Behind the Words: Tommy Dean

Posted by on Mar 8, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Tommy Dean

Tommy Dean’s short story “Without Permission” was published in the sixth issue of Spry Literary Journal. Here he takes a moment to catch up with editor Erin Ollila about where the idea for the story came from and other aspects of his writing life.

Erin Ollila: I’m always so interested on what sparks an idea for a story. Where did the spark of inspiration for Without Permission come from?

Tommy Dean: When I’m searching around for a new story, I often page through The Photo Book from Phaidon. The introduction of the book describes it as “bring[ing] together 500 inspiring, moving, and beautiful images of famous events and people…” Some days I page through most of the book and none of the pictures speak to me, but this picture was of a teen girl on the sand with the ocean at her back. The first line of the story came from thinking about the person behind the lens of the camera and why he was taking this picture. 

Is flash the only genre you write in? If so, what do you like/dislike about the form? If you write in other genres, which is your favorite?

I would say that I primarily write flash, but mainly because it’s the form I feel the most comfortable in. Most of my longer form short stories either don’t end up finished or they aren’t as easy to find the right market for. I think they could probably use more revision if I’m being honest with myself. What I love about writing flash is that I love thinking about characters with one true/telling moment in their lives and examining that moment. Writing flash gives the writer a chance to play, to really focus on the language, but to also give characters opportunities to act, to fight back against the world. Every action and reaction counts. What I don’t like about flash is that sometimes it relies too much on white space or the unsaid, that it might ask too much of the reader. It’s that razor wire balance that creates the truest tension between the said and unsaid, a story full of lines you can sink your teeth into.

It’s been a while since Without Permission was first published in Spry, what’s changed in your life since then?

I think this story is at least 3 years old now? I’ve had a son since then, and I’ve had the privilege of watching my daughter and him interact and learn from each other, to see the ways my wife and my parenting have affected children with different personalities. The way that writing, parenting, teaching (I teach middle school Special Education) form my worldview, the way that I’m constantly challenged to see deeper. I truly love this story, one of my first micros that really seemed to work, but I hope that my writing has only gotten better.

How big is your “In-Progress” folder? How many works-in-progress make it to a final draft?

I’ve started two novels, and have 4-5 longer stories in various drafting stages. 8 or more micros or flashes that either didn’t work at the time or that are missing that second story line to help them rise out of the ash heaps. With flash, I prefer to push toward a complete draft within a couple days of starting a story and then revising from there, or a lot of times those stories never make it. I’m often flooded with story ideas or parts of stories, but I would need more time for them all to make it through a complete draft and the several revisions it takes from there.

If you could go back and edit this piece, would you? Why or why not, and what, (if anything) would you change?

While it’s not perfect, I don’t think I would change much of it. Most writers are never happy with every word choice, but there’s an initial energy seething underneath this story that I’d hate to uncork the bottle. There’s a fear, and I wonder if other writers feel it too?, that if you take things too far that a story could be wrecked. That it couldn’t survive the additions or the cuts? It’s a bit irrational, right? You can always delete or save multiple drafts, but there’s something taxing to constantly fighting perfection.

I’d love to know what happened to the two characters after this moment. Have you ever considered where their lives went after this encounter?

There’s some interest in letting the girl actually talk to the photographer, but wouldn’t that just kill the tension? It’s good to have some questions at the end of reading a story, right? I mean will the photographer finally find his nostalgia? Maybe? Isn’t this a metaphor for writing? Will I ever write a perfect story? The one that let’s me quit forever, finally satisfied? I don’t think so…

Whose work has had the most profound impact on your writing?

I didn’t become a writer until I read Carver. A writerly cliché maybe, but I over-estimated how hard it can be to right with simple, but strong nouns and verbs. His writing gave me permission to try, to move from an admiring reader to using his and other writers work as textbooks. A writer who uses similar diction, but who packs more empathy and poignancy is Lee Martin. Elizabeth Strout and Julie Fierro’s novels along with their encouragement have made me a better writer, a writer that refuses to give up. Writers need these kinds of souls to fight the tide of anxiety, the fear of perfection, the fear of rejection.  I’m constantly inspired by the cohorts I’ve found through literary journals and the writers on Twitter. Any story I’ve read, creates an impact, a chance to learn

Do you ever let anyone read your work while in progress? If so, who? If not, why?

I try to only send complete rough drafts to my beta readers. I think this is the downfall of the workshops at times is that you get feedback to early I the process. Especially when writing longer stories or novels. Encouragement is great, and it can give you the boost you need to keep slugging through a longer work, but too much feedback about what’s not working with only half or less of a draft makes the writer question too much of the work that’s already been done and can make them freeze and never finish the draft. I wouldn’t publish as much or as frequently without beta readers though. Writers need a different perspective on their work. We’re so focused on getting the character into and out of conflict that we can miss the errors or false steps along the way.

How do you decide when a flash piece is complete?

I’ll admit that I often rush a story into submission mode too soon and sometimes you have to face a lot of rejection before my subconscious can work out that the story needs some changes. Beta readers have been invaluable in helping to become more patient, more willing to revise. Generally, I know a work is finished when it feels complete, that I’ve examined this moment in time enough to create a feeling in the reader.

Erin Ollila is an emotional archaeologist who graduated from Fairfield University’s MFA program with a concentration in creative nonfiction. Her writing has been published in FolksLunch Ticket, Revolution House, Paper Tape, (em): A Review of Text and ImageRedFez, and many more places online. Learn more about her here.