Featuring sixty-seven stories that span over a decade, Spinning to Mars dangles between the promise of a ride and the promise of home. The eighth collection from Meg Pokrass is a perfect microcosm of her work: personal, perceptive, and unguardedly intimate. Each micro—compressed to three hundred words or less—leaves the reader feeling simultaneously deserted and watched, waiting to be caught at their tricks. Are you safe, sharing laughs with a lover in the kitchen? Are you safe, crying during all the parts of a movie no one else remembers? In the company of others? In a marriage? Are you safe alone?
In this world of amplified humanity, there’s trouble in safety. Or, perhaps, safety in trouble.
I spoke with Meg online about her latest collection, writing and curating microfiction, collaborating with other writers, and the difference between butterscotch people and sticky toffee people.
Hi Meg! Thanks so much for chatting with me! Where are you writing from, and how are you holding up?
I’m writing from the country in Northern England. I’m holding up well thanks.
How have you been spending time in isolation?
Weirdly, this pandemic has made me feel less isolated. I have been zooming all over the world and collaborating with other writers. I live in a tiny, rural area, so I’m one of the people who has become more socially active and involved as the technology has allowed this.
Could you tell us a little about your collaborations with other writers? What does that process look like for you?
With each collaborator it has been a completely different process. This is completely new for me, and it’s been the most amazing process. I was inspired by the collaborations of Aimee Parkison and Carol Guess as well as Christopher Citro and Dustin Nightingale. I had the idea to try this in the beginning of the pandemic and I am thrilled with how it has blossomed.
Collaborative writing harkens back to improvisational theater for me, the spontaneity and the surprise of it. It kept me sane this last year, as well as productive and surprisingly playful.
Happily, two of my collaborative projects have been accepted for publication. “Disappearing Debutantes”, written at the beginning of the pandemic with Aimee Parkison, is forthcoming from Outpost 19 in 2023! And a book of fabulist pieces co-written with Jeff Friedman (still untitled) is forthcoming from Pelekinesis in 2022. I am currently collaborating on a book of hybrid works with Rosie Garland.
When did you start writing microfiction?
I began writing it actively in 2008/2009.
What drew you to the form back then? What keeps you coming back to it?
Microfiction is perfect it is for ‘slanted storytelling’, which is the only kind I seem to be able to do. The form rewards innovation, experimentation and surrealism because it doesn’t have to be sustained.
Here is the quality that I keep coming back to: because of its intensity and compression, microfiction creates a feeling of intimate collaboration between reader and writer, a place that is both private and shared. To me, that place is magic. I’ll add that the art of miniature has always fascinated me. As a child, I was obsessed with bonsaied trees and snow globes.
I read elsewhere that you were once training as an actor, and have since applied the all-important “your job is to find the sex or death in every scene” lesson into your fiction. Your writing consistently strikes me as cinematic (there’s so much framing involved) and I wonder, are there other thespian teachings that have carried over into your writing?
Sanford Meisner said: “Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances”. This sums it up for me in both acting and writing. I remember when I was studying acting and that “find the sex or the death in the scene” advice confused me. Now, I think I understand it, although it’s more like “find the messy love or the death in every scene.”
My stories in “Spinning to Mars” are close to home. I didn’t have a reliable father and I have had many difficult chapters in my life of reliving that loss in relationships. So I used myself thoroughly in these pieces. As with both art forms, the work can be painful but also relieving.
How much time do you spend away from an intimate piece before deciding whether it’s “done”?
This is different every time. Some pieces need 5 years distance. It’s almost as if I need to come back to them as another person, having outgrown the phase of my life I was in when I wrote them, to understand (and see) their worth and their meaning. Which allows me to make final edits as the editor/reader instead of the writer. With intimate pieces, time away is necessary.
Spinning to Mars is your eighth flash fiction collection—congratulations! Could you tell us about your journey to publication with Blue Light Press?
Thank you! When the manuscript came together I thought about sending it to Blue Light Press’ yearly manuscript contest. I felt that “Spinning to Mars” might be a good fit for the press. I was over-the-moon thrilled when it won the contest. Diane Frank, Blue Light Press Founder, is a terrific writer and publisher as well as an advocate of the form.
How does the process of selecting, arranging, and curating microfiction differ each time?
I try to follow the dreamlike logic of the stories I write and the ones that seem to be in conversation with each other. It is mostly an intuitive process. There is always some kind of quiet narrative arc which I uncover when placing the pieces next to each other.
Let’s talk about the title Spinning to Mars. The opener sets us up with the line “Some dangle the promise of a ride to Mars. Others dangle the promise of home.” We revisit this idea in “Intact”, on a video call, where the caller’s virtual background looks “dusty and red, as if he was calling from Mars.” Each micro whirls around this idea, between home and the promise of a ride. What drew you to the phrase and concept originally?
Home, defined loosely, is a “place” or person that makes one feel loved, safe and accepted. This is a very basic human need. Because fiction is always about trouble, it would be no fun if I provided a character with these things. Trying to find them is what every story in the collection is about.
While this collection features sixty-seven standalone micros, there are elements and characters that reoccur—I’m thinking of the marriage, intimacy issues, the father, the cats—but of course at the heart of the collection is the unnamed ‘she’. Did you set off writing Spinning to Mars with the ‘her’ story at the center of it?
No, I didn’t. I realized that they were all written about same character only much later. These stories span the years. Some were written in 2009, and some were written in 2020. At the heart, even though I wasn’t conscious of it, I was always writing (in some way) about myself.
I couldn’t help but notice that none of these stories are in first person—was this a conscious decision, or one born out of happenstance?
It wasn’t a conscious decision. But thank you for noticing. I think if they were told in the first person it would feel discordantly confessional. They benefit from, and are told best, with a bit of distance.
In “Custodial”, the narrator is taught how to take care of a plant with a red flower: “Talk to it…But never analyze it.” Do you think this applies to the way you write microfiction?
Yes, I think that fits. Therapy can be good for a writer, but being an analyst is not so good for a writer (or at least one may be best removing that hat when one sits down to write). When we are trained to look at moments analytically, the magic is easily squeezed out of them.
Each world within a story is so finely compressed. I’m curious: how much time do you spend working on, or editing, each micro?
Some come out whole. Others I will whittle away at indefinitely. It’s a great feeling when I get to the place where I can finally let go of a story. With me, this can take years.
The only named location in the collection is in “Times Square,” where Central Park and Riverside Park are referred to by name. When do you choose to specify setting? When is it more beneficial to keep place abstract (e.g. “a tourist park in October”)?
I will specify a setting such as Times Square if it helps the mood of a story to include it. When it doesn’t, I tend to keep things fairly vague. Specificity in terms of location can make a reader feel left out. Most importantly, I chose to set the stories in an emotional landscape rather than a literal place.
In “Newness”, you talk about “butterscotch people,” which I love. What do butterscotch people signify to you?
People who have a kind of Teflon ease about their lives: a well-suited partner, an eclectic yet sophisticated town, enough money, a quiet sense of style, stable families, a well-behaved dog, slim cat. I’m not sure if butterscotch people exist, but Facebook tries to convince us they do. The characters in my stories are the opposite of butterscotch people. They’re more like sticky toffee people.
You’re a Founding Co-Editor of the Best Microfiction anthology series, the latest installment of which is forthcoming from Pelekinesis this summer. Could you tell us a little bit about the genesis of Best Microfiction?
I conceived of the idea for the series in 2018 and then (very luckily) found an enthusiastic and wonderful publisher, Pelekinesis. Gary Fincke came aboard as co-editor and the series evolved. We’re approaching our 4thyear now! I love microfiction and I wanted to find a way to showcase the many small presses that publish it. It’s really been a dream project.
Do you notice new trends, developments of form, when curating Best Microfiction each year?
Microfiction, which used to be niche, is now being published widely. There are countless lit magazines eager to publish microfiction. I would never have imagined it 12 years ago when I began. When I began there were around 20 known literary journals who might even consider it.
Along with this explosion of the form have come new gurus of craft-of-flash, telling folks how to do it. All of this is heady. It is easy for writers to be learning the same ways to tell stories, and the problem here is that the writing can easily come across as formulaic, or familiar, which will always work against a story. With the social media embrace of the form, it sometimes feels like we are all in one huge extended MFA program!
The wonderful thing about writing this form is that it rewards innovation and doing it your own way. My advice is read stuff you love and write because you feel a need to do it. Write it because it is a powerful form of self-expression. Working on this series, Gary Fincke and I read hundreds and hundreds of stories every year, and the micros we love are the ones that show us the world in a startlingly personal way.
What do you think the 2021 anthology tells us about the direction of this craft?
I’m not sure that any of our anthologies have told us specifically about the direction of the microfiction craft. I have noticed that the 2021 anthology, judged by Amber Sparks, showcases a range of risk-taking and diverse perspectives. Each anthology will have a different quality, and that’s because each year we choose a fantastic new judge who makes those difficult, final selections.
How do you balance your time between writing, editing, and curating?
A few years ago, I moved to the country where life is simple. I make my living teaching flash fiction. Nothing else is taking up my time. I realize that I’m very lucky.
Who are some of your favorite writers of flash and microfiction?
This is so hard because there are so many brilliant writers of this form! Here are just some innovative microfiction writers off the top of my head: Elisabeth Ingram Wallace, Frankie McMillan, Exodus Oktavia Brownlow, Francine Witte, K Ming Chang, jj peña, Jeff Friedman, Rosie Garland, Benjamin Niespodziany, K.B. Carle, Kathryn Kulpa, Frances Gapper, Nicole Rivas. These writers are prolific rulebreakers, artists, literary troublemakers. I have mentioned them because they really should be read and studied and taught. They remind us to shoot from the heart every time.
Lastly, are there any independent bookstores you’d like to recommend to our readers? Here in my neck of the woods, Northumberland, there are the wonderful Cogito Books in Hexham, Bookcase in Carlisle and Forum Books in Corbridge.
Spinning to Mars is forthcoming from Blue Light Press this June. Pre-order here.