Katrina Hays: You started out as a novelist (honest compliment here: Safe in Heaven Dead is one of my favorite books I read in 2012), but you read terrific short-form stuff for us at the RWW residency last year. How did you come to work in the short-short realm, and how did you make the switch?
Sam Ligon: I’m working on another novel right now, and about five years ago I was contacted by an editor to contribute a short-short to an anthology. The deal was that it had to be 300 words or less, and my first response was, “No, I can’t. And furthermore—what a stupid thing to ask. Why would I do that?”
At the time I didn’t even know the term “formal constraint.” I’m an editor, and I read a lot of poetry, of course, but when we speak about form and formal pressure it really seems to be the domain of poets. Frankly, it was really stupid of me to think that way. But really, it was because I’d never dealt with formal constraint.
Now, obviously, all fiction is finally going to find a form. When we write a novel or a story, ultimately we’ll become conscious of the form or the shape of the piece, but that’s really different from approaching something with formal constraint. Poets know that form is something that must be overcome. There’s nothing inherently valuable about a sonnet, for instance. It’s not nearly enough that a piece satisfies the formal limitations of a sonnet. The piece has to succeed in spite of itself. It has to do more.
But I didn’t know that at the time. So I just thought it was a dumb idea for me to write something that was only 300 words.
Then, after a while, it got under my skin and I thought, “Well, maybe I should try to do this.” It became a really interesting problem for me and I wrote a piece that was 600 words. Then I said, “How can I get this thing down to 300?” I finally did get it down to 300 and what I noticed was that as a result of the pressure I was putting on the lines—the pressure of the constraint—the lines changed.
KMH: Can you talk a little more about that?
SL: I ended up with this bastardized syntax that completely changed the voice of the story. I wrote something I thought had narrative movement, but in order to get it under 300 words I had to change the syntax. The piece became more elliptical, more suggestive of mood. As a result of that experience, I realized, “Oh. This story never could have happened if I hadn’t had the pressure of the constraint.”
Proust talks about the tyranny of rhyme and Dybek says that fiction writers have a different kind of tyranny to deal with than poets. If rhyme is a problem in a poem that a poet must solve, when do prose writers become conscious of problems we have to solve? Of course, we have character problems or thematic problems. What became interesting to me as I worked with this short form was that I started to get into stories that were radically different than other work I was doing, whether it was quote-unquote traditional stories or work I was doing on my novel. Ultimately, the form started to feel subversive. I started to learn what my rules and beliefs were about traditional forms as a result of working in opposition to traditional lengths.
KMH: The form forces, insists on, change from the writer?
SL: Sometimes I say to my students, “Let’s pretend that fiction is made up of just three elements: character, voice, and plot.” In traditional fiction, what we deal with is character. The purpose of our work is to reveal character in depth and complexity, and reveal through that something vital and true about what it means to be human. I think in short-shorts we can create work that is not concerned with character. It’s almost like it deals in persona more than character. Poets talk about persona all the time and understand this concept of persona—and notice how much I’m referring to poetry. This is the liberation to me in the short-short form. Prose writers get to deal in something that feels much more like poetry.
And then there’s plot. Flannery O’Connor says a story is a complete dramatic movement. Fiction is a dramatic form. What happens in a short-short is we don’t typically have plot—there isn’t time. So, I’m talking about two different things here: plot and character. In a short-short you can throw both of those out if you want to. You can get rid of those elements. The piece can deal in other things, like suggestion, like gravity or mood of a moment. They are evocative because we’re probably not going to get a complete dramatic movement in that form. You can have short-shorts that are completely idea-driven. And by the way, when I say “short-short” I’m talking about under 1,000 words. And I think you see a real difference when you get under 500. That’s when you start to get line pressure and something else happens.
So if you say fiction is character, plot, and voice, and you throw out character and plot—that leaves us with voice. And the beauty that I so often find in a short-short is that it can be all about the voice. Voice-driven work is difficult to sustain over 90,000 words, a typical novel length. But in a short-short you can sustain it, almost like you can sustain it in a poem. It’s an incredible opportunity for prose writers to work with voice like that.
KMH: But that can get tiring or artificial, right?
SL: I think short-shorts almost always fail, even more than other work. They’re difficult to pull off. Most fiction relies on a kind of inevitability and surprise. The piece has to get somewhere that is both inevitable and surprising. The beauty of the short-short is that as writers we can see this ending clearly. Typically, though, in a short-short there is a hard turn at the end; that’s the thing that surprises us. The danger is it can feel like a trick or a trap or an O. Henry kind of ending. For me, most short-shorts don’t work at all. I don’t have time enough to get emotionally invested.
KMH: But it can work.
SL: There’s a story I think does it almost better than any other I’ve seen. It’s called “The Waves Were Low” by Kim Chinquee, published in Willow Springs. It’s one of the most evocative, powerful short-shorts I’ve ever read. I’ve read this story probably 50 times and I can’t believe what’s she’s able to do in 200 or 300 words. She completely captures this emotion and the gravity of the moment, and it’s absolutely respectful of the reader. Like most good short-shorts it demands that you read it again.
There’s another amazing thing we can sometimes see in a short-short. We can deal in absence. We can deal in negative space—what’s not there is as important as what is on the page. A short-short often forces us to deal in that kind of absence. You gotta deal in outline; you can suggest the fullness of shape. And if you can do it in 300 words, you can certainly do it in 3,000.
For me the beauty of the form is that I can go there and it’s super low-stakes. I can go there to play and break rules and almost inevitably through that play I will figure out something about some of my ideas about fiction. I’ll go in a different direction than I’ve been going in the novel I’ve been working on or the short story I’ve been working on. I find something out about my long-form stuff by working in short form. I love to be able to do what the poets do! I love to be able to work with beats and rhythms and of course we’re always concerned with line but if you only have 300 words, everything has to happen faster.
It feels like this great opportunity to have the fun that poets do. Leonard Michaels says, “Short-short stories can seem to come very close to being poems since they depend immensely on implication. In suggesting a poem and not being a poem, a short-short can seem merely disgraceful.” I love that.
KMH: I do too. So do you see the prose poem and the short-short as being related?
SL: Totally! I think they are related. Now, I know that some poets really hate prose poems and say they’re not poetry, but I’m not a poet so I’m allowed to love them and I do love them, and I really love that area where we’re sort of moving into hybrid form. When we’re talking about short-shorts, I’m interested in the same things poets are interested in. I’m interested in compression; I’m interested in voice, beats, and rhythm. I’m interested in image.
KMH: Why do you think the popularity of the short-short has exploded?
SL: When I read online I read wide and shallow. I’m not going to read “The Dead” on the computer. Maybe we’re becoming worse readers and we’re only going to give three minutes to anything we read. I don’t know….
KMH: I see fewer people turning to novels for reading. It requires this expansion of attention.
SL: Right, you gotta get quiet and go deep. You get into a novel and you’re going to be there for awhile. But with a short-short you’re in and you’re out. It’s quick and maybe that’s why people like them. They can be fun, playful. An example of this is “The Pig of Happiness” by Shawn Vestal.
KMH: Have you gotten pressure to publish more short-shorts in Willow Springs?
SL: I publish almost none of them because I think they almost never work, like I said. I find most of them deeply unsatisfying. Often they just feel incomplete, don’t do enough. Or they’ll feel like jokes or a stunt. If I’m only going to be in a story for two-and-a-half minutes, odds are I’m not going to have that much of an emotional response. A short-short is mostly not as effective as a poem, which knows how to pack a lot into two-and-a-half minutes or much less. But when they satisfy, they satisfy me deeply.
KMH: What gives you the satisfaction?
SL: They feel complete. They make me want to read them again and again and I’m left not quite knowing everything about the piece. They can offer a complete moment and I understand something about the character or characters through that tiny moment. Those are the ones that have traditional narrative moment. But the form is totally elastic—you can, as I said before, just rely on voice or mood. You see very different kind of things.
We create all these rules for fiction. In workshop we’re always asking: What’s at stake? Why now? We insist the character has to do this or that, be fully realized as a result of the dramatic movement of the story. But often it’s not true of a short-short. The rules get broken.
KMH: You said that the form started to feel subversive, that you started to realize your own rules about fiction. Would you talk more about that?
SL: I get to break the rules. I get to play and do crazy shit. I’m going to do something I won’t do in my other writing because it’s low stakes. Hey, how much time am I going to invest in a 1,000-word story? A couple of weeks all told, if it works. But it’s really not that much time. That’s what I mean by low stakes. I have room to play.
I wrote this idiotic piece I read at your residency (“This Land is My Land”). Was that piece a story? No. Not by my rigid definition which would probably have something to do with character development and plot. That piece really was a goofy meditation on intellectual property. I got to take on a persona and find a voice that wasn’t my own. Poets call it persona, prose writers call it character!
KMH: Sounds like you’re glad you found this form.
SL: Somebody said, “Writing a story is like going from New York to Chicago on the train. Writing a novel is like going from New York to Los Angeles on your knees.” It’s a great quote and I say it all the time because I think it’s totally true. The thing about a short-short is that you’re going from New York to Jersey on a train. You can see the whole thing all at once. It’s a relief.
KMH: How do you recognize when the writing you’re working on wants to go into another form?
SL: I was working on a novel that had problems I couldn’t resolve. I started working on stories instead, and in particular I was writing stories that involved a character named Nikki. Her four stories really gave me the shape for the collection that became Drift and Swerve. When I finished that book, I realized I wasn’t done with the character so I went back to the novel, got rid of most of it, and started over—but with Nikki as a central character. She revitalized that project for me, and I’m still working on it. It took 10 years, sort of a weird crossing from novel to short stories to another novel, but that’s a typical literary timeline for you.
People think that when you sit down to write, you sit down to write a novel, or a story. But that’s not always true. When asked how he knew which idea would lead to a story and which to a novel, Hemingway said something like, “I know it’s a novel if I keep writing. It’s longer.” Which is hilarious and kind of ridiculous, and he was probably playing with the interviewer a little with that answer. In my own case, when I wrote those stories I knew I was writing stories. But the character I discovered over the course of several linked stories has gone on to be central to the novel I’m now working on.
KMH: Sounds like you’re making a good case for being flexible.
SL: Writers often cannibalize their writing. And we know as writers that it doesn’t really matter what we’re writing, it matters that we are writing. I don’t care what you’re writing—a letter or a legal brief or a union settlement or whatever you’re working on at the moment. Whether or not a piece works isn’t really important, and frankly I can’t tell. I mean—you know when something is going well, the prose is good and you know when you get into the dumps. But to know if a piece really works? You might not know for two years.
That’s the leap of faith, right? That’s why we’re afraid of novels. We get into this thing and we might not know if it works for five years. Or ten. It’s risky. But the thing is—those five years are going to pass anyway. Whether or not you’re in there with a novel, those five years are going to pass. And then you’re gonna die. At some point you’re gonna die. So, you can not write your novel and die, or you can write your novel and die. You might as well write.
The short-short is my way of getting my need for completion out of the way while I’m working on the longer form, while I’m taking five years to do the novel. It’s a great way for prose writers to be able to see shape and finish work.