Denis Bell is a Professor in the Department of Mathematics & Statistics at the University of North Florida. About five years ago, he started writing fiction, and since then has gone on to a solid reception from respected literary magazines including Grub Street.
For his "first feeble attempt" (his words) he decided to tackle the time travel paradox. Of this first effort he wrote "My first literary work. Not Kafka or Joyce, to be sure, but not bad, nonetheless [...] a few moths later I'm reading over [the story] for the umpteenth time, but the first time in a while, and I come to a revelation. It actually kind of sucks! "
Bell details this come-to-Jesus moment in the short story, Time Lapse, which is a part of the "flash fiction" collection A Box of Dreams recently published by Adelaide Books. Flash fiction is very short fiction--typically 1,000 words or less. The stories in this collection are unsettling and uncomfortable and brief; reading them is a nuanced, changing joy.
We caught up with Bell to chat about the book. These questions have been edited for space and clarity.
Folio Weekly: Do you find there is a connection between your profession and your writing? If so, how do you suss it?
Denis Bell: Somewhat surprisingly, I found that the skills that I acquired as a mathematical researcher have actually been very good preparation for the type of short fiction that I write. Things like economy of expression, intense focus on a central theme or idea, rapid movement from premise to conclusion...
Why write short stories?
I am an obsessive reviser, both before and even after publication. For this reason, I don't believe I could ever write a novel length work. I would never stop working on it!
There's a looseness to this collection, yet there's a kind of darkness that seems to be pervasive in many of the stories, can you touch on this?
For whatever reason, I have always been attracted to the dark side in literature; writers such as Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Poe... And flash fiction strikes me as especially conducive to this type of material. Since I have been writing, I have taken to reading a lot of short fiction online and have come across some fantastic pieces, almost all of it very dark. These have served as my models.
There also seems to be an almost "conversational" tone to the book...as if a talented storyteller is sitting in front of the reader, can you talk about that?
Thank you, this is certainly the effect I was going for. I suppose it's largely because this is the style of writing that I most enjoy reading myself.
Why did you choose to illustrate the book, and why the work of Louise Freshman Brown?
I had in mind from the outset to write a book that combined fiction and artwork. Initially, I intended to use classic art, then I thought of Louise. She is a professor in the Department of Fine Art at UNF. About twenty years ago, the two of us served together on a search committee to appoint a new Dean. Then a few years ago, I had a piece accepted for publication by an online journal called Postcard Poems & Prose. They publish flash fiction in a postcard format together with illustrations. I checked out some of Louise's artwork and found that it seemed to jive very well with my writing in terms of theme, style and mood. So I suggested that the journal solicit Louise and it worked out well. Then when I received the publishing contract for this book, it seemed natural to bring Louise on board as illustrator. I consider our collaboration to have been a great success. (I hope that she does too!)
"Bleed yourself onto the page and they wipe you away..." from the story, >Kill My Darling< that's a pretty gloomy passage, can you unpack it a bit?
I believe that the image of an artist bleeding for their work is an old one. As a writer, I have had more than my share of rejection, and it does feel a bit like them "wiping you away." Incidentally, I consider the story that this line comes from, to be one of the darkest in the collection (and one of my personal favorites). I think the illustration that we chose for the story, a fractured bust, is just perfect. Louise originally preferred color for this one and it looked great that way, but I held out for black and white and in retrospect I'm glad that I did. For me, the added starkness somehow enhances even further the power of the image in this context.
Denis Bell reads from, and signs copies of A Box of Dreams and Louise Freshman Brown will have prints available 1-3 p.m. Jan. 13, Chamblin's Book Mine (Uptown), 215 N. Laura St., 674-0868.