Interview with John Fleming by Jessica Thompson

Photo courtesy of Burrow Press

Photo courtesy of Burrow Press

Thank you so much for agreeing to an interview. I recently read your short story collection Songs for the Deaf and would like to focus on that first. It definitely qualifies as weird! (Hopefully you take that as a compliment, as it is intended). I am curious about how it came about. How did you decide which stories to include and which to leave out, and how long of a time span were the stories written over?

Weird is a compliment in my book—so thank you! The stories in Songs for the Deaf cover nearly twenty years of writing. Many were written when I needed a break from longer projects. Some of those longer projects never got finished or are still in progress, which makes me think the longer projects are just excuses to busy myself until I get around to writing a story. I included most of the stories I wrote in that time span. I left a few out that I didn’t like enough. At some point I had an idea to write a collection of modern tall tales in the vein of “A Charmed Life” but then decided that most of the stories I’d already written were like tall tales anyway, and that’s what prompted me to put them together into a collection.

It’s funny to hear that many of the stories were written during “down time.” I sometimes wonder if the mindset of writing just to write rather than writing toward a goal (such as finishing a novel) allows for more creative freedom. 

I’d like to learn a bit about your process in writing one of my favorite stories in the book, “The Day of Our Lord’s Triumph.” This story plays with form–we get the language of a religious document with marginalia telling the story of a basketball game among teens. (I love the metaphor inherent in this pairing–what adolescent doesn’t feel like the center of the universe?) Did the content of the story drive the form, or did the form of the story drive the content? Was this how you began it from the start, or did you writing it in different ways before landing on this final form?

The story began with the voice. I wanted to write in the style of an old religious text; I sat on this idea for a few years before finally getting down to drafting. And what if I grafted that solemn, weighty voice onto the mundane exploits of a teen—in this case, a teen that almost no one took seriously? It was that impulse to apply the sacred to the profane that got me writing. I’m interested in how meaning gets made. How people come to their beliefs, how they assign seriousness. Once I started writing the story, it became clear that I needed a reason for the story to be told this way. That’s where the marginal notes came from; I envisioned a post-apocalyptic religious text in which a seemingly typical day in the life of a teenager becomes a kind of passion play. I let the kid survive the apocalypse so he could have the ultimate revenge on his bullies, relegating them to bit players in the life of a religious icon.

Speaking of beliefs, let’s talk a little about the “Xenophilia,” your short story in which aliens have a seductive power over the human scientists who study them. This is not your average alien story. It feels like it’s dealing with another duality, the opposition between desire and emotions vs. rationality and lawfulness. I’m again curious about what drove the writing of this story. Did you set out to write about aliens, or did they sort of arise as you began writing about desire and lust?

“Xenophilia” was sparked by my love of 1950s alien visitation movies like It Came from Outer Space (which was based on a Ray Bradbury story treatment). The settings of those movies were just as interesting to me as the aliens themselves. Small towns in the desert nowheres. Little microcosms of the greater society that make the stories feel like allegories. Scientist, schoolteacher, cop, general—all of them playing their appointed roles until the Great Disruptor falls from the sky. And then the landscape: dry and otherworldly, so of course the aliens feel at home. But what if the disruption weren’t based on fear but on desire? The aliens stoke our passions, and therein lies their power. I wrote the first sentence, and everything quickly fell into place. I enjoyed pov-hopping, inventing new characters, expanding the little world, taking new angles on the events. I felt like I was writing a sci-fi opera.

I like that idea. Most people fear that aliens would be scary and mean, not attractive and amorous. It’s definitely the opposite of what is expected. Let’s jump from the short story collection for a bit to talk about Florida. You are the founding editor of Saw Palm, a lit mag focused on Florida-themed writing, and (I believe) you’ve lived in the state for many years. Florida has a reputation for being strange, and the proverbial “Florida Man” has become a quasi-celebrity. Has Florida’s strangeness inspired or influenced your writing?

It’s hard not to write weird when you live in Florida. García Márquez always held that magical realism was not simply a narrative magic trick but an accurate representation of life in Latin America. In Florida, you have the shake of America’s weed bag—all the people who fell through the cracks to get here, along with others who come to prey on them. Everyone’s looking for easy money or easy leisure. The place is a utopian myth going back at least as far as the Fountain of Youth. Any writer who spends time here has to address that sooner or later. We’re halfway to the tropics. It’s a borderland. The peoples and creatures are in a constant state of tension and flux, battling for little scraps of sandy turf. You can have an alligator in your swimming pool, a python in your garage, a meth addict asleep in your fridge. The challenge for a writer is to convey all that weirdness without it coming across as glib parody or satire. The writers who do that successfully are the ones we like to publish in Saw Palm.

“The shake of America’s weed bag”–that’s wonderful. I’ve lived in Florida for about a year and a half and I will use that to describe it to my friends back home in Chicagoland. Disclosure moment: I am an MFA student at the University of South Florida, where you are a faculty member. Last semester I took a fiction workshop course of yours. You organized it with an outer space theme and, in line with that theme, showed up to class one day in a lab coat and NASA hat. Was this the first time you integrated the unusual into a course structure, or have you done something similar before?

I’ve made a couple of changes to my graduate workshop structure over the years. The standard full-class workshop isn’t ideal for novelists, who can usually only submit 2-3 chunks of a novel during the course of the semester. So I started using small groups and rotating among the groups from week to week. That way, workshop writers could submit something every week to their small groups, including revisions, partial stories, novel chapters, or outlines. I liked the way this worked, and writers seemed to respond to it. Some of them wrote entire novel drafts during the course of the semester. At the same time, I missed the lively discussions of the full-class workshop, where the conversation can move easily from the story at hand to larger craft and writing-life issues, as well as jokes and community-building and other surprises. Last fall, coming off a sabbatical year, I decided to combine the two approaches. I call it the Spaceflight model, and it has four phases:

  • In the Launch Phase, everyone writes a story or novel chapter at high speed in the first week of class, similar to Michael Martone’s Hypoxic workshop at Alabama. We discuss each story or chapter for 10 minutes in class.
  • The Orbital Phase uses the traditional Iowa format: writers email stories or chapters ahead of time, the entire class reads and critiques them, and we have a full-class discussion. The Orbital Phase lasts four weeks or until everyone has one story or chapter critiqued.
  • During the Gravitational Slingshot, we split into small groups. The workshop is less formal and lasts three weeks. Writers submit a story or chapter each week to the other members of their groups. Partial stories are fine if you want to get ideas for developing them. Novel writers can also submit a novel outline or synopsis for discussion. Written responses aren’t necessary and the discussion is more of a conversation between writer and readers. I rotate to a different group each week.
  • The Landing Phase reverts to the more traditional format, but writers can submit revisions to previously workshopped stories or novel sections that they’re revising toward publication. Here, too, the discussion can be more of a dialogue.

I like the variety of the Spaceflight model. Besides giving me an excuse to wear a lab coat, it offers novel writers more opportunities for critiques and more incentive to make pages. Story writers likewise get more opportunities and can receive feedback at different stages of the drafting process. Last fall was the first time I’ve tried it, and it seemed to go well, but you might be able to add some insight to that…

I enjoyed it. I especially felt the small group workshops were useful. It had a nice balance. The theme stood out to me, too, perhaps obviously. I hadn’t seen anything like that before. I’ve been trying to think of a way to incorporate an unusual theme into a class I teach. It adds another layer that helps grab students’ attention, I think.

Well, we are running out of time. Is there anything you want to plug, or anything final topic you want to discuss before we close things up?

I’d like to encourage everyone to be weird and write weird. Do your part. And thanks to you and weirderary for doing yours!

Thank you! And to everyone reading, you can buy Songs for the Deaf from Burrow Press, check out John’s other work at johnhenryfleming.com, and follow him on twitter @JohnHFleming

Jessica Thompson is a Chicagoan currently living in Florida. In addition to writing fiction and creative nonfiction, she edits weirderary and hosts the monthly live lit event, First Draft. Her work has appeared in theEEEL and revolver.