Interview with Tara Laskowski
Writer and Editor at SmokeLong Quarterly

Tara Laskowski

Tara Laskowski's short story collection Bystanders was hailed by Jennifer Egan as "a bold, riveting mash-up of Hitchcockian suspense and campfire-tale chills." She is also the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, tales of dark etiquette. Her fiction has been published in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, and numerous other journals, magazines, and anthologies. Since 2010, she has been the editor of the online flash fiction journal SmokeLong Quarterly.

  • A description of Smokelong Quarterly is nicely summarized on The Review Review listing of literary magazines. Here it says you publish Flash Fiction of up to 1000 words mostly to do with the following things:
    · language that surprises
    · narratives that strive toward something other than a final punch line or twist
    · pieces that add up to something, oftentimes (but not necessarily always).
    · meaning or emotional resonance
    · honest work that feels as if it has far more purpose than a writer wanting to write a story.
    "We have a special place in our hearts, more often than not, for narratives we haven't seen before. For the more familiar stories—such as relationship break-ups, bar scenarios, terminal illnesses—we tend to need something original and urgent in the writer's presentation."

    Is there anything you would like to add to that description?

That is pretty comprehensive, actually! But, I did write a blog recently about stories we'd like to see more of which might be helpful to folks. Basically, though, there are no real dealbreakers at SLQ. Our staff is very diverse in tastes, so we end up publishing all kinds of styles, topics, and themes. The moment I say that I'll never publish a story about XXX again, someone comes along and sends us a brilliant one. So I've learned that there are no nevers.

  • Launched in 2003, Smokelong Quarterly is an internet grandparent in promoting the flash fiction form. Can you tell us how it came into being?

Ha ha! I'm sure Dave Clapper, our founder, would love being tagged as a 'grandpa'. But he is the brain and brilliance behind SLQ's existence. In his intro to our anthology of the best of the first 10 years, Dave writes:

“In the early years, we were as passionate as the staff continues to be today, but we were scrambling for everything we could get. We just wanted to put out the best magazine we could, and to treat every submitting writer, whether we published them or not, as well as we possibly could. I firmly believe that the current staff continues in that tradition, but what I want to say is this: Treating writers well works."

He's right. I wish we could write personal rejections to everyone who submits, but time and schedules make that impossible. Still, I hope that SmokeLong treats all its submitters well as best we can. We strive for quick turnaround times, never charge fees, and nominate our contributors for as many awards as we can. I know we can't make everyone happy all the time, though, and that's the toughest part of the job.

I can't take credit for the great reputation Dave built with the magazine, but I hope that I am doing my part to maintain it.

  • You've been editing the magazine since 2010. What have been the highlights for you during your editorship so far?

Oh goodness. I first want to say that I get to work with some of the best readers and editors out there. Our staff is freaking amazing, and they do a ton of work on this publication for free. We're all volunteering our time, and I'm constantly grateful for all the care and attention our editors give to stories and artwork and interviewing. Seriously. Everyone else should be jealous.

Also, there's nothing like finding a story that you HAVE to accept right then and there. Being able to showcase other people's work is by far the most rewarding part of this. Just this week, I got the most enthusiastic response to an acceptance that I've ever seen. She told me... Well, I'll quote a small piece of her email: "When I first started writing short stories and flash fiction, my mentor introduced me to Smokelong Quarterly... and I remember thinking: Will I ever be able to do this? Will I ever be able to write like these incredible writers? I am dancing dancing dancing!"

Can you really top that? Knowing that you made someone's day? It's fantastic.

  • You have a wonderful variety of resources for flash writers on the site. There's the blog, currently containing very interesting articles from writers on how they got into flash, interviews with guest editors, book reviews and new stories posted on social media every week as well as in your quarterly issues. If you were to devise a taster package for new readers, what articles, stories etc would you direct them to?

Well, our 10-year anthology that I mentioned earlier is a great start to what we do. That includes two stories from the first 40 issues of the magazine, plus a few other favorites from editors. It's a great collection of flash fiction for people who want to see what the form is all about.

I'd also recommend checking out the Why Flash Fiction? essay series that our blog editors Virgie Townsend and Annie Bilancini have been curating for us.

  • Can you tell us more about global flash, the latest initiative from Smokelong Quarterly?

Yes! We are very excited about this. Our managing editor Christopher Allen is heading this up. We are interested in finding flash fiction stories from all over the globe. The idea is that we'll find guest editors/translators working in different languages, who will select a story and then translate it for us. We'll run the story in its original language and translated into English. We will also run interviews with the translator and the writer. We're hoping to do one story each quarter to start. Right now our guest editors will be looking at stories in Danish, French, Spanish, and German. Submissions open up starting June 1st.

  • I'd like to ask you a couple of things about your new short story collection, Bystanders. The stories are sometimes quite long, but they are composed of shorter pieces that make the whole – pieces that could be called flash fictions, as they are contained in themselves.  I think this works extremely well. Can you say more about this structure and your thinking behind it?

The stories in Bystanders are mostly traditional length stories, though I do think some of them are inspired by techniques used in flash fiction. There are two stories in there in particular that are kind of fragmented and told in smaller sections. I enjoy this kind of modular storytelling because I think it gives you freedom to skip around in time and play with white space in a way that traditional storytelling does not always. There's a lot of power in the white space!

My other book, Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, is definitely more in line of using micro fictions to create a longer story. That collection is filled with stories of "dark etiquette", where I'm taking sections of an imagined larger text to create an etiquette guide for various situations. (Such as The Etiquette of Adultery, The Etiquette of Homicide, etc) That book is actually out of print right now, but it's being re-released by Santa Fe Writers Project next year and I'm really excited to get it out there again because it was a super fun project to work on.

  • Do you have a personal favourite in this new collection?

Wait, isn't that a little like asking someone who her favorite child is? I think that answer changes daily depending on my mood. I'll tell you, however, what I think everyone else's favorite story has been. I've gotten the most feedback on 'The Monitor', which is the one story in the collection that kind of verges into supernatural territory. It's about a woman who starts seeing creepy things in her baby video monitor. I think I've given some parents out there nightmares, which means I'm doing my job!

  • Finally, can you give our readers your best piece of advice for writing in the short-short form?

Read a lot of flash fiction. I think it helps to read widely and know what others are doing and what the possibilities are. Beyond that, my best piece of advice is to have fun with it. Experiment, try something wacky. It's really a great form to just play around with.

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