Marcus Speh is a German writer. He began to write prose in English seriously in 2008. Since 2009, his work has been published widely both online and in print. He’s been nominated for various prizes, shortlisted and longlisted for others, including The Paris Literary Prize. His debut collection of short fiction, Thank You for Your Sperm, has been published by MadHat Press. A mosaic novel is forthcoming from Folded Word Press in 2014.
Allen: Marcus, first of all, thank you for being a judge for Flash Mob 2013. Over the last three years you’ve written hundreds of shorts, many of which are in your collection–which has just been published– Thank You for Your Sperm (MadHat Press). What drew you to the short form?
Speh: Thank you for having me—I’m looking forward to it: if only to get a creative break from the ego trip of bringing out my first book! When I look at my collection, I’m reminded of my original reasons for writing flash: it’s fast, fiercely flexible and a wonderful medium for eccentric experimentation with style, with characters, with genre. As an art form, it promises a paradox: it’s both hard to do anything wrong with it — who cannot string a few hundred words together? — and at the same time it’s difficult to really get right — how can you put an entire world on such a small canvas?
Allen: Does a story come to mind off the top of your head by someone who gets it right in your opinion?
Speh: Many of the pieces in Charles Simic’s 1989 Pulitzer-prize winning collection The World Doesn’t End strike me so. Here’s one of my favorites from that book: «The hundred-year-old china doll’s head the sea washes up on its green beach. One would like to know the story. One would like to make it up, make up many stories. It’s been so long in the sea, the eyes and nose have been erased, its faint smile is even fainter. With the night coming, one would like to see oneself walking the empty beach and bending down to it.» — One might call this a prose poem rather than flash fiction. In their brevity and condensed beauty, Simic’s pieces resemble tiny, untitled abstract paintings.
Allen: I’m glad you said that. I wanted to ask if this incredibly compact form requires the writer to think more like a poet or a painter. I think I’ve made similar comments about your work, but I think it was a comment that related your prose to sculpture.
Speh: I’ve got an inferiority complex (or perhaps it’s just a mental limp) when it comes to poetry. You must ask a poet! I think you’re absolutely right though — and it’s one of my few remaining discomforts with flash. I feel that getting it right takes a higher toll when writing micro than when writing longer pieces. The lyrical “flash mode” as it were can be hard to stay with for many pages. I experience that with more lyrical writers (Faulkner comes to mind). I didn’t say this very well. I told you I get paralysed around poetry.
Allen: I understand perfectly what you mean about Faulkner. . So intense. What is your opinion about experimentation in prose? In a recent blog post at marcusspeh.com, you said you write to surprise yourself. I like that, and I hope I’m getting that close to what you wrote.
Speh: Regretfully, I continually surprise myself by disagreeing with my own views…regarding prose, I’m hugely fond of experimenting with meaning and with pushing the boundaries of what can be said while maintaining a rather conservative grip on form. I don’t think certain values of writing ought to be sacrificed, such as clarity of expression, narrative arc, and humanity of meaning. Within that, very much is possible, take such different authors as Lydia Davis, Charles Baudelaire or Robert Walser as examples (to name but three of my flash fiction heroes).
Speh: I tried to express it in the 170-word story “The Sodomized Dictator” (first published in PANK) which was prompted by the killing of dictator Ghaddafi (widely, and graphically publicized)—to paint grief and brutality without preaching, as I said in the accompanying interview.
Allen: The image/metaphor of the volcano opening under the characters’ feet is quite strong. It characterizes so well the feeling of the sea change in that region.
Speh: Image is everything don’t you think? Especially in flash, a scene is often no longer than a single image. Which brings us back to “getting it right”. A wrong, or a blurred image can fully destroy a flash piece.
Allen: Very true. What are you reading these days? Are you enjoying it? What kind of prose excites you?
Speh: This is my year of Henry James. I’m reading all of his great novels in the New York edition, which means that I live in a very different universe from most people some of the time. I’m enjoying it on many levels, not the least one being his craft. There’s nobody quite like James to observe the art of scene building, of point-of-view changes, and how a change of consciousness transforms everything. He’s making me very, very jealous! Taking lessons from a master is exciting! I seem to be stuck in the early 20th century—for non-fiction, I re-read Freud and Friedell to calm my own discontents with contemporary culture.
Allen: Ah, yes. I actually knew you were going through James right now. Definitely the opposite of flash fiction if there ever was an opposite. When I was going through my own year of James, I was awestruck by his ability to weave in and out of his characters’ consciousnesses. The levels of discourse in his late phase became a major theme in my Master’s thesis.
Speh: I’d like to read that thesis! I don’t think I would ever have finished a thesis on James—I’d have got lost in the bushes looking for bunnies. You’re right about opposites there. It’s a necessity, I think. Broadening your skill horizon and all that.
Allen: I often stayed up all night looking for bunnies. I see James’s prose as an opportunity to read the language at its most intricate, at its technical peak? Like when a painter studies the technique of the masters…but eventually ends up a cubist.
Speh: I like the simile! — James wasn’t a stranger to experimentation with the short form either: you once told me the short story “The Figure in the Carpet” was one of your favorites. I wonder if he’d be dabbling (or excelling) in flash if he lived today.
Allen: It’s interesting that James’s “short” stories would be considered quite long today. “The Figure in the Carpet” is itself around 4o pages. I think James would probably pooh-pooh flash as the work of frustrated poets. Flash fiction has been on a journey away from the gimmicky plot-twist-oriented ending that characterized it years ago. And this is a great thing. Your own prose often defies classification. Where do you think “flash” fiction is headed? Some of your work is a sort of flash non-fiction, or would you resist this label?
Speh: I don’t think I care too much about labels — I’m aware that most of my fiction is fed by the lives I’ve lived. in which the Internet, or the Web rather, has played an enormous role.
Since plot is not my strength I wouldn’t dare twisting it…The recent success of Lydia Davis at the International Booker could cause pressure to turn it into something fixed according to the public’s idea of flash. But what if flash fiction is more like the fruit fly and undergoes evolutionary changes more quickly than any other literary form? In that case there’s no way to say where it’s going. I’d like that because, as you know, I like to be surprised! If it develops, as it seems to have developed for the past decade or so, alongside the Internet, it might become one of the fastest developing and changing forms of writing we’ve ever seen—and few people would try to predict where the Internet is going.
Allen: What influence do you think the internet has had on the condensing of literature in general? What do you think of Twitter fiction, for example?
Speh: I participated in a Twitter fiction experiment a couple of years ago—a Tweetathon of Joyce’s Ulysses. It was fun and yet a tad tiring. I hear that social media, Twitter and Facebook at the helm, are slowly winding down. I don’t think anything as short-lived as software can really change the course of literature, which gets its strength from the darkest depths and the brightest light that’s available to man. The Internet is but an infrastructure, a road to connect, while literature is a cause to connect, more like love and less like lino. I believe with John Gardner that art moves and shapes society, not the other way around: perhaps the global need for short fiction created the Internet just like the 19th-century novel helped create the Victorian age.
Allen: I’m jotting down “The internet is but an infrastructure, a road to connect, while literature is a cause to connect, more like love and less like lino.” so that I can co-opt it later. Thank you so much for this interview, Marcus! And in real time at that. It’s always great talking to you.
Speh: Thank you — your amazing questions always set me up for deep unconscious journeys. It’s been fun! I’m looking forward to this Flash Mob: our conversation seems to suggest that there’s a lot more to flash than meets the eye, and a lot more to discover.
JOIN THE MOB — Deadline for submissions June 10.