Len Kuntz in His Own Words
Today Len Kuntz shares his thoughts on flash fiction, writing, and publishing. Please help me welcome, Len Kuntz. What attracts you to flash fiction?
So many things. I like the notion that it’s this burst of something, a shotgun blast or hard candy with a gooey sour center. I like that you can read it in five minutes or less. I like being left somewhat satiated, yet still craving more. I like getting jolted unexpectedly.
Describe your worst acceptance or your best rejection.
Most rejections are very kind. Essentially, editors are writers themselves, and therefore quite respectful. My worst acceptance is probably when they just send you the link and the story’s already put up without any sort of exchange or double-checking to ensure that the piece hasn’t been taken elsewhere.
What are your goals as a writer?
I tend to be a numbers guy. That’s good and not so good. My goals for 2011 were to get my 500th acceptance, get to 800 pieces written, write two novels, get an agent for last year’s novel, and get a publisher to take my first story collection. So far I’ve only managed the first two.
I took the summer off because the bloom sort of wore off after that 500th acceptance. It was like: “Five hundred. So what?” Now I’m back at it, a quarter of the way into a new novel. I really haven’t sent out any short work, even though I still have 400 unpublished pieces lying around.
My goal, generally speaking, is to write every day--a minimum of 2,000 words with the winning goal being 4,000. However, a lot of time I let myself down on this one.
My other goal is to write the very best novel I can. I attended The Iowa Writer’s Weekend Workshop with Poet Doug Goetsch as the instructor and he did a fine job of drilling the mantra—“Just write the best words you can possibly write”--and reminding us that writers like Melville weren’t focused on whether they’d ever land an agent, whether they’d get a publisher. Describe your writing space.
It’s sick. Sick in a good way. Really, it is. I sit on the third floor of my house overlooking a lake. Daily there’s an eagle that soars overhead. I often see beavers cruising the length of the water.
Behind me are shelves and shelves of books. I’ve read most of them. 90% of the books are fantastic. Books--novels, stories and poetry--make me feel safe.
I have stacks of story-starts on my desk and a coffee mug I got from The Rumpus at AWP last year that says “Write Like A MotherF*er” on it.
And I have a very large black corkboard with magazine pictures I’ve torn out to put a physical face on my characters. It’s pretty cool-looking.
What advice would you have for those who are interested in trying flash fiction?
Read lots of flash. Read great flash writers like these: Kim Chinquee, xTx, Roxane Gay, Ben Loory, Barry Graham, Aubrey Hirsch, Meg Tuit, Robert Vaughn, Meg Pokrass, Parker Tettleton. There are so many.
Then, when you write, make sure something happens. I am an editor at the lit journal "Metazen" and most of the submissions are either too bland or else they’re just this fragment, unattached to anything.
Flash has to pop. It needs to explode. Something unique and/or unexpected should happen. There needs to be a conflict and some sort of resolution, even if it’s only implied. And the writing should, hopefully, be somehow lyrical. You write poetry also. Discuss the difference in approach (and rewards) between poetry and flash.
With flash, I usually have the idea, the plot if you will, already figured out.
Poetry for me usually begins with a word or phrase that comes to mind. I hardly ever know where I’m going to go with it. But I write furiously, especially poetry. I get in a trance and don’t want to lose that mojo, so I sort of vomit the words into print. Then I’ll get a paring knife out. Then I read it out loud to see if there’s a cadence and a definitive point.
I love poetry. I prefer to read and write poetry that has a narrative arc to it. Experimental poetry that is just pretty words doesn’t do anything for me. I’m not smart enough to understand it.
I love Raymond Carver’s poetry. It really gets any attention.
What writers do you admire and why?
There are so many. Really. I love Howie Good and Parker Tettleton because they kern their words and can say such beautifully odd and meaningful things in a marble sack-sized piece. Reading Sara Lippman’s writing is like having a knife held to your throat, the blade just at the Adam’s apple. xTx is so brave and undaunted with everything--even blogposts--she writes. More than once she’s made me shake my head or smile or do both at the same time. For novelists, no one can write dialogue like Richard Price.
Discuss your take on any or all of the following: Novels. Agents. eBooks. Kindles.
Nice question. That’s like asking me to comment on the universe.
Novels are gifts, both to read, and when writing one, when written. You sit with these characters and their deepest secrets, their tragic blunders. You watch and hear them have sex! My God. What would we do without novels?
I don’t know that I’m qualified to speak about agents, seeing as how I don’t have one yet. From the conferences I’ve been at, though, it’s clear they have a profound love of books and writers. They would seem crucial if your hopes are to get your book into as many hands as possible.
Personally, I’m not an eBook fan. I don’t like reading long work on a computer. And--this is just my opinion--it seems like with eBooks and chapbooks even, that their very size allows the author to short sheet the bed, so to speak. They don’t have to write a fully realized piece. They’re let off the hook and a lot of time it shows. Just my opinion, so please don’t poor battery acid on my car.
What are you reading now?
I’m re-reading Ordinary People by Judith Guest. It’s brilliant. In The Writer last year they said it was the only book to have tension on every page. I thought, "B.S." Then I tracked down a copy, and sure enough--it’s skin-crawling angst every four paragraphs.
Also, I’m just about done with Northwest Corner, by John Burnham Schwartz. It’s pure gold. Read this book. He also wrote Revolutionary Road.
And in between I’m reading Ben Loory’s collection, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day. Each one is so fable-esque and childlike, but interwoven with subtext and symbolism that you feel as if you’ve been stamped or stunned. With over 500 pieces published, you’re obviously very prolific. How do you find time to write?
I’m very, very lucky. I write full-time. I retired really young, or young by some standards, anyway. I try to respect the craft and write every day, treat it like a job. It’s so easy to talk yourself out of writing and find anything--even visiting jails or sorting through photo albums--other than write.
Every person I meet who’s not a writer says they are going to write a novel some day, but I know they never will. It’s bloody hard work. Do you have a current piece that you really like that just can’t seem to find a home?
A few. "Ovation." It’s a favorite. The first line is, "Before she died, Ruthie wanted to go skinny dipping." I just love Ruthie. "Milk," a piece about a man obsessed with a woman who turns into milk before his eyes, is one I’ve read at The Cell Theater in NY and on a radio show, but it’s never been published.
What piece of yours has had the most number of submissions before being accepted and published?
"Medicine and Meat" went through a dozen. And as far as the lit journal who rejected me the most, it was Pank with the winning number of--ding! ding! ding!--25 consecutive rejections. I wanted Roxane Gay to like me so bad, I tortured myself and wouldn’t give up. She might have just felt sorry for me, or maybe she wanted to get me out of her hair, but she did take one of my favorite pieces called, "You."
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I love movies. I read. I love my kids and my wife.
Are there any journals you want to be in but haven’t broken into yet?
Smokelong Quarterly and Wigleaf. And The Colagist.
Do you submit to print journals? Why or why not?
I’m in about 50 print journals, littler ones. At first I took the traditional route, sending to places like Granta and college literary magazines, but you have to get stamps, figure postage, send it off, it sits there for months…once I discovered the massive online writing world, the old way seemed so 8 Track.
And honestly, with the exception of the very big labels--The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly--a story online (in the lit journal, posted on your Facebook page, put on your blog) will have way more readers than some obscure journal.
Why did you decide to write?
I decided I wanted to write at age nine. It’s cathartic to me, a way to escape and exorcize some demons.
Do you see any recurring themes in your pieces? Subjects or ideas that you seem to return to?
Well, my writing is always very dark. I still haven’t figured out how to write a happy ending that doesn’t see concocted and a little too tidy.
I like quirky dark Indie films, so it’s a sensibility thing, I guess.
People are always wounded in my writing. It’s usually a young person. They’ve been victimized in some way, or else they’ve unintentionally damaged someone else somehow and they’re trying to figure out a way to self-redemption. My novel, House of Rats for instance, is about Will Bethel, 15 years old with everything in the world going for him. In short order, tragedy side-swipes him and eventually he ends up in a makeshift foster home with a group of other kids who are kept in a holding cell and given rat names. (It’s Slumdog Millionaire meets Lord of the Flies.)
Thanks, Len, for your time and insight!