Tyler Barton is the co-founder of Fear No Lit, the organization responsible for the 2019 Submerging Writer Fellowship. He is the author of the flash fiction chapbook, The Quiet Part Loud (2019), which won the Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest from Split Lip Press. His fiction can be found in Kenyon Review, Subtropics, Gulf Coast, Paper Darts, and is forthcoming in The Iowa Review. Find him at tsbarton.com or @goftyler.
I read The Quiet Part Loud in a single sitting. Sort of. These 11 flash fictions enthralled me, but I had to pause between them, or reread the one I had just finished, let my mind run over each one again before I could leave the character, situation, or story and move on to the next. The characters Barton introduces to us are often nameless, or have a single letter we know them by, but each is individually distinct, experiencing life from a unique vantage point. You will know them intimately by the time you turn the last page.
I corresponded with Tyler via email about character development, writing flash fiction, and the value of reading stories aloud.
Kelsey Ward: The Quiet Part Loud is an incredible collection of flash fictions. We’re given a brief snapshot of a character before we’re swept away again. What draws you to these passing moments? How do you keep from being caught up with all the other aspects of their lives?
Tyler Barton: That’s a good question, and a hard one to answer, as every story has its own unique process. Two of these stories, “Hiccups Forever” and “Out, Out” had about 10 other pages of materials before I discovered everything could be told much simpler and more directly. For "Hiccups," I figured out how to condense the first two acts of a longer story into a single page—then all I had to do was my favorite thing: make the sentences as perfect as possible, every detail correct and colorful. For “Out, Out,” you’re reading the final 2 pages of a 12 page draft. Soon after finishing the draft, I discovered that the entire story was really told in that final scene. When I cut those two pages out and put them on their own, all I had to do was make sure the details were there to get the reader up to speed.
Other stories in this were written for a very specific purpose: to be read a loud to a crowd full of other writers, so I wanted to be short, powerful, funny, and fresh in every sentence. Writer’s Bloc was a monthly reading in grad school, and I made it a point to never miss a reading, to always have something to share that I was super proud of.
Lastly, I’ll admit I have short attention span, and I like to pick up characters for short periods of time when I can. I work primarily on longer stories, and when I decide I’m going to a pursue a story fully, I know it’s going to be a months-long relationship with these characters. In flash, it can be a nice two-week fling. (That’s not to say I don’t spend months more tweaking and revising stories though.)
KW: The characters you write about are all very young, teenagers and early twenties, or they’re looking back on their youth, like our narrator in “K,”. Why are these characters the best choice for telling these particular stories? What do young characters have, expose, bring to life that older characters don’t?
TB: It wasn’t until I moved away from the place I grew up in that I was able to write about it. When I moved to Minnesota in 2015, I started to discover these stories from my teenage years fighting to come out, whereas when I was an adult living in Pennsylvania, (30 minutes from my hometown, still hanging out with my old friends every weekend) I never saw our stories as material for fiction. But in Minnesota these anecdotes poured out of me. Grad school was a period of two years where probably 75 percent of my work was all about teens or children getting into trouble.
I think I realized that the motivation for me and all my friends (we lived in the country) was that we just wanted to be seen. Or at the very least, I did. We filmed everything we did and were always starting bands or pranking people in school or at the mall, just wanting so bad for someone to look at us, yell at us, or best of all, laugh at us. When I had that realization, it fueled my writing immensely, plus I had all these stupid-funny antics from my teenage days that made for fun storytelling.
KW: As already mentioned, all the stories in The Quiet Part Loud are flashes. What draws you to this form? Similar to my earlier question, what do you feel flash fiction can accomplish that other forms can’t?
TB: I think it’s much easier to experiment in flash fiction than it is in a longer story. As compared to a 10-20 page short story, I think the flash reader is willing to put up with more leaps, voices, weird structures, or just general loudness/wildness. I’m not sure I’d want to read (or write) a 20-page story told in epistolary form with numbered fragments (“K,”), or a 12-page story where every line starts with “My boss” (“Divebombing…”), or even an 8-page story with the frantic energy of “Mannequins”. I think flash is the frontier for fiction. The rise of flash has breathed life into the short story genre as a whole.
Because honestly, I usually love a 16-page story more than I do a flash, but all the things I’ve learned from flash have worked to make my longer stories a lot more vibrant, voicey, fun-to-read, and chance-taking.
KW: We see so often that chapbooks and story collections have a “title story,” that bears the weight of representing the work as a whole. Your chapbook dodges that convention, how did you decide on the title and think about it in relation to these stories?
TB: The title of this chap has kind of a lame story behind it. The chapbook was originally titled Get Empty. I submitted it to Split Lip as Get Empty, and it was that way until November of 2018, when I was at a residency working on my full-length collection and realized that, without a doubt, Get Empty was the only title for the full-length. So I stole it. Then, I spent 6 hours writing chapbook titles in my notebook, mostly collecting scraps from all the different notes I have in my phone (pieces of language I overhear, things I see on the street, things my dog does). I came up with five that I liked, and then I read them all aloud at dinner that night (there were 5 other writers staying in the lodge with me on this residency). They gave feedback and then voted. The Quiet Part Loud won. I like the title a lot, and I think it fits really well with the energy of these stories, though I will admit it’s weird to think how late in the game and almost artificial the process was to reach it.
KW: There’s a recurring theme of video and video cameras in these stories. In “Hiccups Forever,” our narrator obsessively watches and rewatches their house exploding due to a gas leak. In “Divebombing…” our narrator works for a security company watching the cameras for illegal activity, or at least, he’s supposed to. And in “K,” our narrator watches an old video of his friend(?) breakdancing, often showing it to his young daughters. It appears that video is working most often as a facilitator of memory, allowing characters to relive their experiences in the present. How do these external memories characterize them in a way that internal flashback doesn’t? How else is video functioning in these stories?
TB: In a lot of my fiction, characters are motivated by the desire to be seen, to elicit a reaction that proves they are seen, to see themselves and like what they see. Video cameras come into my stories all the time. The main reason is that, from the earliest age, my friends and I were obsessed with recording everything we did, even if only to sit around and watch ourselves on a screen. I’m pretty sure I’ve always been vain in this way. We would take videos of us jumping out of trees to scare cars, zooming in to try to get a glimpse of the driver’s face. We loved Jackass and Trigger Happy TV. I also came of age as the internet was coming of age, and the idea that your video could be seen by millions was intoxicating. It’s probably very American, and it probably has everything to do with Capitalism. But I’m more interested in documenting/describing how this desire feels, and less what it means.
Also, I guess the video lives forever, and since I was old enough to know what death was, I knew that we don’t.
I have a recent flash story in Wigleaf that tackles all of this very directly. These themes that the chapbook kind of revolves around, that story (“Gainer Over Hidden River”) goes right to the heart of. I wish I could add it to the chapbook, as a kind of epilogue. These ideas are also at the heart of many of my longer stories, so it’s been on my mind a lot lately.
KW: I noticed you have a lot of experience planning and producing literary events and you co-founded the literary organization, Fear No Lit. Can you tell me more about that?
TB: Ten years ago, when I first arrived at Millersville University (for my undergrad degree), I discovered that the school’s literary magazine was defunct. Also, there was no creative writing club. This disappointed and motivated me. With the invaluable help of other lonely campus writers, we started a weekly creative writing club, and eventually we re-started the magazine.
Through this I learned that what motivated me to write was the time I spent building community with other writers. I knew that these spaces were what could fuel me to finish stories and to start new ones. Again, everything comes back to audience. I knew that Eliot at the Creative Writer’s Guild meeting would ask me, “So what are you working on?”, and I had better have something to tell him about. This has carried through into every phase of my life since.