Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Ellen Rhudy

by John Milas Read the Story December 17, 2018

I can tell you were in marching band because “half the drumline” is the first group to get swallowed by the earth during band practice. I know the drumline deserves it because I was also in marching band. They always thought they were so cool, didn’t they? I played trumpet. We also deserved to get swallowed, I know. What instrument did you play? What instrument section least deserves to get swallowed by the earth?

It’s true, the drumline was the coolest, and they made sure we all knew it. I played mellophone, which was not cool and also frightening because I couldn’t really see around the bell. I never had any idea whether I was about to run into someone. This probably means I would’ve in actuality been much more likely to be swallowed than the drumline, but obviously I think the brass section as a whole should be saved.

Mrs. Hawkins is said to discipline anyone who tries to call her anything other than “Missus Hawkins.” What are some of the other things you heard her students calling her as you worked on this piece? Also, what’s in her flask?

I didn’t have specific names in mind, but a sense that these kids would be trying to figure out what her maiden name was, any way to dig at her. At the very least an exaggerated “Miss Hawkins,” which somehow makes her name feel like a taunt. And her flask is full of whisky—Old Smuggler, because there was always a bottle of it in the liquor cabinet for my grandmother when I was growing up. Which is not to say that she reminds me of Mrs. Hawkins!

Does Mrs. Hawkins’ prediction about Jay and Matt turn out to be right or wrong? What outcome did she really want?

I like the narrator’s idea that Jay and Matt turn up on the other side of the world, but I don’t think they really go to a better place or are saved. I think Mrs. Hawkins is about as wrong on that as you can be. Maybe she knows she’s wrong but can’t admit it. It must be more pleasurable to think you have this predictive power and can know who’s saved and who isn’t, rather than it is to admit that these poor kids died in an earth vent.

How long do you think we have before the events of this story occur for real?

Oh, boy. To be very literal, the story exists because Centralia, Pennsylvania exists—it’s a place that has stuck in my brain for years. I’ve tried to write this type of place before and came back to the image after reading Brandi Reissenweber’s “What’s Left of Streeterville” in the Southeast Review. I guess it’s such an interesting place to write about because the idea of the earth opening like that feels unreal and almost impossible, but it’s always happening, all around us—in a place like Centralia, but also a few blocks from my home (a sinkhole swallowed a stoop last winter!). And in another sense, the way the adults behave in this story and really don’t do what they should do to make sure their kids are safe feels very present to me and, in many ways, more frightening.

We wake up to a new global crisis every morning, so I still feel a sense of verisimilitude when it comes to the ground opening up and swallowing people from the surface. There’s also something realistic about the complacency of the characters, the way they wait peacefully for an imminent catastrophe to befall them. And yet, I still feel the hint of magical realism or even flat out surrealism or absurdity tugging at the edges of “Glory Days.” How did you approach striking a balance between something that sounds ridiculous to begin with, but is somehow believable at the same time? 

All my fiction takes place in off-kilter versions of our world, so this ends up being something I think about a lot. The best way I’ve found of striking that balance is to focus on the characters: their responses to the ridiculous elements of their world, but also all the other pieces of their lives. Sometimes I think that the less focus on the world, the more real it feels—I have to remind myself that as much as I want to focus on some strange element of the setting, it would be normal to my characters and not something they’re thinking about too much. In this story they’re thinking about it all the time (it would be hard not to) but there’s also college, sports, this interest in the teacher’s life. My belief/hope is that if my characters treat their world as real and expected, readers will do the same.

About the Author:

Ellen Rhudy lives in Philadelphia, where she works as an instructional designer. Her fiction has recently appeared in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and is forthcoming in cream city review, Nimrod, and Jellyfish Review. Her non-fiction has been published at Electric Literature. You can find her on twitter @ilifi.

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.