Back in August I decided to start this Friday Flash of the Month award, but I neglected to realize I was going to be gone for a couple of weeks in the middle of the second 'award cycle.' But I started it and had to deal with missing September. So I decided to combine both September and October into one super month, and hopefully I will be able to move forward with a monthly award from now on.
So this award spans two months worth of worthy flash fiction and made my decision pretty difficult, but I was able to pick out what I felt to be the best piece of that span.
Now for the drumroll...And The winner of the 2nd Friday Flash of the Month Award goes to John Wiswell for one particular story in "Possible Origins for Him" series: Number 18.
There were a number of things that really stood out to me about this piece, even though I am nearly illiterate when it comes to comic book characters. There were a number of really great moments when I could really feel the character's pain with some details, and some of them were so good they felt like they could have been placed in there by the ghost of John Updike.
I highly suggest you go over to the story and read it through really carefully because it is quite beautiful and has the most sympathetic voice I have ever heard out of a villian.
John graciously agreed to continue the tradition of me interviewing the author of the piece, and so without further rambling by me, John Wiswell!!!
You’re at your computer, doing your taxes, or writing the great American novel, or having a midnight fight with your Iranian lover over instant messages. Eventually you have to go to the bathroom. As soon as you get up, start thinking about anything other than what you were just doing. No Iranian lovers. Now on your way to the bathroom, try to spin a small narrative out of whatever comes to mind, and complete it by the time you get back. Most often these will emerge in the form of monologues, because it’s easy to rant about the weather or the chauvinist nature of bear/bull iconography on Wall Street. Hence, bathroom monologues.
You seem to have piled up a number of awards and publications for your flash fiction. How long had you been writing shorter pieces before you began to get critical acclaim for your work?
I invented and began regular practice of bathroom monologues in college. I took such an intense course load that I was only reading and writing to order. Eventually I feared I’d lose my creative drive entirely thanks to all these assignments, so when I got up from the keyboard, I’d spin such ideas. It kept my mind limber, and still does. That would have been 2002 or 2003. It wasn’t until 2006 or 2007 that I began submitting anywhere, and 2009 before I got a decent acceptance rate. I’m still waiting for critical acclaim, though.
Where did the idea of the Origins for Him series come from?
It began very strongly in the idea for the original. There’s a disturbing trend in the arts to marginalize happiness, to see it as generally stupid, naïve, and essentially less valid than sadness, seriousness and melancholy. This attitude disgusts me. The notion of The Joker always appealed to me in many ways, including that he represents happiness as well as the forbidden; his heroic nemesis represents severity and good. One night I was driving home and meditating on how clowns are almost exclusively depicted as scary, sad or dangerous, and latched onto the idea of defending them. That morphed into a violent Joker assailing unhappiness. Before I got into the driveway it mushroomed into not just one Joker story about that, but three others embellishing more of his elements. This one is a love story, while this one is about law, while this one is about inevitability; a sort of Calvino’s Invisible Cities for a supervillain. DC’s The Joker has had many origins, sometimes rebooted, sometimes simply overlapping. There’s even one Possible Origin about continuity rebooting. Given how much I loved the guy and enjoyed playing him, I tried to let him come out in as many ways as possible. Especially after Christopher Nolan released his Dark Knight, in which Ledger’s Joker brazenly mocked having an origin, and the convention of origin stories in film adaptations, it felt really ripe to play with as a series.
For people like me, who know very little about comic book heroes/villains, who are some of the characters you have done in this series, and in particular who was the character in "Possible Origins for Him 18"?
It may surprise you to learn they’re all about The Joker. He’s the “Him” in the series title.
Are you an avid reader of comics? If so, which ones would be your favorite?
I’ve been a fan of comics for most of my life. Being a short kid, Wolverine was my hero. In recent years I’ve read more trades than individual issues, and sometimes starkly miss being subscribed to a story. Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead was entirely worth getting monthly. So was Ed Brubaker’s Daredevil and J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor, until they left those titles. The last comic I deeply loved was Jeff Smith’s Bone, an all-ages quest that blended so many classic American cartooning styles in mere black and white. It had such heart. Almost as far away from Possible Origins for Him as it gets. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is also just wonderful, a great use of sequential art for autobiography. Oh – and Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal. I actually read a few more volumes of that saga every year, and every year it’s some of the best material I experience from any form.
Were there any particularly difficult challengers in writing this piece?
Nothing outrageous. I was a little concerned over whether the references to his basement could fit in, and if they’d click with readers. Otherwise, at this point in the series, I have a decent idea of how to put together most of the elements for each chapter. This was the eighteenth; there are six more to come. It’ll end at twenty-four chapters, the same number as the pages in comics when I grew up.
I probably didn't get any of the references aside from the face paint and squirting flower, but it was actually some of those details that I really liked out this piece and gave a sense of completeness to the story. Now, for those of us who are DC ignorant, like me, what were some of those references? I'm particularly curious about the box of pens.
The box of pens is actually just flavor, not a reference. Now I wish it were. The purple garbage can that follows is one, for its color. Purple and green materials are natural themes of the whole series. Beyond the face-paint and squirting flower, there is also a bulletproof tuxedo he’s been working on, and his obsessive returns to jokes failing. While it’s not a reference, The Joker having a connection to materials that were almost SciFi felt appropriate, too, based on some of the insane plots he’s produced. For world-references, three of his early costume description fit major villains in Gotham. “A bikini made from leaves” is Poison Ivy. “Green long-johns punctuated with question marks” is for The Riddler. “Straw bursting out of seams and sleeves to form a scarecrow” is, naturally, the Scarecrow. And I’m sure you guessed the bulletproof material that winds up being a cape is part of Batman’s origin.
Are there any ‘easter eggs’ or inside jokes in that piece that most people would not have caught?
Easter eggs emerge naturally every couple of entries or so. This one has about the most obvious: the closing words, “Long Halloween,” are the title of a great Batman story by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. Loved using it as the send-off.
What do you find most challenging about writing flash fiction?
Writing for a specific audience is the worst. If I obsess over how one particular person will react, be it a girlfriend or editor or person begging me to use a prompt, it never turns out comfortably. I’m much better leaving it up to my internal, and quite arbitrary, artistic barometer. Seeking to do the piece justice internally, rather than having it serve something extrinsically, always works out better. Statistically, more editors have agreed with that than girlfriends.
What do you find most enjoyable about writing flash fiction?
The niches of haiku, microfiction and flash fiction allow for any idea on the short-end of the spectrum to be put to use. Nothing’s too long in the canons; Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, Stephen King and company have ensured that you can allot as many words to a novel-sized idea as you want. But the proliferation of short forms means things that only have the meaning-bang or entertainment-bang for a page or less can have merits and audiences. It prevents me from discarding ideas. I cherish that allowance.
What would your ultimate goal as a writer be?
To finish whatever it is I’m working on right before I die, or to not mind that I can’t finish it. By then I hope I’ll be earning a comfortable living making people happier and better with my words. Lots of novels to go. But really, it’s whatever I’m doing right before I die.
Do you have any words of wisdom for our readers?
Thank you for every paragraph you've read, every comment you've left, every e-mail you've sent. The little-expressed wisdom is authors survive more on receptions than they can express.