Saturday, February 28, 2015

Salvatore Buttaci - Italian-American master of flash fiction

Today I would like to welcome another author from All Things That Matter Press, Salvatore Buttaci, a man of a thousand voices, who has made a name for himself writing short fiction.  He is the author of two anthologies, Flashing My Shorts and 200 Shorts, as well as an Italian-American anthology A Family of Sicilians.
MJN:  One of the misconceptions is that writing flash fiction is easy, due to the length of each piece, but in reality, it's a very demanding form, something an author "graduates" to. Each piece has to be its autonomous universe. There are too many vignettes that are being passed as shorts.

SB: The brevity of flash fiction describes it, but does not define it. A short-short fiction story must fall within a certain number of words, but the emphasis should be placed first on the composition of words, and second, on the number. Flash fiction is like haiku poetry: size matters, but the narrative world it delivers must be in a sense a galaxy. Each flash is a bag of beans, yes, but a bag of magical beans. Readers who venture into the quick read can elevate their reading pleasure high on the beanstalk of reader satisfaction.

So what then is the responsibility of flash writers? No different than that of short story writers, novelists, memoirists–– all those who tell a story and therefore are required to follow the rules of storytelling. The essential elements cannot be overlooked. An interesting, though often a simple, plot must be developed with the right amount of narration, dialogue, description, exposition, all the while with an eye to length. Flash authors ride out their stories with hands tightly on the reins. They need to hook the readers, keep them interested throughout, and then at the end let them walk away satisfied and hungry for more flashes.

Though some call it sudden fiction, I suppose one could say a writer does not suddenly come to writing flash. In my own case, the short paneled stories of childhood comics, Christ’s parables, my father’s lesson-teaching stories, the shorter fictions of reputable writers found in our English textbooks –– all of these influenced my writing. They taught me to tell the story but be quick about it, which encouraged me to study how-to manuals and read short-short fiction. In doing so, I learned a story could be told in under a 1,000 words, the key being how far I could go with edits and revisions without hurting the story.

One of my flashes called “Fifty Cents” is found in my book 200 Shorts. It was published in Blink/Ink in June 2010 and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. It contains only fifty words.

Brian’s father gave him fifty cents. Brian placed church quarter in his left trouser pocket, and his weekly allowance quarter in his right trouser pocket.

Climbing the church steps, coin in hand, he dropped it and watched it roll down the street grating. He patted the pocket that held his allowance.

MJN: I already compared you to one of my favorite actors, Lon Chaney. He was known as the "man of a thousand faces". And you are the "man of a thousand voices". Clearly, your repertoire spans so many styles and tones, it's hard to believe your shorts were written by the same person. Do you feel like you are trying on different masks, or do you think that all these voices live inside your head at the same time?

SB: My objective in writing 200 Shorts and Flashing My Shorts has been to allow each protagonist to tell his or her story without the impediment of author appearances. I am the author but I am not what or about whom I write. The writing and arranging of different kinds of stories is a conscious effort on my part and, yes, it likewise takes a conscious effort to restrain those voices living inside my head from blurting out simultaneously. No writer welcomes towers of Babel!

MJN:  When you arrange your shorts in an anthology, do you organize them according to a theme or do you deliberately create contrast? For example, if you had one piece written in a cynical voice, would you place it with another cynical piece for consistency or something tender and uplifting by contrast?

SB: I try hard to place myself in my readers’ shoes. What would they enjoy reading? Hopefully they are my kind of reader who loves variety, so I write in more than several genres.

I consider a book of flash fiction akin to a buffet where diners move along this long table laden with all kinds of goodies to taste and savor before going on to the next treat. With the offerings of flash fiction, if a reader does not particularly like horror, the next flash might be romance or the loss of it, adventure, mystery, crime noir, fantasy or even off-the-wall bizarre. Sometimes flash collections do adhere to a particular theme; mine do not. While I enjoy a good horror tale, I don’t want to read 100 or 200 of them in the same book because it’s almost a surefire way to repeat oneself by developing the same plot with a twist of some of its elements. I think it’s easier and more creatively rewarding to present oneself as a writing Jack of all genres.

MJN: You are very much in touch with your Italian roots. Your book A Family of Sicilians, which critics have called "one of the best books written about Sicily, Sicilians, and Sicilian Americans." What do your family members think about your writing career? I'm only asking because, unfortunately, most of my family members don't understand my work.

SB: My parents encouraged my writing as early as when I was nine. My first poem was a gift to Mama on Mother’s Day. She read it, cried, called my father into the room so he could read it, cry, and pat me on the back and say, “This is better than Dante!” Of course, at nine I thought maybe Dante was an old-country friend of my parents, some shepherd from their hill town of Acquaviva Platani, Sicily, who scribbled poems while the sheep grazed. When I found out who Dante was (and who I was: a kid who could never in his wildest dreams be that Master Poet), I realized I had to keep writing for the rest of my life, not to catch up with Dante but to please my parents.

You ask if my parents understood my work? Does one in love truly understand what love is? Does a lack of understanding lessen love’s intensity?

Growing up, since my first published work, a political essay, in The Sunday New York News at fifteen, I have experienced the same level of excitation each time I see a poem, a story, a letter, an essay, a book of mine in publication. It is that childhood joy that never left me and I thank my parents and my God for it daily. And may I add that I shared the good news of each published work with my parents who would ask me to read that poem or that story and to make a copy for the folder they lovingly kept of my writing achievements. Now Mama and Papa are gone. After I write, my wife Sharon has become the second person to read my work. An excellent critic, a phenomenal reader, she has been in my writer’s corner since we married in October 1996. No surprise that I love her more than any protagonist I’ve ever written about.

I wrote A Family of Sicilians: Stories and Poems because, as an activist member of One Voice Coalition, an organization that objects to and fights against discrimination against Sicilians and Sicilian Americans, I wanted readers to see what Sicilians are really about. I included bilingual poems (both English and Sicilian), short stories and memoirs in English about my 1965 year in Sicily. I self-published it, managed to promote it myself in newspapers, magazines, radio, cable TV, libraries, etc. and managing to sell a first printing run of 1,000 copies. The book is still selling and is now available at

MJN: This is a somewhat personal question. But what the heck? That's what interviews are for. Right? You and I have something in common: ultra conservative political and social views. It's no secret that the world of literature and performing arts is dominated by people with more liberal views. I often feel secluded in my reactionary bubble. Do you feel the same? Can you form friendships with other authors whose values are different from yours?

SB: I am a bit leery of labeling views as liberal or conservative, ultra or otherwise. I have found neither one exists as totally one or the other. Too often the liberal appear conservative and the conservative, liberal. Each view espouses ideas with which I agree and disagree. As a Christian who loves Christ and tries to live a moral life, I object to whatever is socially- or politically-correct and at the same time immoral, regardless of how compassionate they seem or who advocates their acceptance, conservatives or liberals.

As a writer I do not resort to bad language or salacious writings. My intention as a writer is to entertain readers, not titillate them. I believe words have a much nobler purpose than that. I suppose this is an admission of conservative thinking. If so, let it be. I look to words that uplift, enrich, make readers laugh and cry. Some will seek out books that will satisfy their prurient curiosity. Some will argue such writings are realistic because society is geared towards repeating the f-word ad nauseam or is accustomed to indecency, but I refuse to add oil to the fire by writing to satisfy that base level of “the way things are.”

As for other authors, I have formed friendships with many of them and for that I am quite thankful. I have read and reviewed several of their books. Over the years I have managed to keep certain books separate from their authors. I may not agree with what or how they write, but in our free society they have the right to express the ideas they choose. I may not share their values. They may not share mine. Still, I do what I can to promote the sale of their books, conceding that the world’s a mixed bag. Every writer is unique in his or her slant as to what they feel will sell. I read books, I admire books, but I do not agree with all the books I read. Those I will not read are few: the ones that attempt to blaspheme against God, and those that disparage religions, races, and ethnicities.

A writer of flash fiction, I do my best to encourage readers to order my books. I do so because I feel with all my heart they are worth the purchase price and represent good examples of what flash fiction is all about. And to quote a recent buyer and reader, “What I like about your short-short fiction collections, they can be read over and over again!”

Friday, February 27, 2015

Outsource - a terrorism themed thriller by Douglas Hearle

For many journalists, writing a novel is an item on their to-do list, with a big fat star next to it. Alas, many journalists do not get to realize that dream.  They need to overcome a certain internal block and reprogram the way they present the information, especially if they work for a high-profile publication where factual errors are not permitted.  If you are in the profession of relating facts, how do you pull off that hat and put the one of a storyteller? Enter Douglas G. Hearle, a former NYC reporter and editor, who talks about his debute thriller Outsource.
MJN: Our mutual friend Julian Padowicz labeled your work as "beach read", implying that it's a page-turner that stimulates the adrenaline glands. I think the world of Julian, and take his opinion into consideration, but I am not sure I would take your book to the beach. If you were to categorize your book yourself, would you rate it as thought-provoking or entertaining? Maybe I'm too sensitive, but I don't think that global terrorism is a joking matter. We're not talking about aliens or vampires but rather real people capable of doing real damage. In your own words in the forward, "Terrorism became routine". Where does one draw the line between light entertainment and heavy literature?

DH: What I took away from Julian’s kind words about OUTSOURCE was neither “thought-provoking” nor “entertaining.” Rather, it was user-friendly for any reader. What I took great care to describe was the context in which the story unfolds. And I wrote it so that the reader is not required to be familiar with either the time nor the geography. Of course, the subject matter could never be frivolous but a reader can be interested in the story told in the novel without being a student of: international intrigue; dictatorial governments; the New York Stock exchange or hired killers.

All of the context is accurate. And, at one point during the 1980s, what happens in the book could very well have happened in reality.

MJN: Another reviewer compares you to Ludlum and Clancy. Are you flattered by that comparison? Do envision yourself joining the ranks of those authors?

DH: Now we’re talking frivolous ! Of course I do not envision myself joining the ranks of Ludlum and Clancy. But how nice to see my name in the same paragraph.

MJN: As a former New York reporter, how did you find the transition from journalism to fiction? Did you have to reprogram yourself in some ways?

DH: Journalism ceases to exist when fiction surfaces. But both require communication skills. When I consider each separately I am reminded of my first City Editor’s warm and fuzzy warnings to a young cub-reporter. “The very first time you come in here with a single detail of a single story that you cannot attribute, you’re gone!”

So, think of how unencumbered one feels when he sheds the bonds of journalism and is embraced in the supple arms of fiction.

Not a bit! Same pressure only you have to adhere religiously to the context and, in telling the tale, make up the facts that you used to find in your notebook. Without that exercise, your story simply isn’t believable.

MJN: After all the high profile stories you've covered, do you find yourself desensitized to the corruption in the world. Do you feel that you've developed a coping mechanism for turning your emotions off and just focusing on the facts?  

DH: By definition, I suppose, a person whose work takes him into “rarified air” - good or bad; evil or sanctified - needs to stay on an even keel. As a newspaperman, I played chess with a fellow on death row and later witnessed his execution. I interviewed Harry Truman, Ernest Hemingway, Liz Taylor and Fidel Castro. One Christmas season, I walked along a street in Brooklyn and looked up-close-and-personal at the bodies of scores of passengers still strapped in their seats on a jetliner which had just crashed. At the end of that trail of wreckage was a pile of snow and in the snow was an infant. Tossed free and unhurt. The only survivor. So, yes, I suppose there’s some kind of mechanism to provide that “even keel”.

MJN: In the biographic blurb you mention that your wife Mary is a professional editor and scrutinizes your work. How do you detach your marital relationship from your professional relationship? It's a two-edged sword when spouses are in the same profession. They can be each other's most valuable advisers but also harshest critics and potentially competitors.

DH: Actually, I disagree with your premise when you describe us as spouses “in the same profession”. We’re not. I am a writer and she is an editor. I have never met a writer who didn’t need an editor. The editor brings a different perspective to the manuscript - one the writer lacks. It’s a perspective which the writer could never bring to bear on his own words.
And, more importantly, a good editor knows that he/she is not writing the piece but is suggesting -from the reader‘s perspective - ways to improve it. I’ve been blessed. Often I simply yell across the hall. “Can I try this out on you?”

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Crocodile Mothers Eat Their Young - a novel by Avi Morris

Today I am honored to host a fellow All Things That Matter Press author Avi Morris.  He is here to discuss his autobiographical novel Crocodile Mothers Eat Their Young based on his experience as a foster father.  Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, but above all, for what you have done for these children.

MJN: Speaking about writing what you know!  You and your wife have actually fostered children.  I have briefly worked in childcare protection services myself, and I've reviewed case records. It's amazing how much they have in common. Each child comes with his/her own story, yet all these stories have so many common elements.  Are there any stories from your experience that you would hesitate to share in a work of fiction?

AM: I’m wrestling with just that right now in a new novel. Like "Crocodile Mothers", it is meant to be a fictionalized version of a true story of a foster child of mine.  This one has a longer, more personal history to me, because the real life child is a drug addicted relative, and my wife and I have a continuing relationship with the whole family. The short answer to your question is that there is nothing that I would hesitate to portray, but I will modify and have modified actual events in a way that gets the point across of sexual or physical abuse, drug overdose etc, without indulging in too much emphasis on the shock value of horrendous events. My focus is more on the aftermath of these situations than it is on the precipitating events.  

MJN: It's amazing how many life-altering, eye-opening journeys begin on a whim. In the beginning of the novel you have an empty-nester couple toying with the idea of providing emergency fostering. They think they are doing minimally obliging baby-steps towards fostering, and once they take those first steps, they realize there is no going back.  

AM: People go into foster parenting for different reasons. The novel is a relatively faithful portrayal of how my wife and I decided to become foster parents. She’s a teacher and was witness to many children being taken away from their family, friends, school. The reality is, I knew all along that my wife was more ready for full time foster parenting than I was.  I needed the baby steps of doing short term arrangements more than she did.  But our very first step, the three month fostering of two pubescent sisters, was well beyond the typical short term emergency placement and more of a toddler walk than a baby step.  It had many challenges and many rewards.  It also gave me the time to understand that children coming out of even the worst of situations, while clearly psychologically damaged, can be pretty much interested in everything that a “normal” child is interested in.  The reality for any placement beyond a very short emergency, is that fostering a child often means a lot of effort to meet the needs of the child and live within the dictates of the oversight state agency, with which there can be, and often are, disagreements.  

MJN: You and your wife have three children of your own. Do you believe that having biological children makes you a better foster parent in a sense that it gives you insight into a child's psyche?  Or did you have to unlearn everything you'd learned while raising your own children?

AM: It’s hard for me to know if having our own children made us better foster parents than people who don’t have their own, but I think my willingness to foster was made easier because I had parenting experience. I don’t know that I unlearned anything, but I certainly had to learn new things, one big reason is that my own three children are male, and the first case we had, and which effectively lasted over a stretch of almost five years in the case of one of them, were teen age sisters.  I think I became more vigilant of them than I had been of my own sons. Certainly part of that was that I knew my sons far better than I knew the girls.  They were kids who had been physically abused and sexually molested. They had more foster experience than we did. Their educational needs were far different from anything we had experienced with our sons.  Not only that, but they came from quite a different cultural background from my wife and me. We spent a lot of time both purposely, and I suppose by osmosis, learning about each other.  I characterize my fostering experience as a major learning experience for me. 

MJN: Let's talk about the cover.  It's mysterious in its minimalism. It looks like a curtain at a community theater.  Makes you wonder what's behind it.  The title is clearly very striking and provocative. It's meant to solicit a certain emotional response from the reader.  Yet the background is very plain.  Was that contrast intentional?

AM: The cover was the only real point of debate between my publisher and me.  We had some difficulty agreeing on the cover.  Ultimately, they proposed the current cover.  The contrast between the title and the curtain-like background is intentional. The title creates some shock, while the curtain represents some mystery, or in effect, symbolic that the terrible things that happened to the children in the story happened behind closed doors, out of the light of day.

MJN: The two foster children described in your novel are biological sisters of Latin descent.  It's no secret that in Latin culture, where family is put on the pedestal, even if that family is struggling and dysfunctional, parents do not like the idea of giving up their children, especially to Caucasian foster parents.  At least, that was my impression.  Would you agree? 

AM: I think that in general, your observation is correct.  In the case of our foster daughters, their mother, as much as she mistreated her children, always wanted them.  When they were taken from her, she fled with a third, younger daughter to keep her from being removed. We never met her except briefly, years later at the wedding of the girl who is the model for the character Tina in the novel.  I know she resented us, but I don’t know if she would have felt any differently if the girls had been placed with a non-Caucasian family. They were the only Hispanic children we fostered. There were some awkward situations when the mother’s mother was dying in the hospital and later at her funeral where we brought “Tina”.   Her extended family was there on both occasions, aunts. Uncles, cousins, and we had the sense that we were not welcome, although nobody was outright hostile. Whether race had anything to do with the reaction, I truthfully don’t know.   

MJN: I'm going to ask you a personal question.  Is there a reason why you wrote this novel under a pen name?  Is it just that you want to keep your identities as writer and parent separately, or do you want to put a distance between yourself and other foster parents and social workers for privacy reasons? 

AM: The principal reason had more to do with shielding the identity of the real children that might have been guessed in some quarters had I used my real name.  That’s also the reason other aspects of the true story were disguised, including the locale. The pen name I chose is actually a tribute to my grandfathers, because my pen name, Avi Morris, is based on their names. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Nighthawks at the Mission: Move Off-World. Make A Killing.

Nighthawks at the Mission: Move Off-World. Make A Killing. That is indeed the complete title of Forbes West's psychological sci-fi novel. Born and raised in Chicago, the author is a political science major, masterfully weaving the ideas he garnered in the classroom into speculative fiction.  If you are looking for something beyond your usual space opera, something in the spirit of the Strugatsky brothers and Rod Serling, this is the novel for you. 

MJN: In the synopsis it's mentioned that The Oberon being the last place where the American Dream is alive.  I picked up some bitter situational irony. America has always been regarded as a destination for the world's outcasts and freedom-seekers.  Now this dream has to be taken offsite?  As a first-generation American, I am still struggling to grasp that definition of the American Dream. To me it's as tangible as the Bigfoot.  In less than three hundred words, what does it mean to you?

FW: America’s a mixed bag now. There is still a lot of social mobility for those coming up from nothing- my wife’s a perfect example. She came over with zero English skills and almost zero cash. Now she’s a Statistics and Mathematics Professor making a great wage with a work schedule to kill for. But there’s also a sensation now that the window of opportunity is getting more and more closed off with each day for those who don’t have a good foundation.  You see, if there someone like my wife who comes over from an industrialized country that isn’t totally corrupt and totally morally broken with an excellent education system, yeah, they’ll prosper if they work hard. Sure. But for the true poor, tired, and hungry coming over, or for our own homegrown poor, the window of opportunity to make a new life for one’s self is closing. Businesses don’t want to pay an extra dime for their workers beyond the legal minimum and utilize their connections instead of their own skills to make a profit. The schools at the K-12 level are a joke, and in some areas the only decent job left is law enforcement or the Army (which speaks volumes about the priorities of American society).  It used to be that if you came over you’d start as a janitor and if worked hard you could own your own janitorial service and you send your kid to a decent college so they don’t have to do what you did. Now you’re just lucky if you get twenty hours as a janitor and your kid doesn’t get five years for having pot.

I think, in answer to your question about the American dream, and what that really means, I always thought of it as a few things. Making money by yourself as your own person. No real boss because you are your own boss and you enter into any contract for your services or what you make as an equal partner. No one regulating the hell out of your life with needless laws based on the idea of “for your own good” or because of stifling cultural traditions.  That your last name doesn’t mean crap and no one cares what your race or religion is because they don't think it matters. And always being able to start over fresh and in a new place if you needed or wanted to.  That’s the American dream for me. Where can you find it now? It’s somewhere out there. But it’s well hidden in today’s America when it used to be more out in the open. When I thought about The Oberon, I thought of a place where everyday Americans can chase that dream down with only some of the baggage of modern day life holding them back.

MJN: It's a very bold, obliging and restrictive move to write an entire novel in the second person, present tense. Most creative writing instructors encourage their students to be very cautious with that tempting technique.  Clearly, you pulled it off very well.  Can you think of another author who followed the same narrative format?

FW: Thank you for saying I pulled it off. I was influenced by Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City”, which was written in the second person present tense and which holds some of the themes I adopted for “Nighthawks at the Mission” such as loneliness, disillusionment in the ones we love, and how we turn to drugs and alcohol and sex to kill the pain.  I wanted to really draw the reader into the main character’s life and really have them understand the actions and the course she takes on this journey and to place the reader in the middle of her feelings. I think that the second person perspective does this uncomfortably so for some readers and I wanted all readers to sense what it was like if they were to be in the middle of the maelstrom.
MJN: There seems to be a lot of mystery around your identity.  You'd don't have a headshot on Amazon.  Some reviewers even speculated that Forbes West a pen name of another famous author.  Is this air of mystery intentional?  Do you purposely avoid personal visibility so your readers could focus on your books?

FW: The air of mystery wasn’t really that intentional. I just had it so that I keep my own privacy and be able to step out of myself and to look at my works a little more objectively.  I think that part of being a good author is to be able to really kill your darlings and really free yourself up as much as you can when it comes to your imagination with nothing holding you back. I think the fear of what others will think is one of the biggest devils for authors and having a pen name puts sort of psychological shield up against those pressures and allows your imagination to be unencumbered. Having a pen name helps in that regard.

MJN: What inspired the name of the sanctuary in your novel?  The only Oberon I can think of is the king of faeries from Midsummer Night's Dream.  Is there some clandestine Shakespearean allusion?

FW: Absolutely. The planet they go to, The Oberon, is named after the king of the faeries because the indigenous beings who reside there have a connection to magic through these orichalcum stones that the American settlers desire to have. It’s also because the dead cities that the settlers salvage from are full of high technology that might as well be magical items because they can’t be replicated (or even understood) back home in the USA.  It’s also named The Oberon since it was alluded to in the play that every time Oberon argued with his wife, the weather would be affected. Since the characters have to deal with the danger of “flash storms” in the dead cities, I thought it was appropriate to have that allusion since important plot elements and conflicts happen during these storms.
MJN: What appealed to me most about your novel was the bitter self-deprecating tone.  It's like expensive perfume - once the top note wears off, you get the layers underneath.  I actually caught myself returning to certain passages and rereading them.  I got a sense that you have read many philosophers in your lifetime.  Which philosophers shaped your worldview? 

FW: Thank you again for the compliment.  I’ve been influenced mostly by Marx and Freud. Freudian thought concerning the id and the super-ego was a major factor in shaping this book. I think that so much of our lives swirl in and out about rationalizing our actions, denying who are, and controlling our appetites while constantly thinking of what others think of us. I think that all the main characters in “Nighthawks at the Mission” follow this sort of pattern of losing control, regaining it, rationalizing what they have done or what they will do, and staying in a sort of odd denial in the aftermath. They aren’t bad people but they do make terrible decisions and I think that it is because they had trouble controlling themselves in this world of The Oberon because they are operating in a vacuum away from the super-ego of everyday normal American life and culture. At a certain point, the settlers all consciously or subconsciously realize how wide open the territory is and that at the end of the day, the only judge of their actions is really themselves. And sometimes they crack up when they understand that reality.  I think that in my life I’ve seen these battles play out with everyone I know. And to go back to Marx, I do see a system of exploitation and oppression, and of class warfare. The Oberon sees this play out just as any other colony, former colony, or third world nation has seen time and again in the 20th century. It shapes our entire shared experience and to deny it would be to deny reality. The real problem of Marxist thought is not that Marxism is wrong in diagnosing that there is a disease, because there is a system of oppression at work, but what it suggests we do once we know what the disease is. For many Marxists it was violent revolution-which is something that characters in “Nighthawks at the Mission” grapple with, as The Oberon faces a wave of terrorism affecting the new settlers because of the exploitation going against the indigenous non-human beings who live there. But violence and oppression beget more violence and oppression, not peace and a bright future, and it is a hideous cycle replacing old pigs with new pigs.