Celebrating Our Culture
Mississippi writer John Floyd is the author of more than 300 short stories and fillers in publications like Strand Magazine, Grit, Woman’s World, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Two of his stories were recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and another for the Derringer Award.
Last year, I had the pleasure of listening to John as a panelist for "Writing and Selling Short Stories" His expertise in the field comes across as soft spoken and gracious as is the author. While he shares his experiences with this field - everyone feels that they have also made a friend. John Floyd is fast becoming a recognized talent for his ability to assure the reader that his short stories fit the definition precisely. It is to say that a short story is the telling of a happening – a connected series of happenings that don’t extend far from end to end. And John Floyd’s endings always offer up a surprise and most frequently some roaring laughter.
John has mastered the challenge of keeping an entire story absorbing within tight wordage. He pours in the ingredients for us to ponder and then mixes enough spices into his recipe for the palate. We are delighted with the results.
Here is a conversation with John Floyd.
John, you have lived in Mississippi for many years. Tell me about the southern influences there that drive your writing. Have your travels also entered into the picture?
I think the biggest influence the South has had on my writing is that I've been listening to its stories all my life--stories told by family, friends, neighbors, even strangers passing through.
When I was a kid I'd visit an elderly lady we called Aunt Betty (though she wasn't related to us at all) and listen for hours to tales so fascinating I remember them to this day. Almost everyone we knew told stories. And there's something special about those you hear while sitting in a porch swing, or on a pond bank, or beside your granddad's fireplace on a winter night. As for my travels, yes, that's definitely helped. A lot of my fiction has been set in Alaska and the Orient and other places I visited during my years with IBM.
How do you begin and set a tone for a short story that is a special technique to tell? What does it take to jump right into the action?
All it takes for a writer to jump straight into the action is to be aware that you need to do it. It's really no harder than starting at the beginning. Sometimes I start with dialogue, just to get things moving.
Bringing a character to life in varied settings, full of energy, draws in your reader. You certainly do that every time. What do you look for to accomplish this?
I think the best way to bring a character to life is to create one most readers can identify with. Whenever I can, I make my main character an ordinary person with ordinary fears and concerns. If you take someone like that, someone familiar, and put him or her into a hostile setting or situation, the reader will usually stay with you.
Your work has appeared in more than 100 different publications, from Woman's World to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine to Dogwood Tales. What would you say is particularly appealing to editors from such a wide range of readers?
I'm not really sure. I hope it's because I try, above all else, to entertain the reader. I think all editors watch for that. I've heard that literature should both "delight" and "instruct," but that the "delight" part sometimes gets left out. I agree. When I read fiction, I want to be entertained, and if I happen to also learn something in the process, that's even better--but pure entertainment, in both reading and writing, is my first priority.
What do you like your readers to keep when they finish reading? Should they guess the ending?
I'd like them to keep buying my stories. Just kidding. I guess what I'd like them to keep is a memory of the hero or villain, or maybe a key scene, or the ending. Something that makes them glad they took the time to read it.
Regarding your second question, no, I'd rather a surprise ending be a surprise. But I try not to worry too much about whether my endings are predictable--or even happy or sad--as long as they're satisfying. If the ending is satisfying, the reader will probably remember the story.
Do your endings ever change from what you had planned for the characters?
Sure. Sometimes, as I write and as my characters develop, I realize the ending I'd planned just won't fit. When that happens, I either change the ending or change the characters.
That's one of the advantages an author has, as opposed to, say, a performance artist. A writer's mistakes during the creative process are (thank goodness) never witnessed or remembered by anyone else--the reader only sees the final, polished result.
You've obviously grown comfortable with the short story tales - mostly with a 'twist' ending that is a pleasant surprise to all. What draws you to the conclusion for them?
Actually, I come up with the ending before I begin writing the story. As I said, it may change later, but I have to have an idea of where I'm going before I start. Then everything else in the story has to build toward that ending. And yes, I do like "twists." Probably because I grew up watching things like ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and TWILIGHT ZONE on TV. I was crazy about those shows.
How would you define 'the short story'?
My definition would be "a piece of fiction less than about 20,000 words in length." In fact, most are between 2,000 and 5,000 words. The shortest I ever sold was 300; the longest was 13,000.
Can you recommend a few southern writers that you admire.
Aside from the obvious choices--Faulkner, Welty, Conroy, Grisham, etc.--I enjoy reading Greg Iles, Nevada Barr, Martin Hegwood, James Lee Burke, Thomas Harris, Charles Wilson. Eight of those ten are Mississippi writers, by the way--I'm a little biased.
What's your biggest challenge in today's market? Has the field changed much in the last ten years and what do you see coming in trends for the short story?
The challenge is simple: try to write stories good enough to be selected by the relatively few markets. Though I don't think the field has changed a lot in the past ten years, it's certainly more difficult to get published in paying markets than back when so many of the large magazines handled short fiction. Coming trends? More and more online opportunities, for one thing. And I personally hope mystery stories keep their popularity, because that's what I enjoy writing (and reading) the most.
Are there any particular publications that are easier to write for than others? For instance - you have been published a number of times in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine as well as Strand Magazine. Do you have a theme that would ring true for all of them?
I do enjoy writing for publications like Hitchcock and Strand, because they use the kind of stories I think I do best; but no, there's no one theme that works for all markets. The same theme might not even work twice for the same market. I think a good rule of thumb is to write the story and then decide where it might fit--don't try to tailor it to a particular publication.
If a story's good, it'll find a home.
You mentioned you have recently retired from IBM after 30 years' service. Can you tell us how your responsibilities might have impacted your writing?
Well, I specialized in banking, so my experience with ATM's and other finance applications has shown up in some of my fiction. Also, as I mentioned earlier, a lot of my business travel destinations became story settings.
Did you say that you have also written some poems?
I have, yes, but I don't consider myself a poet. My published poems have mostly been light verse, in magazines like Writer's Digest, Farm & Ranch Living, Ellery Queen, etc. Believe me, I'm no threat to Maya Angelou.
John, you have been a guest speaker at a number of conferences. What are a few of the questions you are asked most frequently?
Here are some I've heard a lot:
"Do I need an agent to sell short stories?" (Answer: No.)
"Do you try to write something every day?" (Yes.)
"When and where was your first story accepted?" (In January 1994, by Mystery Time.)
"Have you ever used a pen name?" (No.)
"Did you like English in school?" (No. Sorry, but that's the truth.)
And the most frequent question: "Where do you get your ideas?"
The best answer I've ever heard to this (though I've never used it) is: "There's a magazine published twice a month called The Idea Book. I have a subscription."
Will John Floyd branch out and try a novel for all his short story fans?
I already have. My agent has my first novel now, and is sending it around to publishing houses, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I'm currently finishing up another, and it's been great fun. I've found I agree with something Lawrence Block once said, about the writing of novels and short stories: Novels aren't harder; what they are is longer.
In 1999 you had a story featured in Crimestalker Casebook. The title is “The Jumper.” It opens with: "The smartest thing?" I asked. "That's right," Rufus said. "What's the smartest thing you've ever done? It's a simple question."
Is there any special literary work you've done that has presented the answer to the puzzle for a reader in - 'a simple question'?
Well, I think every short story tries to answer questions—or resolve conflicts--that confront the main characters. I also believe that every story, literary or genre, is basically a puzzle of some kind; we writers ask readers to try to solve it, and what they get in return is suspense and tension and (hopefully) satisfaction. Make no mistake--I don't consider myself a "literary" writer; my stories won't reveal any profound truths or show anyone the meaning of life. All I try to do is supply a little entertainment along the way. But If I'm successful at that, then I'm happy.
John Floyd presented a southern feature story called "Just Passing Through" in Dogwood Tales Magazine a while back. His main character - Jack Ferris - had overheard just enough information at Happy’s Café to be on to something terrifying select locals. Dialogue, drama and destination take the reader straight on a path of sure deadliness. That is, until, the path is one of a category five hurricane. A style that only Floyd puts forth as easy as a Mississippi day filled with the murmur of magnolia trees and a lemonade pitcher at his writing table.
Edgar Allen Poe says that a short story’s most important element lay in what he called a "unity of impression". For John, it is a labor of love. We need to thank his wife for her strong encouragement to submit these writings.
© 2002 Elaine August, All Rights Reserved