Erin McGraw’s newest book, Joy, is her seventh. Across fifty-three very short stories, McGraw deftly navigates the abbreviated form. Even those readers skeptical of flash fiction will find themselves enthralled by McGraw’s work on the page: elegant, complex development of characters whose short narratives carry real emotional heft. Some stories focus on real figures from history, such as “Cloth,” about Patsy Cline, and “Ava Gardner Goes Home,” the latter of which appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of the Sewanee Review. McGraw’s primary gifts, however, are depicting average people drawn into extraordinary circumstances and highlighting the extraordinary nature of otherwise average circumstances. We spoke to the author about her writing process, everyday inspiration, and the function of the very short story.
SR: The protagonists of the fifty-three stories in this collection occupy all walks of life: high school, the priesthood, a hand-modeling career. What was the process like for crafting their stories in such large quantity? Did you make a list beforehand?
EM: I was nowhere near organized enough to make a list. The book assembled itself over the past five or so years, and for a long time I didn’t believe I was writing a book. Just a whole lot of teeny stories.
Once you start writing in a certain genre, you tend to see material around you in terms of that genre. So if you’ve been writing novels, you tend to resonate with novelish ideas, and if you’ve been writing poems, poems pop up on every side. If you’ve been writing dozens of small stories, you see a world filled with small stories, and I kept writing them, one after another.
SR: Was there a story in this collection that was particularly challenging to write? One that revealed itself with ease?
EM: “Friendship,” the story told all in dialogue, just about killed me, and took three years to write. Even though I normally like to write dialogue, the dialogue in this story, unleavened by any description at all, kept throwing obstacles in front of me, and it took a long, long time to figure out what real issues were underlying the women’s banter. That story taught me just how skilled playwrights are.
“Pariah” was much easier. I got the idea for the story—about a man who is shunned by his community after his divorce—from a man I knew slightly. He ran the UPS store near where I lived, and since I ship a lot of packages, I was in the store two or three times a week. He started telling me way more than I wanted to know about his recent divorce and the way it had shattered some of his longstanding friendships, how people he’d trusted now avoided him. He felt betrayed and sucker-punched. At first I recoiled as he talked, and then I got interested, and then I leaned in.
SR: What formal aspects differentiate the form of the very short story, or flash-fiction, from the standard short story? Are there any?
EM: There are gatekeepers who will insist that flash fiction can only be 1,000 words, or 500 words, or 147.6 words. Despite the look of Joy, I don’t care about those aspects of genre very much. Most of these stories are dramatic monologues, in which characters step away from their lives for a few minutes to address the reader directly, explaining their life choices and pleading their cases. There usually isn’t a strong dramatic moment that occasions these monologues, though they contain dramatic material. My only rule to myself with these stories was that something needed to happen. No fair just throwing pretty language at the page. They had to do the usual heavy lifting of storytelling that is, by my lights, fiction’s job.