In UTEP creative writing professor Lex Williford’s “Superman on the Roof,” a narrator grieves over the childhood death of his brother in ten short shorts. The chapbook earned him the 2015 10th Annual Rose Metal Flash Fiction Chapbook Award.
“In 2002, at an artist residency, I decided to write 40 stories in 40 days,” said, Williford, the founding director of UTEP’s online creative writing MFA program. He’s also the chair of the on-campus bilingual MFA program. “Almost all the stories [in ‘Superman on the Roof’] came out of that. I didn’t get a sense of how the book might evolve – or get to a place of forgiveness for some of the people – to write with empathy. That basically started when I had kids.”
In his book, the narrator’s family first finds out his little brother is ill after the narrator punches him in the nose. His nosebleed doesn’t stop, and soon he receives blood transfusions that keep him alive for only a few hours at a time.
“I never hit him,” Williford said about that scene. “I was his biggest protector. Creating that dramatic situation was a way of being able to describe things like survivor’s guilt. When you have kids who are grieving, it’s pretty irrational. They tend to blame themselves. [That scene] was an effort to move beyond that and give him a real reason for feeling guilt.”
“Short short” is another word for “flash fiction,” which are writings of less than 1,200 words. The length of each story in “Superman on the Roof,” recreates the surreal feeling of absence with a family member’s premature death.
“I read a book of stories by Jayne Anne Phillips called ‘Black Tickets,’ and that’s where I fell in love with the form,” Williford said. “I met her in New York, and she said, ‘These stories began as autobiography and ended in dream.’”
The term “short short” is often used over “flash fiction” to emphasize that it can be creative nonfiction as well.
“Certain things in the book come close to things that really happened,” Williford said. Like the narrator in, “Superman on the Roof,” his brother died at a young age from Leukemia. That story takes place long after the brother’s death. The siblings, now older and with their own families, remember the Superman outfit their brother refused to remove near the end of his life. Their mother pulls out a box containing the Superman suit, still stained with blood.
“My mother actually did show us our brother’s pajamas,” Williford said. “They were completely covered in blood.”
Williford is familiar with both creative nonfiction and prose. He is co-editor, with Michael Maritone, of the “Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction,” and the “Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction.”
“There is something about the imagination working on the raw material of our lives,” Williford said.” “We can make these huge imaginative leaps writing fiction that we may not necessarily be able to make in nonfiction.”