Michelle Ross Interviews Dan Crawley, Author of STRAIGHT DOWN THE ROAD, a novella in flash
Dan Crawley’s novella-in-flash, Straight Down the Road, was highly commended by judge Michael Loveday in the 2019 Bath Novella in Flash Award and published by Ad Hoc Fiction. His debut short story collection, The Wind, It Swirls, is forthcoming from Cowboy Jamboree Press this year.
Michelle Ross: Straight Down the Road is set during a family road trip. There’s a kind of out-of-time feeling to the trip. Are they on the road for a couple of months? Is it years? For the reader, it feels like the road is home for this family. Is the road home for them or do you know this family in other times and places that don’t appear on the page?
Dan Crawley: I love this question, Michelle. Yes, the “out-of-time” feeling is very intentional.
When I first started writing these stories, I was constantly debating whether to give a timeframe and if I might place these characters in a static setting, like a home. I decided the dad would briefly mention a rental home in a micro but came down on the side of not wanting to specify the length of time they’re on the road. These characters are wanderers, traveling to no real destination.
So the station wagon, the Plymouth, and the road became their only homes. That feels right for the “world” of this novella, which delves into the feelings that emerge from the lack of a safety net. And the changing settings, I think, add to this anxiety the characters feel, especially the mom. I wanted the change of sceneries to be recognizable to any reader, too, maybe reminding them of their own past road trips.
MR: I love how you call the parents “the mom” and “the dad” (as opposed to “the mother” and “the father”). It feels just right. Was this a quick, instinctive choice?
DC: Since this novella is set in the 1970s, I went back to my own childhood. I’ve never called my parents mother or father. Mom/Dad is so much less formal, and I am anything but formal with my own parents! It was an instinctive choice, more endearing, I think.
MR: Let’s talk about titles. In particular, I’m struck by “Ran Out of Money.” The title does so much work for that story, work that might have been otherwise tricky to accomplish in the piece itself. Do you recall whether that title came to you early on or later in revising? In general, do you tend to title stories early in the drafting or later?
DC: Generally, I tend to grab a phrase or a few words from the story for its title. Or even a word that gives a reader the gist of what the story may be about. This happens after a draft or two.
I’m glad you bring up this particular story. My initial thought was to write a flash about this family running out of money. I wanted to place them in a dire situation, with no money for even a motel room or a proper dinner. What would they do? How would they get through a night? So, even though I didn’t realize it at first, this title was there before I even wrote a sentence. I loved shaping a story around this conflict, using such a stylized tone. Here I had a dark moment in this family’s plight but wrote the flash as a romp.
MR: Recently, when you talked about Straight Down the Road for the Desert Flash series hosted by Sudha Balagopal and Rudri Patel, you said you found beginning with the last piece of the book, which had been published first, helpful. You said, “I need to know where I’m going.” Is that often true for you in your writing?
Dan Crawley: Knowing the ending line for a given story in advance is beneficial when it happens, but most of the time I struggle with endings. I am a big proponent, though, of letting the characters guide the narrative with their dialogue or actions. More times than not, they propel me toward a satisfying conclusion.
For this novella, it was a huge advantage to be writing toward an already known conclusion. It helped me create some of the foreshadowing in the earlier stories, like the dad telling his story of driving a truck when he was young.
MR: Did you write the rest of the stories in random order or in the order in which they appear in the novella?
DC: Including a strong conflict in the second story (“Jumping Off A Cliff”) helped a lot in writing the stories that followed. That thread of the dad’s rash decision was always there in my thinking as I worked on the other flashes although a few of the stories were written outside the chronological order of the novella, like “Five Sugar Cookies and Two Pieces of Beef Jerky,” “Lamb Chops,” “A Classmate,” and “Protective Services.”
MR: I’m curious if there are any pieces that could have been arranged differently and the novella still work as a whole?
DC: I am so happy you asked this specific question. I did spend some time thinking about where to place “Lamb Chops.” I decided it should come after the diner story because the tension is heightened in the stories that follow.
In ordering the stories, I also thought about the mom and dad each having their say. This approach guided the set-up of many of the stories, which made the whole process more feasible to me.
MR: What immediately comes to mind is this series of three flashes toward the middle of the novella: “The Story About the Inebriated Bread Truck Driver,” “Anyplace Can Be Home,” and “Unmoored.” The tension between the mom and the dad escalates in moving back and forth from his point of view to hers.
DC: I’m so glad you brought up these specific stories. The bread truck story is the first moment the mom shows her anger with her husband, snapping back at him. The micro fiction that follows, “Anyplace Can Be Home,” returns to the dad’s POV. I wanted the dad to reveal his view as the provider in their family. He will find a stable home where they all can live together, “which is the way it should always be.” It’s a plea to his wife, really, even though he’s speaking to everyone.
“Unmoored,” which is from the mom’s POV, reveals her anxiety as the family is forced to down-size from the LTD station wagon to the Plymouth Duster, kind of like moving from a large, comfortable house to an apartment. The piece culminates with a story she tells her son about how his dad broke her heart. A desperate appeal for sympathy, really. She does this again in “A Classmate,” divulging her early relationship with her husband. More digs at him to show the rising tension.
I placed “Leaving Zion,” “Let’s Play Ball, Cecil,” and “Powers” together because they represent the moments when the vacation is still at full steam, and the children are not yet aware of their parents’ conflict.
MR: How did you know when the novella was done? That you didn’t need to write any more stories for it?
DC: Okay, I’m one of those weird writers (maybe I’m not so alone in this thinking?) that a piece of writing is never complete. Even with published work, I’m revising stories all the time, a line here or there, typically with work that appeared in journals a long time ago. Regarding the novella, I have had fleeting ruminations about a few other flashes that could’ve fit. One takes place in a drive-in movie theatre. And I’ve got ideas for a few other places this family can travel in their wanderings.
To be honest, though, I am happy with the length and how this novella turned out. At the last moment, when I submitted the novella to the Bath Flash Fiction Award, I had written seventeen stories, and I think they all do the job nicely.
MR: Flash novellas are not a form I’m versed in, but your gorgeous book has convinced me I should read more of these things. Do you remember what the first flash novella you ever read was? Also, do you have a favorite flash novella?
DC: Thank you so much for your kind words, Michelle. I’m glad my novella has encouraged you to seek out more novellas-in-flash to read.
I read Sophie Van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods when it came out in 2018. I was struck by her use of stand-alone flash fiction stories for chapters. And even though its length puts it closer to a novel, I found the brevity of chapters and the interlinked stories dealing with the same characters fascinating. Then I heard the term “novella-in-flash” in the lit community and started looking for these shorter books. Since then, I’ve read a lot of novellas. I love the form. For me, a few standouts are The Loss Detector by Meg Pokrass, The Way of the Wind by Francine Witte, Three Sisters of Stone by Stephanie Carty (Hutton), Three Men on the Edge by Michael Loveday, The Neverlands by Damhnait Monaghan, and The Chemist’s House by Jude Higgins. I’ve read a lot of novellas from Ad Hoc Fiction, too. I just finished two of their recently published novellas: The House on the Corner by Alison Woodhouse and When It’s Not Called Making Love by Karen Jones. Brilliant writing by these two writers. And there are so many other novellas-in-flash out there that I’m excited to read. I really hope this form continues to grow in popularity in the future.
MR: Your book of short stories The Wind, It Swirls is being published this year by Cowboy Jamboree Press. Tell me about that.
DC: I am proud of the work I’ve produced in this collection. It was very kind of Adam over at Cowboy Jamboree Press to see something in these stories, and I’m grateful for such a perfect home for my first full-length collection of stories.
The collection consists of thirty stories, some in long-form and some flash fiction. I think it is a good mix of my realism, image-driven aesthetic. I would say most of the characters in the stories are trying to hang on against the rough winds of relationship or financial woes. Really, this book encompasses the last few decades of my writing. The oldest story goes back to 2002, a long piece I published in The North American Review, with other pieces appearing recently in literary journals. Many of the stories first appeared in now-defunct journals (both print and online), so for many readers, it’ll be like checking out new work from me. I’m beyond excited and look forward to everyone reading it.
MR: What are you working on now?
DC: I’m trying to write a lot of micros and some flash fictions right now. I want to complete a full-length collection of these small stories, and I have about three dozen written so far. I don’t know how long it will take me to finish; I’m such a slow writer. Also, I’m envisioning these stories as belonging to two different categories: “When I was a child,…I thought like a child” and “But when I grew up, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). So my storytelling is going back and forth between these two character perspectives, wants, conflicts.
Michelle Ross is the author of the story collections There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award, and Shapeshifting, winner of the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Fiction Award (and forthcoming in November 2021). Her fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, The Pinch, and other venues. Her work has been selected for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, the Wigleaf Top 50, and other anthologies. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review. www.michellenross.com