The first FLASH on the FIVE of 2021 comes from the fantastic Split Lip Magazine. Split Lip has long been a favorite of mine. It is a paying market that showcases fiction, poetry and art that often have their finger on the pulse of pop culture. This particular story – “Dead Rabbits” by Ryan Jones– was the first runner-up in their Flash Fiction Contest in early 2020. You’ll see that it’s a story very worthy of the honor. I invite you to check it out in the link below and then come back here for an insightful interview with the author.
FAVORITE LINE: I nodded and tried to listen, but the whole time my brain was going: dead dad dead dad dead dad.
Admittedly, this might have been the hardest FLASH on the FIVE story so far in terms of trying to choose a favorite line. And not because there weren’t any standouts. Quite the opposite. What I love most about this story is the voice of the narrator. It’s distinct, it’s authentic, and it’s honest. And this is one of those lines that simply nails the voice. It gives us readers an all-access pass to what he’s thinking and feeling, unfiltered. I also love this story because it reminds me of what flash fiction can do. Is this a story about grief? About once-close friends coming back together for a moment? About father-son relationships? About growing up as mixed-race? Yes, to all of the above! This story shows us just how much you can get our of a few hundred words, when done well. And the ending! If you haven’t already, I suggest you read the last paragraph one more time. I get something new out of it each time I read it.
And very grateful to Ryan for his thoughtful answers here:
1) I'm always curious about where stories come from, that first tiny seed. What was the inspiration or idea-spark for “Dead Rabbits”?
With this one it was the first sentence. It popped in my head and stayed there, and I liked the rhythm and the starkness of it. I know people always talk about being impressed with long winding sentences, and maybe it’s just my short attention span, but my eyes tend to glaze over with those. The sentence itself came from the fact that I knew a boy named Michael growing up whose dad passed away when we were in high school. Our relationship was very similar to the one between the narrator and Michael, but this story was more of a "what if?" idea than anything based in fact.
2) There is so much to love about this piece. I counted the themes/issues addressed (at least 6!) And all in a small piece of flash fiction! But above all else, I love the voice of the narrator. That’s really what carries the story for me. Can you talk to how/where that voice came from? Pieces of you? People you know? Or just really tapped into this character?
Voice is everything for me. For the longest time I never knew what people meant when they talked about "voice" in writing. I thought it was one of those filler words to describe a story you didn't know how to compliment any other way. But after reading writers like Bryan Washington and Marlon James I'm understanding it better. In a first person story like this, it’s just about capturing how people really talk in the most concentrated way. It's about, as the writer, being invisible to the reader. That's what I was trying to do here. I don’t know where the voice came from. I just went with whatever felt natural for a kid like the narrator to say at that age, dealing with that situation.
3) There is a small subtle line, that could easily be glossed over – “A few years later and Michael would be dead.” Whoa! Such a heavy line that comes and goes as quick as the train. Can you talk about when you knew that line was a part of this story and its significance?
It was in the first draft. This story was a weird one because it only went through a couple drafts. The voice was there early, and after that, the drafting was all about subtext. Michael dying young and his dad dying relatively young, etc. I'm interested in the idea of people who burn too bright. Me? I don't think I even burn, let alone bright enough. But there’s some people in this world who live so freely and truly that it seems enviable but, ultimately, unsustainable. Michael, to me, is doomed in a sense. His light might not burn so bright externally but given his art and how he figured out how to do what he did with the fence, there’s a lot there inside of him.
4) There is some really nice symbolism at the very end. And in general, I’ve always been on the fence (pun intended) when it comes to symbolism. But this is not heavy-handed, the story’s meaning does not depend on it, and it’s handled so perfectly. What is your stance and/or approach when it comes to symbolism in stories in general, and where it fits into this one?
I think if it comes naturally then it can work. Cliches definitely play a role in whether or not symbolism is gonna fly in a story. If people have seen the same symbols over and over in story after story, it's gonna lose its juice. Stories that work the best to me are weird and specific in their weirdness. Animals have been used time and time again as symbols in fiction so the rabbits had to be weird in the story, or at least subversive. The rabbits at the end came as a surprise to me. I set out writing this having no idea what Michael was going to show the narrator. The only hint I had was that Michael was an artist, and maybe not the most verbose person in the world, so I realized his mourning process would probably take the form of something visual. I knew I liked the suddenness and energy of a train, but I didn't want Michael's art on the train, since that's cliche. I liked the idea of the ambiguity of the drawing on the fence and the way it could work with the moving train. Does the narrator see an optical illusion that Michael set up? Or is it actually some magic? Who knows?
5) What are you working on now, and where can we see more of your writing?
I'm currently about 3/4ths of the way through the first draft of a long manuscript. It’s about Oakland and the movie industry and ethnic ambiguity. We'll see what becomes of that! Any other writing news I have can be found at @ryan_jones_30.