Christopher Linforth’s Directory is a short, powerful collection of flash fiction. The forty stories, which make up the book, run together to form a strange, fragmented narrative. The book falls squarely into experimental fiction, a nebulous if useful category. Directory explores the dichotomies and idiosyncrasies of the genre through the story of a pluralized narrator, part I and part we.
I saw you describe the book on Twitter as “weird.” What kind of weird is it, and how does it differ from your “normal” work? And what drove you to sort of switch modes for Directory?
I’ve never written stories quite like these before. In the past, my flash has been realist-driven, matter of fact, Carveresque for better or worse. Whereas my recent short stories have centered on my past life in Croatia and are, generally speaking, conventional fifteen-page stories. I wouldn’t label those stories normal exactly, but perhaps more traditional in form and structure. It was quite by accident that Directory came about (as I discuss below), but the experience of writing the book was a freeing, mildly transcendental, experience.
I love the first-person plural, and the pieces in Directory are all narrated by a “we,” usually at least two siblings. The POV makes the stories feel so haunting yet still natural. Did you find it difficult to work in that mode for such a sustained period? How did you keep it from reading as gimmicky? What could you achieve with the first-person plural POV that you wouldn’t have been able to in third-person or with the singular first-person perspective?
As the majority of the pieces were written in a short period, I didn’t find it difficult to keep my momentum going. They were written at a writing residency where I would eat, then write. Then eat, write. Sleep. And begin the whole process again the next day. My biggest challenge each time was that opening line. Sometimes, at the communal meals, I would ask fellow writers for an unusual word or just in conversation something would spark. Then back at my studio I would set to work and the intoxication of the heatwave would take over.
This book, I would say, narrates in the form of a pseudo-chorus. Yes, there’s a “we,” but there’s enough ambiguity for the “we” stance to be challenged by the book’s end. I won’t say more, if readers want to discover this for themselves.
When did you know this was a book? Did you write the pieces with that in mind, or did they just kind of come out that way?
I began writing the flashes during a residency in Vermont. I was meant to be working on a novel, like everyone else. An unseasonable heatwave struck, and with a lack of air conditioning, I abandoned the novel for writing in short bursts. I had a desk fan a couple of feet from my face and had it on full blast. The flashes came out three or four in a day. After a few days, I realized they were all connected, all circling similar themes. Once I was home, I wrote a few more, printed the whole lot off, then put them away in the drawer. I came back to the flashes when I saw Otis Books had an open call for manuscripts. As the press specializes in experimental and innovative literature, I set to work to make what I had into a book.
While reading, I wondered a lot if I was supposed to see the narrators as the same people in every piece or if each piece has a different narrator. Was that intentional? Are they the same person? What part does that mystery play in your goals for this book? What do you think readers gain from having that fertile absence of explicability?
I was playing with ambiguity in the voices of the narrators, as well as the number of people within the voice—sometimes one, two, or three—and to make things more complicated the tense changes from story to story. I switched these elements around as I saw fit for the story or its style. I wanted to encompass many forms of storytelling: realism, tall tales, prose poems, magic realism, vignettes, fragments, and, of course, contemporary flash fiction. This book isn’t going to be for all readers. I was aiming for readers to experience a gamut of reactions and emotions. Perhaps, all in all, they would end the book with a sense of discombobulation and relief, euphoria and dread, and a nagging urge to read the whole thing again to see what I was up to.
Directory is dark, but it’s also funny in places. If I set out to write with the subtle, dark sense of humor you show here, I’d fail; I can only be funny by accident! How similar or different is your process (like, do you also have to stumble upon funny, or can you do it intentionally), and how does humor work in this book?
Cue unfunny, serious-minded answer. But, no, you’re onto something. Humor has often played a role in my work, usually in dialogue, and in the banter, characters start to say odd or provoking things to wind each other up. In this book, there isn’t much dialogue and so humor manifests in other ways. “Apocrypha” is a camp tall tale predicated on the apocryphal Chekhov quote about capturing the glint of moonlight in a shard of glass or some such nonsense. In another of the stories, like “Timber,” I presented death through an act of levity. Or, less abstractly, a lodgepole pine falling on the mother. Humor offers a respite from the sadness of many of the stories. For me, I find “Memes” to be the saddest and the strangest of the lot.
What sorts of questions or ideas were in your mind when you conceptualized and then wrote and edited the book? Did outside events drive you toward certain concerns, or are they personal? Or both? In what way?
The first draft of the book emerged from my unconscious. Now I do not mean to sound oblique or someone with a penchant for Freud, but when I was writing Directory, I wasn’t thinking that much. The heatwave caused out-of-body dizziness within me, which I have thankfully recovered from! The editing process was another matter entirely. I had a stack of pages, which could be read in so many different orders, that it took several months of refining to get it right. I knew from the outset some of the broader themes, but then I had to work out how best to express them, and for each story to work in sequence and in conversation with the next.
If you got to pick someone to score the movie version of one of the stories, which story would you pick, and who would score or soundtrack it?
I would pick Trent Reznor. His discordant soundtracks to David Fincher’s films would suit a lot of the stories in the book. Close friends have been horrified by the events of “Cul-de-Sac” and “Initiation” yet mystified by “Folktale” and “Memes.” As the individual pieces are so short, I would ask Mr. Reznor to score the lot!
What are you working on now? How has coronavirus (or has it) changed your writing life?
I’m working on edits to my story collection The Distortions, as well as getting back into the sister book The Homeland War. Luckily, the collection has been picked up, but I can’t say much about that yet. The novel, which has been on-and-off for years, will take me a while to finish. Coronavirus didn’t waylay me at first, but as the months have dragged on, the weight of the pandemic has stymied my progress. Nevertheless, in the craziness that’s happening, my homebody life hasn’t changed that much. Yet, like most people, I hope we get through this soon. As an old professor of mine used to say, onward!