Someone Else, Somewhere Else - Interview with Flash Fiction writer and Smokelong Quarterly editor, C
Smokelong Quarterly is a highly respected online journal dedicated to “bringing the best flash fiction to the web on a quarterly basis, whether written by widely published authors or those new to the craft”. The editors, and the submission process, are inclusive and friendly but competition is fierce for a spot at Smokelong, so make sure your piece (1000 words or fewer) is the best that it can be before submitting. If you are rejected, you will most likely be so with a very friendly and positive email from my guest, Christopher Allen, who is Managing Editor.
I met Christopher just under a year ago at the inaugural Flash Fiction Festival that took place in Bath. He is a charming, thoughtful American; well-travelled, cosmopolitan, with a European edge and humour. He can tell a raucous joke and drink a respectable amount of wine without falling over! He can also make you laugh and cry in equal measure with one of his flash fictions. I am very excited to be able to introduce him on my website today.
Thanks for agreeing to talk to “My Way by Moonlight.” I am very thrilled to be able to feature you on my site. Just a bit of background bio for my readers: You are an American writer currently living in Germany. Can you tell us what took you over there?
Thank you, Debbi, for having me! As you can imagine, I’ve had to answer the what-took-you-there question a lot in the last 23 years. I have a prepared answer for this. I always say THE LOVE OF MY LIFE, wait for the inevitable AHs and then say BUT IT LASTED ONLY SIX MONTHS. I’ve got the timing down, so I get laughs. Of course the people know I’m fine, know life went on. What I don’t tell them is that I am now married to the love of my life. Now you can AHHHHHH.
The real answer to the what-took-you-there question was my need to be someone else somewhere else. I was tired of being me. I think I might have been kind of horrible.
Do you find your options and opportunities as a writer have changed since relocating? Are they more or fewer?
I moved to Germany well before I began publishing stories in earnest. Being in Germany limits my opportunities to spend time with other English-speaking writers in my community. I’ve tried a couple of times to reach out to people here, but I haven’t found anyone I need to include in my writing life. That happens online. In 2007 (I think), I joined the online writing workshop Urbis, and I’m still acquainted with many of these writers today. Urbis was a manic time of learning. Criticism was no-nonsense, brutal, sometimes scathing. We never knew what to expect when we opened a review. I woke up at four every morning to read them. Honest, razor-sharp critiques from often-anonymous strangers: the absolute best. I’m always sceptical of the rah-rah, you’re so great workshops. I don’t need or want that. At Urbis I was always respectful of course—but honest. And that’s how I will always be in a workshop situation.
I mention Urbis not only because I’m a nostalgic sap but also because these days it’s rare to find a writing community in the physical world that corresponds to your needs as a writer. I’m not going to sit at a reading and listen to a guy read his 30-page overwrought “story” that goes nowhere very very slowly just because we happen to live in the same city. I’ll move. My options and opportunities are almost always online. And they are endless.
Tell us about a typical day in the life of Christopher Allen.
I have no typical day. In my day job, a corporate trainer, I go to various and numerous clients. No day is the same. I will tell you a secret though: I sometimes have a break in the middle of the day, so I take a nap. That’s my superpower: napping.
Wait wait wait. I have a routine in the mornings. I hit the snooze alarm six and twelve times (Urbis is no longer around). When I finally get up, I turn on my computer, make coffee, and start going through SmokeLong submissions. If it’s Monday morning I don’t write rejections, but all other days are fair game. Sadly, with 5000 submissions a year, we aren’t able to write personal rejections for everyone. Please know, though, that it’s never fun to write a rejection. So that’s how my morning starts.
You have been extremely successful with your flash fictions and have been long listed, shortlisted, placed, and nominated for and won awards all over the place! What advice would you give to anyone who is thinking of starting to submit their work, or to someone who is becoming disheartened by non-acceptances?
Spend more time on your writing. Spend more time reading the journals you want to submit to. Spend more time researching your story. Never ever ever submit drunk. Don’t overthink stuff. If there’s a typo in your title, it’s not going to keep a journal from publishing the story if the story is great. If there are typos in your story, I’ll fix them if the story is great. Don’t worry so much. That having been said, please proofread your work or have someone else do it.
Simultaneously submit to all the journals you think are a good fit for your story, maybe staggering this so that your preferred journal might respond before the others. Duotrope has a good list of journals who respond quickly and those whose response time is longer than a year. (I think a flash journal who can’t respond within 365 days has lost relevance and credibility.)
When I get a rejection, I delete it immediately. Thank God for Submittable. I wouldn’t have a clue where I’d submitted a particular story. A story that is rejected by one journal may win a contest at another journal. Don’t lose hope; just keep going, keep learning, keep writing great sentences. Focus on what you need to say to your readers.
This year you are hosting workshops at the second Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol. How excited are you about that and how important do you think these kinds of events are?
These events are very important to me. Getting together with writers I love is just about the best thing ever. At the 2018 UK Flash Fiction Festival I’m doing a workshop on writing gut-wrenching stories and the pitfalls of writing them. I hope to have a group of writers in this workshop who really have something to say with their work and maybe a few who aren’t quite sure what they have to say. We’ll be reading a few writers who’ve made a niche for themselves by being someone with a message.
Bristol will be a blast. We have to find a karaoke club. (Editor's Note: YES!!!)
Congratulations on your recently published collection “Other Household Toxins” It’s a very impressive collection of your flashes that have been previously published in various places online and in print. Was it easy or difficult to decide which pieces to put in there, and how do you decide which to leave out?
Thank you, Debbi. The process of choosing the 48 stories was long but not hard. The book was originally a course book with prompts and exercises. It was divided into sections like Memory (stories triggered by a memory), Observation (um, stories triggered by an observation, meaning a time when you’re actively thinking of writing down what you see), and Prompts (stories triggered by…you get the picture), etc. I am a teacher. I love teaching. But I think a course book with only my writing should be my fifth book, not my second.
Other Household Toxins is still an eclectic grouping of stories that I hope shows what’s possible with flash. I hope it gives writers ideas, even if it doesn’t included prompts. I hope when they read “This Baring Daylight” that they see me walking behind this toxic “family” at a lake and imagining their story (observation). I hope when they read “Santa Caterina” that they feel the power of memory, of those young men roaring to a saint. God, that chokes me up every time I think about it.
Do you have a favourite piece that you have written?
Unpopular answer: no.
Which writers inspire you?
People inspire me for vastly different reasons. Some writers inspire me by how hard and consistently they work. Never giving up is 90% of the battle. Some writers inspire me with their brilliant sentences: the I-wish-I’d-written-that feeling. Some writers’ engagement in the community inspires me. These are our literary citizen superheroes.
Is there one piece of literature in history that you wish you had written and why?
Yes of course. I wish I’d written The Waves by Virginia Woolf. It’s that I-wish-I’d-written-that feeling times a gazillion. Her sense of rhythm. I connect to it.
What would you say has been your proudest achievement to date?
When I was 16 the choir director at my high school had a problem with the Tennessee All-State Choir because they had rejected his daughter (whose vibrato was as wide as Carlsbad Caverns), so I was forced to practice with another high school’s choir for the All-State audition. I was accepted.
At All-State rehearsal, there was a further audition for the tenor solo, so I tried out. And I got it. It was a melancholic line that fit my voice just right. When I returned to my high school choir director with the news, I was met with the expected disdain and sour grapes. Ah, high school. What a learning experience.
I went on to sing professionally, but I was never so proud again.
What is the next “to do” or event in your diary?
I think it’s another interview. But if it doesn’t come tonight, tomorrow I’m off to the Baltic Sea to meet my husband and his family. Of course I’ll be reading a few more Smokey entries this evening before bed. SmokeLong Quarterly is right in the middle of our 15th-anniversary competition submission period. We’re looking for 15 great stories for our 60th issue. One grand prize winner will receive $1500, and at least 14 finalists will also receive a monetary reward and publication.
My sincere thanks to Christopher for his time, and for his wonderfully frank and enlightening answers and advice. Hopefully I can get him to join My Way by Moonlight again in the future.
Other Household Toxins is available at:
Look our for my review of it in the next few weeks.
Christopher can be found talking about travelling and writing at
If you wish to submit your brilliant pieces to Smokelong Quarterly, please click here for guidElines.