Miles White is the author of the flash fiction collections Jesus Loves You but Not Today, Download the Moon, and Zen Pussy Riot, the first three books in his Canvas Sextet. He was interviewed by Miles White, a former writer for USA Today and author of “From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap and the Performance of Masculinity.” They talked by telephone.
Miles: Thank you for talking with me today.
White: Well, it’s a little difficult to get away from you. What would you like to know?
Miles: I wonder if you can tell us exactly what the Canvas Sextet is supposed to be?
White: Sure. It’s a collection of three-minute flash fiction. I write only what I can fit onto a single sheet of paper. That works out to about an 800-word story or a three-minute read. I plan to write 300 stories in two years and publish them in books of 50 stories each. That’s enough for 600 book pages, so that’s a significant body of work. With Zen Pussy Riot, I’m halfway there.
Miles: Flash Fiction runs up to 1,000 words. Why give up 200 words in an already short form?
White: I like the concept of an artist painting on a canvas. Usually there is the one canvas unless we’re talking about a diptych or a triptych, but most painters use a single canvas to render very complex visual stories. Painters have always intended to be storytellers, so this idea of telling a story on a single canvas resonated with me. My canvas is a single sheet of paper. I have to keep the story on that one page and have it be good. That’s the challenge I set for myself.
Miles: How is that working out?
White: Well, I’ve written 150 stories. I think most of them are OK to pretty good. I don’t think any of them are total failures. I think I’ve gotten the rhythm of it down. Stories usually come to me pretty much fully formed. If I overwrite I just go back and trim it until it fits onto the page.
Miles: It seems like a bit of a gimmick.
White: Then cubism was a gimmick for Picasso and drip painting was a gimmick for Jackson Pollock. You could even say Yoknapatawpha County was a gimmick for Faulkner. Look, a guy says to himself ‘here are the parameters I want to create within’ and he tries to do it. If he does it well then maybe he stumbles upon something universal within those narrow parameters.
Miles: Are your stories universal? I mean there is much about your characters we don’t learn.
White: My characters have diverse backgrounds, but I like that people can have some blanks to fill in on their own. I would like to think I transmit ethnicity, personality, character and other personal traits through dialogue although a lot of my writing is descriptive as well. Anyway, why not let the reader figure some of it out? You have to do that with flash fiction anyway.
Miles: Your titles are fairly opaque. They don’t tell you a lot about the story. Is that deliberate?
White: Sure, there’s some misdirection there. You can’t give away the ballgame up front. But titles are important. I always start with titles. Maybe you don’t figure out how it works until the end, but they’re not there just to obfuscate. They do have meaning.
Miles: What are we to make of Zen Pussy Riot? Is it about a female punk band from Russia?
White: If I told you that then I would be giving away the story, but I will say that it’s absurd. A lot of my stories are absurd.
Miles: And Jesus Loves You But Not Today? Doesn’t Jesus love you every day?
White: Again, I don’t want to give away how that works in the story, but I put it out there to ponder the question of why bad things happen to good people, even good Christian people. Is it God’s will? Sometimes it is the will of evil; sometimes evil wins the day.
Miles: Many of your stories often take on dark, violent and graphic themes. Why so?
White: The United States is often a dark and violent place, but I try to explore a range of topics. Everybody is not going to like all of the stories, but everybody will like some of them. But the next collection, My River Runs to You, will be stories about love, unrequited love, and loss.
Miles: You have self-published the first three books in the series. Will you self-publish the rest?
White: I will self-publish as long as I need to. Am I going to wait around until somebody likes it enough to give me a deal? I mean, sure I’d like a publishing deal, but my phone’s not ringing, so I should do nothing? I’m on Amazon, I’m in the Apple bookstore, and I’m in Flash Fiction Magazine and some literary journals. I’m putting it out there any way I can. I’m no Amanda Hocking, but she really showed writers they can DIY. I have nothing to lose by doing it myself.
Miles: You have three more books to finish. When will they be ready?
White: I wrote the first 100 stories in six months but then it took me six months to write the next 50 pieces. The stories are coming slower now. I hope that’s because they’re getting better. I keep trying to come up with fresh storylines that deal with common human experience. I don’t do fantasy. Human beings interacting in day to day life is a big enough field to play on, which is why I love Faulkner. He never had to leave Mississippi. My Mississippi is a single sheet of paper and the people who live on it.
Miles: Thank you for your time.
White: No problem. My time is your time.