph, which I think ended up being appropriate. It’s certainly strange to look back on it now, given the current state of things.
“Signals Of Fear And Uncertainty” takes place in a surreal prison cell, while “Days Since Our Last Accident” occupies the more mundane setting of a haunted stock room. What inspired each of these tales?
The idea for “Signals…” came from an interview with a soldier captured during the Vietnam war. There was a bit that stuck out to me where he mentioned that he knew his family was praying for his safe return, but what he often found himself worrying about was whether or not the people who sent him to fight were ever thinking about him, and whether they thought he was worth negotiating for. So the story grew out of that, and was originally much more grounded. But it felt forced, a bit sappy, and so I started over and let the story lead me off in a much stranger direction than I’d originally intended.
“Days…” actually started out as a writing exercise. I’m part of a wonderful online writing group that comes up with weekly prompts, and one of them involved all of the participants coming up with a story that centered around a very loosely pre-defined setting – in this case, a giant big-box store where everything was just slightly off. So everyone came together at the end of the week and there was sort of a jigsaw puzzle of very cool ideas and atmospheric writing, and I enjoyed it enough that I wanted to explore the idea further.
Do you believe in ghosts and visions? Why do you think that people tend to believe in them?
I’m not a believer myself, which is strange considering how often they appear in my writing. I can see the appeal, though. Symbolically they serve as a way to reckon with the weight of the past, and in an existential sense they represent the extension of consciousness after death, a deeper permanence of the self, which for a lot of people is a comforting idea. So I suppose while I don’t believe in them in a literal sense, I do think that there is a certain kind of power in the idea of them and what they represent.
What, in your opinion, makes a good short short story? How does flash fiction differ from standard short fiction?
I’ve always loved Kafka’s quote about fiction serving as “an axe for the frozen sea within us.” For me, reading a great story is always a bit like an electric shock, whether it’s beautiful or ugly or sometimes even both. I don’t think there’s any real formula for it, or at least not one that I’ve found. Great writing confronts the heart of the story instead of dancing around the edge of it.
I’ve always been drawn to flash fiction because it’s such a balancing act. You can get away with structural and stylistic choices that couldn’t be sustained across a longer piece of writing, but it also requires quite a bit of confidence – not only in your own abilities as a writer, but also in your audience, because there isn’t space for all of the usual connective tissue. Subtext becomes a crucial tool, and if the reader can’t connect all of those dots, you’ve failed. But some of the masters of the form are able to create whole worlds and lives and narrative arcs in the space of a few hundred words, and it amazes me every time. Flash creates a lot of room for innovation and experimentation, and I think that’s part of what keeps me coming back to it.
What kind of freelance writing do you do? How do you manage it alongside your literary writing? Do the two ever overlap?
I’ve done a bit of everything, from churning out blog content to doing ad copy, to ghostwriting the introduction for a weight-loss book. It can be difficult to balance the two, especially if I go through a period where I’ve got a very heavy workload and just the thought of writing anything else is tiring for a while. A lot of it isn’t particularly interesting, but every once in a while I stumble across a project that leads me down a rabbit hole. Sometimes a story or a character comes out of it, and at the very least I learn something new.
Eric Shattuck is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. He studied at South Carolina State University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and served as an editor for the Inkwell student literary journal. His work has been published in The Nottingham Review, 99 Pine Street, The Molotov Cocktail, Gone Lawn, and the Kentucky Review, among others.