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Stick the Landing: An Interview with Kim Magowan, author of How Far I’ve Come

The always interesting Kim Magowan is back with another release, a collection of flash fiction published by Gold Wake Press Collection. Kim’s work has appeared previously in Cease, Cows. Check out her stories “The Rascally Rabbit” and “This is How It Ends.”  

How Far I’ve Come will be published on February 15, 2022. Purchase your copy here.  

Magowan recently shared her thoughts with Cease, Cows.  

Chuck Augello: Your new flash fiction collection, How Far I’ve Come, features over fifty stories, some of them as short as a single page. Does the collection have a specific theme? How did you approach putting the book together? 

Kim Magowan: It’s not a concept collection—that is, it wasn’t written with a binding theme in mind (though I love collections like that! For instance, Julie Orringer’s How to Breathe Underwater, in which the stories all concern navigating some alien terrain, or Michelle Ross’s Shapeshifting, all about motherhood). Certain themes and plot points keep surfacing, like divorce, parenting, drinking, broken friendships, messy love affairs, families coming apart and being pasted back together. I wrote most of these stories while my father was sick, so I see a kind of Pigpen dust cloud of death and mourning over the book. That said, I do think it’s a lighter book than my first collection, Undoing: it’s funnier and more hopeful.

CA: You’ve written longer stories as well as a novel. What attracts you to writing flash? 

KM: Almost all of these stories were written between 2017 and 2021, after I’d gotten obsessed with flash fiction. The form’s addictive; once you start, it’s hard to stop. Flash appeals to my perfectionism. When a story is so small, it has to be exquisitely crafted: no extra fat. It forces precision. It permits adventure and play. I will try things in a micro that would be tedious if they went on for too long (like a footnote story, or my “Madlib” story). Plus, there are logistical advantages to flash: it’s the only kind of writing I can reliably get done during the school year. I table long-form stories for summer break.

CA: What do you think are the key elements of successful flash fiction? 

KM: Start strong and stick the landing! Also, a flash needs to be a complete story. A lot of flash I read in our submissions queue at Pithead Chapel seems like the start of something, but not realized—a character sketch or a scene, instead of a story. Even if it’s only 100 words, it needs to read as fully cooked.

CA: In “Farrah Fawcett Poster”, you include footnotes. Tell us about it, and what inspired you to write about an iconic poster from the 1970s.  

KM: My sisters and I were obsessed with Charlie’s Angels—we all had a different favorite angel (mine was Sabrina, the “smart” one who wore turtlenecks). The inspiration for that story was a false memory that is reproduced in the story: I remembered the poster depicting Farrah Fawcett’s rear and thigh, Googled it, and was surprised that they aren’t shown. I was teaching Senior Thesis at Mills College, and I’d just been telling my students that my favorite part of writing scholarly articles were the discursive footnotes. That’s where I would throw all my “and another weird thing!” observations and asides. The only fiction I remembered seeing footnotes in is a wacky, wonderful chapter of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. I wanted to pair footnotes with something decidedly not academic, something pop cultural (hence, Farrah Fawcett).

CA: “This is How It Ends” is one of two stories previously published by Cease, Cows. I recall reading it in Submittable and immediately thinking “Yes.” What was the initial inspiration for the story?  

KM: My friends Yasmina din Madden, Michelle Ross, Elizabeth Brinsfield, Chrissy Kolaya, Brittany Terwilliger, and I will do these crazy flashathons several times a year where we take turns sending each other prompts every hour on the hour and bang out drafts for 4-6 hours. It’s totally exhausting. At least ten of the stories in How Far I’ve Come were first drafted during those flashathons, and this is one of them. It came from a prompt Yasmina sent out, where we were supposed to write a reverse chronology story called “And This Is How It Ended” with various subsections. I can’t remember what all the subsections were, but “bubble wrap” and “jam jar” were on Yasmina’s list. What I love most about our flashathons is the prompts. Because I’m writing to someone else’s prompt, I compose oddities that are outside of my usual wheelhouse, stories that take me by surprise.

CA: You have some great story titles. There’s entertainment value in reading the Table of Contents by itself. How do you approach titling a story?  

KM: That’s kind of you to say, Chuck! Honestly, I consider titles my weak point. My first reader, Michelle Ross, often helps me with titles (I’m a little afraid to ask which titles you like in the TOC, I bet they are Michelle’s suggestions). Occasionally I get lucky and literally dream a title (“Mrs. White in the Ballroom with the Lead Pipe,” in my Undoing book, woke me up in the middle of the night). Sometimes editors will suggest titles (“A Handbook for Identifying Bird Calls” and “Daisy Chain” were both retitled by editors because their original titles sucked). “Contronyms” was a response to a tweet from Christopher James of Jellyfish Review, which introduced me to my new favorite word (contronyms are words that mean both a thing and its opposite, like “sanction”).

CA: Several of the stories feature female characters thinking about their failed relationships, sometimes with anger, sometimes with regret, often with bemusement.  What are some of the challenges in writing such stories? 

KM: A writer friend described the typical Kim Magowan story as a character thinking about how she or he fucked up, and I had to laugh: too true! My subject is relationships—romantic, familial, platonic—and how people are revealed by how they treat each other. The challenge is making that kind of extremely familiar plot compelling, not a boring cliché. Sometimes I’ll see notes in my Submittable queue from an assistant editor saying, “oh, not another adultery story!” and I wince, because I write about infidelity all the time. Many of my characters reflect on the past to figure out how they got from there to here. That rehashing to reorient oneself is also compelling to me as a reader. Many novels I love, like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, are backward-glancing, gazing at the past to make sense of the confusing, obscure present.

CA: Do you have a favorite among the stories? If you could point readers to only one story, which would it be?  

KM: The stories I like best feel like private preferences. That is, they are not externally validated, in the sense of being accepted unusually quickly, or nominated by editors for awards, or chosen for Wigleaf’s Top 50. So take these with a grain of salt! But of the longer ones, I’m partial to “Home Economics,” a story I drafted quickly (in my notebook, at Starbucks), but which required a lot of rearranging. It felt like assembling a puzzle. Of the short ones, I like “Middle Ages”, a kind of silly story, but one I find touching. I’m so interested in step-parents, the contingency of that relationship.

CA: You publish widely in literary journals. Do you have a particular submission strategy for selecting the journals to which you submit? 

KM: I go after the usual suspects. I’m stubborn and I persevere. When I find a journal I like, I batter them and I don’t get discouraged easily. I’m sure they are sick of seeing my name at Smokelong! I like online journals, because more people can access the material. I’m very impatient, so I also tend to favor journals with speedy turnaround times.

CA: Your output is impressive. How do you manage to be so prolific? 

KM: Well, another plus of writing a lot of flash fiction is you can pile up publication credits! It might take me two months to write a 20-page story, but I can draft flash in a day, edit it within a week. I am very efficient and diligent about using my summer vacations to churn out writing, because I know I won’t get much done when the semester is on. And I’m old! I’m making up for lost time. I only started taking my writing seriously—sending it to journals—when I was 43. So I’m very much in that carpe diem, stressball mode: “At my back I always hear/ Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”

Kim Magowan author photo

Chuck Augello (Contributing Editor) is the author of The Revolving Heart, a Best Books of 2020 selection by Kirkus Reviews. His work has appeared in One Story, SmokeLong Quarterly, Literary Hub, The Coachella Review, and other fine journals. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut, a website exploring the life and art of Kurt Vonnegut. His novel, A Better Heart, was released in November 2021.