What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
Some of my favorite chapbooks are from sunnyoutside, actually, which is why I went to them. I first fell in love with their work through Hosho McCreesh’s poetry chapbook, For All These Wretched, Beautiful, & Insignificant Things So Uselessly & Carelessly Destroyed… And I’ve recently taken a shine to Daniel Shapiro’s prose-poetry in How the Potato Chip Was Invented. I also love everything they publish from Rusty Barnes.
My favorite fiction chaps are probably Sarah Rose Etter’s Tongue Party and Ethel Rohan’s Hard to Say. Also, everything Passenger Side Books has put out so far: Justin Lawrence Daugherty’s Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise, Matthew Burnside’s Infinity’s Jukebox, and Ryan Werner’s Murmuration and If There’s Any Truth In a Northbound Train.
What’s your chapbook about?
You know, when I put it together, I thought is was about the damage we do to ourselves in our loneliness. I was working on a unifying image of cuts, of scars and sharp edges. And I think the injury theme is still there, but a lot of folks read it as softer, more internal—they point to how often bruises turn up in the stories. Which I like. Either way, I’d say that’s what it’s about: the difficulty of connecting with other human beings and the harm we do ourselves and others in the process.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
I think “Distance” is probably the oldest. It was the first to get published in a magazine, anyway. What’s odd about it is that I’d been wrestling with the idea of the story for a couple of years: in the early days of cell phones, I had this vision of a sad, lonely loser stuck in traffic and trying to get the phone number of a girl he wanted to hit on. It seemed like a good idea for a modern love story. But I couldn’t get the character or the voice right. I went through dozens of drafts of that idea and threw them all away.
At the time, I was in the middle of developing a novella, and the novella contained a minor character that I’d sort of fallen in love with—he was my saddest, most pathetic self. He didn’t have much more to do in the novella I was writing, but it finally clicked for me that this character was also the loser in traffic trying to hit on a girl, and, finally, the story more or less came together in an afternoon.
How did you decide on arrangement and title of your chapbook? What was your titling process for individual stories in the chapbook?
This is tremendously tricky, and it’s something I think I have to figure out again all over every time I try a new chapbook. With Box Cutters, honestly, I just got lucky. The original manuscript was about twice as long, and while the pieces that exist in it now are in roughly the same order as I submitted them, there were other pieces between them, serving as sort of connective tissue. But sunnyoutside did something brilliant: they cut all the connective tissue and showed me that the remaining stories worked just fine as they were. I didn’t need the connections. I still like that longer manuscript, but the published version is so much tighter, such a sharper jab in the gut.
My original title—which was also a cutting image—came from one of those deleted stories, but once that story was gone, the title made less sense. So we went with Box Cutters (a title of one of the stories in the collection) because it still conveyed that potential for sharp violence.
As for the titles of the stories in the book, those mostly come from the stories themselves, either as references to lines or just direct quotes. The one outlier in there, and my favorite title in the collection, is “The Voice You Throw, the Blow You Catch,” which came from my friend and title guru, Ryan Werner.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
This book went to sunnyoutside during their open reading period. I’d put it together with sunnyoutside in mind and always wanted it to wind up there.
I have since submitted other chapbooks to open reading periods and contests both, and I’ve gotten close a few times. I’m actually sending out a couple new chapbook manuscripts now, both for contests at the moment, but we’ll see where they wind up.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The design of Box Cutters is all sunnyoutside, and rightly so. Those people make gorgeous books, and I knew enough to just step aside and let them work their magic.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
I sent the book around to some indie reviewers (and so far folks have been quite nice to me!), and I’ve done readings locally. I also attended AWP in Seattle earlier this year and spent a lot of time working the bookfair and hanging around the sunnyoutside table. And I did a couple of events locally in Portland, including Indie First on Small Business Saturday last year and Smallpressapalooza at Powell’s Books this past March.
And this summer, I went on book tour for my novel, Hagridden, which just came out in August, and I took Box Cutters along on the tour and plugged it then as well. It got a lot of interest among college students, actually—they seemed interested in both formal considerations, flash and the chapbook, but they hadn’t yet come across many examples of the latter, and I was glad to be an early chapbook addition to their bookshelves.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m supposed to be working on a new novel, and I am making progress on it. But I recently spotted a good potential home for a chapbook I’d finished this summer, and revisiting that book has got me thinking about another chapbook that never quite came together but might be ready now. So I’ve been in chapbook mode off and on the past week or so.
But I’m finishing that novel this winter, even if I have to give up sleep to do it.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
One of my favorite prompts, especially for flash fiction, is to write from music. It’s something I’ve been doing for years (I have a whole story cycle based on a single song—it’s under consideration at a press right now) and when I got to talking with my friend Ryan Werner about it, he and I started kicking ideas back and forth. (Ryan is a musician, so he brings that to the table, too.) He actually prompted the last story in Box Cutters, which I wrote in response to Slobberbone’s “Little Drunk Fists,” and another story in that collection I wrote while listening to Feist’s “Honey Honey.”
What I tend to do with the song-inspired stories is listen to the song several times and then just write whatever’s coming into my head, whatever in the song is catching my attention. Sometimes it’s the music, the melody or the intensity or the sound of the singer’s voice; other times it’s the lyrics, the story they tell or an image that stands out for me. For example, the Slobberbone song’s sound, gritty and raucous but also somehow a bit tired, told me I needed to set the story in an old bar, some place slightly dingy patronized mostly by regulars. And the title, “Little Drunk Fists,” made me think it needed to be about something smaller and more intimate than a bar fight, so of course I went to relationships and domestic fights. My wife was actually the one who suggested that the “little fists” could refer to a ventriloquist dummy, and the whole thing suddenly made sense to me. Everything else developed from those two elements: the song’s sound and that one image in the title.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Obviously, read a lot of chapbooks. Become a chapbook collector. Really devote yourself to the form. You’re never going to be able to write a good chapbook unless you’ve read a ton of them. And explore all genres, too—I’m a fiction writer, but I love poetry chapbooks and have even read a couple of memoir chapbooks (I’m on the lookout for more of those).
Less obviously: make a chapbook. I’m talking layout, design, production. Your first one will probably be a terrible-looking book (I made three in college, all of them designed on the student newspaper’s computers and “printed” on the school photocopier and bound with the library’s saddle-stapler), and they’ll probably just be free gifts you hand out to friends and family. But I think there’s a lot of value in getting your hands dirty, in understanding the art and difficulty of producing a really fine chapbook. It helps you know what to look for when you’re looking at potential publishers. Thinking about the final product can also inform how you select and order pieces as you put together your manuscript.
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t flash fiction help you to write flash fiction?
When I’m in flash fiction mode, I read a lot of poetry. I read a lot of poetry anyway—I’m no good at poetry, but almost as soon as I started seriously writing fiction, back in my middle-school years, I had an English teacher (hi, Mrs. Hoffmann!) who said I wrote “poetic prose,” and I latched onto that phrase as a kind of standard against which to measure my writing. But several years ago, I was in a graduate course on form and theory of poetry and I was working on a theory that prose and poetry aren’t all that different, and sure enough, that same spring, I attended a panel at AWP on flash fiction and poetry at which my favorite poet, Beth Ann Fennelly, made a very convincing case that there really isn’t any substantial difference between prose poetry and flash fiction. So when I’m working on flash fiction, I read both poetry and flash.
But in general, I try to read in a range of genres anyway. I’m an avid fan of comics, I read too few memoirs, but I love them when I get my hands on them, I’m a bit of a history nerd and enjoy good nonfiction in general, I’ve written a long short story in the style of a magazine feature article, I once entered an elementary school reading contest that counted winners by the page and read the dictionary just for the page count . . . . I’m a firm believer that every kind of writing can inform every other kind of writing, so I try to read widely.
Does your family read your chapbook? Or are they waiting for you to write a novel?
I love this question, because a lot of people, especially fiction writers/ readers, think of the chapbook as “just” a stepping stone to a “real” book. Like there’s some progression: chapbook to story collection to novel, and then you’ve made it. In mercenary, capitalist terms of marketing, that’s mostly true. No one but Alice Munro makes any money at story collections, and no one at all makes any money at chapbooks.
But artistically, it’s hogwash. I love chapbooks for themselves—they are their own art form, and there are some stories I’ve written that, if collected, would only make sense in a chapbook. That’s on purpose. And it’s why, even with a novel out there and another in progress on my laptop screen right now, I still write stories and I’m still shopping around chapbooks. I see no reason to give up writing, much less reading, on form just because another is more “accepted” or “marketable.”
But to answer the question directly: yes, my family proudly read my chapbook, even my teenaged nephew, and they read my novel, too. I’m very fortunate: my family gets it.
Samuel Snoek-Brown lives in Portland, OR, where he teaches writing and serves as production editor for Jersey Devil Press. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of journals, and he’s the author of the flash fiction chapbook Box Cutters and the novel Hagridden, for which he received a 2013 Oregon Literary Fellowship.
Sometimes, if she stood in the window long enough, she would suddenly blow into motion, the stillness too much. She would grab her keys, sometimes forget her purse, her license, and she would gust out the door and into the truck and down the road, gravel and dust ballooning behind her. She would drive for hours, run the gas tank nearly dry. She never went anywhere. She just drove, eddying in the town or drifting down the highway like it was pulling her along it, an asphalt current and she powerless against it.
She was driving toward some alternate world where he’d never killed her husband, where she’d never married her husband, where she’d married this man instead. Around every curve in the hills a shadow, the setting sun gone behind the cedars. But she would drive all the faster, and she would close her eyes, screaming down the highway.