Emma Smith-Stevens

Interviewed by Chloe Lane

Illness and war are your subjects for “Some Ongoing Etc.” and your previous Subtropics publication “Parachutes,” respectively, yet your stories are full of humor. Can you talk a little about how important humor is to your writing?

I think that if a story is to be believed, there’s got to be some humor. At times, life is tragic, terrifying, enraging—i.e., not at all funny—but viewing it from a humorous angle doesn’t necessarily detract from the horror of things. Humor does not automatically “make light” of its subject. On the contrary, humor can help us see tragedies and indignities and grief more accurately. Opposite or contradictory feelings intermingle and enhance each other—in the writing that moves me, and in real life. I don’t think it’s accurate to depict living as a humorless project.

Let me answer this question another way: in high school, I was fascinated by the medieval conception of the four humors, which were believed to exist as fluids within the body: blood, phlegm, bile, and choler. The amounts of each fluid were thought to determine a person’s disposition. Imbalances of the humors led to problems. For example—and my memory may be imperfect here—a person with too much bile was said to be “melancholic,” fixated on death and tragedy. A person with too much phlegm was “phlegmatic,” spacey and adrift. The correct proportions of each humor were essential to wellbeing. While this theory has been abandoned as it relates to anatomy, I think it holds true for fiction; if a story is going to work it’s got to have a balance of differing energies or moods.

You use two images to describe illness at the opening of “Some Ongoing Etc.:” “like hammer holes in dry wall” and the stamen of a flower, whose pollen M cannot help but touch (“That color gets on everything like a broken highlighter pen. You wipe and wipe, but still.”). Both are remarkable in the way they suggest violence and frustration and maybe resignation too. Can you talk a little about where these images come from? Are they related to a personal experience of illness?

I could not have written these descriptions without firsthand experience of mental illness. “Some Ongoing Etc.” is not autobiographical, but my own experiences informed my depiction of the psychiatric hospital in which the story is set, as well as the general mechanisms behind M’s thought processes. A delusional person is often thought to have lost her ability to think rationally, but actually the delusional mind is often hyper-rational, incredibly rigid and confident in its reasoning. My experience is also that an illness affecting thought and emotion is inevitably shaped by the history and desires and fears and circumstances of the person it strikes. So, in writing about M and her “episode,” as the doctors in the story call it, I had to invent both simultaneously.

A lot of “Some Ongoing Etc.” is about disparities in perception. When we see someone whose thoughts and speech are fragmented, whose beliefs diverge from the reality most of us agree upon, who acts in ways that seem detached from reason, we think, This is a broken person. The most fundamental mechanism in this person is damaged. This attitude is mirrored in the language we use to describe mental illness. A person has a “psychotic break” or a “break from reality.” She “cracks” or “snaps.” We see the afflicted person as having suffered an act of violent destruction, either from within or without, that has fractured or obliterated essential parts of her. Recovery demands that the structural integrity this person be restored. Indeed, this is how M thinks of her fellow patients’ sicknesses: as “hammer-holes in drywall.” This is her view from the outside looking in—and I think it is much like most people’s view of mental illness from an outside perspective.

However, M gives the reader a second angle: a view from the inside looking out. It is a vantage point that offers a far less coarse view of mental illness than a bludgeoned wall. M compares her sickness to the ink of a broken highlighter pen or an irresistible urge to touch the stamen of a flower, because however marring or painful madness may be, it can also be seductive. A person may appear to be suffering, and they may indeed be suffering profoundly, but suffering itself may issue a siren song. Or an illness may, by its very nature, free the “sufferer” from all suffering—by skyrocketing her into a state of euphoria, for example. We tend to draw stark comparisons between who the sick person is now and who she once was (or who she could potentially be if she recovers)—a wall before and after being struck by a hammer; a broken wall finally mended. But from M’s perspective, such comparisons ignore the allure of her condition, and the intensity of the story’s present moment.

At the end of “Some Ongoing Etc.,” M has a transformation. I was impressed by how this image, both satisfying and elusive, opens out (I want to say “blows up”) the preceding narrative in a way that suggests some bigger truth. I had a similar experience when I reached the end of “Parachutes” and some of your other stories. Can you talk a little about the endings of your stories? Do you have an ending in mind when you sit down to write, or is it something that reveals itself during the process of writing?

When I set out to write a story, I never know the ending. I enjoy writing to find out what happens to my characters—what they do and how they react to whatever situation they are in at the start. However, soon after I begin writing I do have a sense of what feelings and ideas I hope to capture, or at least guide the reader toward. If I could convey the truth of those feelings and ideas simply by stating them, or outlining them in a piece of nonfiction, I would do that. It is when I don’t have the wherewithal to simply declare something that seems true and worthwhile that I write fiction. In other words, stories are a last resort, a way of defining something elusive through the invention of a whole new thing.

The work of a story’s last lines is to bring the reader as close to the thing as possible. By “opening out” a story’s ending, I’m trying to create a space large enough to capture whatever I’ve been gesturing toward. It is my hope that everything in the story preceding the ending has brought the reader close enough for that to work.

I understand you’re currently working on a novel. Can I ask what the novel is about? Do you feel like you’re cheating on your short stories?

I’ve been writing a novel for the last few years, and it is finally nearing completion. It’s an adventure story about an Australian guy living in New York. As I wrote the first draft of the novel, my short stories got shorter and shorter, and eventually disappeared. I don’t feel guilty for that, like I’m cheating, but I do feel scared that I’ve lost touch with the part of my brain that writes short things. I hope that’s not true. I am doing edits right now on a short story collection in addition to the novel—“Some Ongoing Etc.” is a product of these revisions—and I look forward to writing new short stories alongside the nonfiction project I’m doing next.

Which authors do you consider yourself most in debt to? Alternatively, what have you read recently that has informed your writing in a meaningful way?

Here’s a very incomplete, off-the-top-of-my-head list of a few contemporary writers whose work does something to which I aspire:

Susan Steinberg uses line-breaks, sentence fragments, and other unconventional structures in her short stories, which will punch you in the solar plexus. I don’t want to say she experiments with form, because what she does is more assertive and assured than that.

I recently read Eimear McBride’s beautiful and difficult novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. McBride more-or-less invents a new language to portray the inner life of the narrator. She trusts her readers to accept the difficulty, both of the harrowing subject matter and the language, which strikes me as bold and necessary.

Oliver Sacks’ essays are fascinating case studies of his patients, but they are also studies in empathy—how and why we empathize, the role that creativity plays in cultivating empathy, and also how essential empathy is to creativity.

Michel Houellebecq’s novels are provocative in both the absolute worst and best senses of the word. His aptitude for social parody, humor, and weirdness is instructive, especially in The Possibility of an Island and The Elementary Particles. Also, he is great at writing about sex, and at falling asleep during interviews with the BBC.

Michael Kimball writes about tragedy and loss head-on. No irony, no trickery, no temporary departures to higher ground. His novels tell the stories of endings and aftermaths and collateral damage—the stuff that happens after most novels end. He goes for it. His sentences are clean and luminous. He tells the truth.

You’ve lived in Florida for five years. Besides your time at MFA@FLA has living here informed your writing in any way? Will you miss anything when you move away this year?

Gainesville has been a wonderful place to write, because it’s quiet, pretty, and easy. I’ve only lived in major cities or countryside before, so this is my first small-ish city. People are friendly, there’s a great community of writers because of the MFA program, and you find your little circuit of places you go. I have wonderful friends here, and I’ll certainly miss them when I move up north. This is my first experience living in a college town, and there’s a waxing and waning energy that comes with the fact that so many people here come and go every semester. It’s hypnotic and strangely soothing. Living here made me sure that I don’t want to live in New York City, which is where I’m from—at least not now. I really miss dramatic landscapes, especially mountains and seasons, so I’m excited to move to New York’s Hudson Valley this summer.