Bruce Holland Rogers
An Interview with Bruce Holland Rogers
Bruce Holland Rogers is an award-winning fiction writer and teacher, best known for his short — sometimes extremely short — fiction. Among many other places, his stories were included in both the original 1992 Flash Fiction anthology that coined the term and its 2006 follow-up, Flash Fiction Forward. The Keyhole Opera, a collection of his short stories, won the 2006 World Fantasy Award for best collection. He also wrote Word Work: Surviving and Thriving As a Writer, and is on the faculty of the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program. His “Reconstruction Work” appeared in Flash Fiction Online’s inaugural issue.
Though he bases himself in Eugene, Oregon, we caught up with him in London, where he’s living until July, 2008.
Flash Fiction Online: You write short fiction for your subscription service on a schedule. You wrote Word Work as a series of columns. You’re even writing your novel on a subscription basis to give yourself deadlines. Did you adopt the shorter forms of fiction because they make deadlines more manageable?
Bruce Holland Rogers: My route to writing very short narratives was actually through translation. In my twenties, when I was having very little success publishing my own work, I did find it relatively easy to publish translations. Most of my translation work was from Spanish, but a little was from French, German, or Portuguese. Of these, the language that I knew best was Spanish, and even there my translations demanded a lot of dictionary consultations. When I was translating from German, I did so on the basis of a four-week intensive course, so my translation process was grindingly slow. I sat in a university library all day with a huge Langensheidt’s dictionary, looking up nearly every other word.
This was very good for my writing. At that stage, I was always in such a hurry to get my ideas down on paper that every draft was a race between my hand and my imagination. The hand was always behind. My stories were not, sentence-by-sentence, well-considered.
Translating from languages that I didn’t know well forced me to consider a story very slowly, to notice how narratives unfold phrase by phrase. I became aware of the strategy of narrative on the small scale. I saw how the writer created the dream for the reader in small units of words. I learned a lot!
But when it takes you five or six hours to get even a rough draft of a printed page of German fiction, you’re motivated to find very short stories. So I did. And I became an avid reader of flash fiction decades before the term was invented, through the stories of Mario Benedetti, Salvador Elizondo, Jorge Luis Borges, and an assortment of other writers.
The subscription service was, yes, related to the usefulness of deadlines. I liked writing short-shorts and wanted a reason to write more of them, to make the very short story my specialty. So I started shortshortshort.com so I’d have a regular deadline for creating new work. If I don’t have dealines, I tend to get stuck in the early stages of writing where I move ideas down and write fragments without putting my head down and producing a draft.
I’m writing Steam, my novel in progress, for a small group of paying subscribers who get at least three chapters a month. I’m on chapter 104 of a 135-chapter novel. Without the subscriptions, I might be on about chapter ten.
It’s essential to me that these deadlines be backed by paying customers. I tried setting deadlines with friends, and it didn’t work. I didn’t have enough at stake. When someone pays me to do something, I’m going to deliver.
FFO: Consumers of fiction enjoy a lot of different genres — science fiction, mainstream fiction, mysteries, thrillers — but very few writers openly cross genres, especially literary and science fiction. You’re an exception. Has that ever caused a problem with fans or publishers? Does short fiction lend itself better to cross-genre writing?
BHR: In terms of career, in many ways short fiction doesn’t “count” for establishing the writer’s identity. Only novels count, and the only novels I have published were pseudonymous work-for-hire books.
As a short story writer, then, I can move between genres. Although, in truth, I just write the stories that I want to write. Some of them are SF or fantasy, a very small number are mystery, quite a few are literary realism or literary fantasy. Often I don’t know whether work is fantasy or literary until I see where it’s published, and even then the issue isn’t decided. I had one story that was published in The North American Review, reprinted in Realms of Fantasy, nominated for awards as horror, fantasy, and literary fiction (it won two of these) and subsequently published in translation variably as genre fiction or literary fiction.
FFO: Which story?
BHR: That was “The Dead Boy at Your Window.”
FFO: So how does the concept of genre affect what writers write?
BHR: Genre is at least two things: a literary tradition and a marketing category. The literary tradition is a useful category for a writer who wants to learn how the contract between writer and reader works for different kinds of stories. The marketing category is useful for the reader who wants to have reading experiences that are similar to one another. But a good writer shouldn’t be hemmed in by tradition or market category.
Some writers write in only one tradition because that’s all that suits them. That’s a reasonable choice. But there are also some writers who make a ghetto of their own tradition, whichever tradition it is, and consider all other sorts of stories to be less-than. I’m distressed by the narrow prejudices I hear expressed about whole categories of fiction.
Once when I was hired to teach creative writing, the program director took me aside and said, “Bruce, I’m hiring you because of your credentials as a literary writer. If you let our undergraduates write science fiction or detective stories in your class, you’ll be undoing something that I have taken years to establish.” Sorry, Sophocles. This Oedipus Rex thing is a detective story. We don’t want investigations in our literature. Mr. Huxley, we can’t consider this Brave New World manuscript in this class. This is a class for writing literature!
FFO: Why do you think that is?
BHR: It’s because most student-written science fiction and detective fiction is bad. Terrible! But so is most student-written literary fiction! Most writers start off writing weak derivatives. A good teacher can discover what it is that the student aspires to write effectively and help the student to write that. Most university creative writing teachers don’t take that approach. Most want to produce protégés who will publish work in the same tradition as their teachers, which will reflect well on the teacher and the writing program.
If I’m teaching a workshop where one student wants to write space opera and another wants to write subtle psychological narratives that move the character from A to B, each has to listen to me giving advice to the other. Each, in critiquing the other, learns something about reader demands in a different tradition, and how to meet those demands. A space opera writer who knows how to convey psychological subtlety will write better space operas. The same is true for a literary writer who knows how to create a riveting plot.
I know this is true because that example isn’t a hypothetical. It describes a typical workshop in the MFA program where I teach. We look for capable writers who want to get to the top of their craft, and we don’t care if their favorite author is Elizabeth George, Isaac Asimov, Alice Munro or Mark Leyner.
Some teachers say they aren’t prejudiced against other kinds of writing so much as they are uninformed. That is, they don’t know enough about another kind of writing to be able to advise such writers. All I have to say about that is that teaching is a profession. No excuses.
FFO: You’re taking a hard line.
BHR: I am, because the prejudice in favor of only a few literary traditions is leading to stagnation. Not in the culture as a whole. Writers are writing. But among students who leave creative writing classes or MFA programs. As one literary magazine editor complained to me, almost all of the submissions he gets every month could have been written by the same four writers. I suppose that one of those four is “the innovative one,” but the kind of innovation that is encouraged in workshops is going to produce Fiction Collective stories...another type! Another set of accepted tropes and values! If workshops were truly diverse, if they mixed more students with truly different ambitions, we’d get more species diversification.
Universities should be the engines of artistic innovation. In creative writing, they are largely failing.
FFO: You are also a trainer and motivational speaker for the corporate world. Do you find any similarities between your two professions? Do any of the ideas from one make the leap into the other?
BHR: My corporate training career is on hiatus. Writing and teaching keeps me busy enough, and my speciality was creativity training — not high on most corporate agendas. But teaching people how to innovate is the same whether they are writing stories or designing transmissions for GM.
FFO: You’re known for your work in short forms, both as a writer and as a teacher, but you also love to write novels. Tell us about the one you’re working on right now.
BHR: Steam sets out to demonstrate that steam locomotives, the futures market, and bipolar disorder are all the same thing. Well, not really the same thing. But each one is a useful metaphor for the other two. Structurally, the novel parallels Moby-Dick, though I hope it’s an easier read.
FFO: You’re on the faculty of a unique Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) program, the Whidbey Writers Workshop. Tell us a little bit about that.
BHR: We’re a unique program, a low-residency program that nonetheless uses a workshop model where students criticise one another’s work as well as receiving criticism from the teacher. Most low-residency programs use a mentor model where the student gets feedback only from the teacher. We’re also unusual in having a track for writing children’s and young-adult literature.
Some other programs share some of our features, but we’re absolutely unique in being the only stand-alone MFA program in the world. We’re not attached to any university or college. We’re like a music conservatory or a drama school. We teach only writers.
The Whidbey MFA is also rare in having a course, The Business of Writing, that focuses on the skills and knowledge underlying a successful literary career. We want our students to be well-educated in issues of contracts, copyright, publicity, agents, publishing procedures and the like. We have agents, editors, illustrators, and other allied professionals at our residencies to help teach this class.
We started small and have built a very tight community of alumni and current students. Our first graduating class last August included Ann Gonzalez whose thesis, a novel called Running for My Life, is forthcoming from WestSide Books.
You’ve just published a story by Stefanie Freele. Stefanie is about to graduate and is another writer to watch for. At the top of her game — and she’s often at the top of her game — Freele can give even Ray Vukcevich a run for his money, and Vukcevich is one of my favorite writers.
I’d give you other names to watch for, but then I’d just be reading off the list of our alumni and students. Not that they’d mind.
Many thanks to Bruce for taking the time to talk to us. You can read more of his stories online at the links below, or you can buy his books on Amazon.com to read more great fiction and support Flash Fiction Online at the same time.
A Selection of Books
A Selection of Online Stories
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About the Author
Bruce Holland Rogers
Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.
For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.
He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.
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