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Set Your Brain on Fire
by Alan C. Baird

An interview with flash-fiction matchbook creators
Andrew L. Wilson and Bob Thurber.

Literary Lights are under-100-word micro fictions, printed inside matchbook covers. In the words of Gorelets author Michael Arnzen: "They're sure to 'strike up' conversation the next time someone asks, 'Got a light?'"

The matchbooks were created by Andrew L. Wilson and Bob Thurber, the driving forces behind Linnaean Street, a web literary journal, and Gargoyle Daily, a broadsheet of links to, and brief excerpts from, pieces of writing from all over the web. Pif Magazine's Tom Hartman says: "Whatever you call Gargoyle -- 'zine, links page, Wilson and Thurber's personal literary wunderkammer -- it's a welcome addition to the world of online letters and as good a place as there is to discover quality writing."

Got a light?

When I began discussing the Literary Lights project with these two, Bob seemed rather subdued.

ACB: How was the Andrew & Bob collaboration formed?

(Bob yields to Andrew on this question.)

ALW: Bob and I met as street urchins, dirty and vivacious. I thought he had the nicest shoes I ever saw. As teenagers, we began playing guitar together in an abandoned house, where we would lure divorcees and music hall dancers. (Because we can-can-can, Bob once noted.) One day, as a joke, we began exchanging little stories written on cigarette papers. He'd slip one into my hand and I'd slip one into his. We also played with matches. The house was eventually consumed by a mysterious conflagration.

Years later, after sailing our sixteen-foot sloop "The Slovenly Lass" around the world -- an adventure that took the better part of a year, and cost us both our health (Bob was left with a permanent gimp leg, while I developed an insidious wracking cough) -- we were both bored and anxious for another challenge. When I suggested that we could publish short stories inside matchbooks, he whacked the café table with his cane and said: "Let's go."

ACB: What gave you the idea of publishing flash fictions inside matchbook covers?

(Bob passes on this question.)

ALW: The idea came to me suddenly during a long walk in the rain. I have always been puzzled by the white space left inside the covers of most matchbooks. Why not put something inspiring there for people to read?

ACB: How did you choose the authors represented?

(Bob declines to answer this question.)

ALW: All were my friends, although with one I am no longer on speaking terms. I invited them to submit their punchiest "smoke-long" stories and chose the ones that I thought would most startle, amuse, or enlighten those who might take our dare and "Open Cover Before Reading."

ACB: Were there any surprises during the design/production process?

(Bob tries, and fails, to formulate an answer for this question.)

ALW: We had a hard time coming up with the right tag line to print on the wide upper fold (one of the most interesting aspects of safety matchbooks, for me, is their unique shape). I offered, "Mesdames et Messieurs, please be so kind as to open this matchbook and peruse the short short short story printed within. With infinite thanks, Publishers Bob & Andrew." However, Bob's idea eventually won the day: "Caution: Literary Lights Enclosed." I liked the play on words. (That's Bob all over -- the man's a burbling font of double-entendre, backtalk, and Joycean wordplay.)

Bob did all the design. We're proud of the high-gloss black on white effect. They look like souvenirs from a New York supper club or a posh Tunisian cathouse. I own a book of La Coupole matches, and they aren't nearly as -- sorry -- striking.

ACB: How did the other authors (Mary & Joseph) respond to the finished product?

(Bob wonders why anyone would ask a question like this.)

ALW: Bemusedly, then with incredulous dismay growing into anger.

I think they were actually very proud. At least, that's what their lawyers confided. I am not allowed to discuss the fine points of either case at the present time.

ACB: Have you received unusual feedback from customers?

(Bob is stumped by this question.)

ALW: One woman in California, a Conceptual Artist, built special wooden display cases for the Literary Lights and gave them away to friends in that format. I would very much like to see one of her display cases.

Joseph Faria took Literary Lights with him on a visit to the Azores, and reported that people were absolutely crazy for them. He ran out fast. We've had accolades from as far away as Finland. Not a week goes by that I don't get a submission by e-mail for the Literary Lights series.

ACB: Since matchbooks are primarily associated with smoking, do you feel that Literary Lights are sending a subliminal message?

(Bob defers to Andrew on this question.)

ALW: I do. I think we are saying: "Smoke your brains out! What are you worrying about, you damned pansy? Light up!"

No, truly, I think we're giving people a little pleasure, excitement, and mystical meaning in their lives -- all in 100-word bursts. I look at these matchbooks as unique objets d'art.

ACB: Has this project generated much media attention?

(Bob feels this question is far too personal.)

ALW: Michael Arnzen, a celebrated novelist, did a nice review of Literary Lights in his newsletter. Otherwise, nothing. I sent out samples of the matchbooks to most of the literary magazines in America, too. I can only attribute the media's lack of interest to laziness, or perhaps bitter envy.
Want More?

Literary Lights
Gargoyle Daily
Pif Magazine's review of Gargoyle Daily
Linnaean Street

If it weren't for the raves we've gotten from Europeans, I might begin to ask myself whether or not it was all worth it.

ACB: Are there any plans for future matchbook collections?

(Bob confers with counsel, who advises him to avoid answering this question.)

ALW: We'd like to do a second series. If so, the plan is to publish absolutely the finest short literary stories we can get our hands on. But we cannot do it until we sell out the first series. That will take a few more customers. (smirks) I am hinting!

ACB: What are you working on now?

(Bob is too exhausted to answer this question.)

ALW: As Martin Sheen's character says to the boat captain in Apocalypse Now, "That's classified."

During the session transcribed above, I began to feel queasy and disgusted. My hard-hitting questions eventually forced Bob to clam up altogether. To assuage my guilt, I offered to let Bob interview himself, and the following material arrived via Top Secret E-mail a few days later.

Meeting Myself in the Middle

An exclusive/inclusive interview conducted with and by Bob Thurber.

When you first meet Bob Thurber, you are struck head-on by his nervous energy and his unnerving presence, his fast and furiously overeager wit, his rather inane replies to questions (anything for a laugh), and his wobbly-kneed, wobbly-lined, almost cartoonish mannerisms. Throughout my short interview with Bob, discernible waves of energy emanated from him like the constant wiggles of dust and dirt that surround Charlie Brown's unkempt pal "Pigpen."

My assignment was to come away from our meeting with enough material to compose a 250-word expose about this obscure post-modern minimalist writer of short fiction.

And I will say this: he's a tall, good-looking fellow, a neat package; but long-necked and stoop shouldered, with a pale, less-than-healthy appearance. I imagined his bones to be as brittle as bread sticks, and I was exceedingly careful when he shook my hand.

Throughout our conversation, his brow remained furrowed. He seemed nervous and uncomfortable. I suspect he is perpetually keeping one or more great secrets to or from himself, has been doing so for a good number of years, and that keeping has taken its toll.

I asked him if he considered himself, as some have said of him, a masterful writer of ultra-short fictions.

He laughed. A small hard sound, like a gastrointestinal disturbance.

Then I asked if he considered himself a careful thinker and without hesitation, he answered: If ideas are bees, I've been stung to death thirty or forty thousand times.

In total, I posed a dozen questions to Mister Thurber, to which he consistently gave lean and mean answers or no answers at all. In either instance, his eyes begged for forgiveness.

In conclusion, I decided if Bob Thurber were a frozen lake, one might easily sweep snow aside and detect the shadows of rainbow trout wavering just beneath the glazed surface... as one slowly starved to death, waiting for the thaw.

About the author:
Alan C. Baird recently coauthored - a print\web\wap project featured at the Whitney Biennial. His online stories and scripts appear in Locus Novus, minima,, Quick Fiction, flashquake, Literary Potpourri, fifty word fiction, 3am Magazine and In Posse Review. He lives just a stone's throw from Hollywood... which is fine and dandy, until the stones are thrown back.

© 2011 Word Riot

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