Smoke and Mirrors—An Interview with Ashley Hutson

by Alan Orloff Read the Story April 1, 2015

Was a real-life incident the kernel of this story? How difficult was it to boil such a tragic event down into seven hundred words?

The story was based on a real-life incident, but not mine. When I was very young, maybe 15 or 16, I worked at a gift shop located inside a state park. Business was often slow, and the maintenance crew would drop by to say hello and eat lunch. One of these men came in alone one day, and after making small talk for a bit, he started to tell me about his experience during the Vietnam War. He had watched his fellow soldiers get killed in a brutal fashion, many of whom were his close friends. When he returned home, he had a hard time “getting back.” There was a stream behind his house, he told me, and for a long time the only way he could sleep was to lie down beside it.

His story was powerful and profound, and it has never left me. He was such a quiet, terse man—I have often wondered what moved him to share that experience with me. I am grateful he did.

Trying to understand war experience is important to me. My father was a Marine in Vietnam, my grandfather served in World War II, and I have a cousin who served in Iraq. I think it’s common for non-military children, relatives, and spouses to feel that a certain mystery surrounds this service, and there’s often a timidity in asking for details. What is war like? Should we ask? Do we have the right to ask? It is one of the unshareable experiences, and one that civilians like myself can only imagine.

But attempting to imagine war is necessary. Talking and asking about it is necessary. Many people in the U.S. claim they care about changing what happens to veterans during and after time served, but are still afraid of the conversation. Awareness, not apathy, is the only path toward change.

As for the brevity of the piece, I wanted to lend a concentrated, almost obsessive tone to the thought pattern, and flash fiction is so perfect for that effect. I like when form echoes content. I wanted to imply that the focused line of thought followed in the story could be and probably will be repeated, in any order, at any time. That’s what usually happens when one ruminates constantly on things that cannot be known or shared with others. There’s nowhere to go but back to the beginning.

I thought the humor in your piece provided a stark counterpoint to the emotional narrative. Was it hard to walk that tightrope?

Humor both tempers and reinforces despair. Humor is something that should lift us up, but when it turns to cynicism about our reality it often puts us back down lower than where we started. There’s a subconscious element of, “If I can’t laugh about this, what can I do?” And that leads to desperation. So I think humor is an important ingredient when writing anything that is abjectly depressing—it paradoxically deepens the black feeling, deepens the character without overstatement.

You’ve worked in different media: film, poetry, flash fiction. What’s your favorite form of creative expression? Got any novels in the works?

I’ve been fortunate to have creative friends who have invited me to collaborate with them on film work a few times, but I am a terrible actress! My true heart and strength is writing fiction and poetry. For the past month or so I have been digging further into poetry. Right now there are no novels in the works, but I am still working on my long-form writing. A collection of some kind may be in the future.

I’m generally not a fan of present tense, but I think your piece is helping me become a convert. Why did you choose it?

For such a short piece, I had to find a way into this person’s brain as fast as possible. Present tense offers that convenience, and I also think it reflects a character’s feeling of everything is now. Memories, people, and places that have been scattered across time are all his current, immediate concern. It is very restrictive. I know present tense usage is considered overdone nowadays, but for the right content and theme I think it still works.

On your webpage, you say that “Life takes you weird places.” Where’s the weirdest place life’s taken you? Have you written about it?

Oh, my. Well, if anyone examines their own life, they discover it is made up of only such things—strange and fortuitous opportunities; memorable, quirky people; new and unexpected places; odd, unrelated occurrences. And the weirder these situations are, the harder they are to explain, especially without the reassuring wall of fiction to hide behind.

So I will give you a rather dull, softball answer instead.

Perhaps the strangest place I’ve been in life is my current station—I quit what most would call a “good job” at age 30 to pursue a life of artistic satisfaction. And I didn’t suffer a horrible, cosmic comeuppance! (This fact remains wondrous to me, even a year later.) The choice was completely and delightfully reckless, and somewhat disappointing to a few people. But it has been rewarding. I’ve been lucky. I have not written about any of this, though. Few people can write well about writing. And I’m not one of them.

About the Author:

Ashley Hutson's work has appeared in McSweeney's, Fiction International, The Forge, Jellyfish Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and The Conium Review. She lives in rural Maryland.

About the Interviewer:

Alan Orloff’s debut mystery, Diamonds for the Dead (Midnight Ink), was a 2010 Agatha Award Finalist for Best First Novel.