Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Crissie McMullan

by Andy Myers Read the Story June 20, 2016

First things first, have you eaten a snake? If so, when and why? If not, what makes you think their bones would taste like molasses?

Ha! No, but I do sometimes eat canned salmon, and the bones crumble between your teeth like those maple-fudge samples from tourist shops, even though the taste is just fish.

I appreciated the reality TV show elements in this story, specifically the use of the line “I’m not here to make friends.” What inspired you to write about someone who works behind the scenes of reality TV?

I’ve never worked on a reality show, but I’ve had a lot of jobs working behind the scenes at resorts, restaurants, retail shoe stores. During college, I was a lifeguard at a fitness facility and I had to get there at 5 a.m. to open the pool area. Sometimes I’d arrive late and there’d already be the water-aerobic ladies lined up at the door, and I’d slink past them, apologizing and aching to go back to bed, but once inside I could disappear into the special staff closet, which just had pool supplies and chemicals, but still I remember feeling a tad superior at being the one who knew where the exercise noodles were stored.

As much as those jobs bored or frustrated me, I did love having keys to a place where other people have to pay to get in.

Similarly, in “Moving Target,” I enjoyed imagining the way that the crew of a reality show must struggle with their own hired-hand helplessness, and also grasp for some semblance of power, whether it be over the reality stars or the viewers or a gray-feathered bird.

I love the last image in this piece: Tess falling into undescribed territory. It feels hopeless and voidlike, especially given that she is reaching back for “reality better than the present.” But it also seems like Tess, having killed her snake to no revelation, needs to move on, even if that is to an unknown place. The first line, as I read it, implies she lives beyond this story, so what’s next for Tess?

If Tess lives, she’ll either become a grounded, wiser person, go to grad school, get a nine-to-five job, meditate on Sundays … or she’ll just fixate on some other preposterous plan to elevate her existence. If she’s to show up in any future fiction, I hope it’s the latter. Isn’t that the great thing about fiction—that otherwise decent human beings can root for outcomes that we would never wish for someone in real life? And isn’t that the confusing thing about reality television, that we allow ourselves that same moral free pass, even though it is, technically, somebody’s real life?

That’s why I can’t actually watch much reality television. I know for many it’s a guilty pleasure, but I get a creepy feeling in my gut wondering how much of what is happening on-screen was coached into happening off-screen, and then I’m wondering to what extent the reality stars are colluding with the producers, and then I’m wondering to what extent the reality stars think they are colluding, but are actually being taken advantage of, and then I start to wonder if we’re all like that, if we’re all constantly both manipulated and manipulating each other while telling ourselves that we’re all in this together for the purposes of entertainment and mutual profit. The truth is that I don’t watch reality television, not because it’s too superficial, but because it’s too heavy.

I prefer Madame Secretary.

What iconic literary figure would you most like to see humiliated on wilderness survival reality TV show and why?

Odysseus’ men. They’ve got the perfect recipe for drama. They’ve got bulging biceps like the guys on Jersey Shore. Like the Kardashian siblings, they’ve suffered in the shadows of a demigod. Plus, they have a propensity for strong drink, like everybody in every reality show ever.

Also, remember that time when Odysseus had to choose between sailing next to the six-headed monster Scylla that would eat six men or the whirlpool monster Charybdis that would destroy the whole ship? Odysseus did the math and chose Scylla, and as they tried to boat past she gobbled up one man in each of her many-teethed jaws. I always wondered if Odysseus chose which men—if he quietly re-ordered the seating arrangements to get rid of the weakest or most disobedient or the ones who were overly chatty at breakfast. Wouldn’t it be so great to hear his rationale in the confession cam?

The title for this story works as a double entendre, referring to both the snake and Tess’ attempts to fulfill/define herself. At what point in the process did you come up with it? Do you have any story titling tips?  

“Moving Target” came at the very end of the very last draft after many unsatisfactory placeholders. It took so long that I’m reticent to give advice. I do take comfort in something I once heard on a local radio talk show. The interviewer asked one of the Indigo Girls how they came up with their harmonies, and she said something to the effect of, We try every possible combination of notes until we find the ones that fit.

About the Author:

Crissie McMullan lives in Missoula, Montana. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Reflections West, Mamalode, and Litro.

About the Interviewer:

Andy Myers is an MFA candidate Bowling Green State University. His work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Lime Hawk Review, and Rougarou.

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.