April 28, 2010
A Knox College faculty member and a recent Knox graduate are collaborating on a publishing project in a genre with a new name -- "flash fiction" -- but a long and distinguished history in literature. Flash fiction focuses on extremely short stories -- a few pages, some as short as two sentences -- published by small, independent presses in limited editions known as chapbooks.
The new book is "Phantoms," nine stories in 20 pages, by Chad Simpson, assistant professor of English. The publisher is Origami Zoo Press, a creation of Rebecca King, a 2009 Knox graduate studying writing at Chatham University in Pennsylvania.
The initial press run of "Phantoms" was just 150 copies. Even before the release on April 16, King says she had sold half the copies and received notice from some bigger, well-established presses. "The book also has made it onto various book lists around the Internet that have been generating a lot of interest," King says.
"Reba contacted me in January, letting me know that she was taking a class on independent publishing and asked if I would be interested in publishing a chapbook with her," Simpson says. He traveled to Chatham University for the formal release.
"Chad Simpson's stories claim borders wider than their page counts might suggest, doubled as they are by the ghosts that flicker between their sentences," says a cover blurb from Matt Bell, editor of "Best of the Web 2010," whose work has been published in "Best American Mystery Stories 2010" and "Best American Fantasy 2." "It is these ghosts that Simpson asks us to reckon with, and it is his characters' attempts to chain or banish these specters -- with memory, with miracle, with mathematics -- that ultimately tie us to their lives, so that they might haunt us far beyond these intricately-inked pages."
"For the past several years, about half of the books I've read have come from small, independent presses that primarily publish short stories, or flash fictions, or novels that don't look like most of the novels published by the big publishing houses," Simpson says. "I admire this initiative -- the boldness and general spirit of their publishing enterprises. It's exciting to have the opportunity to contribute my own work to this new 'conversation' in the world of literature."
While "flash fiction" is a new name, the idea of extremely short stories is as old as parables in the Bible or Aesop's fables, which date to 600 BC, Simpson says. "One of the first editions of T.S. Eliot's poem 'The Waste Land' was a limited-edition chapbook from Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press in 1923. Yusinari Kawabata and Ernest Hemingway did a lot to establish the genre early in the 20th Century. When I think of chapbooks and their history, I tend to think of the do-it-yourself nature of the enterprise."
D-I-Y has benefits, as traditional publishing has been hammered by cut-throat pricing and the dissemination of texts at almost no cost, via the internet, King says. Still, the expense of a printed publication is justified by the benefit. "As a small publisher, I publish what I love to read," King says. "Chad's stories are all extremely well-crafted. The characters are so real, so heartbreaking, that you can't help but relate to them. Chad is a good friend, but more importantly, a very talented writer, which is why I wanted to work with him on this project."
King said that her experiences at Knox prepared her both for graduate school and for success in publishing -- including co-founding two of Knox's online literary magazines. "I feel that I have a step up on a lot of my peers. I learned how to put a publication together, about the struggles fledgling presses can run into, and most importantly, how to overcome them. Professors like Chad and Robin Metz and Monica Berlin where amazingly supportive. Chad introduced me to the current trends in fiction, by including stories that were published by online journals or small presses in his class readings. Robin encouraged our magazines and helped me realize what I could do. Start your own literary press? No problem. They never told me that I couldn't do something, even opening avenues for me that I had not thought possible. I believe I am a better writer and a better person because of the opportunities I was given."
"I don't think books will ever completely disappear," King says. "Amazon discovered this when they released the Kindle. People who love reading also love books -- the feeling of holding a book in your hands and turning the pages. Printed books are a hard habit to kick."
Publishers need to make money, King says, but major firms could learn by watching the small companies. "Independent presses really care about the literature that they are publishing because they may only print a handful of books each year. They are able to make their living by promoting quality literature. People are starting to pay attention to the small presses. That is where the most exciting literary things are happening!"
Simpson has taught at Knox since 2007. He received a bachlor's degree from Monmouth College and master of fine arts from Southern Illinois University. His short stories have been published in McSweeney's Quarterly, The Sun, Orion and Esquire magazine.
Founded in 1837, Knox is a national liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, with students from 47 states and 48 countries. Knox's "Old Main" is a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.