Sally Reno: I love your SOS piece Higher and Harder! Tell us something about how it came to be, your inspiration, your process
Paul Beckman: I’m in a writing group and we take turns putting out prompts. This prompt was to pick the title of a couple of books in your house and write a story using the titles. I picked Elie Wiesel’s Soul’s on Fire and Italo Calvino’s The Path to the Nest of Spiders.
I had no idea what I was going to write about. The first sentence came to me and I followed sentence after sentence with what seemed logical to the writing and ended up with an ending unlike anything I’d written before. This is my basic writing process. I rarely know an ending much less a complete story when I begin.
SR: Today you are published/publishing just everywhere and kind of setting the world on fire. When did you think of yourself as a writer and was it always your plan to concentrate on writing when you retired from the daily grind.
PB: I’ve always written a lot and submitted frequently during the manila envelope and stamped return envelope days. I wake up anxious to write and go to sleep thinking of stories. The only difference between being retired and writing and working is that I somehow had more free time when I was working. I knew that I’d continue to write as well as travel and use my photography skills above and beneath the water. It’s worked out that my photography has taken a back seat to writing and I’m not surprised. I find it hard to devote anywhere near equal time to two creative endeavors. So my original plan proved the old adage “Man plans—God laughs.”
SR: Your writing is well known for its humor. We know that the comic is harder to do well than tragic. Do you have any professional tips for us on how to get to funny?
PB: I see both the humor and the tragic all around me and both manifest themselves in my writing. I don’t plan to add humor—it comes out as part of the story or it doesn’t. If I have a tip, it’s to allow yourself as a writer to see the bizarre in all of the situations around you. I was told that my story Family Healing, which was one of the winners of The Best Small Fictions 2017, was aided in being chosen because of the humor injected in a serious situation. I write a lot about dysfunctional families and relationships and those subjects lend themselves to the tragic/comic mix.
SR: Your narrative characters are often flawed, frequently grumpy or angry, sometimes combative. Yet, they are always likeable and relatable. They make me think of Lenny Bruce’s famous tag line, “We’re all the same schmuck.” Please tell us how you achieve this, and talk about your relationships with your characters.
PB: There’s an old saying, “You never know what’s going on behind someone’s closed door.” I imagine I know and can put myself in their place or insert myself in a position to watch what goes on.
The smiling glad-handler’s a tyrant to his family; the goody-goody kids are screwing and doing drugs. The Rabbi is a misanthrope unbeliever. The true innocents are the little kids. My characters seem to choose the paths they take and insist on going in that direction. Years ago I was in the Anderson Street Workshop in New Haven, run by the wonderful writer and teacher, Alice Mattison, and she used to talk about her characters dictating where they should be going and how to get there. My characters role play so often to become what you call the ‘likeable’ and ‘relatable.’
SR: Your wheelhouse is at the shorter or micro-fiction end of the flash spectrum. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the short-short-shortest form generally and your reasons for being attracted to it.
PB: Unless there’s a requirement for a specific word count (and most of those are in the lower range) I do not set out with a goal to write to a short-short piece. One of the great things about writing flash is that you write what you write and stop when you’re finished. Nancy Stohlman, a writer, mentor and editor of mine told me to “arrive late to the story and leave early.” That has been a great piece of advice that has allowed me to write a story and then rewrite it in half the word count and if necessary come to a compromise. I also learn by reading flash and short-short flash stories and am often in awe of how much a good writer can say in one or two hundred words.