Interview: Ravi Mangla
Conducted February 2015
Issue No. 7 – March 2015
Ravi Mangla is the author of the novel Understudies (Outpost19). His stories have appeared in Mid-American Review, the Collagist, American Short Fiction, Barrelhouse, and Tin House Online. He keeps a blog at ravimangla.com.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: Many writers dabble in flash, but you live there. How did you come to find your strengths in ultra-short fiction? Was it a deliberate structural decision or more of a process of discovery?
RAVI MANGLA: For several years I was writing in a vacuum. I didn’t belong to a community of writers or an academic institution of any kind, so I wasn’t sure how to go about sharing my work. I remember searching for online literary magazines and coming across the writings of Kathy Fish and Claudia Smith. That was my introduction to the narrative possibilities of the short form. The stories they were creating were so elegantly crafted yet emotionally forceful. From that point on I knew I wanted to focus my attention on very short fiction.
BA: It feels like flash fiction has been witnessing sort of a golden age since the advent of online lit mags, with whole journals devoted entirely to the form (wigleaf and Smokelong Quarterly come first to mind) and more publishers willing to consider sub-1,000 word stories than ever before. What’s it been like watching the style grow and advance? Where do you see it going from here?
RM: Wigleaf winning a Pushcart was certainly a boon to the form. I think awards like that help to legitimize flash fiction (and online lit mags) in the eyes of the old guard. But there’s still a long way to go before flash fiction stands on equal footing with the short story. Brand name journals have a habit of relegating flash to their blogs. I think that sort of ghettoization needs to be overcome if the short form is really going to take off.
Getting on Chipotle cups was a watershed moment for the form. Now if only we can crack the KFC bucket…
BA: On the subject of interneting, you’ve got a pretty active, pretty wonderful Twitter feed. Most of your tweets are one-off humor pieces (“I LOVE my Garrison Keillor body pillow”) or comments on the writing community, especially during big events like AWP. But some of the sillier ones feel less like non-sequitors and more like 140-or-less stories in their own right. What’s your take on TwitLit?
RM: There’s a recent interview with Jonathan Franzen in Booth where he rejects (in characteristically glib Franzen fashion) the idea of social media as an artistic platform. I suspect there are plenty of writers who would challenge that notion. I wouldn’t be on the platform if I didn’t find it creatively nourishing. My goal was to build a comedic alter ego (in the style of Andy Kaufman or Neil Hamburger). If you put all the tweets together, I’d like to think they form a portrait of an insecure narcissist on the verge of mental collapse. Now that I’m saying it out loud, maybe the character isn’t so different from me after all.
BA: So now that we’ve spent 35 minutes non-creepily skimming through like two years of your old tweets… Did you really assign a university course syllabus containing John Updike, Ayn Rand, Aleister Crowley and R.L. Stein all in a single reading list? Because, if so, we would like to begin discussing transfer credits.
RM: Sadly that is not a real course syllabus. I’m still waiting for approval on my Aleister Crowley and the Literature of the Dark Arts seminar.
BA: Your writing appears to draw a good deal on pre-existing cultural or historical characters. You were a participant in Melville House’s series on U.S. presidents, contributing a piece about Herbert Hoover, and in Titular’s likeminded homage to Seinfeld, where you took on a real larger-than-life figure in the form of Kramer. Then there are the many stories about and sometimes even addressed to famous authors: Jack Kerouac, Flannery O’Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, Cormac McCarthy and others. How do you envision your storytelling intersecting the lives and legacies of these figures? Is there something cathartic about sending a rejection letter to DFW (“Are you kidding me with this thing, Dave? It’s larger than my goddamn phone book.”) or do you maybe see celebrity as a kind of common language shared between you and your readers?
RM: We tend to mythologize cultural figures, elevate them to the status of demigods. There’s something satisfying about placing famous artists in seemingly mundane situations. I like imagining J.D. Salinger in the supermarket or Harper Lee at a bowling alley. It has a humanizing effect. The simple act of depositing them in unlikely contexts creates an interesting tension. I don’t know if I plan to keep drawing from that well, but it’s certainly been fun to tinker with history.
BA: What do you most often start a story with: A first sentence, a title, a nifty idea or a clear, cool mind full of zen?
RM: I usually work off a sentence or image. Sometimes a larger idea (like with the Visiting Writers series). Never a title.
BA: Okay, let’s talk about your debut novel Understudies. It too is written like a long string of flash pieces, 200 little snippets of wit, sorrow and color that often stand as well together as they do on their own. How’d you settle on that design? What did the writing process look like?
RM: Mary Robison apparently wrote Why Did I Ever entirely on index cards. My approach was similar to that, just replace the index cards with loose receipts and pocket-sized notebooks from the Dollar Tree. Even with a general story arc in mind, there was still a lot of shuffling and rearranging.
The structural design fits my way of thinking, which is more observational in nature. Then there’s the added benefit of being able to modulate the tone and tempo without the text descending into outright bathos.
BA: Could Understudies have worked in a traditional novel format? How big is too big? Like, would you have trusted the idea to Jonathan Franzen?
RM: I’m sure the concept could work as a more conventional novel, though the effect would be completely different. It’d be like asking a tapas restaurant to cook family style. Sure, the squid tentacle tastes the same, but the vehicle is all wrong. Traditional novels, with their rigorous plotting, rarely allow for one-offs and stray observations. I have more narrative freedom working in fragments. (Franzen, freedom, get it?)
BA: If you weren’t yourself, what writer would you want to be?
RM: I wish I was able to work non-linearly, pulling odd tendrils of language from the ether. I envy poets. There’s far more art in what they do. I’d gladly give my right kidney to be a poet in the style of John Ashbery or Mary Ruefle or Dean Young—that infectious blend of brains and irreverence.
BA: If you weren’t a writer, would you still be yourself? And what would that person be up to these days?
RM: Once I can get this time machine working right, I plan to go back and become a theoretical physicist. (Also, invest all my money in Apple.) My identity isn’t tied up in my work. I don’t buy it when writers say they can’t do anything else. Of course they can. Writing is—like most of the fine arts—a luxury afforded to those with access to higher education and time to “figure things out.” For a person to say they can’t do anything else is an unknowing admission of privilege.