Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Carolyn Nims

by Kim Magowan Read the Story December 18, 2017

What makes this a “New Yorker Story about Michigan”? Do you think the way a New Yorker story might imagine Michigan is problematic or skewed?

Anytime you write, you put a group of people under a microscope, but that is especially true when you’re writing about a place you aren’t from or a place you are from but for an audience who isn’t. It is very “us and them,” which is human nature but still problematic. A rash of stories about heavily industrialized places in the U.S. have come to give states like Michigan a literary representation. This story was my response to—and exploration of—this reductive tendency, and I felt that humor or “poking fun” was the best inroad for me. I took a risk writing this story. I originally submitted it to workshop while getting my MFA, and as a non-Michigander, I understandably received a lot of flak for it, even though it is satire. I suppose that goes to show how skewering what is skewed walks a fine line between exploration and hypocrisy.

Distance seems to be an important motif in the story: New York looks at Michigan, but also, you maintain a tone of hard-boiled detachment throughout. The couple in the front “don’t give a shit” about the man dying in the back seat. The story is cinematic: completely engrossing, yet you hold us at arm’s length. What was your intention with maintaining this distance?

For satire, mostly. I intended distance to be a signal to the reader not to take the characters or any of this too seriously. A close, overblown narrator may also work for satire, but then we would no longer have the cold, sterile inspection of the “other.” Detachment is also a result of the constraint of the exercise, zooming far out to show all of the action of the story in a compressed space. By presenting at a distance, in a single a single “shot,” I hoped for more grit and drama.

There’s a lot of reported noise in this story: the driver is “shrill,” we hear people weep and have sex, and other characters are forced to hear these sounds because of shared confines (the car, the motel room). But the only dialogue is paraphrased, and that “shrill” driver is also “unintelligible.” Consequently, the story feels both loud and muffled. Why did you make these choices?

Not giving them dialogue helps keep them as caricatures, and that feeds into the satire. Also, I don’t purport to speak for them, nor they for me. I am making a clear distinction between “us and them,” and in emphasizing that, I hope to imitate some writers’ othering (or even exoticizing) people from these literary representations of places. Of course, I become vulnerable to accusations of doing exactly what I’m satirizing, but I think that is the inherent danger of satire. That is also why I think I take advantage of an amped-up volume’s ability to bring certain things to the reader’s attention while simultaneously drowning other things out. It’s like a bait-and-switch: “Here is a high octane, rip-roaring story, but also here is some criticism of a certain publication.”

You use second person at the end; “they” switches to “you” in the very last sentence. Why?

Mostly for emphasis, for delivering the dramatic punch line. It is calling the reader in to be finally implicated in the story. It is also ridiculous in its histrionic repetition and bold claims about the nature of life, which is another way I hope to point to the title of the piece to remind the reader that this isn’t really me writing this (though it is); I am merely a conduit for the spirit of The New Yorker. However, on the level of craft, it sets an engaging, conversational tone that gets the story barreling towards the finish line. Endings are hard.

Even for flash, this is pared to the bone—350 words, a speedy story in a speeding car. (That car is such a brilliant setting for this story: compressed space, ricocheting through space.) What was your writing process? Did you chisel this down from a longer piece, and if so, what got cut? What appeals to you about writing flash?

I actually consider this piece to be a little long. It comes from a series of other New Yorker miniatures I began writing as a joke. Those were much shorter, around 150 words each. I enjoyed the process of boiling the stories down to the beats. I wanted to strip away the melancholic sheen, the lingering in sad scenes, the revelations, all the trappings of a New Yorker story to get at its framework. For this story, I added a few more “scenes” and embellished it with touches of exposition. But mostly I wanted it very nearly naked and quite vulnerable. I wanted its working parts to show. In no other form could I write a story so baldly. That is one aspect of flash that appeals to me: the freedom to experiment. I could not possibly sustain a story like this, in this style, for four thousand words. Another thing I appreciate about flash, besides the freedom, is—ironically—the constraint. As a fiction writer, you may feel at first as though you are writing with one hand tied behind your back, unable to use the tools you’re so accustomed to using, but eventually you’ll find yourself solving the thousand-word problem with inventions you’d never dream of in four thousand words.

About the Author:

Carolyn Nims recently received her MFA from Western Michigan University. You can find her poetry and fiction in The Hilltop Review and The Corner Club Press. She lives and works in Columbus, Ohio.

About the Interviewer:

Kim Magowan’s debut short story collection, Undoing, won the 2017 Moon City Short Fiction Award and is forthcoming in March 2018 from Moon City Press. Her debut novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books. Her fiction has appeared in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Word Riot, and other journals. She is the fiction editor for Corium Magazine. She lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College.