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The O:JA&L Masters Series
Flash Fiction

Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

INTERVIEW: Featured Writer & Artist ROBERTA ALLEN

A Tennessee Williams Fellow in Fiction and a Yaddo Fellow, Roberta Allen is an American micro and short story writer, novelist, and memoirist with nine published books, including her latest, The Princess of Herself, a story collection. She taught creative writing at The New School for many years and has taught at Columbia University. Since 1991, she has taught private writing workshops. She is also well-regarded internationally as a conceptual artist.

To explore more of Allen’s work, click on the link First It Happens, Then I Make It Up to access her free PDF chapbook from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press.
Writer and artist Roberta Allen

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: Your book, Fast Fiction: Creating Fiction in Five Minutes (1997), was one of the first to offer help in writing the new wave of short-short fiction. I was interested in the shorties when I first explored them but your book got me deeply interested. In a sense, it sealed the deal for me. The exercises and the wonderful example stories were a major help. I’m glad to report that your book is still available and still helpful to aspiring writers. (See it here.)

I understand that you took a break from writing and chose to focus more on your art. And your art is certainly important. After all, not everyone gets their work in The Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in various other museums worldwide. What does it feel like to be recognized and appreciated so highly in the art world?

ROBERTA ALLEN: You mention Fast Fiction: Creating Fiction in Five Minutes. A couple of days ago I was very surprised to receive a royalty check from sales of the German edition. Nice to know people are still using it.

But I digress.

Mostly my conceptual art from the 1970s-early 1980s is the work that earned me a reputation here and in Europe, and elsewhere. That’s the work that is valued most highly. But when I began writing very short stories—my first in 1979—I gradually shifted my attention to writing and took a very long hiatus from the art world though I still made art intermittently. I only became active again in the art world about ten years ago when there was suddenly interest in my old work which inspired me to make more art. But even during this last decade or so, I wrote quite a few short stories, and my small series of very short amulet stories.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: You are both a writer and a conceptual artist. Are the two areas sometimes interdependent or do you more often like to keep them separate?

ROBERTA ALLEN: My conceptual art and my writing both originate in language. In both, I question how we perceive ourselves and our world. Humor is often present. My art combines image and text. In recent years my very brief texts have become more “poetic” than texts in the works of other conceptual artists. Since the early 1970s, I’ve explored how language informs our perception of images. I’ve defined subjective views as facts. I like creating paradoxes. Text in my art, however, serves a different function. It’s not about creating a narrative but pointing in a particular direction.

Also, I was an artist from the moment I could hold a pencil (as my mother once put it) but I didn’t start writing stories until I was fed up with the art world in my mid-thirties. But writing is what I am concentrating on right now since finishing a very large series of drawings called Mind Matters: An Unscientific Exploration.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: You’ve written two writing workbooks, The Playful Way to Serious Writing (see here) and The Playful Way to Knowing Yourself (see here). As you likely realize there’s the old stereotype of the tortured artist, but you take a different route and offer play as an important part of creativity. What makes play so important?

ROBERTA ALLEN: Play is a state of being that is different for everyone. It’s a primal emotion as basic as food and sleep, hard-wired in our brains. Play is natural in children until it is suppressed in school. Adults need play just as much. The neurons of our play circuits need to be activated. Fear stops many writers. We need to feel as free as children when we write. My 5-minute prompts are a form of play. When we bring energy to the surface and focus attention for 5 minutes, there’s only time to be spontaneous. We need to feel free to try things out, free to write badly (whatever you may think that is), and not make ourselves wrong when things don’t work. It’s really “not serious.” Tomorrow is another day. It’s all part of the process. We need to be able to let go of ideas that don’t work and allow ourselves to fail. Play is giving ourselves the freedom to create from a place in ourselves that we may not even know existed.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: I read in Bomb Magazine that you love the challenge of revising and that your files contain many drafts. I enjoy a little of it but it’s such hard work. I always feel as if my work has improved after revisions, but the work is so hard that I dread doing it. After a while, I sometimes feel as if I’ve lost that spark that got the piece going in the first place. What do you think makes revision so attractive? What can the rest of us do to learn to enjoy and appreciate it more?

ROBERTA ALLEN: Writing is an exploration, but revision is a process of discovery. That’s what I find exciting. Revision is the deep part of our exploration in which we may discover that our story is not what we thought it was at the beginning. Our exploration starts with a need, a desire. That’s where the energy comes from even if we’re not aware of it at first. Only through revision—by going beneath the surface of the story, sometimes digging deep into ourselves, do we discover what is hidden behind the words. So revision is not just about finding the right words but about surprising ourselves. Revision gives us a different perspective, a new perspective we may not have imagined when we began.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: In gathering information about you for this interview, I see that you’ve traveled extensively. How important has travel been to your writing?

ROBERTA ALLEN: Travel has been my inspiration. I’ve traveled so much in my life, especially when I began writing short shorts—especially in third world countries where I traveled mostly by myself. Not so many women were traveling alone in the 1980s.

I traveled alone to Central American countries, Mexico, Indonesia, Peru and more. In other places such as Turkey, Mali, Egypt and Morocco I traveled with a partner or in a group. Besides traveling all through Europe when I was very young, I also lived in Athens, Berlin, Amsterdam, Mexico and Australia on a six-month fellowship.

In my earlier collections of short shorts, The Traveling Woman (see here), The Daughter (see here), Certain People  (see here), most are set in places where I traveled, and many are auto-fictions (which I define as first it happens, then I make it up). I have never written travel stories per se except when The New York Times magazine commissioned me to write a feature about Mali. One trip became an entire book: Amazon Dream (see here), a memoir about my trip alone in the Peruvian Amazon that was published by City Lights.

After my last trip out of the country, I felt I had seen enough. I no longer needed to travel far. I have always been attracted to what is strange, bizarre—at least to me. I’ve written a lot about alienation and missed connections.

My latest very short and short story collection, The Princess of Herself (see here) (Pelekinesis)–my most humorous collection—set in Upstate New York felt like writing about a foreign place.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: I find your amulets pieces quite interesting. I’ve read about six of them and look forward to reading more. Can you tell me more about those? How did you come by the idea? Are they always purely fiction? Or are some based on actual cultures?

ROBERTA ALLEN: My very short amulet stories began almost like a game. I don’t remember exactly how this came about. But on Wikipedia I found a list of all the islands in the world. I rearranged the letters in each island name I chose, creating an island of my imagination. I think the amulets arose from the influence of my father when I was a child. He was a gambler. Luck was important in his world. I made up the amulets for my stories.

But my amulet stories weren’t knowingly born out of my travels. Instead of traveling myself, I’ve been traveling on YouTube to amazing little-known places and people all over the world. I might use a custom from one place and flora from another. I watched history, archaeology, nature, and anthropology videos. I found all these videos interesting on their own besides inspiring my own narratives with hopefully some relevance to our world.

This is a small series of very short stories. I am still revising a few but there are only about twenty. I doubt I’ll write more of them. But this series brought me back to writing very short stories.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: I notice you avoid referring to your amulets as flash fiction. What’s your view about the flash fiction label?

ROBERTA ALLEN: I’ve always disliked the label flash fiction because it makes the genre sound so inconsequential, and I think it is anything but. Flash sounds as though you can write and understand them in seconds. (My book Fast Fiction and my writing workbooks use 5-minute prompts, but these are for 1st drafts.) I’ve read quite a few shorts that take time to read and may require several readings. And why only fiction? If I were writing that book now, I would include all shorts. Many writers have used my books for nonfiction as well.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: You’ve published so much in the past. Do you have more work on the horizon? Do you have work still to publish or still to write? In what form does it or will it take?

ROBERTA ALLEN: What I’m doing now is writing stories around 2,000 words or more connecting very short pieces. Recently, I found many unfinished shorts that I didn’t know I had. I’m also working slowly on a book of selected stories from the 80s till now which I’m tentatively calling Strange Things. Many were published in journals or anthologies but never made their way into any of my books—and some are old favorites. But I keep delaying this book because I keep writing new shorts and short stories and want to include at least some of them.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: Your creativity never ends. And I’m grateful it doesn’t. I’ve enjoyed doing the interview and look forward to seeing so much more of your work.


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. 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. Pamelyn Casto’s new book Flash Fiction: Alive in The Flicker (A Portable Workshop), a new release from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press, is available now on Amazon.

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