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Interview with Flash Fiction Writer Michael Kechula

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A former writer of technical manuals, award-winning author Michael Kechula now focuses on what he loves most: writing speculative flash fiction. Some of his works combine nasty horror with humor. He's the author of A Full Deck of Zombies: 61 Speculative Fiction Tales. Kechula is one of the most prolific short story writers I've ever encountered on the net. Over the past four years his work has been accepted by 121 magazines and anthologies in Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, India, and the US. Last December alone he got 35 stories accepted, and he's had as many as six stories accepted by various magazines in a single day. Is his productivity a result of a pact with the devil? Read on to find out.

Thanks for being here today, Michael. Why don't you start by telling us a little about yourself?

I’m 69 years old, a retired technical writer and course developer. I’ve been writing nonfiction forever, but I didn’t start writing fiction until I was 63 years old.

I live in the Phoenix area. Lived in Las Vegas for three years where I wrote manuals for casino slot machine technicians. Before that, I lived in California in what is known as Silicon Valley where I worked for the IBM Corporation for twenty-seven years.

I now write fiction every day and critique dozens of flash fiction stories every week. Sometimes I critique novels.

I’m not a poet, and will never be one. I’m not a novelist and never will be one. I don’t think I could write a novel that anybody would care to read. I’m sure my poetry would be so bad, I’d lose my citizenship and be banished from Planet Earth.

A few years ago, I discovered a literary form called flash fiction. I joined FlashXer, a Yahoo writing group, owned by Pam Casto, a flash fiction guru. Joining that group changed my life. Almost all the hundreds of stories I’ve written have started as responses to prompts issued three times a week by Irv Pliskin, moderator of FlashXer. A prolific writer, Irv is a World War II bomber navigator who survived being shot down and confined in German POW camps.

I’m a digital photography nut. I have six digital cameras — one for various kinds of subject material. Fiction Flyer Magazine will publish my photos online starting in their next issue. I’m particularly fond of taking super macro photos where I can get the camera right inside a flower, or take a picture of, say, a bee in which you can count the hairs on its fuzzy body.

Besides being the author of 29 nonfiction books, you now also write flash
fiction in various genres, including horror. For those readers who aren't
familiar with the term, what is flash fiction, exactly?

In lieu of an adequate description of flash fiction, I’ve devised my own: a story told in as few words as possible without sacrificing a smooth read. This implies the story will move forward at a brisk pace, won’t contain superfluous details that aren’t vital to the plot, and won’t have cryptic passages that throw readers out of the story. Most magazines consider flash fiction to be a tale of 1,000 words or less. Thus, my flash fiction consists of no more than 1,000 words.

Flash fiction is a unique literary form. It’s vastly different from the literary form we call novels. Writing techniques that work wonderfully well in novels are deadly to flash fiction.

After analyzing hundreds of stories of 1,000 words or less, I’ve noticed three distinct kinds of flash fiction being published today: genre, literary, and anecdotal. To me, genre flash fiction is a tale in which a protagonist has a goal, and one or more antagonists do all they can to prevent the protag from achieving that goal. By literary, I mean stories that have little or no plot, and are loaded with artsy and cryptic details. As to anecdotal, I mean stories that tell of Grandma’s first trip to Disneyland.

I prefer writing and reading genre flash fiction, mostly of the speculative fiction genre. I consider speculative fiction an umbrella term that consists of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, plus their many subgenres. For example, two subgenres of fantasy are urban fantasy and magical realism.

I’ve taught novelists how to write genre flash fiction, at no charge. I’ve even taught my students to write a speculative fiction tale in as few as 55 words. All my students get their flash fiction published quite frequently, and some have won contests.

I used to have my own online, speculative fiction magazine, Flash Tales. Although I paid $10 per accepted story, I had to shut it down after a few months for lack of quality submissions. I found writers didn’t even bother to read the very first line of my guidelines in which I specified I wanted only sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. So, I was flooded with kiddie tales, romances, pointless literary tales, and crime stories, just to name a few. Further, writers who were obviously novelists didn’t seem to have a clue about how to write flash fiction. They approached flash the same way they did when writing a chapter of a novel. In doing so, they filled their flash with tons of unnecessary descriptions.

I’ve formulated a rule about flash fiction. I call it Kechula’s Rule #1 for Flash Fiction. It never fails to be true, and I see it in endless streams of manuscripts I critique every week. Here’s the rule: In flash fiction, excessive description = little or zero plot.

What type of horror do you write?

A heady mixture of nasty horror and humorous horror. Combining the words humorous and horror sounds like an oxymoron. However, I’ve entered contests that have asked for humorous horror. To give you a flavor of what I mean by humorous horror, I entered and won 2nd place with a story, “A Good Feed,” in which a zombie liked to tear heads off beautiful women so he could eat the contents of their skulls. And yet, he was also quite fond of chocolate chip cookies. When learning this, city officials decided to trap him by using chocolate chip cookies. How they did this and what happened when the zombie stuffed himself with cookies is what injected humor in a horror setting.

Is it hard to mix horror with humor?

I’ve found it quite easy. When writing a horror story, I often find myself getting the must ludicrous plot ideas. Very often I write several versions of the same story just for fun so I can exploit these ideas. Thus, I may develop a flash tale that’s a bit chilling, and then write a version that may give readers some chuckles. 

Tell us about your latest collection, A Full Deck of Zombies – 61 Speculative Fiction Tales. What was your inspiration for it?

Actually there were 61 inspirations, one for each story. This collection is quite broad in it’s contents. It contains speculative fiction tales that were previously published by online and print magazines and anthologies in Australia, Canada, England, and US. Several won first prize in writing contests.

I wanted to find another home for these stories as a collection. So I contacted Bob Preece, owner of Books For A Buck. He liked what he saw and we signed a contract.

To give you the flavor of this collection, which is available in both eBook and print form, here’s the blurb I wrote for the back cover: "Not all zombies are fearsome and disgusting. Some sing, dance, play musical instruments, and even tell jokes. These loveable creatures like root beer, granola bars, and chocolate chip cookies. You’ll find these fun-loving, cookie-munching zombies lurking between the pages of this book. But you’ll also read about some you’d never want to meet even if you were carrying a bazooka.

Not limited to zombie tales, this book includes a host of zany characters from outer space: ghost bugs; Martians who wear ten-gallon hats; Martians who stop commuter busses to take surveys; Martians who joyously amputate their own fingers to accumulate points for free Disneyland trips; and many more.

Then too are stories of ordinary Earth folks, like the guy next door who hugs corpses for a living, the gal down the block who falls in love with a zombie, your co-worker who snacks on alien finger sandwiches, your best pal who takes college courses with zombies, and dozens of other weirdos.

By now, you’ve guessed that most of the sixty-one stories in this book are humorous speculative fiction tales, a species not easily found. However, to keep you from busting a gut from laughter and incurring high medical costs, we’ve toned down the hilarity by in-cluding a few tales to make you cringe and hide in the closet. After reading them you may even want to seek the assistance of an exorcist.

All sixty-one stories were previously published in magazines and anthologies in Austra-lia, Canada, England, and the US. Editors called them a hoot. Readers said they were hilarious. But the dark ones aren’t funny–unless the macabre makes you break out into uncontrollable laughter."

Now that you have an idea of what to expect, buckle up your seat belt, open the book, and enjoy the ride. 

Do you outline your stories before you write them, or are you mostly a stream-of-consciousness writer?

Though I’m well versed at creating outlines from my professional writing and course development years, I never prepare an outline for a work of fiction. No need to when devising a flash fiction tale. When I get an idea, I sit in front of the computer, and start writing whatever comes to mind. Afterward, I edit my work ruthlessly to achieve my ideal of what comprises a flash fiction story.

What themes obsess you when writing horror stories?

Themes of transformation. Especially when it comes to zombies. Recall that all zombies started out as vital human beings who died, then were resurrected through nefarious means. What a concept! Corpses transformed into the walking undead. They’ve intrigued me since I used to see them in B-movies, on dish night, at movie houses in the 1940s. Even Bob Hope confronted a zombie in one of those creepy old movies.

I didn’t write my first zombie tale until I was 64 years old. Never knew I could write such stories.

This year, I’ve been particularly interested in writing tales about animated severed heads. For example, in one of my stories, a severed head floating inside a liquid-filled jar is a contestant on a TV show, “Hedonist For A Day.” He wins. The prize is a visit to a Pleasure Palace where every means of giving physical pleasure is provided continuously for twenty-four hours. He’s the first severed head to win in the history of the show. Consequently, the show’s producers are stumped on how provide the prize to a severed head suspended in liquid inside a glass jar. Especially since the head will die if it’s removed from the jar. You can see the complications. But the enterprising producers find a way, adding a further dimension of horror. 

If you were a character in one of your own stories, which storyline you'd definitely not want to experience?

I wouldn’t want to be the detective in “Searching For Dr. Harlow.” He gets a contract to find an Anthropology professor who disappeared in Haiti while searching for zombies. The detective ended up getting attacked by zombies, who tore flesh from his face with their teeth. The poor detective discovers there was no way to stop the pus that flowed continuously from his cheeks. Modern medicines, sacrificing countless chickens to voodoo gods, exorcisms, and drinking putrid hoodoo potions didn’t stop the flow. And that was just the beginning of his sufferings. The moral of this story is: nobody escapes zombies.

Nor would I want to be the protag in my story, “A Deep Cut.” This lonely guy pays Madame Majestic to raise his girlfriend from the dead for one last night of lovemaking. The price is $100 plus a freshly butchered piece of his flesh. When the girlfriend materializes at midnight, she’s a putrid, leaking corpse. Horrified, he demands she depart. The price to make her disappear is another piece of his freshly butchered flesh. Ouch! Morals of this tale: (1) be careful what you pay for. (2) when sacrificing your flesh during occult cutting rituals, make sure you know what they’re going to chop off. 

What's the scariest book you've ever read?

Though it has a sci-fi theme, I’d say, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Perhaps even scarier is The Manchurian Candidate. Though considered a Cold War political satire, the ramifications of that story never ceases to horrify me. What could be scarier than confronting brainwashed humans who are programmed to kill? In fact, when you think about it, the character in that story is very zombie-like. Killing scenes in that book horrify me. By the way, I reread these two books every year. Both play very heav-ily on themes of transformation. When you think about it, who would want to be transformed against their will into soulless, zombified, mannequins? What pure, unadulterated horror!

Do you think horror fiction is declining, thriving, or has reached a plateau?

I think it’s thriving. Hundreds of speculative fiction magazines around the world seek short horror works every month. And new horror writing contests are an-nounced monthly. 

What do you do on Halloween day?

I’m retired, so I hang around the house, watch horror movies, and pass out candy.

One year I put on a weird wig, but it scared little kids who came to the door so much, I removed it. I’ll never use it again. I think life itself, these days, is scary enough for kids.

In the past four years, your work has been accepted by 121 magazines and anthologies in Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, India and the US. Last December alone, you got 35 stories accepted. Since then, you got about 125 more stories accepted. Some days, you've had six stories accepted in a single day from a variety of magazines. What is the secret of your productivity — a pact with the devil, perhaps?

Perish the thought! It’s more like a pact with myself. For the first time in my life, nobody is sticking a hand in my face and trying to thwart my productivity. Such things happened in the corporate world when my tech writing productivity unnerved peers and even the very managers who were in charge of my career. I could write a very scary nonfiction book about what happens to writers who far exceed expected norms, and how they are punished for their superior productivity.

Now that I’m retired, there’s nobody to stand in my way and say I’m going to far, too quickly. Perhaps it’s a kind of revenge against a corporate system that insisted it valued extremely high productivity, but didn't know what to do with a person who actually supplied it.

I set a goal for myself when I started writing fiction: to get published in 100 magazines. Well, I achieved that within four years. Now I’m fishing for another goal. Haven’t yet decided what that should be.

I write for the fun of it. Plus my head is constantly full of story ideas. My IDEAS file on the computer has over 150 entries waiting to be developed. I have four tape recorders, which I keep in strategic places. One is always on my nightstand. I wrote a number of tales based on thoughts that came to mind upon waking up. One example is “Ghost Bugs,” a humorous spec fic tale. I woke up with the words ghost bugs in my mind. Grabbing my tape recorder, I asked myself out loud what on earth a ghost bug was. That led to an hour’s worth of dictation. A few hours later, I wrote the story, and submitted it to Alien Skin Magazine the same day. They accepted it within twenty-four hours.

Another story developed that way was, “Midnight Hugs,” about a guy who gets a job hugging gorgeous, female corpses. A mad scientist hired him, thinking it was a way to bring them back to life. Alien Skin bought that one, too.

I said earlier that I didn’t start writing fiction until I was 63 years old. Though I wanted to, I found I couldn’t get a sentence on paper. Reminds me of the problem the protagonist had in the movie, Throw Momma From The Train. Well, I didn’t have the same relationship problems he had that caused the block. In fact, I still don’t know what caused my block, which lasted ten years. It was broken by a creative writing professor in Las Vegas, a fabulous, master teacher named Dr. Sherry Rosenthal. PhD in Comparative Literature. We made a pact. I said I’d attend her fiction writing class if she’d find a way to break my fiction-writing block. She did. I dedicated my first book of 50 stories to her for doing so. 

Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers?

You can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket, and you can’t get published if you don’t submit. If you want to get published frequently, consider writing flash fiction in the speculative fiction genre. Magazines around the world clamor for spec fic submissions every month.

Also, be a storyteller first and writer second. The world is full of talented writers who can combine words in artsy ways and get A+ on every paper in their creative writing courses. But not so many can devise compelling stories that editors find irresistible.

Finally, if you chose to write horror flash fiction, consider becoming a minimalist. By that, I mean use only those words necessary to tell the story. To do this, omit weather reports, what people are doing with their eyes, what they are wearing, that they turn to talk to somebody, and hundreds of other superfluous details—unless they are absolutely vital to the plot. Don’t be cryptic. Avoid pompous, inflated prose. Write lean and mean stories. Edit ruthlessly. Submit like there’s no tomorrow. Do this, and you may find your horror works–and anything else you write— getting published at an astounding rate.

Thanks for the great interview, Michael!

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About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.
  • http://www.pittsburghflashfictiongazette.wordpress.com GHH

    What great advice on the art of flash fiction. Good flash fiction requires the ability to write short on long subjects. Flash fiction is on the cutting edge of today’s Internet driven story telling.

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