Exploring the art of prose


Interview: Tommy Dean

alt text: image is the cover of a book called HOLLOWS; title card for Jill Witty's new interview with Tommy Dean


In Hollows, Tommy Dean’s first full-length flash fiction collection, the narrative lens captures everyday humans at a pivotal moment, where one decision will change everything. Three boys enter the woods carrying a gun. A divorced teacher borrows money from his ex-wife’s boyfriend, telling himself he won’t drink at school again. A woman who longs to be pregnant spots a baby left alone in a car. Dean’s language unfurls as sharp and unflinching as his characters, as in the story “Rock, Paper, Scissors”: “Some days I pretend we never met. No bridge, no pact, no death.”

If flash fiction were a foreign language, Dean would be the dean of the full-immersion program. In addition to serving as editor of Fractured Lit, a flash-only literary magazine, he teaches frequent workshops on the form and writes his own flash-length stories. “I’m almost always thinking in flash,” Dean admitted to me in a recent phone conversation. Given his rich expertise, I was eager to pick his brain about the future of flash, how he created his collection, and how his roles as teacher and editor shape his approach to writing.

—Jill Witty

Jill Witty: Between Fractured Lit and your former role (as flash fiction editor) at CRAFT, you’ve read thousands of works of flash fiction. How has that experience changed your approach to writing flash?

Tommy Dean: I came to flash as a reader first, before being a teacher or an editor. I wanted to see what kind of craft risks people were taking, because flash allows a writer to take risks. One thing I noticed is that you need an engaging opening to get readers interested in your story, because there are so many ways for readers to be distracted—TikTok, Wordle, you name it. As writers, we’re always on borrowed time. I feel that way as an editor, but also as a writer.


JW: Can you describe your writing process? If you have an hour to spare, do you tend to come to the page with certain ideas in mind, or do you follow the inspiration that hits when you’re staring at the blank screen?

TD: Usually when I come to the page, it’s because a character is saying something to me, or because I have a first line in mind. That first line is usually what anchors me into the story, and it rarely changes. From there, after the first line comes the idea of a character and a point of view.


JW: Many of your characters are grappling with something dramatic, for instance, a brother who got killed in a war. You said once that writing was like method acting. Do you think you’re trying to work something out for yourself in the way you shape your characters?

TD: I try to put myself directly—mentally and physically—in the situation with my character as much as possible. It can be exhausting, moving through the actions of your character, empathetically putting yourself in their life. I’m also working out my fears. I have a lot of fears about dying, my kids dying, bodily harm, violence and injury; about not fitting in and not being loved. I don’t want to write directly about my feelings, and that’s why I don’t write creative nonfiction, because I don’t want to put myself in that vulnerable space when those moments were real. I want to write stories about fictional characters that may be taking on bits and pieces of my own fears and my own desires, but also melding them with characters that I invent.


JW: Why do you write in flash? What about the form resonates with you most?

TD: I’m almost always thinking in flash. In fact, if I start to write a lot of exposition, I worry I’m not going to be able to end it within 1,000 words. The container of a flash is a great challenge, and the pressure of the word count can be fun. You have to contain the exuberance to make the story fit. One of the ways I do that is by limiting backstory as much as possible. I give just enough for the reader to make inferences of what happened, or of what’s happening in the white space. The white space can provide little pockets of story that the reader’s subconscious fills in whether they know it or not. They get to the end and they feel something and they might not know why they’re feeling it. One explanation is that the writer knew what to leave out.


JW: Can you tell me about the title of the collection? What does “Hollows” mean to you, as a theme or through line of these stories?

TD: I think of hollows as those little spaces of safety, a place to figure things out, to make an attempt to fix or correct, a place of reckoning and discovery, a place where a character’s life changes or shifts for just a moment. The stories collected here are obsessed with entering and leaving hollows, with characters desperately yearning for something better, more intimate.


JW: Talk me through how you put this collection together. You said it took ten years. How did you choose which stories made the cut? Did the title come first and you shaped the stories around the idea of hollows, or did the title come later?

TD: When I’m writing, I think in small moments, and for this collection, I wanted to assemble a lot of small moments that went together. In the beginning, I didn’t have a title in mind. It wasn’t until I hit on the word hollows, which is the title of one of the stories in the book, that I knew what I was working toward. How could I collect things that go with this vulnerable voice, whether it’s coming of age, or moments between parents, between siblings, things that happen right before big moments.

As far as which stories made the cut, for a while I was thinking every story had to be a perfect gem that every reader would love, and I was driving myself crazy. More recently I’ve been thinking about albums, about B sides, the songs the artists really wanted to make, but they’re not hit singles. They might be skipped on the CD. Not every story in this book is one that every reader is going to love, and that’s okay. As the author, you learn to let go.


JW: I noticed in your collection a bias toward bringing us right into a conflict, even to the extent where the reader might feel a little disoriented initially, saying, Wait, where am I? Who am I?

TD: I want to create intrigue and excitement, but I want the reader to trust me to tell them a good story as well. One of the ways to do that is by providing stakes for the character right away. Flash has to be immediate. There’s no time, as there would be in a movie or a novel, for things to be great, and then one day, things turn bad. In flash, things are bad right now. I want to see how a character is going to get out of this bad situation.


JW: Your story “Filaments of Air” is one in which the opening creates that tension. It begins, “I’ve got the sharp, little scissors palmed in my hand, and I’m waiting in line.” As a reader, I was in the dark, feeling for the walls, trying to figure out who the narrator was, why she had scissors, what line she was in. Did you intend to make this story a kind of mystery?

TD: This is one of the ways in which flash differs from a traditional short story. At the beginning, you’re lost. Some readers are going to bomb out very quickly. But since it’s flash, it’s so short, you might be willing to go along for the ride. The story begins with a very small lens that slowly opens as the narrator allows it to open. She knows exactly where she is. She wants one thing in this story. The reader only gets what she allows you to have. Think of a David Lynch film, where the camera is on a pinpoint. Or like the Coen Brothers in Burn After Reading. You’ve got these characters, and you don’t know what’s going on, but you say, okay, here are some things that are happening, and eventually, it’s all going to make sense. This story might be like that.


JW: Which story was the hardest one for you to write, from an emotional standpoint?

TD: “Hollows,” the title story. It took me four or five years to write. It’s mostly true, and I tried to write it as creative nonfiction, but I couldn’t distance myself enough from the material. I wanted it to work so well, because it was a dramatic, real-life event. I tried six, seven, eight different ways of writing it, mostly nonfiction, and the way that broke it open for me was fiction. What would happen with two boys, lying in the road, and one wants to get up but the other says, well, I’m anchored to you. In the other versions, I was overriding the story with how I was feeling when it happened to me, but in this version, I tried to show the point of view of how the character is feeling.


JW: When you talk about getting inside the characters’ heads, I’m reminded of “Here,” the story that opens the collection. Each paragraph begins with how “We all live,” like a chorus, the voice of a community. The “we” includes the reader, but I’d argue the community you describe is not necessarily a place the reader wants to be. When I read, “We all live ignorantly here,” I think—yikes. I don’t want to live that way.

TD: The story takes a risk. I don’t normally write out of anger or frustration, but when I wrote that story, I felt stuck in a place where I saw what was happening, but I didn’t want to be a part of it. I was mad. I live in a red state, and I’m not red at all; in fact, I’m shifting further left all the time. I was looking at the world around me, in my neighborhood, my community, and it’s not necessarily me, but it’s the community I live in. In the story, there’s this dissonance: they’re facing the same challenges as everyone in that community, but they, the “we,” of the story, may or may not be making it better.


JW: This person who’s an insider but maintains an outsider’s perspective, seeing what’s wrong and wanting to make it better—is it fair to say that’s your role in the writing community? I mean, you’re a writer, but also a teacher, an editor, and a reader. You see writing from the inside and the outside.

TD: I’m trying to build a community that I lacked when I started writing. I got my MFA in a low-residency program, and my cohort wasn’t that close. I desperately wanted to talk to writers, to thank them, to learn from them, to hear the smart things they were saying about writing. I read hundreds of interviews with writers because that was the closest I could get to them. Writing has made me a whole person. If something like writing is hard, like let’s not make it any harder by worrying about who published what or who won what award. Whatever I contribute, I’m going to get back tenfold or a hundredfold, and I think that’s a good way to build community. I love to teach writing because I want to help people improve their writing but also be inspired to write. Sometimes just having someone else point something out in a story can make all the difference.


JW: In the early days of flash, the idea was the container, the word count, and flash fiction was akin to miniaturized short stories. But these days, I see flash fiction trending toward the daring and cutting edge, something we haven’t seen before, whether that’s through inventive structure, an unusual character, or an outlandish situation. As an editor, where do you think the form is headed? Do you worry that with this pushing of the boundaries, we’ll begin to lose focus on the core of what makes a story satisfying, such as character arc?

TD: I think there’s room for all kinds of storytelling. I don’t know that we’ll ever get to the point where we’re all just staring at a black screen and calling it a story. I think the idea in some ways is to write with as much compression as possible and still be able to tell a story. There’s room to play with structure, with craft ideas and craft elements. Part of the fun of flash is that you can lop off sections and not use them, and the reader fills in the white space. Maybe you don’t need a climax. Maybe the climax comes at the beginning. You can tell a story in reverse order, like “Currents” by Hannah Bottomy Voskuil. Not every story can be told that way; not every story can have no dialogue or no backstory. We readers are always going to help them by filling in the missing pieces. The more you can rely on the reader as a teammate, the less you write. Flash will survive as long as readers still love what we’re doing, or, if not love, then as long as the words make them feel something.


JW: What’s next for you?

TD: I’m working on my next collection, I think. I’m about a third of the way through. The stories are about what happens before violence, the event before the event. Now, every time I sit down, I have a theme in mind, and the writing follows. This one won’t take me ten years, I hope.


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 Fictions 2019, Monkeybicycle, and numerous other litmags. Find him on Twitter @TommyDeanWriter.

JILL WITTY writes novels, nonfiction, and short stories from Richmond, Virginia. Her writing won the Writer Advice Flash Fiction Contest 2020 and has been nominated for Best Microfiction, Best Small Fictions, and the Pushcart Prize. Her best days include running, speaking Italian, eating dark chocolate, walking her dog, and reading to her children. Find her on Twitter @jwitty.