Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Christopher James

by Dustin M. Hoffman Read the Story December 19, 2016

Good sex scenes in fiction so often depict horrible, uncomfortable sex. Could you talk about your approach to writing sex in this story?

The comedian Demetri Martin wrote an essay about all the times as a young man he’d said something was “better than sex.” I can’t remember everything he listed, but I think at one point he’d said air conditioning was better than sex. Since then, he’d been lucky enough to enjoy good sex, and he wanted to retract all those earlier statements. It’s a very funny essay.

Sara, the hero of my story, kind of took the opposite path. When young, she’d enjoyed a healthy sex life. Aged about thirty, she’d decided that enjoying sex was too … I don’t know, immature perhaps … so she met a new man, Davis, who later became her husband, and settled down into a lifetime of plain, simple, no-frills, functional coitus. AC sex. And so it was for decades more.

At the point the story takes place, she’s regretting that move, and she wants to go back. Or forward. Or maybe both.

So much of this story’s tension builds through repetition—of the onomatopoeic sex wails, of Sara’s “Yes dear,” of Davis and Sara’s distance. Were you thinking in terms of patterns leading to rupture when you started writing? How important is repetition to you?

Yes. Yes. God, yes. Absolutely!

Er, actually, no! The first incarnation of this story used patterns to show that Davis and Sara (Can I Brangelina those names? Dara? Savis?) were stuck in a routine. There was no rupture. It was a very frustrating story, at first. Pattern can be good, but it can also be horrible. We talk about getting into the groove and we talk about getting stuck in a rut, and Sara was very much in the latter. Pawing at the same place over and over again sands that place down, and if there’s nothing underneath it erodes away to nothing but dust. Luckily, it turned out Sara had something stronger beneath, waiting to break out. The rupture, for me, was a happy surprise. I’m so glad it was there.

The story weaves deftly between the outer plot of the sex sounds and Sara’s interiority, her fantasies and memories and the “Yes dear” game. Which comes first for you, the inner story or the outer? How do they feed each other?

I think the inner and the outer story came together (accidental pun, sorry! I mean they came at the same time), but figuring out how they interacted with each other and shaped each other took forever. Sara had her “Yes dear” game from the beginning, and the couple next door were having noisy sex from the beginning, but this story was almost a year in my files before the cryktybmping released something in Sara.

Burroughs said, “Language is a virus from outer space.” I’m not entirely sure what he meant! But for me it feels like the best kind of virus. The things outside break inside, and when they do they give us not only the inspiration but also the tools, the language, to express ourselves.

I once had a writing teacher who told me his goal was to make the reader laugh and then make them feel bad for laughing. He was getting at those abrupt turns from humor to tragedy. When I read your story, I thought of this technique. What’s your approach to humor?

I love this question. Growing up in England in the nineties, I was duty-bound to watch The Full Monty, the story of unemployed Sheffield steelworkers who turn to stripping to survive. There’s a wonderful scene in that movie where Tom Wilkinson, the former foreman, finally has a job interview after many months on benefits. Robert Carlyle and the boys find out about his interview and play a juvenile prank, walking one of Wilkinson’s gnomes back and forth along the window outside the interview room. I’m not describing this well, but it’s hilarious. Wilkinson gets distracted by the gnome, and makes a poor showing in his interview. I laughed so much the first time I saw it. In the next second, Wilkinson is talking to Robert Carlyle and the others and exploding in rage, then collapsing distraught and desperate. That job was everything to him, and they ruined it, ruined him. I went from laughing one moment to crying the next, and remember it being an intensely physical response. I know exactly what your writing teacher meant. I’m so happy you saw something of that in this story. Thank you for making my day!

What writing are you working on now?

I’m not writing as much as I’d maybe like, but I’m always busy reading with Jellyfish Review, the magazine I edit. I saw an interview with Zadie Smith recently where she confessed to enjoying reading more than writing. I think a lot of us fall into that bag. There are so many incredible flash fiction writers out there right now, and it’s been an education seeing what they’ve written. First time round I fell in love with flash fiction as a writer. This time I’m falling in love with it as a reader. And hopefully, like Sara letting the sex next door give her the freedom to express what’s inside her, all this reading is giving me the language to say what I want to say in my own work.

About the Author:

Christopher James lives, works and writes in Jakarta, Indonesia. He has previously been published online in many venues, including Tin House, McSweeney's, SmokeLong, and Wigleaf. He is the editor of Jellyfish Review.

About the Interviewer:

Dustin M. Hoffman is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist (University of Nebraska Press), winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He spent ten years painting houses in Michigan before getting his MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University and his PhD in creative writing from Western Michigan University. His stories have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Phoebe, Puerto del Sol, Fourteen Hills, Witness, Quarterly West, The Journal, GargoyleFifth Wednesday JournalIndiana Review, and other outlets. He lives in South Carolina and teaches creative writing and literature at Winthrop University.

About the Artist:

A Best Small Fictions 2015 Winner, Dave Petraglia's writing and art have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, bohemianizm, Cheap Pop, Crack the Spine, Five:2:One, Gambling the Aisle, Hayden's Ferry, matchbook, Medium, McSweeney's, Necessary Fiction, North American Review, Per Contra, Points in Case, Popular Science, Razed, SmokeLong Quarterly, Up the Staircase, and others.