Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 4 September 2008

An interview with Adrian Graham

In my last blog I asked if flash fiction was a joke. Typical me I was just trying to stir things up and see what everyone thinks. I also sent a copy to a writer who specialises in flash fiction and we had a wee talk about it. (Okay, not so much a talk as a couple of e-mails and a list of questions but let's just pretend).

The writer is Adrian Graham whose blog I stumbled over a few months back. There were a few sample stories which I read, liked, and which prompted me to fork out hard cash for his short story collection, The Revelation and 100 other stories. It came. It sat on a shelf for a while and then I read it.

Well I read a bit of it, quite a bit of it, and then I forced myself to stop and do something else. Because nothing was going in. I hadn't finished one story and then I was onto another: Boom! Boom! Boom!

I stopped because I was going gobbling them up like a box of choccies. And I was beginning to not enjoy them quite so much. That's the thing about choccies, choccies are great but too many can sicken you off chocolate for … oh, a whole couple of days.

So, I put the book aside and restricted myself to one section at each sitting. To my mind the whole thing would have worked better as a three and a half month page-a-day calendar. This is not so much a criticism as an observation as to the nature of flash fiction. I could say much the same about any book of poetry.

The book is divided into seven sections: 'Me and other people we know', 'Night vision', 'Pocket studies', 'Remixes', 'Strangers in our midst', 'Computer games' and – my favourite section – 'The story is the story'. Here's my personal favourite:


Robin Mayor woke up to find himself trapped in a short story.

As soon as the shock passed he realised he had about two hundred and fifty words left, or was that about two hundred and forty words? No, make it about two hundred and thirty.

He ran into the street and screamed, “Help me! Please somebody help me. I’m trapped inside a short story. Let me out!”

No one was listening and he was burning through words so fast it would have been foolish to continue. He could feel the word count mounting. He didn’t have long - a hundred words or so.

He went onto the roof of a large building and decided enough was enough. He didn’t want to linger on knowing his time was running out and there was nothing he could do to change it.

His life would end when this short story ended.

He decided he would do it his way and make it happen as fast as possible. He would control his destiny.

“Get me out of here,” he shouted. “Get me out of here! Get me - ”

Now, this is not the first book of flash fiction I've bought. I have Sherril Jaffe's Scars Make Your Body More Interesting & Other Stories and The Voice Imitator by Thomas Bernhard and I had similar issues with them, the Bernhard especially because his stories have hard centres and take a bit of chewing.

Before we hear what Adrian has to say, let's have a look at another of the stories that we talk about in the 'interview':

[Insert title]

‘random story generator’
insert: {character: situation}
{unexpected event}
factual info for authenticity: {Topic}
‘random story algorithm’
go to: ‘generated results’
insert: ‘random story solution’
go to: ‘outcome’
‘plot twist’: setting “average” believability: “medium”
insert: ‘something unexpected’
‘something more unexpected’
hidden: *marketing tie-in*
‘romantic encounter’
protagonist’s fortune rating: “2”
insert: {element of chance}
{the big comeback}
protagonist’s fortune rating: “9”
satisfying solution: happiness: “7” realism: “4”
hidden: *theme*
add-on: {potential for sequel}

1. Adrian, on your own blog you say:

I know people who are eager to dismiss Internet creativity because it doesn't fit into a traditional pattern. It breaks the established notions of how written stories should be created and distributed. I like a good book, like the next person, but the world is changing.

So why bring out a book of flash fiction?

I've always loved creating things. I used to paint a long time ago. I enjoyed the satisfaction of making physical objects. With writing the closest we get to that is the production of a book.

2. In my previous essay I suggested that flash fiction has a lot in common with the common-or-garden gag comprising of a setup and a punch line. Do you think this is a gross oversimplification?
No, I agree with it. I'm sure there are flash fiction writers out there who would disagree though. My writing fits the gag formula, and if it's not a joke then it's a tragi-comedy. I enjoy creating a situation and then subverting it. That’s a standard joke formula. Woody Allen said somewhere that the best way to write a joke is to get the punch line first and work backwards, and that's often how it works for me. Comedy is great because it allows the writer to tackle a serious subject in an approachable way.

3. In 'Detention camp sixteen' a man wakes up in a detention camp where the inmates are forced to write comedy. When he questions the guards the man is beaten senseless. He awakens in his own bed and believes he has just experienced a nightmare. He dozes back off only to awake in the detention camp with a guard beating him and telling him to get writing. This, among other stories, struck me as owing a debt of gratitude to The Twilight Zone, a show that relied heavily on often ironic twists. Was this show a particular influence and, what other influences can you cite?
That's great you've spotted that. I am a fan of The Twilight Zone, especially the famous, 'Nightmare at 20,000 Feet' episode when a passenger sees a gremlin on an aeroplane wing. In terms of other influences there are James Thurber's, 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' and Roald Dahl's short stories (I enjoyed the television series, Tales of the Unexpected when it aired). Surrealist art is a strong influence as is Philip K Dick’s, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Matt Madden's graphic book, 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. I read Dan Rhodes', Anthropology: And a Hundred Other Stories after I'd finished the first collection and dithered for a title so I ‘borrowed’ the title idea from him. To my mind that book is the ultimate flash fiction collection.

4. In the 'Remixes' section of your collection you write a spoof of 'Goldilocks' and a sequel to 'The Hare and the Tortoise' and it's obvious that this format is well suited to lampooning subjects which are familiar to the reader already and have, in effect, done much of the setup for the writer. What do you think about this?
Totally. It's a lot of fun subverting someone else’s hard work! I came to this in the way a DJ might remix music. It's fun playing with the readers assumptions about which reality they're in - an 'enchanted fairyland' or normal contemporary life. I think playfulness and subversion are hallmarks of flash fiction, for me at least.

5. All the stories I've read by you veer towards the short end of the flash fiction spectrum, circa 250 words. Why is this length so attractive and how do you resist the temptation to become formulaic in your stories? I'm thinking here about your short story '[Insert title]'.
250 words are long enough to set the scene, introduce a character, throw in a plot twist and close. Anything less, for me, just feels like there isn't enough space for any development to occur. Any longer and there are too many possibilities and it loses its tightness. The stories revolve around a simple concept and 250 words are enough to convey that. As for maintaining the quality and not being too formulaic I go on gut feeling. If it doesn't hit me then it's destined for the bin, right there. Plus I get bored very easily. By the time I neared the end of the first collection the writing process had become the subject. It was time to stop or I’d end up in some insane loop.

6. How would you defend flash fiction against those who think it's not a serious literary form?
It will take time for some people to understand what flash fiction is about. Eventually they'll get the hang of it. The biggest problem is fear - people are afraid of its brevity. It’s almost threatening. I’d say to them, there’s nothing to be afraid of, it’s only short fiction.

One of the delights of being a flash fiction writer is that it does have a subversive side and you can play that up or down. You can say what you like because you don’t have a ‘literary’ reputation to lose. I’ve always believed exciting fiction needs that critical edge. That’s what keeps it ‘alive’.

7. There are great novelists one could point to, great poets, great story writers … but I can't think of a great flash fiction writer. Do you think the time will come? Or has it come?
I say, 'well done' to any writer who makes it big or is credited with the 'great writer' badge, but the best a flash fiction writer can hope for is being called a 'cult' writer. As for the future, anything can happen.

There's a lot of good work being done right now on the web. This is where flash fiction seems most active. You can’t comfortably read a novel on a computer screen but you can read a flash fiction. If you're after some free flash fiction the bearded lady blog has been posting some great stuff recently and Adam Maxwell has been pushing flash fiction into digital media with his award winning podcasts.

As for defending flash fiction it’s important to remember that most of the practitioners, myself included, write these things at speed. We’re simply not aiming for traditional values of ‘greatness’ otherwise we’d be writing novels in the style of Graham Green.

If you want a music analogy we’re not composing classical music we are pumping out dance or rock music. The whole essence of what we’re going for is radically different from traditional ‘literature’. That’s not to say we don’t believe in quality - we do. But the arbiter of that quality is the excitement and sheer fun of writing and reading flash fiction - not holding the writing up as some artefact of ‘great literature’.

8. Do you work in other formats? If so, can you illustrate?
I've written regular length short stories and two novels. Writing a novel is a bit like constructing an intricate puzzle that unleashes itself on the reader over time. My first novel took five years to complete. The second, three months. I've done some graphical / text stories. That’s an area that interests me. I wanted to do a graphical novella but the artist couldn't give over enough time so we had to cancel the project. I’ve made a few short films. I'm always going back to flash fiction. All you need is a pencil and paper and you can create a billion pounds worth of special effects in the readers head.

9. I know you're preparing a second collection. What can you tell me about it?
The second batch is destined to become a limited edition hardback, something really exquisite. The stories are the same length but more sophisticated, more grown up. The confidence I’ve gained has allowed me to loosen up and be more honest. It was tempting to bring back some of the old characters, but I resisted. Maybe another time!

Thank you.

And I'd like to say thank you too to Adrian for those considered answers, so, thank you.

I think we've raised quite a few interesting points over the last couple of blogs. And, as usual, I don't think we've come up with any great answers. For my own part I think I've developed a bit more of an appreciation for Internet publishing. A lot of sites will present you with a quote or a thought-for-the-day and they're fine in their own way but they're maybe just a little insubstantial, a wafer thin mint compared to the champagne truffle with a velvety smooth, dense ganache centre, rich with whipped Vermont cream and butter, and thinly coated in Belgian chocolate that is a flash fiction.

Let me leave you with one last one to chew on from Adrian's forthcoming collection which is to be called Love Can Find You Digitally.

The Land of First Served

You don’t get second chances in The Land of First Come First Served. That was why I emigrated to No Worries. But they threw me out when I got anxious. They didn’t want people like that.

I ended up in Tough Luck. The people there were all mean and complained they’d been sent there by mistake. Everyone had a story that was worse than everyone else. I spent some time in Rock Bottom. That place was terrible. Then I took a train ride to New Beginning. It seemed like the perfect place for a fresh start. I got a job and met a woman. The whole thing was turning out better than I could have ever expected. I began to get positive about my life. I realised I had the potential to achieve things, to be somebody. I woke up in the morning and couldn’t help smiling. For the first time in ages I knew where I was going.

I got a promotion at work. My manager thanked me for my ‘outstanding contribution’ to the company.

When I got home I could tell from my wife’s eyes that I was the most loved man in the world.

I put in an application for Happy Ending. They sent it back with a rude letter saying it wasn’t over yet.

In the land of First Come First Served you don’t get second chances.


Dave King said...

Interesting interview, and a really fascinating story that you began with. I'm not too sure about fear being the the thing that puts most people off flash fiction, though. I would have thought there were other hang-ups more important: a perceived lack of content - not meaty enough - being an obvious one; a certain snobbishness, perhaps. But maybe it all depends on how you go about eading them - as you yourself discovered. Like joke books; not meant for an extended reading, but more a book to dip into. Great post, though there was nothing flash about it - in either sense of the word!

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad you enjoyed the interview, Dave, and you are right, in fact I was just talking about this with Susan over in my last post. I've never really taken a lot of interest in flash-only magazines. I don't seek flash out – i.e. I don't make more of it than what it is – but then neither do I prejudge it when I run across it. My experiences have, on the whole, been quite positive although, just as I've come across awful poetry online, I've come across awful flash; anything that can be done well can even more easily be done badly.

Your analogy of the joke book is a good one – I was thinking more of a poetry book – and that's where I think I went wrong with Adrian's book, trying to treat it like a book of 'normal' short stories because by their very nature they are different, more akin to poems than stories and yet not quite bridging that gap. (You'll notice how I've succinctly side-stepped the whole prose poetry area for the moment).

If Adrian's collection does have a weakness it is that his structure is a little transparent but then I'm not sure from talking to him that he regards this as a weakness. Form used to held in higher esteem than it seems to be these days, just think about sonata form or the rondo or the old dance suite.

Dave King said...

I absolutely agree with you about form. I suppose when form began to be used less rigidly, the idea got abroad that it is an optional extra - which I don't believe it to be.

jonathan pinnock said...

Interesting interview. What I find particularly fascinating about Adrian is that he has (for the moment, at least) deliberately chosen to work in a specific form. It's a very disciplined approach, but it seems to bring a good sense of consistency. And sometimes the constraint of the form can drive an idea into interesting directions. Then again, I guess the reverse is also true ...

Jim Murdoch said...

That's the thing, Jonathan, what works for one won't for another. It could be argued that my poems are formulaic and I wouldn't have much of a leg to stand on because I do favour the set-up and punch line structure. The things is, it is a good structure, it works, and why try and reinvent the wheel? Have you ever thought just how many different uses the humble wheel has been put to?

jonathan pinnock said...

Hmmm. From my point of view (speaking as a writer who's still thrashing around trying to find my ideal form) I think I've ended up taking both approaches. I've written a lot of flash fiction this year (mainly for just-for-fun challenges) and I tend to find that the results are very much idea-based. Sometimes, the idea then expands to make a whole story, but sometimes it actually contracts into something much shorter. So what starts off as a form-driven piece ends up as a content-driven one. However, it's the initial constraint of the form that provides the creative pressure. The same kind of thing happens with prompt-driven pieces. The prompt is what kicks the process off, but it quite often disappears altogether when the idea takes over.

Then again, I guess there are people who write nothing but haikus. Good luck to 'em.

Jim Murdoch said...

I see what you're saying, Jonathan, and it's a good point. I'm still a great believer in allowing the text to find/dictate its own form. On the whole I've never turned out my best stuff beginning with a prompt and – with one exception (to write a story in a single sentence) – I've never tried to hem in my writing. I'm not prone to loquacity despite what the lengthy posts might suggest and so keeping my words down to a minimum is the natural thing for me to do. I just always seem to slip over the 1000 word limit. As for haiku…I've only ever written one so what can I say there?

Felix Noir said...


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Anonymous said...

I am really chuffed to see Adrian name-check James Thurber.

I have been a devout fan of Thurber since my school days and I sometimes comfort myself that he has influenced what I do just a little bit.

I also love the first little story in your post - only two words le_

Jim Murdoch said...

So, Ken, why not do a wee post and tell all of us why we should be reading Thurber? The odds are most people have got to him is reading Woody Allen and I'm sure I'd be disappointed to find out how few have read him.

BTW Shuggies says: "Whitthfeksawtha 'le_' crapaboot?"

Anonymous said...

I will think about a Thurber post. Hmmmm (that's me thinking).

Yeah, sorry, the 'Le_' was my attempt at an 'homage' to the short story. I pretended I had a limit on my words for the comment and I ran out.

Some you win... :)

BTW, 'like the new look, dead jolly.


Chuffed? I'll have to go to the dictionary.

Jim, I very much enjoyed this post and thank you for introducing us to Adrian Graham's work.

I know exactly why I am attracted to flash fiction, both as a writer and a reader: ADD. Don't laugh...I'm serious! I am impatient and my attention span is short.

Art Durkee said...

Fear? Hardly. That's a rationalization of defensiveness that doesn't fit the facts. I think indifference is just as likely as fear. I think Dave is right on target with his commentary, on all points.

Your own box-o-chocolates analogy is also a good one. The idea that it's something to dip into, not to read like one reads Proust or Joyce or even Updike, but to sample a few bits at a time. I agree that flash read a lot better in small doses. So does most haiku and haibun, for that matter.

I'm not at all afraid of brevity—I specialize in haiku, after all—but I have to say: it all still reads like gimmickry to me. The gag or punch line is endemic to this form. It's partly that I dislike punch-line writing as much as I dislike puzzle-box poetry: once you've figured it out, great, but great literature is meant to be read and savored and re-read later, and flash fiction seems designed to be disposable. There's no incentive to re-read a single one of these pieces, except perhaps to share the joke with a friend. The object-oriented code story made me smile, as I appreciate that sort of geeky humour. But again, why would I bother to own this in a book, except to show to a friend? Once read, discovered. No need to re-read. I think that's one of flash fiction's greatest weaknesses as a genre.

Again, I refer the interested reader to Fredric Brown, who was writing this sort of thing decades ago, and who was such a great writer that you DO want to re-read his stories, even his short-short stories.

Annie Wicking said...

Well done, Jim for taking up the challenge to become a writer. I'm there with you as I started late in life too.

Best wishes,


Jim Murdoch said...

Ken, sorry about Shuggie – he's thick – but really glad you like the new colour scheme (you're the first bugger to mention it too). A Thurber post would be really interesting when you can fit it in. I don't know about you but I'm swamped with ideas at the moment. I'm writing three posts at the moment and have another eight sitting there and I'm going to have to get the next 'Aggie and Shuggie' ready for midweek. Yes, there's another review ready.

My wife tells me that 'chuffed' is not an expression known in the Americas, Susan, but it basically means 'pleased' and it usually accompanied by the adverb 'dead'.

I do get the ADD thing. I'm an impatient ready. I keep thinking as I'm reading, "Nope, you don't need that paragraph, and that one can go, and that … for God's sake will you stop waffling on and get on with the story, man?" I'm always counting pages to the end of the next chapter. Believe it of not I was finishing of The Hawkline Monster last night, the last Brautigan novel I'd not read, and I was checking to see how long his chapters were and they're rarely longer than a page or two!

Art, yes, I see what you mean about Fredric Brown. He was known to me, well, I knew his stories but I'd forgotten his name. There are a few here if anyone is interested. I would especially recommend 'The End' as a wonderful piece of fun.

And, Annie, thanks for the feedback and encouragement. I actually started writing in my teens and had a fair bit of poetry published back then but I allowed myself to fade out of the literary scene for a good many years and am only now putting out feelers.

Unknown said...

Jim, my review of your book will go live at
tomorrow morning.

Jena Isle said...

Very interesting stories. I think an author should be extremely talented to come up with flash fiction - stories so short and yet leave a lasting imprint. I like flash fiction, just reading about your excerpt on the character wanting to escape from the story book - is amazing.

Now I would like to read that book too. Thanks Jim for always "educating" me in this category. I'm learning a lot from you.

Happy blogging.

Jim Murdoch said...

Jena, what can I say? I think you'd enjoy it.

And, Mama Bear, your very own 'Aggie and Shuggie' is now online.

McGuire said...

Love the 'story' at the end, simple in its genius. It reads like the plan for a short story or novel but is itsel the 'minor' story of sorts.

Interesting interview as ever. I'm becoming more familiar with flash fiction. I also have a few short stories that are either one paragraph long, or three or four. I call them: 'shorter stories'.

Jim Murdoch said...

McGuire, could I suggest you check out Down in Me, Ani Smith's blog? I think you might quite appreciate her take on shorter fiction.

Her last story Wanted #1 is just a superb example of compression but I think you might connect more with some of her other stuff.

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