Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Alexander Lumans

by Cynthia Reeves Read the Story June 22, 2015

How does your experience of writing poetry inform your writing of flash fiction? What similarities of process do you find between the two? Do you start with content and let the material find its proper form, or vice versa?

Whether it’s poetry or fiction, I trust the sound. The words themselves move in relation to the words around them, creating new cadences, patterns, tones. This leads to an instinctual early drafting process. My revision process also relies heavily on whether the diction and syntax speak on several levels. That probably comes off cryptic, or nebulous, but I mean it: if the word isn’t doing work on the surface (clarity/meaning), on a thematic level, and on a formal level, then I question whether it’s the right word. For me, the trick to the best writing is finding a word that sounds right but also conveys more than just its letters said aloud.

As for form, I typically know which kind I’m beginning with. That’s not to say certain prose lines haven’t turned into poems, and the other way around. But it’s rare that I set out to write a poem or story and it quickly becomes the other. The forms are too mutable to be that clearly separate, as if you’re visibly stepping out of one country, over the blackline border, and into another country. Rather, it’s all an ink-black ocean.

Speaking of ink-black ocean, your story is itself ink-black. Though “Bird of Paradise” can be read on multiple levels, what struck me most was how it worked as a metaphor for some of the more disturbing aspects of contemporary life—especially the way in which marginalization can lead to violence. Care to comment on the story’s inspiration and its dark subject matter?

This story pits together two obsessions of mine: plagues and birds. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the card game Magic: the Gathering—specifically, the “Birds of Paradise” card. That game will never cease to be a source of inspiration. You can pick any card and turn it into a story. It’s a game that doesn’t shy away from the corners of unabashed creativity. You want liches? You want creeping mold? You want world-eating megafauna? I love it. So why a vulture? I’ve always been interested in atypical points of view, the supposed villain instead of the hero or the innocent bystander. It’s why I gravitate to books like Child of God, Zombie, and Serena. I want to go inside the heads of what’s viewed as “evil” or “wicked” and inhabit their thought processes. I’m not trying to reframe their actions as justified; I want to know them better.

That’s interesting—that you see the vulture as turning toward “evil” in the end, that the vulture’s killing the twin is not justified? I get that the vulture-narrator violates the “vulture code of professional conduct”—that is, to feast only on dead things—by killing a living being. This turn is exactly the kind of “surprising but convincing” reversal I look for in flash fiction. Surprising—for obvious reasons. Convincing because you create great empathy for a character who does an “evil” thing and the action seems a “rational” response of a “good” character to unjust torment. Your thoughts?

I think it’s dangerous on my part to say whether the character’s actions are or are not justified/evil because it’s really up to the reader. This calls back to what you mentioned before: at what point does marginalization justify violence? I think it’s better to ask that question through fiction instead of answer it. And that’s where the turn of good fiction lies: the question insisted upon in its most escalated form. I often think about that description of the Oulipo: “Rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape.” The turn isn’t the escape itself, but rather the realization that there is now a surrounding labyrinth from which to try and escape. (I think of the literal hedge labyrinth in The Shining, but the hotel itself a labyrinth, too—one that the characters themselves turn into a series of horrors.) For the vulture, it’s his realizing that he must become even worse than his reputation in order to survive this complex world. And I’m so glad you used the word “reversal” in talking about turns; I always work to reverse the reader’s expectations, increasingly so within a narrative, even if that means making a vulture into a good character and then driving him to an extreme that calls into question his established goodness.

Your answer reminds me of Chekhov’s admonition that the artist’s only requirement is to pose “the correct formulation of the problem,” and not its solution, in order to arouse the deepest thought in the reader. Yet I find that my students often resist stories that don’t provide resolution. As a fellow teacher of creative writing, what is your experience in discussing the difference between creating “deliberate ambiguity” (such as that created by the essential metaphor in “Bird of Paradise”) versus willful vagueness? Are there stories you use as models?

I think it’s better to identify “deliberate ambiguity” in examples than to give in-class exercises like: “Okay, be ambiguous here—but not frustratingly so.” What I teach are emulations of writers who work expertly with ambiguity. Kelly Link’s “Lull,” Adam Levin’s “Considering the Bittersweet End of Susan Falls,” and Claire Vaye Watkins, “Ghosts, Cowboys.” For flash, I use Trevor Houser’s “The Worst Shark Attack Ever” (a favorite of mine from SmokeLong), Brady Udall’s “The Wig,” and Gregory Burnham’s “Subtotals.” I think of it less as ambiguity and more as revealed versus unrevealed; I go back to the concept of closure in comics (how a reader fills in the story between panels) from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. He says, “To kill a man between frames is to condemn him to a 1000 deaths.” If you don’t show the violent act, the reader makes it up for herself (and makes it so much worse). That’s a great thing! What you reveal pins the narrative down with stakes, like a well-prepped tent. But if you’re pinning it down constantly rather than strategically, you’re not leaving any room to crawl inside. Willful vagueness is simply not pinning it down enough: the tent goes flying into the river.

About the Author:

Alexander Lumans was the Spring 2014 Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University. His fiction has been published in Story Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Cincinnati Review, Blackbird, and The Normal School, among other magazines. He received the 2013 Gulf Coast Fiction Prize, 3rd place in the 2012 Story Quarterly Fiction Contest, and the 2011 Barry Hannah Fiction Prize from The Yalobusha Review. He has received scholarships to Bread Loaf, Sewanee, and RopeWalk Writers’ Conferences. And he has been awarded fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, VCCA, Blue Mountain Center, ART342, Norton Island, and The Arctic Circle Residency. He graduated from the M.F.A. Fiction Program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

About the Interviewer:

Cynthia Reeves has published across a wide range of forms, from prose poetry and flash fiction to the novella. Her most recent publications are the short story “Confession of the Ugly Girl” and the essay “Experimental Fiction Is Not Literature! and Other Myths About Nontraditional Fiction” in Waxwing IV (Fall 2104); “In the Deep Wood,” a contemporary fairy tale published in Booth (Fall 2014); and “The Punk Test,” found in the anthology of experimental prose Wreckage of Reason II (Spuyten Duyvil 2014). Her first book, Badlands (2008), won the Miami University Press Novella Prize. A graduate of Warren Wilson College’s M.F.A. program, Reeves teaches in Bryn Mawr College’s Creative Writing Program and in Rosemont College’s MFA Program.

About the Artist:

Ashley Inguanta is a former art director of SmokeLong Quarterly and author of three poetry collections: The Way Home (Dancing Girl Press, 2013), For the Woman Alone (Ampersand Books, 2014), and Bomb (Ampersand Books, 2016). Next year, Ampersand Books will publish her newest collection, The Flower, about how death shapes us.