For over a decade Bruce Holland Rogers’ fans have been enjoying his work in small, regular doses. For $10 a year he sends subscribers 36 amazing stories, three per month. The tales are described as an “unpredictable mix of literary fiction, science fiction, fairy tales, mysteries and work that is hard to classify.” Those who know his work describe them as addictive.
Subscribers to short.short.short are encouraged to forward stories to friends; that’s how I was introduced to Bruce years ago. Once I got a taste I had to sign up. Bruce’s work is masterful, and there’s almost always a twist that leaves you viewing the world just a little differently. I wasn’t surprised to learn Bruce had won many awards: a Pushcart, two Nebulas, a Bram Stoker, two World Fantasy Awards, and a Micro Award. His work is known world-wide.
One day he sent a story about a depressed woman, obviously a victim of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), who finds her healing medicine in quite a surprising way—through the earth (literally). Garden writing! I wrote Bruce, suggesting that he send “A Fine and Private Place” to GreenPrints, which was then the only garden writing publication around. He did, and Pat Stone published it. When I started Greenwoman, I wanted to share Bruce’s work. I asked if I could reprint another story that he’d sent via subscription. Then another. And another.
I’ve always wanted to interview him, to introduce him in a bigger way to my friends. This winter we finally got together. I offer this small glimpse into his work.
Flora’s Forum: As you know, I was introduced to you and your fascinating work through shortshortshort.com—when a friend of mine, also a writer, sent me a story. How many subscribers do you have now and how many stories have you written since it began in 2002?
Bruce Holland Rogers: My high-water mark for subscribers was one thousand, but that was a few years ago. For the last five years, I have done little to promote the service or even to remind subscribers to renew, so the list has dwindled to about 330. Those remaining subscribers, however, are hard core!
I have written over 400 stories for subscribers now, and in recent years I haven’t been very good about submitting them to magazines and anthologies. I have quite a backlog to publish now.
Flora’s Forum: How did the idea for sending out three short stories a month to subscribers come about?
In 2001 I read a book called Guerilla Marketing for Writers that referenced someone who had sold his limericks by email. The story was that he spammed the world with emails promising a limerick a day to anyone who mailed him a dollar, and that he soon raised one hundred-thousand dollars this way. (This was in early days of the net, before spam was such a scourge.)
I liked the idea of selling directly to readers. I loved reading and writing very compressed stories. The stories demand so much that I knew I couldn’t write a story a day. I would even be hard-pressed to write one a week. But if I had, say, one subscriber, I would happily send him or her a story a year for three dollars. And if I had five subscribers, I could promise a story every quarter to earn their fifteen dollars in total. So I created a sliding scale: the more subscribers I had, the more stories I would send. Eventually, when I had a couple hundred subscribers, I settled at three stories a month. I felt that was about my limit.
Over the years, the subscription rate went from three dollars to five, and then ten. A few subscribers are patrons, which means they subscribe at the twenty-five dollar level, helping to keep me in tea and biscuits. (Tea and biscuits are essential to writing.) Other subscribers give subscriptions as gifts. It’s great to have an immediate and appreciative audience!
I launched and grew mostly through friends and their recommendation to their friends. Now I get new subscribers whom I think discover shortshortshort because they Googled me after reading one of my stories. Unlike the supposed limerick writer, I never spammed.
After I had been running shortshortshort.com for a few years, I tried to track down the limerick writer, to see if I could put a name to the story. I haven’t found any evidence that he ever existed. Perhaps he did. However, I like to think that my fiction service arose from my belief in someone else’s invented story.
Flora’s Forum: I like that idea, too. After hearing your story, I also tried to track down the limerick writer, with no luck. I think he’s a writers’ urban legend! Do you know of anyone else who has used your subscription model to bring in an income as a writer? (Yes, I’m personally interested!)
Bruce Holland Rogers: With fiction I have seen a couple of attempts that did not last long. It’s hard to say for certain why these efforts soon ended, but a lot of things have to go right. In these two cases, I didn’t like the writing very much, and that may have been the first thing that went wrong. But there may well have been an audience for those writers, and they just didn’t figure out how to find that audience.
There is a subscription program for children, Sparkle Stories, that sends weekly audio stories for a year and has several such series categorized by the age of the child.
For distribution by email or audio download, the nonfiction writer has all the advantages that a nonfiction writer has more generally. The audience is sorted by subject. The writer can more readily identify potential readers and go to wherever, online or off, those potential readers congregate. The readers of nonfiction are also more likely to find the writer while searching for information on the writer’s topic.
Flora’s Forum: You write short-shorts in many genres. Do you have a current favorite?
Bruce Holland Rogers: I am allergic to the idea of favorites. Maybe that just means that I’m indecisive, but I’m never able to name a favorite writer, a favorite move, a favorite shirt. So I’ve never been good at having a favorite genre. I started out in my teens writing science fiction, and I still write SF occasionally. But I like humor, contemporary realism, historical fiction, expressionism (which looks like fantasy), fantasy, mystery . . . I like being able to generate a story from whatever is going on in my life, including my imagined life. My readers don’t know what they are going to get.
Flora’s Forum: You are not kidding there! This week you sent us an adorable personal story that you’ve also published on eBay! “My Girlfriend’s Shoes* (or a deed thereof” where you have put your girlfriends’ shoes up for bid! (Click on the title to get the story.) Is publishing a story on eBay a first?
Bruce Holland Rogers: It is, but it may not be the last. Unless, of course, this is the last time I ever do *anything,* which several women have informed me is likely.
Flora’s Forum: Ha! Women and their shoes! You’re a gutsy man, Bruce.
Three of the four stories that have been published in Greenwoman focused on women with a unique connection to the earth, or, in “Cows With Names Make 3.4 Percent More Milk,” to cows! I thought it would be fun to get some insight into how a couple of these stories came about.
We published your story “A Human Birth” in issue #1 of Greenwoman. As I don’t want to give too much away, let’s say it’s about a woman who discovers her unique connection to the soil. Why did you choose that connection and what’s your connection to the soil—(or what are your experiences with women and gardening—or both!).
It’s hard for me to talk about this story without spoiling its effect, so if your readers want to experience the story, they should do so before reading my answer. [Editor’s note: you can purchase a PDF version of Greenwoman Issue #1 here for only $2.95.]
Bruce Holland Rogers: The origins of that story lie in a practice that my ex-wife and I had, a joke about reincarnation. If we had an encounter with someone who behaved very badly, we would forgive that person and speculate on what he or she had been in a previous life. Sometimes the promotion from a non-human birth to a human birth is difficult. That is, this life might be that person’s first experience with being human, and the life of humans is a challenging one.
We might say about the man who had yelled because a line was moving slowly, “He doesn’t have much practice with patience, but even so, he didn’t yell for the first five minutes in line. That’s pretty good for someone who was a grasshopper in his last life.”
My ex, Holly, was a gardener. So was my mother. So was my friend Kate Wilhelm until, in her eighties, the physical demands became too much. In my little corner of the universe, gardeners have been mostly women.
My own connection with the soil has come from digging. As a toddler, I tried to dig as my mother gardened. (As my mother told the story, I was right next to her when her spade turned up a white grub. I said, “Candy!” and ate it before she could stop me.) As an adult, I have dug holes for posts or footings, and I’m always interested to see who comes up with the shovel. There is so much wildlife under out feet. Healthy soil is heavily populated soil. As much as I enjoy turning up a shovel-full of earth, it’s been more than fifty years since I ate a grub.
Flora’s Forum: I love that story, Bruce. And so true about the soil—I’ve read that the number of organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil can number up to a billion. Now to switch to bigger organisms; in the lighthearted and charming “Cows With Names Make 3.4 Percent More Milk” (Greenwoman #3) you write about a college student, Brenda, who is studying Dairy Science. She grew up on a dairy farm and loves to name cows, a quirky habit that serves her well when it comes to romance. One of the themes here is how naming forms deeper connections—and more milk! How did that story develop?
Bruce Holland Rogers: I attended a land-grant university, Colorado State University. I enrolled with a double-major in technical journalism and zoology, but I kept changing my majors. I knew that I wanted to write, but everyone said I’d need something to fall back on. But what? Every semester, I scoured the catalog, looking for a more appealing major. Going to a land-grant institution, the kind of school that used to be an A&M [Agriculture & Mechanical], meant that I read the requirements for all sorts of practical majors. I had classmates who had grown up on farms. I walked by the animal sciences facilities, drank unpasteurized milk from the university’s herd. In all, I had five different declared majors, and probably another four that I intended to pursue but never got around to officially recording. After six years, I graduated with the only degree that worked for my mishmash of courses, with the singularly impractical major of Humanities.
I had a truly generalist education, ideal for a writer.
Flora’s Forum: I have to ask, what were those five declared majors?
Bruce Holland Rogers: The five declared majors were technical journalism, zoology, English, history, and humanities. Majors that I planned my courses around but didn’t formally register included computer science, Spanish, physical sciences, and psychology. I also thought long and hard about engineering.
Flora’s Forum: Could you give a little more background into “Cows With Names Make 3.4 Percent More Milk”? I know it’s a very whimsical piece, but was Brenda based on a real student? Where did the idea of the naming of cows come from?
Bruce Holland Rogers: The title for that story is almost word-for-word the headline of a news item. No one knows why this correlation was found. Since cows tend to be a bit skittish and lactate less when they are stressed, it may be that the sort of dairy farmers who name their animals are also gentler with them, and that difference shows up in milk production.
Brenda doesn’t have a basis in any particular person, but I have a lot of experience with giving and receiving nicknames in intimate relationships. When the nicknames are ones that both the giver and receiver like, those names can become a part of their private language, part of what becomes reassuring and comforting between them.
Flora’s Forum: What is it like, gardening-wise, food-wise, living in Oregon?
Bruce Holland Rogers: Eugene is very garden-friendly. We get our hard frosts, and even the occasional severe cold. Last winter, my fig tree died back all the way to the roots, for example, and I lost many of my landscape plants. But that was the first intense die-back in many years. Winters are mild compared to much of the country. I’ll risk starting this year’s salad greens in March. We have rain in abundance much of the year, but then our summers are so hot and dry that you really can’t have a garden without irrigation.
We have a thriving Northwest cuisine featuring salmon, hazelnuts and berries. An invasive species of blackberry is a tenacious weed for us, but it also produces big, sweet fruit.
Flora’s Forum: What are your plans for 2015?
This week, for the first time in years, I rationalized all my to-do lists on a spreadsheet. It came to 320 items. So my plans are to do a lot. A part of those plans is to write my 36 stories for the year and to write a book about money, the other cabbage.
Flora’s Forum: Thanks for spending some time with us, Bruce.