Reading the stories in Jules Archer’s second book, Little Feasts, is like attending a dinner party where the menu features every decadent, unnerving dish you’ve always been curious but afraid to taste. From the opening story, “In-N-Out Doesn’t Have Bacon,” which contrasts two sisters, one a plant-loving (literally) vegan and the other a man-loving carnivore, to the fetishists enacting their fantasies in “Guerilla Drive-In,” to the deadly cast-iron pan in “Skillet,” Archer delves into the darker side of human nature with expert aplomb, melding wild details, black humor, and secret desires to produce a book of tiny morsels you’ll want to devour in one sitting.
Archer and I spoke via email in late March as we sheltered in place in our respective homes in Arizona and Massachusetts. After discovering a mutual inability to meal-plan, we conversed about her new collection of flash fiction, her delight in portraying bold characters, and why the dark side of life fuels her stories. Besides Little Feasts, Archer is the author of the chapbook, All the Ghosts We’ve Always Had, and her writing has appeared in various journals, including SmokeLong Quarterly, Pank, and Maudlin House. Her story “From the Slumbarave Hotel on Broadway” will appear in Best Microfiction 2020.
Sara Rauch: Little Feasts is your second book of flash fiction. What is it about the form that appeals to you?
Jules Archer: I feel like flash fiction has no limits. I love the challenge of making a story tight, of saying a lot in such a small space. And to be honest, I just feel like I’m better at it. By now, I better be. I’ve written a few novels, tried to at least, and I think I’m too rigid or take it too serious. It’s not the novel’s fault, I just feel like I allow myself to be more creative in flash fiction. It’s been my first love for a long time, and it’s treated me very, very well.
SR: I love the pun of the book’s title, and these stories really do feel like little feasts! Feasts are decadent and symbolize richness, but the flip side of that wealth is greed and gluttony, and your stories often tip over into that dangerous territory. What draws you to this particular kind of darkness?
JA: Thank you, Sara! Hmm, I’ve always been into weird, morbid, creepy shit, even as a child. The dark, dangerous side of life fascinates me because it’s always a side of themselves people try to hide. I delight in finding the boundary between straight out horror and a morbid/macabre person with a bizarre fetish, or a dark twist. There’s always someone else out there who can match your weird. These characters are bold and are telling readers who pick up the book, “I have something to show you, and I know you want to see it.”
SR: I definitely felt a little like a voyeur as I read these stories, because you’re so good at giving glimpses into your characters’ lives! While we’re on the topic of peeking into other’s lives, tell me a little bit about how you come up with your story ideas, and what your writing process looks like.
JA: Usually I get story ideas while listening to music or podcasts or doing super sexy things like driving or showering. Then I’ll make notes on my phone and when I sit down on my computer I’ll write the whole story in one big burst. When I’m done, it’s usually messy and makes no sense, but then I’ll go back to it and finesse. Then edit. It typically takes me about three go-rounds on a flash story then it’s done. Very rarely will I sit on a story for longer than a week. I like to bang them out, then submit, then go back and tweak depending on feedback. I always alternate between writing flash and going back to my novels—I typically can’t/don’t write both at the same time. So I’ll go a few months just writing flash, then have a long drought while I switch to my novel, then when the novel sits, go back to flash. It’s nice having some sort of routine. It works for me. I think. I hope.
SR: Is it hard to switch back and forth between writing flash and writing something longer like a novel? Do you have any kind of rituals or routines around switching between the two, or does it happen organically?
JA: Yes, I’d say it’s definitely difficult for me to switch back and forth between flash and novel-writing. I think it’s more routine in the sense that “when this one ends, then that one will begin.” For example, when I write novels I pretty much get in the zone and only focus on that work-in-progress and tune everything else out. Then, when I let the novel sit, I go back to flash and write in shorter bursts. Some strange give or take that makes me happy. Maybe I’m flexing two different parts of my brain, or maybe I’m just a sadist. Ha.
SR: Circling back to the feast element of this collection, many of these stories are about attempting to satisfy some kind of hunger—for revenge, like in “Anne Boleyn Could Drink You Under the Table” (a favorite of mine) or for escape (“Far Away from Everywhere”) or even for a creepily literal fullness (as in “Everlasting Full”)—but there’s a sense, maybe magnified by the brevity of each story, that this satisfaction might be impossible, even when the character gets what they want. Do you see flash as an ideal medium for playing with this ambiguity of desire and fulfillment?
JA: Oooo, this is a great question. So, yes. I definitely think that while these stories could work in a longer format like a short story or a novel, they wouldn’t be as fun. Meaning that eventually real life would interfere. Flash fiction lets all my weird, macabre characters get away with their dark side. Some fantasy or feast fulfilled. They want this, and you, as a reader, want them to want it. Want them to get it. Anything longer than flash would probably get the cops or the straitjacket involved. And there’s no fun in that.
SR: That makes me think of “Prettier Things,” where what first appears to be a harmless crush on a cute neighbor moves into dark territory, with the narrator revealing (and reveling in) her neighbor’s grisly secret. The narrator says toward the end, “I practice the story I’ll tell the press when the cops find him out,” which nods to that inevitable intrusion of real life on her fantasy, but we’ll never have any idea if she gets busted for her complicity. If part of the appeal of flash is that sense of teasing, how do you know when a piece is “done”?
JA: Honestly, trying not to sound too cheesy or out-there, but I just trust my gut when a piece is done. When you know, you know, right? Although, I never set out to make the ending a “tease” or “gotcha” or “trick” moment to the reader. The “whole thing was a dream” type of story boils my blood. Stories should have some movement, some resolution, but in regards to teasing, I think it’s more about opening up the ending to the possibilities that lie ahead and then letting the reader’s mind go where it will.
SR: Who are some of your favorite flash fiction writers? Whose work really inspires you? And, moving outside the form, who and what and where do you gather your inspiration from?
JA: Oh, man. This is a hard and unfair question. WHY SARA. Hmm, off the top of my head, I have to say, Kathy Fish, Cathy Ulrich, Sara Lippmann. Those are three that if I see they have new pieces out, I stop and read. Of course, there are so many more, but now my mind is blanking. Most of my inspiration comes from music. I’ll put a song on repeat that’s inspired me and just blast out a flash. Also, true crime stories or podcasts tend to give me some ghoulish ideas.
SR: And last but not least, what can we expect from you next?
JA: Sometimes I love this question; sometimes it depresses me because what if all my aspirations and hopes and dreams don’t happen?! BUT, I think for sure, writing more flash, getting it out there. I really want to do a flash novel/novella, and I have the beginnings of one started, so I think that will be my next big project. Then trying to get that published. So, we’ll see how everything shakes out, but I’m hopeful. Excited too. Is that allowed? You tell me.
Sara Rauch is the author of What Shines from It: Stories, which won the Electric Book Award. Her writing has also appeared in Paper Darts, Split Lip, So to Speak, Hobart, and other literary magazines. She lives in Massachusetts with her family. www.sararauch.com
Jules Archer is the author of the chapbook, All the Ghosts We’ve Always Had (Thirty West Publishing, 2018) and the short story collection, Little Feasts (Thirty West Publishing, 2020). Her writing has appeared in various journals, including SmokeLong Quarterly, Pank, Maudlin House, and elsewhere. She lives in Arizona and looks for monsters in strange places.