Steve Robbins via Creative Commons
Steve Robbins via Creative Commons


First Appeared: Johnny America
Published: April 18, 2014
Byline: Paul Hamilton
Edited By: Jonathan Jay Holley
Permanent Link:
Cost: Free
Content: Rated PG: Thematic Elements

Behind The Story

Here’s a peculiar thing about the city I lived in when this story was written: it was the San Francisco Bay Area’s fourth most populous town. And yet, to serve 200,000 people, there were at the time just three bookstores total. One was a specialty bookstore serving the large South Asian community, one was a comic book store, and one was the only thing even resembling a mainstream bookseller. Even then it was part of a chain of secondhand bookshops.

I don’t have a problem with used bookstores, but they do have a distribution and supply issue. Anything I’m looking for that isn’t in stock sends me to Amazon, barring a local alternative.

Still, I frequented the store because a) books and b) cheap books. On one of my random “I’m in the neighborhood, let’s browse the bookstore” stops I noticed a sign outside advertising a flash fiction contest they were running. I had been writing a lot of flash pieces for this site, which are 200 words each. Since the contest word limit was 300, I figured that would feel like room to run, comparatively.

On the drive home I was thinking of what my entry would be about. The contest, unlike most other writing contests I’ve seen, was incredibly open ended. All the guidelines said was that it had to be relatively clean. Lacking any spark from the guidelines, I went to a topic I had been teasing at for some time, trying to incorporate as a minor thematic element in a few longer pieces. Basically it’s this observation I have that I struggle to truly appreciate the lovely, remarkable, wonderful, tranquil, happiest moments of my life until long, long after they’ve past. It makes me wonder if my in-the-moment experiences are somehow clouded by fleeting ephemera like physical discomfort or social anxiety or the maintenance of a persona that may be partially a facade. Or, perhaps, my happy memories are built on a foundation of nostalgia and selective recollection which discounts some of the truth. It’s probably a little of both, but the phenomenon still intrigues me.

The challenge, I realized, would be to craft a scene that was itself a moment that felt like something a person (the narrator) would want to remember. The scene itself is based on a heavily fictionalized memory I pulled from one of my happier experiences and, ironically, one of the few times I can recall more or less appreciating the minute-to-minute occurrences as they happened: the honeymoon my wife and I spent in Maui. I created fictional characters and decided to pull the scene out of the idyllic vacation destination, creating more of a tranquil domestic vibe. There was some additional thought put into who the characters were and what some of the vague mentions of the future actually refer to. But having only three hundred words meant there was only time for allusion and not expansion on those concepts.

I tweaked the piece only a little bit during the editing process; I had a limited amount of time to gather beta reading feedback and most of the reactions to the draft I passed around were pretty positive. So I submitted the story to the contest and went back to my other projects.

The way the contest was executed was kind of interesting: they printed out each entry and posted them on pillars and signboards all around the used bookstore one Saturday. Anyone who came into the store that day was encouraged to read and rate their favorite, anonymously posted, stories. My wife and I went down there and voted; I noted that a lot of the entrants seemed quite young, but there were a few really great stories there. In all honesty I felt the story was at least strong enough to be in contention for the prizes (I think the top awards were bookstore gift certificates) but it turned out I didn’t place. The stories that placed first, second, and third all happened to be written by the same person, so I guess that particular author was in a whole other league. I voted for at least one of the top stories myself.

Anyway, I took the piece away from the contest and, now unfettered by the strict 300-word limit, I went back to see if the story would work better expanded. I toyed briefly with fleshing out some of the bits I had left in the scrapheap of my mind: the couple’s future together, the conclusion of the moment, perhaps a jarring bit of dialogue as a conclusion. But after banging my head against it for a little bit, I decided to just clean up a couple of places where I felt I had compromised to meet the length requirement and submit it as-is. Happily, Johnny America liked it and decided to run with it.

I don’t know if I captured the sense I was going for precisely. The piece does, I think, convey a particular mood, and I think it’s one of the better bits of flash fiction I’ve composed even if it suffers some from the typical plot dearth common to very short fiction. I should also point out that Johnny America is, aside from having the good taste to publish my work, a wonderful and quirky place to find literary fiction online. They don’t update terribly often (bi-weekly), but I’ve liked or been surprised by nearly everything I’ve read there. Worth creating a reminder or adding them to your RSS reader.

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