Five Questions with Wyatt Bonikowski
NANO Fiction: You have three flashes featured in issue 8.2 of NANO Fiction, all of which follow a family and utilize a beautiful but limited perspective of a child narrator. Can you tell us a little about this collection and the family each of these stories follow?
Wyatt Bonikowski: These stories are about two children trying to figure out how to live in a world they don’t understand and can’t control. The family has just moved to a new house in a new town, the most recent in a series of moves, and the house itself is unstable, built on swampy land near a creek and subject to flooding. This sense of dislocation and instability is mirrored by a narrative that follows the logic of dreams, the Gothic, fairy tales, and other modes of the uncanny. The landscape of the blackwater creek is central to the stories; much of the action takes place in and around the creek or in response to the creek’s flooding of the house. The stories are all narrated by a young boy who looks up to his older sister for guidance and protection. For the most part, he’s the observer, and Sissy is the main driver of the action. Together, they explore the mysteries of the creek, the house, and the parents who brought them there.
NF: A lot of our readers are interested in what goes into creating a collection like this. How did you know that this family was larger than just one flash? And what was your process through putting all of these pieces together?
WB: I should say first that this collection is an ongoing project, which I’m still writing and putting together. A couple of years ago I wrote four flash pieces very quickly about a brother and sister, so the stories themselves came in a group rather than a single piece. The first two (published in Wigleaf) had an austere quality that made them stand apart. The second two were messier, and I spent the next year writing a few long stories in an attempt to explore some of this mess. It was only after trying unsuccessfully to write long that I decided to break everything up into flashes. Once I did that, new threads of story and other angles on the material began to suggest themselves. This pattern of writing a lot of raw material, and then excising, erasing, and recombining into smaller, formal chunks, continues to be my main process.
The most difficult thing about putting this collection together, other than the fact that I am a slow writer full of doubt and second-guessing, is negotiating two conflicting desires: to create a collection with a narrative arc that unites the pieces and to create individual pieces that might each stand alone or that at least feel unified in and of themselves. I do not want to create, say, a novel with flash-sized chapters. I like fragments that don’t fit neatly, digressions and side stories, and hope that somehow that not-fitting-ness can be part of what holds the whole together.
NF: What, for you, makes for a successful flash piece?
WB: I like flash fiction because it’s such a flexible form; you can do almost anything within whatever word limit you’re working with. A successful flash takes risks while also being carefully controlled. It should have an immediate effect while also rewarding multiple re-readings. The sentences should be arresting and should build tension and implication as the eye moves down the page. I like pieces that think as much about the spaces between the sentences as the sentences themselves. I want to be surprised by a turn of phrase or sudden shift in tone that throws light on the whole. Finally, there should be something big at stake that may not be directly stated but that motivates the piece and moves the reader.
NF: Who are the writers (flash fiction or otherwise) that you most admire, and what qualities drew you to their work?
WB: The writers I admire most are those who have delivered the biggest shocks to my ideas of what fiction can do. Early on, these were writers like Kafka, Borges, Cortázar, and García Márquez. I appreciated Surrealist art more than Surrealist writing until I read the short stories of Leonora Carrington, whose fables, such as “The Debutante” and “The Sand Camel,” have an anarchic power and a wild sense of humor. Reading the “Time Passes” section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, with its formal, lyrical beauty, led to a lifelong love of her work. And Donald Barthelme’s stories, with their gleeful surprises.
More recently, Lydia Davis and Diane Williams are the writers whose flash fictions I return to the most. With Williams, every sentence is an adventure; you’re not sure what’s coming next; I read her for the electric jolts. Davis’s sentences are so precise they can seem almost too perfect, her stories too formally structured, but there’s wryness, too, and melancholy. Barbara Comyns’s novels, with their naïve narrators and darkly funny strangeness, have become an obsession for me; I’ve hunted down all of her work. Kathryn Davis’s Duplex blew my mind, my favorite novel in the last couple of years.
NF: What are you working on now?
WB: Academic writing about 20th century women writers who draw on Gothic and fairy tale traditions (Shirley Jackson, Barbara Comyns, Leonora Carrington, Angela Carter, Helen Oyeyemi).
Fiction short and long about lunar seas, bird songs, and ships stuck in ice.