Anna is a fantasy and slipstream writer living in North Carolina. Her work has appeared in various print and online magazines in a variety of genres. She publishes Flash Fiction Online and spends a great deal of time wading through the never-ending pile of slush that accumulates there.
Iulian: It’s hard to condense one’s life in just a few paragraphs, but I am sure you can do it better than most people. Tell us a little bit about you: How and where did you grow up, what influenced you in your decision to become a writer and a publisher?
Anna: I grew up in Reidsville, North Carolina, the heart of tobacco country, deer hunting, and homemade banana pudding (and if you used Jello pudding instead of real egg custard, you would never be invited back for Sunday dinner). I was incredibly shy as a child. It’s hard to believe now, but I would sit in the booth at the local Pizza Hut (a very big attraction for a small town girl) and sob rather than ask the cashier for a box to take our pizza home in. Reading became my natural escape from social interaction. I could have a thousand conversations and never say a word. I carried my books everywhere. I barely learned to navigate the handful of streets to and from high school because I was always reading in the car.
I loved to write stories from the time I was very young. In first grade we were asked to write our own fable. I was thrilled to write and illustrate my own. I’d read a very old edition of Aesop’s fables I’d found at my Granddaddy’s house. I’ll never forget my dad’s face when he saw my hand drawn copy of “A Man and his Ass”. The Man had a lovely little Ass that he took everywhere with him because he loved it so much. After a budding writing career like that, how could I not end up in the literary world someday?
Iulian: Let’s talk more about your writing. What attracts you to fantasy and horror? Have you written in other genres as well?
Anna: I love the escapism of fantasy. It seemed like a natural place for my own writing. The more I explored my own voice, I found myself going to darker and more macabre places, hence the branching out into horror. I had difficulty calling my own writing “horror”. There is such an innate bias within me that nice women don’t write such morbid disturbing tales. But I read an interview with Ellen Datlow discussing why more women don’t write horror, and I realized that I needed to get over myself. So what if my brain is a dark, twisty place? I love to process why certain things make me uncomfortable and why. Then I try to use those uncomfortable ideas in my stories.
I write a bit of mainstream fiction, but it still leans toward the oddball. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write a story that doesn’t make my mother question my sanity.
Iulian: You mostly write short-fiction; have you attempted writing a novel? If no, why not? Is there anything that keeps you from it?
Anna: Ah, the novel. You called me on it. Let me confess that I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. I’ve tried writing novels. I felt the need to outline my novels. And I did. The problem is that once I outline, I feel like I’ve written them and I lose interest. I force myself to sit down and try to crank out a chapter, but it’s not good. The oomph isn’t there. All the coffee in the world doesn’t help.
The thought of pants-ing a novel terrifies me. But there is definitely a novel I’m chewing on. It’s begging me to write it. And I want to. But I have to shore up my attention span and the courage to go for it.
Iulian: Now let’s talk a bit about Flash Fiction Online. Give us some history about how you got involved in this project and what do you love most about it? And, related to that, why only flash fiction?
Anna: I started working as a slush reader for Flash Fiction Online in the spring of 2012. I realized reading bad stories helped my own writing. By seeing so blatantly how other stories were broken, I became more objective about what I was doing wrong.
My favorite part is finding “that story”. I’ve been known to cradle my laptop like a baby and make happy cooing sounds. It frightens my children so I try to use restraint when they’re home.
When Jake Frievald stepped down last year, I decided to try my hand at publishing FFO. I’ve loved it, but it’s been a challenging year. Running a magazine, and a free magazine at that, takes an enormous amount of work. The biggest challenge was (and still is) finding a source of funding. We branched out into convenience subscriptions through WeightlessBooks.com and recently launched our Patreon site. But still, I very much finance out of my own pocket (so if anyone would like to donate so I can go shoe shopping again…). I’m always looking for ways to FFO run as a self-supporting venture while still keeping it true to Jake’s original format.
Only flash is another part of the business model that I inherited. When Jake founded Flash Fiction Online, there were very few venues interested in flash. Through Flash Fiction Online, Jake did push further the representation of flash fiction as a modern and very readable literary form. FFO is listed everywhere from about.com to the New York Times. I’m quite proud to carry on the flash fiction tradition. It’s a quick and accessible read in a busy world.
Iulian: You are the publisher of FFO, and you have several volunteers on staff, including Editor-in-Chief Suzanne Vincent. How involved are you in the slush and editing processes? Unless the numbers are confidential, what is the average number of submissions you get in any given month?
Anna: We have such a fabulous staff, including the immensely talented Suzanne Vincent. Her eye for stories is impeccable. I think she has an uncanny superpower for finding diamonds among the cubic zirconiums. She is the artistic vision behind FFO. The final call on any story is hers. I have a say in the decision, but at the end of the day, if you get an acceptance or rejection from winnowing, that’s from Suzanne.
FFO gets around 550 stories per month. So I read slush—a lot of slush. I’m on a slush team (yes, Chris Phillips is my boss) but I float around. If a slush reader on another team is being slow or a story needs a deciding vote, I’ll drop in. The entire staff reads for winnowing. I always read and vote there. I try to leave constructive feedback for the author that I would appreciate in their place.
Iulian: I know many writers who’d like to publish at FFO. Could you share with them what makes a great story for you, and what are some of the things that make a story bad?
Anna: A great story gives me something unexpected. It goes off the rails and takes me somewhere new. I want a story that makes me feel something. Happy, sad, a gut punch, angry at your main character’s unfair plight. Make me weep. Make me care. Tell me a story. Take me on a journey. Beautiful writing is nice but it’s not necessary. Not all characters have flowery voices. Some characters are rough and crude. Give me a character voice I can roll up in like a blanket and escape in for five minutes while I read your story.
Ah, the bad. The infamous cat stories. The fluffy stories that don’t matter. The “Meh”. Slush is full of stories that are sweet, or cute, or okay. Don’t be “meh”.
Then there’s the soapbox bad. The sexual predator stories. If the woman in your story is threatened, raped, beaten, or stalked, DO NOT SEND ME YOUR STORY. You will be rejected. Even if you gender swap and have this happen to the male character, DO NOT SEND ME YOUR STORY. Even if you have this happen and then at the last minute throw in a twist and pretend it was all make believe (ooh! It was all a clown show!) DO NOT SEND ME YOUR STORY.
Okay. Soapbox done.
Iulian:It’s great that FFO is a SFWA-approved market. Was that a goal for you? Where do you want to take FFO next? Are there any future plans?
Anna: I was fortunate enough to inherit SFWA affiliation as well. We raised our payment to $60/story to keep that status. I think that’s important to maintain the level of stories we’re used to receiving.
I have lots of goals for FFO. I feel like I should crack my knuckles and announce world domination now. But that might be scary.
Suzanne and I discuss this quite a bit. Her goal, which I agree with, is to be the gold standard for flash fiction – to be taught in classrooms as “this is how you do it”. The beautiful thing for both of us is that this is coming true. We have numerous classrooms using our site as reference material for their students. I would love to see this grow and see FFO work in partnership with educators and young writers.
And, of course, there are these little things called Hugos and Nebulas. I’d really, really like to see one of those sitting on the bookshelf. Or Suzanne’s. Or one of our author’s.
But that’s a serious pipe dream. Right now, I’d settle for paying the bills!
Iulian: We published your short-story “Missing Tessa”; tell us a little bit about it.
Anna: As a Southerner, I’m fascinated by the legend of the Boo Hag – a skin-slipping witch who rides a man in order to steal his breath. I told my children about the boo hag legend so, of course, my four year old runs around yelling “Boo Hag!” at people and they give me the most puzzled looks ever.
I was an anatomy geek and worked the cadaver lab my senior year in college. I love dissecting (yes, especially people…and it always made me hungry for roast beef but that’s a whole different interview…). I found the skinned bodies fascinating. But there’s an otherness about a body in that state. It’s us, but not-us. And that not-us is what made me write about Tessa in her skinless form. Relating to someone when they’re in a not-us state tells us so much about the character. It was a dynamic I couldn’t resist.
Iulian: As a writer and publisher, how do you see today’s publishing world? Is print dead?
Anna: Print will never be dead. There’s nothing in this world like holding a book in your hands and smelling the ink and paper. I mainly read from my iPhone but I hoard and buy print books. I can’t explain. I just need them. It’s like breathing. I can’t stop.
I do think e-publishing is more profitable than print. The overhead is so low compared to the cost of print. I could never afford to run FFO as a print publication. But online? Sure. Yes, there’s an overabundance of unedited, everyone fling their writing online publications, but I think the market will even itself out. Readers are savvy.
Iulian: What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Anna: More writing. More reading. More chugging through slush and keeping the wheels rolling over at Flash Fiction Online. Yes, I’ll get to that novel. You’ve called me on it. I suppose I have to do it now.
Thanks for having me over to visit at Fantasy Scroll. I love seeing short fiction alive and well in today’s market. I’m honored to be in it.
Dear Anna, thank you very for this interview. We wish you all the best in your writing career and good luck with running Flash Fiction Online.
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