University professor wins prize for flash fiction

Creative writing professor Lawrence Coates recently won the $1,000 Barthelme Prize for Short Prose for his short story “Bats.”

Coates usually doesn’t enter contests.

“It’s always a crapshoot,” he said.

However, Coates’ respect for Donald Barthelme, the prize’s namesake, caused him to enter this contest.

“Barthelme is an acknowledged master of flash fiction,” Coates said.

Flash fiction is quite short. The limit for this contest was 500 words.

“There’s a certain way [Barthelme] is playful with ideas without coming to a definite conclusion. There’s a speculative nature to his work … There’s a surrealist aspect,” Coates said.

The contest’s judge, Robert Coover, said in the official announcement of the contest winners that Coates’ story and two honorable mentions all “echo Donald Barthelme’s brevity, concision, and wry intelligence, his gift for memorable one-liners.”

The contest was run by Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts.

A surrealist prompt led Coates to write “Bats.” The prompt was for one of his classes, and he always responds to prompts along with his students. One prompt he uses is inspired by “The Wedding Cake in the Middle of the Road,” a collection of short stories which all contain a wedding cake in a road at some point.

“As a group we come up with two disparate objects,” Coates said, and everyone puts them together in their response.

This time, the combination was “bats in purses.”

Coates’ story is “about how people put things away in November, but those things are still really there.”

The women in “Bats” have bats in their purses whether they admit it or not, just as people can never fully forget or repress memories, Coates said.

Coates writes novels more frequently than short stories.

“He’s got a range,” Wendell Mayo, another creative writing professor, said of Coates.

It’s impressive to be able to switch from novels to “short short stories” as flash fiction is also known, Mayo said.

Short stories are demanding in that every word must be exactly right, Coates said.

“You really have to work sentence by sentence,” Coates said.

Finding the right words is important in any work, he said, but especially so with a limited word count.

“Having some kind of closure that seemed satisfying and right was a challenge,” Coates said.

Writing a novel is slow, steady work that requires consistently putting time in, Coates said.

“In a novel, you’re taking some character’s life and carving out a season of that life,” Coates said.

His advice to aspiring novelists is to include events during that season are “unique, unrepeatable and irreversible” events that permanently change the character.

“Then it’s big enough to write a novel about,” Coates said.

Coates called those criteria his “test” for a good novel, but said “there’s so much variation in the short story” that he doesn’t have a similar test.

Coates has no specific plans for the $1,000 prize.

“I do travel for research,” he said. “I can always use money for travel.”

Coates said he is part of a very accomplished faculty, listing all the books other creative writing professors have recently published or will be publishing.

“We’ve got a pretty good program here,” he said.

Mayo said the department as a whole benefits when a faculty member wins a prize.

“It shows that you can be successful in the humanities,” which is important in a culture that does not recognize the humanities as much as it could, Mayo said. “To win that prize, you have to be remarkably talented.”