The Short of It: Barbara Black & Little Fortified Stories

In her new collection of micro and flash fictions Little Fortified Stories (Caitlin Press), Barbara Black creates strange characters in stranger worlds. We chat with her about writing shorter-than-short stories and read “Salon of Mirrors” from the collection.

A graphic reading "The Short of It: Short Story Month" with an image of the cover of Little Fortified Stories by Barbara Black and an inset photo of the author.


Share It:

For Short Story Month, we’re spotlighting one author every Wednesday with a mini interview and excerpt from their short story collection.

All Lit Up: Tell us about your collection in a few short sentences.

Barbara Black: This book of flash, micro and other brief fictions began in a sipping room in Lisbon where I discovered that hidden in my port samples were little fortified stories of a curious nature. Hence, the title! The collection ranges from 50-word micro glimpses to longer narratives and a few hybrids in between. Reality is negotiable. Within these pages expect to encounter Kafka and Pessoa, Daedelus’s Wife and Medusa, mourning voices, stories based on dreams and art, a bat-like couple, a ruined saint and more from my crazy brain. My aim is always to create emotional resonance, so I hope that readers will be surprised at what meaning and nuance can be packed into a very short story.

ALU: What do you love about working in very short forms?

BB: What I love about these compact forms is they not only test your skills in brevity but introduce you to different ways to tell a story. Short forms like microfiction and flash rely on the reader’s engagement to “read into” omissions and associations in the text, to go willingly where the stories take them. You can disorient, deflect, suggest, leave things out or leave things hanging. For me, it’s an experiment in finding the form or approach that best fits the story, whether it be a narrative, dialogue, monologue, vignette or some other unusual structure. Constraint often yields more creative results.

ALU: Who are some of your favourite short or microfiction writers?

BB: In the short-short fiction category I have deep admiration for the work of Kathy Fish (read her brilliant collection Wild Life: Collected Works) and Meg Pokrass (all her books are great), two trail blazers in this genre and both very generous in teaching the craft to others. And speaking of breaking rules, Lydia Davis creates small stories that are fractured, neurotic, funny and philosophical without operating within anything resembling a traditional story arc.

ALU: What are three things on your writing desk/place of writing?

BB: A rectangular paper weight of polished black jasper made by my rock-hound grandfather.

A small, fake snail-like creature with a bobbing head that sits on my calendar and points his bouncy eyes at important dates.

An early photo mock-up of my book’s cover design before I handed it off to the publisher.

An excerpt from “Salon of Mirrors,” from Little Fortified Stories

West Cork Limited Release Single Malt Irish Whiskey, Glengarriff Series


Why is there no god for unruly hair? Medusa moaned.

Her hairdresser insisted there was already a god: Zeus. The general one. God is a kind of hole, she said, you can pour your heart into, and combed the snakes with a rubber rake. Medusa huffed, I can tell you what kind of hole, and the snakes did a harem dance atop her head.

The only difference between your hair and mine is yours is alive, said her ornitrix, addressing the less dangerous back of Medusa’s head.

… and it’s self-braiding! Medusa quipped. Take that, fancy Miss Aphrodite.

The salon was mirrored from top to bottom. Everywhere ornatrices or clients looked they saw Medusa in duplicate or triplicate, but never face to face. To never be bestowed a glance was a worse fate than ugliness.

Above, Zeus tracked Medusa’s conversation. Zeus had a scissor mind: half open, half closed, snipping through the flimsy fates of mortals on any whim brought in by the winds. Zeus was impulsive. Medusa was not. On a daily basis she had to plan her every move.

Years passed. Many snake skins came and went. Time charged on like a crazed centurion bent on victory when victory was no longer possible.

It was a desiccating summer night. The snakes, growing old with their host, slept coiled in a serpentine chignon atop Medusa’s head. Along the walls of her bedroom, the stone figures of her many former loves kept vigil, faces frozen in terror.

Why must I suffer a decades-long bad hair day? Medusa lamented. The desert wind exhaled its hot breath through her window.
It often spoke to her in this way. A hissing whisper, not unlike snake-talk.

One rat heart, one egg. One rat heart, one egg. A line from her bedroom out the front door. She lay down on the cool tile. Waited. The snakes slithered from her head like the severed tongues of those who have defied the gods. It was that easy. She had never considered their freedom. Only her own misery. She understood now how hair was vanity. The lightness of her scalp was sky settling on skin.

She closed her eyes. She was going down to the sea again, on the isle of Sarpedon, where waves moved back and forth, languidly, like desire.

A photo of writer Barbara Black. She is a light skin toned woman with chin length, wavy blond hair, wearing a cardigan and crossing her arms. She smiles widely.

Barbara Black writes fiction, flash fiction, and poetry. Her work has been published in Canadian and international magazines including The Cincinnati ReviewThe New QuarterlyCV2Geist and Prairie Fire. She was recently a finalist in the 2020 National Magazine Awards, nominated for the 2019 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize and won the 2019 Geist Annual Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest. She lives in Victoria, BC.

Photo of Barbara credit Erin Clayton Photography.

Thanks to Barbara for answering our questions, and to Caitlin Press for the excerpt from Little Fortified Stories, available here on All Lit Up or from your local indie bookseller.

Stay tuned for more Short of It next Wednesday when we share a Q&A with Lulu Keating.