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The O:JA&L Masters Series

Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

Interview: Featured Writer Mark Budman

Explore more of Mark Budman’s work in the O:JA&L Masters Series chapbook. Click on the title Flash Fiction: Read Deeper. Have More Fun.

Mark Budman is a first-generation immigrant to the US. An engineer by training, he currently works as a medical interpreter. His fiction has appeared in Catapult, Witness, World Literature Today, Mississippi Review, The London Magazine (UK), McSweeney’s, Painted Bride Quarterly, and elsewhere. He is the author of the novel My Life at First Try, published by Counterpoint, and co-editor of immigration-themed anthologies published by Ooligan Press, Persea, and the University of Chester (UK).


Casto for O:JA&L:     Welcome, Mark. I thought I was excited to hear about your latest book but it turns out there’s more than one new book to be excited about. You’re so creative and busy that you’re difficult to keep up with. But always worth the effort.

As you know, your anthology (co-edited with Susan O’Neill and released in March of this year) is Short-Vigorous Roots: A Contemporary Flash Fiction Collection of Migrant Voices.  I look forward to exploring that one and from what I’ve read so far, it’s fascinating. I also look forward to reading your latest book, to be released in October this year, The Most Excellent Immigrant.

I particularly love what I read on the back of the book: “There is a secret that we immigrants never share with the natives: a good immigrant adapts to a new country, while a most excellent immigrant makes the new country better.” I think you’ve done your part in making your new country better with all your many accomplishments.

Tell us a bit about this new book. I’m particularly interested in how you made use of magical realism (a genre I find fascinating). Are most of the stories flash fiction length?

Budman:      Thank you for your kind words and willingness to interview me, Pamelyn. My newest short story collection, The Most Excellent Immigrant, is dealing with the subject I’m most interested in—immigration. All the stories are interlinked by that subject, but some of them are interlinked even tighter, by having common characters involved in a common quest, the pursuit of a magic elixir of youth. The certified interpreter of dreams and afflictions affectionally known as deda, or super-grandfather, an immigrant, is the protagonist, while Penelopa, a charismatic con woman, and her side-kick Piotr, also immigrants, are his nemesis. A few more human, not-so-human, and totally non-human creatures are ready to kill for the pillow. Every character in these twenty-two interlinked stories collection, human or not, is an immigrant from a place real or imaginary.

Not every story is flash fiction. Some are as long as 13 pages, which is a lot for me. Of course, the idea of a youth elixir is magic realism.

Casto for O:JA&L:      I’m eager to read it. As we know, you recently retired from Vestal Review, a terrific magazine you founded with Susan O’Neill. It’s said to be “The Longest-Running Flash Fiction Magazine on the Planet.” How did it feel to turn over the reins after serving as editor for so long? Who or what led you to flash fiction in the first place? What are some of your favorite stories that have been published in Vestal Review?

Budman:      I worked at Vestal Review for 20 years, since March 2000, the second longer employment in my life. The longest was my 21-year employment at IBM. My friend Sue O’Neill and I were the co-founders and co-editors. Of Vestal Review that is, not of IBM. When I more or less mastered my English, I wanted to publish flash fiction erroneously thinking that writing and editing something short is easier than something long. It was a huge mistake. It turned out that flash fiction was more difficult to write, edit and even read than longer fiction. But some mistakes are beneficial. I fell in love with the genre in the process. I had fun (and spent the money from my own pockets to support the magazine like a crazy editor). I hope the readers had fun and they enjoyed the magazine as well. However, only dictators and queens stay at the helm forever (or at least it feels that way.) Sue and I decided to retire. The helm is in David Galef’s and his new team’s capable hands now.

As for the favorite stories from VR, they all are my favorites. To be more precise, let me just mention “Just To Say” by Nathan Alling Long, the Best Microfiction selection (2020),  or “Sleeping” by Katharine Weber that was made into a movie.

Casto for O:JA&L:     Both are excellent pieces. You said in the introduction to You Have Time For This (2007) “Rich, literary fiction can never be completely understood, by writer, by editor, or by reader. Various possible interpretations are always possible. That’s why authors need intelligent readers to cooperate in the process of making sense of a text.” Do you think this is what separates literary writing from mainstream or commercial short-shorts? Do you think this is important in most outstanding flash fiction pieces? The need for intelligent readers to co-create the text? How can a reader become an active vs a passive reader?

Budman:      The authors usually work alone, but their readers are many (or so we hope). Even if not all the readers interpret the work differently, still the chances are there will be more interpretations than one. Just the sheer number of those vs. the single interpretation of the author will enhance the text. The critic (and most readers are critics) can see what even the author misses or construes the plot and the characters in an unexpected way. Everyone wins. That applies to any work of fiction and maybe even non-fiction.

As for the readers who do just speed-read, they mostly waste their time. Read deeper, pause, re-read, behold the life unfolding in the text, and you will gain more intellectual satisfaction, learn something new, use your time more productively, and simply have more fun.

Casto for O:JA&L:     Excellent advice to readers. What are some of the major mistakes made in stories Vestal Review had to reject over the years? What made those you published stand out?

Budman:      Most submissions we saw were reasonably accomplished and decent. The major mistake for the author as I saw it was to make their work boring (not intentionally, of course). The winning stories had a “wow” factor build-in for me. For flash fiction, it was often the ending. Read “Just to Say” and “Sleeping,” and you will notice that. The ability to compress the text and imbue it with meaning also deserved a “wow.” At least from this former editor.

Casto for O:JA&L:     You say the success of a flash fiction piece was often in its ending. Can you say a bit more about that? O. Henry-type endings are still being written but stories with this sort of ending are difficult to get published. They have been done so frequently that readers have grown tired of them. There’s much, much more to the ending of “Just to Say” than the typical and simple O. Henry-type twist ending. Can you name some other stories that have that “just right” sort of ending?

Budman:      Certainly. How about “The Huntress” by Sofia Samatar– a magic realism story published in sadly defunct Tin House magazine? The ending is truly hunting, a fine conclusion to a fine story. Or “Housewife” by Amy Hempel. Just 43 words. It’s funny and poignant. Do yourself a favor to read both.

Casto for O:JA&L:     I see you have published a Chinese/English edition of Best American Flash Fiction of the 21st Century. This you edited with Dai Wei Dong and Tom Hazuka.
What prompted you to publish a Chinese translation? Was it opportunity or desire that was primary in the choice? And while we’re at it, please name other works you’ve written that you’d like our readers to be aware of. You’ve been such a prolific author and your work is always interesting.

Well, that’s easy. The Chinese market is huge and bringing American flash fiction to them is doing much-needed service to both countries’ reading communities and to world peace.

As for my writing and books, I have several dedicated pages on my website,

The Most Excellent Immigrant 
My Life at First Try 
The Shape-Shifters Guide to Time Travel 
The Armor Thieves of Berengaria 

Short, Vigorous Roots 
Confessions of Immortal Migrants

I try to be prolific because life is short and I have too many unwritten books.

Casto for O:JA&L:     That’s wonderful that you’ve been so creative. I’m sure there are more fascinating books to come. Mark, interviewing you has been such a pleasure. I thank you so much for this opportunity.

Budman:      The pleasure is all mine, Pamelyn.


About the interviewer:
Pamelyn Casto
twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Casto’s new book Flash Fiction: Alive in the Flicker (A Portable Workshop) is available now. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

Explore more of Mark Budman’s work in the O:JA&L Masters Series Chapbook Flash Fiction: Read Deeper. Have More Fun. He also has other works in release with O:JA&L, including “The Greatest Tale of Woe on the Western Side of the Atlantic” and “The Fifty-Year-Old Virgin” in the original Russian version and in English translation.

Image: The Wedding by Marc Chagall (1887-1985) from the series Fantasies for the Stage. No medium specified. No size specified. 1944. By free license via Sharon Mollerus.

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