Hello, I am Zin! What a special Sunday: Richard Osgood won the first-ever Tin House blog Plotto flash contest Final Round on March 28 with his story “Millennium House” (he won the qualifying round in Week 2 with his entry “Rapid Eye”). Since I know Richard from the Flash Factory at Zoetrope, I asked him a few questions! I want to jump right into his comments, so I will put FMI about the Plotto contest and the Flash Factory at the end!
Hello, Richard, and Congratulations – what a major success, to win this contest! Was the Plotto three-clause method familiar to you, other than through this contest?
No, I had never heard of it before. Also I had never heard of the author, William Wallace Cook, but it is said he was singularly responsible for the deforestation of Canada. He was the author of adventure stories in the form of dime novels and serials. It might be fun one day to read some of his work.
I will admit, the Plotto prompts still do not quite make sense to me! But you seem to get it just fine.
Plotto is a methodology, a mechanical process from which stories can be written. It’s not really a “How To” book because it doesn’t contain anything on character development, creation of setting, story structure, or any of those “tips” and “insights” other authors might profess. The clauses represent three parts to a story: The A Clause establishes the protagonist (in general terms); the B Clause originates and continues the action; and the C Clause continues and resolves the action. A Masterplot (according to William Wallace Cook) “serves as a general theme or summary of the story at its most basic level.” The Plotto Chart contains a matrix of interchangeable clauses in order to mix and match story components, which can lead to what some say is an unlimited array of plots.
How did you go about creating the Master Plot for the final challenge – or did you have the story first?
I allowed the process to do its job and guide the story. First, let me back up a bit. I was confused initially about how Tin House wanted us to proceed using Plotto. The first five weeks (the Plotto Contest weeks) consisted of them providing a Conflict Statement (you can review them on the TH blog) but the Master Challenge required each of us to compose a Master Plot by utilizing the Clause matrix. I decided first to browse the conflict statements, and when I found one that suited my needs, I selected three clauses to match the conflict statement. So I wrote the story from an idea brought to fruition by means of the Plotto exercise. I didn’t have a completed version until a few hours before the deadline, but I had prepared for this story by digging deep into Calvino’s “Six Memos for the Next Millennium.”
And your protagonist builds a very interesting house! At what point did you start to go that way?
It is difficult sometimes to pin down the conception of a story. The idea came about from a discussion of Camus’ novel “The Stranger” by Professor Martin Stone who described the novel and Camus’ intent to be about the absurdity of human existence coupled with the tendency for humans to seek meaning for our absurd condition. Camus was not an existentialist or a nihilist, rather he recognized the futility of attempting to create meaning from thin air, to use human acceptance of unquantifiable explanations (faith) as wrap-and-bow on the otherwise unexplainable. This was the basic concept I wanted to address in the Master Plotto story. Initially it began as a house for no-man, then as a house for everyman, with the caveat that no matter how hard we as humans attempt to manipulate our environment, no matter how hard we attempt to build something concrete from the perpetually fluid, ultimate possession of the absurd remains elusive. This house and this story is about the non-place of place. I used as building blocks my analysis of Calvino’s “Six Memos,” in particular the basic concepts for each: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity, and Consistency, so in a way it’s Calvino’s house this story represents. I suspect he would feel at home.
I am sure he would, since the Tin House blog describes as “Calvino-esque”! You have inspired me to read the “Six Memos” lectures, but I have just started and am not really able to frame a good question yet. So: just go for it! Tell us about the Six Memos!
Calvino didn’t write these memos to predict the future or speculate about the trajectory of fiction but to reinforce the value of literature in the context of a millennial transition. His intent was to present these as a series of lectures at Harvard in 1985 but a month before the scheduled event he died while still in Italy. He never finished the sixth memo, which was to be on Consistency, so the title “Six Memos” is in fact a bit deceiving. I don’t use this text as instructive but as reinforcement of the tendencies in my writing. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:
“In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing, and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogeneous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them . . .”
“What will be the future of the individual imagination in what is usually called the ‘civilization of the image’? Will the power of evoking images of things that are not there continue to develop in a human race increasingly inundated by a flood of prefabricated images?”
“. . . to represent the world as a knot, a tangled skein of yarn; to represent it without in the least diminishing the inextricable complexity or, to put it better, the simultaneous presence of the most disparate elements that converge to determine every event.”
“Think of what it would be to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own but to give speech to that which has no language . . .”
Many argue that it’s impossible to conceive anything other than from inside the self, that it’s impossible to escape the individual ego. I believe we have the ability to extend ourselves beyond the capsule of direct experience to a tethered assimilation of indirect experience, thereby establishing a connection outside the self—if by definition the self is a construct of direct experience. Indirect experience consists of the intellectual and emotional connection with worldly interactions of others’ direct experiences. While the act of assimilation is a direct experience, the “connection” with a direct experience of another person long since dead is indirect, and though maybe not completely “outside” the self, it is at least an oblique sidestep from the self such that it is not necessary for the self to be a material participant in the experience.
This is my interpretation of Calvino’s quote above, or at least how I hope to benefit from it. I believe, to varying degrees, that this method of indirect “connection” can apply to anything and anyone, from a squirrel on a fencepost to an inmate on death row, but not without the oblique sidestep necessary to indirectly assimilate the direct experience of a squirrel or a death row inmate. Ah, then comes arrogance, the spritely jokester at the edge of our peripheral vision, the single-minded obsession of individual ego to take control, to assume the shape and psyche of all perception, because the individual ego cannot stand the unlimited perspectives of otherness. But we’ve reached an agreement, my ego and me, where I am allowed to create landscapes of life as experience, to include the emotional, psychological, spatial, transcendental, and sensuous details, and like Millennium House, to indirectly connect a reader with the direct experience of (and within) the story.
So he is one of your major influences?
Yes, he’s on the stand next to my Vonnegut chair. You see, I’ve got this room with a half dozen chairs of different yet equal comfiness, each with a straight-on view through a different window, and each with a stack of books from authors I consider stylistically similar. I also have a Kerouac chair, a DeLillo chair, a John Irving chair, a Colum McCann chair, and a Donald Barthelme chair, each with other related authors of similar styles and tendencies. As I suspect most writers do, I read to re-ground myself, to seek refuge from the labyrinth of my wandering ways.
I decided to read “The Stranger” by Camus and “Six Memos” by Calvino in the same chair, which is really a bench pushed up against a half wall between the back room and the foyer that leads to the kitchen. I can’t be too comfortable reading Camus and Calvino. The straight-on window from that spot in the room is at such an angle that at any time of day or night, and in any light, all I see in the glass is my reflection. No trees or flowers or songbirds for these guys. This is also where I read works by John Hawkes and Georges Bataille, which can be quite exhausting, so I am grateful for its close proximity to the kitchen.
You are an Architect, yes? Aha! I love that you combine that with writing! When did you start writing fiction? Did you study writing (formally) at all as an undergrad or outside of college? Or is it purely a natural talent?
Currently I am the Building and Planning Director for a city in the Cincinnati metro area. My undergraduate work at Wesleyan University (in Connecticut) was in studio art with an architecture concentration. My graduate work at the University of Cincinnati was exclusively in architecture with a concentration on history, theory and criticism. I process all my stories in a spatial, architectural context, which I believe helps me create multi-dimensional characters, settings, and story structure. I tend to write from the inside out, or to put it another way, I visualize the story from within, emanating in multi-directional spatiality.
I didn’t start writing fiction (really) until the end of 2006 when I joined Zoe and the Flash Factory. I didn’t study writing–meaning, I never took any creative writing courses–but in building my own architectural “sensibility” I took a lot of philosophy and architectural theory classes, as well as history and of course studio art classes. Natural talent? I don’t know about that. I think it all has to do with perspective, and a back room deal with my ego for a polygamous sort of lifestyle.
How was working with the people at the Tin House blog?
They were wonderful. When “Rapid Eye” won the Week 2 Plotto Contest they sent me a couple e-mails to say how many “reads” the story was getting and that they were very pleased with how the Plotto contest was being received out there. They were very patient with me during the Master Plotto Challenge because I was so thick-headed about the instructions. We had an exchange of three or four e-mails before I finally “got it.” They also said to submit something for Flash Fiction Fridays and they would post it because I am a Plotto winner, which is really cool, but I haven’t sent anything yet. I can’t seem to find anything good enough.
I have known you for several years as the Guy In Charge of the Flash Factory at Zoetrope! How much of your published work comes from the Factory?
Most of my published work comes directly from participation in the Weekly Flash Gigs. I’ve participated in fifty or sixty Factory challenges over the past five years, which given the duration doesn’t amount to much. But I credit the Factory and the workers therein for all my successes, no matter how obscure or minimal. 2011 was a light year (definitely not a light-year) but 2012 has started strong, with 12 acceptances/publications in the first 2 1/2 months.
Why Flash Fiction?
I have always been non-traditional in my art and architecture projects, first at Wesleyan (where I was, in fact, a non-traditional student), and then with my critical and theoretical studies at the University of Cincinnati. Compressed fiction is a non-traditional form, a fusion of prose and poetics, where experimentation and the challenge of boundaries is the modus operandi. Flash Fiction is not pre-school or a training ground for longer fiction. It is a legitimate style worthy of serious consideration.
I am happy Tin House is finally recognizing the value and unique character of compressed fiction. Maybe they are following the lead of National Public Radio who has their own Three Minute Fiction segment, or maybe they have discovered that the quality of Flash Fiction in today’s environment rivals that of the traditional short story, at least in terms of a legitimate style and format.
Thank you, Richard! And again, Congratulations!
The Flash Factory, an office at Zoetrope, has a weekly flash contest (and members also work on their Plotto entries!) and welcomes new members! If you sign up for Zoetrope Virtual Studios, you can send Richard Osgood a z-mail so he can add you to the office member list!
Check out the second Plotto Master Contest of All Plots at the Tin House blog, running right now! Do not be afraid! Get in on the fun!
Learn more about William Wallace Cook’s Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots. Or win one of the Weekly challenges and Tin House will send you a copy as your prize!
And best of all: Read more flash fiction by Richard online:
“Litchfield to Ashtabula”in apt, April 2012
“Brazil” in kill author Issue Nine Vonnegut, October 2010
“(Please) Don’t Walk On The Wet Floor, Edgar” in Ink Sweat and Tears, April 2010
“Unspoken” in decomP February 2012
“I Make Candy Every Day” in metazen September 2009
“Summer of ’74” in Dogzplot September 2009
“A Beautiful Day for Coop Renner to Play” in Mudluscious 9
“TubeTopia” from Nighttrain
“Urban Thoreau” in Clockwise Cat, October 2009