Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Angela Palm

by John Milas Read the Story December 14, 2015

The prose in this story felt natural when I read it out loud. It really lends itself to being spoken. How important is reading work aloud to your revision process?

It’s a crucial step in prose writing in general, but especially in very short prose. Reading aloud helps me use words as economically as possible. I find places where I’ve perhaps said the same thing in two different ways; I listen for word selections that aren’t quite right; I ensure that the mood of the piece is reflected in its sound.

Near the end: “Sell yourself at a parole hearing. Sell another version of yourself ….” In what situations have you sold different versions of yourself?

I think everyone sells themselves in one way or another—when trying to get a job, when dating, when making new friends. I sell one version of myself as a teacher, another as a mother, yet another when I’m with the people who know me best. I read once that internally our personalities are more varied and tend to have greater inconsistency than what we allow most people to see. Culturally, we perceive inconsistency in personality as unstable, so we present as more consistent than is actually authentic. In a society where we’re constantly being sold to, it’s inane to imagine that we are not selling ourselves or don’t know how to do so. In fact, we’re probably doing it more than we know.

I’m struck by the correctional officer. He’s almost as desperate as the narrator, which feels authentic. Does this come from The Shawshank Redemption, or were there other sources of research? Do you know any correctional officers or people who’ve done time?

Most of what I know about prison comes from having known people who have done time. My book, Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here, is in part about my friendship with a man who is serving a long prison sentence. He tells me a lot of stories. Since I couldn’t fit all of what I know into essays, some of that is repurposed in fiction. What I’ve learned about the various relationships between prisoners and between prisoners and correctional officers fascinates me. There are a lot of unexpected nuances in the way that prison communities operate.

What are some common misconceptions you encounter regarding second person point of view?

Opinions about second person point of view are generally negative. When I wrote this story, I had just taught Jamaica Kincaid’s marvelous flash prose piece, “Girl,” which is a list of imperative statements written in the second person point of view. I wanted to revisit that concept. I also wanted to eradicate gendered case in this particular story. Second person point of view provided the best opportunity to do that.

What writers would blurb “Ways to Make Money in Prison” for you?

Elmore Leonard, who would have had a great explanation for how the narrator ended up in prison to begin with. Martha Stewart, who probably has a prison recipe or two of her own.

About the Author:

Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. The essay collection is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in August 2016. Palm owns Ink + Lead Literary Services and is the editor of Please Do Not Remove, a book featuring work by Vermont writers. Her work has appeared in Brevity, DIAGRAM, Paper Darts, Midwestern Gothic, Sundog Lit, Essay Daily, and elsewhere. She currently teaches creative writing at Champlain College.

About the Interviewer:

John Milas studies fiction writing in the MFA program at Purdue University. He previously studied creative writing at the University of Illinois. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming at Superstition Review, O-Dark-Thirty, Hypertext Magazine, and elsewhere.

About the Artist:

Claire Ibarra is a writer, poet, and photographer. Her photographs have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including Roadside Fiction, Alimentum--The Literature of Food, Foliate Oak, Lime Hawk, and Blue Fifth Review. She was an artist in residence for Counterexample Poetics and art editor for Gulf Stream Magazine. Claire’s work was included in the “Finding the Light” Exhibition at the PhotoPlace Gallery.