Reckoning Flash

An Interview with Tommy Dean

by Mandira Pattnaik

I have been writing Flash Fiction for about three years now. As a new writer, I read a lot. Most literary magazines have archives that are free to read, and full of gorgeous pieces. I’ve learned structure and narrative nuances and have discovered some great Flash Fiction writers. After reading Tommy Dean’s flash fiction, there could be no turning back for me. I was determined to follow and write pieces with interesting characters who wonderfully portrayed tiny slices of life. Tommy Dean is the author of Special Like the People on TV, Covenants, and Hollows. He lives in Indiana where he is currently the Editor at Fractured Lit and Uncharted Magazine.

Thanks to this opportunity, I interviewed Tommy Dean recently. Here’s what he shared with us:

Mandira: Congratulations on the great reviews for Hollows. For an outsider like me, your stories are a window to American families, relationships and the idea of home. The reader feels like an insider in these narratives. Can you tell us a little about your early life and influences/inspirations that shaped these stories?

Tommy: Thank you, Mandira! And what a great question! I’m humbled to think that my stories might be a window into a particular vision of the American family! One of the reasons I write is that I get to live multiple lives, that I get to take on personas, and experience difficult situations and conflicts! I’ve always been drawn to narrative, a rational process of story, and it’s helped to shape my own life for the better! Like a lot of writers, I use bits and pieces of my own experience with the power of imagination and the structure of story to create what I hope is a worthwhile reading experience. I started out as a reader long before I attempted to write. I wanted to do what for other readers what writers had done for me! There’s something about reading that gives me a sense of home, a sense of piece, even while being thrilled by the story. I hope to give this same experience to other readers with each story I write!

MP: Hollows focuses on stories where characters must make choices. Choices decide the course of lives. As a writer, what were the choices before you prior to deciding to become a writer? As someone who predominantly writes short-shorts, how did you make that choice?

TD: I didn’t start writing until undergrad, and even that was a bit of a fluke as I decided to take a short story writing class to fill a requirement. Through this class I was introduced to more literary writers like Carver, and also the first Sudden Fiction book, which blew my mind! That you could tell a fantastic and rich story in under 1,000 words felt like a miracle, but also something I could try! Writing a three-page story felt somehow possible. If I failed, it wouldn’t take long and I could try again. Honestly, it felt like shooting free throws alone on the basketball court, which I did a lot when I was a kid and teenager. I’m not trying to belittle the practice of writing flash and micro, because there is an art to commanding this level of compression and still telling a story, but the opportunity to fail and try again is at a level that feels possible to replicate over and over in quick succession while learning more about the craft and structure of these forms. To write and fail at writing a novel takes years. A flash may only take minutes or days. The choice to write flash also coincides with how my brain works, and how I think about narrative and form. I think or imagine in moments, in hot spots of characters’ lives, in these moments of crisis that change or cement their entire lives. I love the challenge of finding these moments and making them come alive. I like the metaphor of a single, great firework let off high in the sky!

MP: Much of the experience of any reading is about the wonderful blend of fiction, and experiences that the writer may have had. Like this passage from the title piece “Hollows” (The Lascaux Review): “Your mother lets you stay out all night on weekends while she looks for a new ex-husband. Sixteen years old, and she considers you adult enough to make your own mistakes. Heartbreak, it seems, is in your blood, passed down through a broken-limbed family tree that shakes it seeds into the wind, sprouting new relatives every wedding season.” I read in another of your interviews that it was the hardest to write. How do you attempt to bring your experiences on the page?

TD: This story was the hardest to write because I tried at first to stay to close to reality, to what really happened, but I couldn’t get enough distance from myself, from the events, and what I thought they meant to my own life. I needed more space to fictionalize it, to get to the feeling of it, rather than the “truth”. Fiction provides another kind of truth than non-fiction, one that I think cuts closer to the bone of the reader. Writing, the structure of narrative, is a manipulation of the reader, a good manipulation, but still an attempt to make them feel something for the character, for themselves. I wasn’t getting there in those first drafts. I was too worried about myself rather than crafting an experience for the reader!

MP: As someone so widely published, what is that one style/tool/skill every flash writer must acquire, in your judgement?

TD: I shrink back from the word “must”, but I’d say that any writer needs a fire for perseverance and doggedness, a passion for putting words on the page. Before publication, is always the writing! The willingness to fail and try again, to try something new, to learn from other writers and from reading as much as one can and then assimilating those craft moves into their own work, and then knowing that it will take lots of rejection before placing any stories, that publishing is a numbers game, and that writing is an act of passion and patience, which aren’t always balanced!

MP: What according to you, makes a flash fiction piece remarkable enough to stand the test of time? What is more important: conflict or character?

TD: Both! Character is revealed or created through conflict! Without conflict, there’s no pressure for characters to act on the page of the story, and that action shows us who they are, who they want to be, and whether they are getting closer to who they want to be! Describing a character doesn’t do much for the reader’s imagination, for their desire to find out what happens next! Characters in conflict ignite the reader’s brain, giving them someone to root for, to care about, to want to know what happens next! That’s the engine of story, the pleasure of narrative! I don’t just want gossip, I want to see the character struggling, reacting, breaking through or giving in!

MP: Most writers dream of writing a novel someday. Do you think every flash writer should aspire to be a novelist and consider flash as only a stepping stone, or do you think there’s more to it?

TD: Again, I shrink from the word should, because writers are free to experiment with lots of forms and narratives, and a novel is just one of them. I fight this fear, this pressure in myself all the time, thinking I should focus on a novel rather than flash, but writing flash is what I love, and what I’m good at! I don’t think of flash as a lesser form than the novel even if the marketplace disagrees! I’d like to take on the challenge of writing a novel someday, but I want that to come from the passion of the story or the intrigue of the character, not out of a sense of duty or a sense of this being the only way to be successful as a writer! There’s something so special about a chapbook of flash and micro, an intimacy of holding a small book of resonant and fantastic stories that I can read in one sitting if I choose that hold as much prestige in my mind as a novel, because I love working with this community of dedicated flash and micro writers! Our writing isn’t less than, it’s just a different expression of story, and I hope it continues to find a wider audience!

Tommy Dean

Tommy Dean is the author of two flash fiction chapbooks Special Like the People on TV (Redbird Chapbooks, 2014) and Covenants (ELJ Editions, 2021). Hollows, a collection of flash fiction was published by Alternating Current Press. He lives in Indiana where he currently is the Editor at Fractured Lit and Uncharted Magazine. A recipient of the 2019 Lascaux Prize in Short Fiction, his writing can be found in Best Microfiction 2019 and 2020Best Small Fiction 2019, Monkeybicycle, and numerous litmags. Find him at and on Twitter @TommyDeanWriter.

Mandira Pattnaik

Mandira Pattnaik writes prose and poetry in India. Pushcart, Best Microfictions and Best of the Net nominated, her work appears in Reckon Review, Passages North, Watershed Review, DASH, Miracle Monocle and others. Her writing comes from a space of the perpetual outsider. While navigating the wondrous world of popular literature, she shares chronicles of her journey through her craft essays.