By Molly Walsh
After Gabi and Alec Clayton packed up their home in Mississippi to start a new life in Washington State, one of the first sights they encountered when they drove into the Olympia area was the exposed tide flats of the South Puget Sound. This landscape would eventually serve as inspiration for the title of their local publishing business, Mud Flat Press.
Through Mud Flat Press, the Claytons help to guide writers along the self-publishing process. From paginating to cover design, the Claytons work with authors to launch their final manuscripts through platforms like Kindle Direct Publishing. Across the decades and through a cross-country journey that spanned from the Southeast to the Pacific Northwest, the Claytons’ publishing work has earned them, not only book titles to add to the businesses’ repertoire, but also an abundance of lifelong friends.
As a celebration of old friends and new, of local writers and those peppered across times zones, the Claytons compiled the anthology Mud Flat Shorts (mostly fiction). Featuring over 30 pieces from 19 writers, Mud Flat Shorts guides readers through a type of vacation across the South Puget Sound region and across the decades. While authors contemplate humor, horror, loss and the passage of time, readers can catch glimpses of locales both in Thurston County and oceans away.
Although the contributors to Mud Flat Shorts stem from different walks of life, a central theme emerges through the anthology’s pages: a sense of place. Whether that place is a tangible destination or a more internal setting, this sense lingers in the storytelling and is interpreted differently by each author.
“We felt that after reading the stories, that the theme that pretty much emerged was a sense of place,” said Alec Clayton.
“But then,” adds Gabi Clayton, “we’ve added in describing it that sometimes sense of place is a state of mind, so it’s not really always a clear place that it’s set. But the sense of place is still very present in the story.”
Mud Flat Shorts includes short stories from both new and established writers, including novelists Jack Butler, Megan Kruse and OLY ARTS founder Ned Hayes. Many of the contributors featured in Mud Flat Shorts are also friends of the Claytons, having become acquainted through previous writing and publishing endeavors.
Mud Flat Shorts is also personal to OLY ARTS magazine, as several contributors to this publication are featured in the anthology. When not attending to his work at Mud Flat Press, Alec Clayton is a longtime contributor to OLY ARTS. Christian Carvajal, OLY ARTS writer and editor, also contributed three short stories to Mud Flat Shorts.
Christian Carvajal has crossed paths with the Claytons through several writing projects. Carvajal recalls that he first became acquainted with Alec Clayton when Clayton reviewed a play in which Carvajal was performing. Carvajal and Clayton also worked together as critics at the Tacoma-based publication The Weekly Volcano.
When Carvajal was ready to publish his second novel, he connected with the Claytons at Mud Flat Press to help streamline the process. Carvajal contributed three pieces to Mud Flat Shorts, including the horror piece “Blow Out the Candles” and science fiction pieces “Division by Zero” and “Time Capsule.” In the case of “Candles,” Carvajal said the story was a sudden inspiration, with the plot line materializing while he was out running errands.
“The idea came to me out of nowhere one day in a Target parking lot of all places,” said Carvajal, “and the hair stood up on my arms. It’s like the story arrived in my brain full-blown. That hadn’t happened to me in a long time, but when it does happen, the trick is to find a keyboard pronto. That’s a lot easier now than it used to be in the typewriter days.”
All three Carvajal short stories included in Mud Flat Shorts originated from jis work with the local writing organization Creative Colloquy. Carvajal is excited to see each of the three pieces find a home within Mud Flat Shorts, and he sees this anthology as a way to bring a range of writers together.
“They’re all terrific writers,” said Carvajal of the authors included. “I’ve never subscribed to the idea that writers should be competitive with each other. Sure, I want to hold my own in the pack, but overall better writing means overall happier readers, and that benefits everybody.”
James O’Barr refers to himself as an “occasional writer” but has vast experience in different media, from radio scripts to poetry to film reviews. O’Barr’s short story in Mud Flat Shots, “Best Teaching,” takes readers back to Vietnam in the 1960s. Based on his own experiences as an Army medic during the Vietnam War, “Best Teaching” features a fictionalized recounting of the collaboration between himself and a nurse as they work together to treat patients in a remote village in the mountainous terrain of Vietnam.
“My story is very, very short and it just says something, I think very sweet, about some of my experience,” says O’Barr, “which … wasn’t all blood and guts. It was people. And I met some really, really wonderful human beings.”
After meeting Gabi Clayton during a Quaker Friends meeting several years ago, Meenu Madhavan and her husband have since become longtime friends of both the Claytons. Madhavan said she feels grateful to be included in Mud Flat Shorts. For the anthology, Madhavan shared the short story “The Baton.” This story is a reflective piece that, according to Madhavan, recounts a tough time in her life.
“It is about mothers and daughters,” said Madhavan. “It is about the things that get passed down from one generation to the next. It is about life and death. It is about confronting life with all its good and bad.”
Originally drafted as an assignment for a creative writing course, Madhavan splices a narrative between three anecdotes that feature both herself and her mother, examining and revealing truths from the vignettes.
“Making sense of my life in that darkness by just looking at the answer right in front of me,” said Madhavan. “My mother, from a different perspective.”
Olympia-based writer CK Combs has been publishing short stories for over a decade. In addition to shorter writing pieces, Combs is also currently working on his first full-length, young adult novel. After crossing paths in local activism communities and at LGBTQ+ advocacy events, Combs has known the Claytons for over two decades. Combs became further acquainted with the Claytons in a literary capacity through Creative Colloquy.
Completed between deadlines for other projects, Combs wrote an original story for Mud Flat Shorts, “The Breakup.” A lifelong resident of Thurston County, Combs has witnessed the city of Olympia change through different eras and iterations. Former landmarks become new haunts. Facets of the community grow, and layers of history become attached to each building. Combs said that when walking down the street in Olympia, he doesn’t just see current storefronts, but remnants of what once was.
“In my mind’s eye I can see (them) as I look around, and I’ve started thinking of them as my ghosts,” said Combs, “as Olympia being a ghost town to me, because of all the layers of my many, many years here.”
“The Breakup” explores this personal history of Olympia and surrounding areas, while also examining how one’s relationship to their hometown would change on the eve of a move out of town. Through this story, Combs asks what it would look like to say goodbye to his hometown.
“Making that last pass through town and then getting ready to leave,” said Combs, “after seeing all their favorite places and checking and kind of doing their farewell tour, and then being confronted by the spirit of Olympia, and its many guises. Which is not wanting to be an ex yet, and so there’s this whole kind of conversation that goes on with these personae.”
Mud Flat Shorts (mostly fiction), published by Mud Flat Press