Luke Rolfes’ second story collection, Impossible Naked Life, a mix of flash fiction and longer short stories, won the Acacia Fiction Prize from Kallisto Gaia Press and was published this past March. I recently talked to him about it, as well as about what happens to the stories in his discard pile, writing during the pandemic, and animals in fiction, among other things.
Michelle Ross: I enjoyed these stories so much, Luke. One of the many things I admire about them are the endings. Again and again, your endings hit that perfect balance of unexpected but also inevitable. They’re also a bit abrupt—in a good way. That is, I don’t think anyone would accuse you of writing past the ending. One more observation regarding endings: quite a few of your stories end with dialogue, which is kind of unusual, I feel. “Crab” and “Bubbleheads” come to mind, which are a couple of my favorite flashes in this collection. Do endings come easily for you or is there a lot of trial and error? How do you know when you’ve hit upon the right ending?
Luke Rolfes: Thanks so much, Michelle! I’m so grateful that you read and enjoyed these pieces.
Endings are tricky. Flash fiction is interesting because it doesn’t have to end (and often doesn’t) where a traditional narrative might. A challenge of writing a collection that has a lot of flash, for me, was trying not to replicate the same style of ending (or using the same writerly maneuver) over and over again. I’ve become very much a “feel” writer rather than one who plans out each stage of their stories. I’ve found the more I ruminate on and try to map out an ending, the worse the ending is.
This might be an oversimplification, but I usually know I’ve reached the end of a flash when the point of the story reveals itself in an honest way—or when the characters tell the unguarded truth. I don’t want you to eat Leonard, they say. I feel like I could die at any moment and that wouldn’t matter.
I think I’m always searching for honest moments. Those are fleeting and important things, and so difficult to capture.
And, definitely, you hit the nail on the head when you asked about trial and error. I write a ton of flash fiction. And most of them don’t work. Often in these pieces the endings are in disarray, or they don’t make sense, or they are trying too hard. I trust my gut with flash fiction. If the ending “feels” right, I will keep the piece around. I’ll keep working on it. The rest go in a folder somewhere on my desktop.
MR: I relate—getting an ending right is so much about instinct, a gut feeling. It’s hard to explain it sometimes, but I know when an ending doesn’t feel true.
I’m curious: Do you ever dig up any of those abandoned stories and find a way to make them work? If not, do you think you might some day?
LR: Hmmm. That’s a good question. I wonder: What do most writers do with abandoned pieces? Sometimes I’ll go back and read the drafts in my “working” folder when I’m not feeling particularly inspired to write something new, but I don’t feel as much ownership over these discarded stories, especially the flash. I’ve mined some for parts before—paragraphs, sentences, images—but I don’t know if I’ve resurrected a piece completely from abandonment. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been guilty of devoting too much time to past projects that couldn’t be saved, and I don’t want to make that same mistake again. Maybe, as writers, we should be more open to our abandoned pieces, especially after time passes. I feel like our hearts change each year, and maybe our new hearts will love something we didn’t love before.
MR: I guess I rarely think of any unfinished piece as abandoned, though some of them surely are. I tend to view them as, I don’t know, resting? I hear you, though, on the frustration with devoting lots of time to something that just doesn’t seem like it can be saved. Been there.
Another one of my favorite stories in this collection is “My Neighbor, Ray,” which features a protagonist who shares your name, and even crazier, a second character named Luke, this one a tiny Luke who crawls out of the first Luke’s mouth. I would love to hear about the writing of this one.
LR: I was certain no one would like this story, but I’ve had a bunch of people tell me it’s a favorite, which makes me happy.
I think I had a mental breakdown at the start of the pandemic. (Likely, we all did.) Kansas City was under a “shelter in place” order. I was stuck at home with my wife and three kids. We had to do remote work and remote schooling simultaneously, and it was pretty terrible. I felt like I was splitting into two people. There was the me who was terrified, bored, and isolated. And there was the me who was unflappable, who was able to look at the worsening pandemic around him with fascination. I wrote the first section of “My Neighbor, Ray” as a manifestation of that splitting feeling.
Strangely, writing these characters helped me process parts of the pandemic: the ridiculous amounts of home cooking, the bizarre conversations, the veritable cabin fever, the DIY and toilet paper crazes. Writing “My Neighbor, Ray” made me feel better. I’m not sure I can explain why. I told myself: Don’t be literary. Don’t push for meaning. Just write whatever comes. And hopefully something interesting will emerge. And if not, that’s also fine.
MR: You put that so perfectly, Luke, and your story conveys it well—that feeling of splitting into two people. I certainly relate. I struggled to write much in the early months of the pandemic—partly because I was obsessed with the news in 2020 but also because, suddenly, my home office, which had been my dedicated writing space, was where I worked, too. In fact, for a while there I was trying to do everything at the same desk and on the same computer. Work emails and documents cluttered my desk and my mind. I’ve heard some writers say that they were actually more prolific than usual in the early months of the pandemic, though. Was writing a balm for you during the early months of the pandemic? Did the pandemic change your writing in any way?
LR: I know exactly what you mean! Like you, all the overlap of roles and places in my life was hard to swallow—especially when kids were sent home in Spring 2020. My house became a school and an office and a living space at the same time. I think “balm” is a good way to describe the function writing served for me. I used it to soothe the unsettledness and uncertainty.
Every day during the first part of the pandemic, my friend and Co-editor at Laurel Review, John Gallaher, would share a piece of writing with me over Messenger, and I would send one back. Often, we worked from prompts. I can’t explain how helpful it was to have another person to share writing with during that first year. One way to say it is that our daily writing swaps kept me from losing myself.
Back in 2020, everything I wanted to write seemed dwarfed by the enormity of what was going on worldwide. I felt like the pandemic was a shadow falling over every story I wanted to tell. For a while, fiction seemed strange and unnecessary—“extra” as my kids might say. A lot of the writing I did early on was creative nonfiction.
Later, though, I was less interested in writing about the pandemic. I used the daily prompts as a way to craft longer pieces episodically. Some of the full-length pieces in Impossible Naked Life were written from prompts and then stitched together at a later date, which is a new process that I’m just settling into.
MR: Impossible Naked Life is a collection of 36 stories divided into four sections of nine stories apiece. How did you go about deciding what to include in the collection and how to section and sequence these stories?
LR: When I first started experimenting with flash fiction, several years ago, my idea was to write place-based “fables” centered around different spots of the country. The first piece I wrote was about Des Moines, Iowa (where I was born)—specifically inspired by the infamous cold case of a paperboy who suddenly disappeared. In its earliest form, I had 30 or so “fables,” and they were all numbered: “Fable #1: Des Moines, IA”; “Fable #2: Mexico, MO”; “Fable #3: Fort Lauderdale, FL.” I wanted the flash fictions to tap into the landscape and communities around which they were named.
The numbered fable idea turned out to be a flop. Reading a bunch of flash fictions in a row is already a challenge for readers, and I’m sure anybody trying to browse through that early draft would have had trouble keeping the stories separate. Titles, even simple ones, seemed to help, so I ended up scrapping the numbered fables and giving each an original title.
Readability and balance were something I thought about a lot. I had some longer pieces I liked, and I thought it would be interesting to pair them alongside the former fables. One of my friends suggested, after they saw similar themes in the manuscript, that I might group the stories into sections. I had about forty pieces, so I broke the book into four sections and put two longer stories in each section to break things up and serve as thematic anchors.
I’ve never liked tidiness in writing. I like things messy and imperfect. Four sections of ten seemed too uniform and even. I didn’t mind the balance of having four sections with the same number of pieces, but I ended up cutting a couple flash pieces to get to 36 rather than adding a couple to make 40.
As for organizing into sections, that was difficult. I had a general idea of what I thought each section was about. Section 1 was for tone setting, and also mostly about various types of human relationships. Section 2 seemed to be about heartbreak and disappointment. Section 3 was about the weirdness of our everyday existence. And section 4 seemed to be about hope and regret.
MR: One recurrent subject I noticed in Impossible Naked Life is sports. Running, climbing, football. What’s the relationship between sports and writing for you? Are they connected in any way?
LR: Wow, this is one I had to think about! Growing up in the middle of the country outside of Des Moines, there wasn’t much to do. There wasn’t an art, literary, or music scene that I knew of. The internet was in its infancy. Sports were something everybody did, and it seemed a way to express one’s identity. I am a cross-country runner. I am a soccer player.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with fitness all my life. Like writing, it becomes obsessive for me. Mostly long distancing running—marathons and half marathons. I tried triathlons for a while. (I think you do distance running, too, maybe?) When I ran my first marathon, I was 21 years old. And training for that race was the most important thing in my life. Nothing else mattered to me but those 26 miles. I was obsessed with the idea of etching “marathoner” on my tombstone in bold letters or something. Now, 21-year-old me seems completely ridiculous. But when you’re neck-deep, it feels so vital. It feels like self-actualization.
I have a theory that all runners are wired differently, maybe even born on a different planet. Deep down, I think runners enjoy the pain. Or we want to punish ourselves. I feel like I understand characters better if they have that want to feel pain or move fast or make themselves pay. In writing I use individual sports (running, climbing) as a way to tap into a character being obsessed about something within—an inner turmoil, maybe—while the characters who participate in team sports (football, baseball) are often fixated on something external—a want to please others or someone in particular. It’s an old trick, maybe, but it’s one that seems to work over and over.
MR: Ha! Yes, I run long distances, too, and yes, it’s weird how the pain of running is tied up with the pleasure of it. This is something I think about a lot. Running is like writing in that way, too. For me, and maybe for all writer-runners, writing and running are always linked. I can’t help comparing them. Besides what we’ve already talked about here, both are mostly solitary. Even if you run with other people, there’s still a solitary component to running, because there’s this whole internal conversation happening when we run, but, also, most of the time I do run alone, and that’s part of the pleasure of running—being alone with my thoughts, but also with the natural world, which is to say, I guess, that I’m not really alone. I’ve encountered bobcats, coyotes, desert tortoises, javelinas, and rattlesnakes, to name a few.
Speaking of animals, there are quite a few animals in these stories—from crabs to fish to snakes to alligators. Why do you think there are so many animals in your stories? Is this a conscious decision?
LR: Definitely a conscious decision. I love animals, especially wild animals. One of the things I always find fascinating is how animals cohabitate on the earth with humans. Bringing these creatures into fiction reminds me (and the characters) that we have no idea what we are doing on this planet. Animals don’t seem to mind. But we mind. And it’s something we can’t get over.
I remember when I was younger, and I walked into the heart of Times Square in New York City. Having grown up in a small town in the Midwest, I felt as if I was walking into a cartoon. So many screens and sounds coming at me. So many voices and smells and sensations. A complete sensory overload. I felt like I was entering the epicenter of humanity—a place of profound significance. But then I looked around, and there were all these pigeons flying laps around the square. Circling the masses and darting in and out of the digital screens. I had no idea what they were doing. Probably shitting on everything. And I loved them. Because here we were—these humans—taking ourselves so seriously. So wrapped up in ourselves. And the birds were floating above us all, and they were like “this is the weirdest lake I’ve ever been to.”
Luke Rolfes’ first book Flyover Country won the Georgetown Review Press Short Story Collection Contest, and his second book Impossible Naked Life won the Acacia Fiction Prize from Kallisto Gaia Press. His novel Sleep Lake is forthcoming from Braddock Avenue Books. He teaches creative writing at Northwest Missouri State University, co-edits Laurel Review, and served as a mentor in the AWP Writer to Writer Program.
Michelle Ross is the author of three story collections: There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award; Shapeshifting, winner of the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Fiction Award (November 2021); and They Kept Running, winner of the 2021 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (April 2022). Her work is included in Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, the Wigleaf Top 50, and will be included in the forthcoming Norton anthology, Flash Fiction America. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review.