Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with JSP Jacobs
by Hananah Zaheer Read the Story March 20, 2017
One of the most noticeable things about the story is the choice of tense. Can you talk about whether you considered different tenses and voices and what made you settle here?
I wrote a great deal of this story with my eyes closed, just trying to be and feel Elliot, and see what he would see, and discover what would surprise me. I think the tense found me in that situation, though there are times I will switch tenses when I’m stuck in a piece to see if it will jiggle something loose.
To me, a lot of the story’s sadness and meaning is in the fact that Elliot’s agency seems to only be exercised in mundane tasks; the rest of real life happens to him. How did his character come to attain these qualities during the writing of this story? Did you envision him being this way when you began?
Elliot’s life has been devoted to the full-time care of other people, both in his work and at home. Even when his wife doesn’t need his immediate assistance, he mentally and physically stays in that waiting, prepared-to-help state. While he has found a certain stoic peace in such a life, he’s also lost himself somewhere in the round of continuous outward looking and living. It breeds an exhaustion all its own. He’s now coming to understand that his daughter doesn’t need him in the same way anymore, and that—once his wife is gone—he will have to find himself again. That can be terrifying when you aren’t sure what there is left to find. I don’t know that I envisioned him this way initially, but I was going through some similar feelings while writing the story. My first child was preparing to leave home, and I was realizing my other children pretty much had a handle on the whole feeding/grooming/bathroom/entertaining themselves thing, and that I wasn’t as required anymore in the physical role of motherhood I had thus dedicated myself to. I think Elliot became the receptacle for those emotions in his own situation. We made our way onto that windowsill together.
I am always interested in the way stories come to the writer. Where did the seed of this story come from?
It came during my usual morning walk through a local park. I saw a homeless man washing out his socks in the drinking fountain. It seemed such an undignified yet dignified act. I felt immediately like I wanted to help him but didn’t have any money on me, so I just kept walking. It wasn’t until I was driving home an hour or so later that I started to think about the kind of person who wouldn’t have been afraid to put a homeless man in her car and drive him to the store to buy socks. I wondered if that person would act in a similar way in every aspect of his or her life. I still wished I had been that person that morning.
I like how this story plays with the idea of being named (Elliot) and remaining nameless (his wife, the baby). What was your vision when making this choice and what dynamic do you think it creates in the telling of the story?
People who put all their time, effort, energy, and focus into the greater comfort of others often end up taken for granted. We just expect them to do and be on our behalf, and can lose sight of them as individuals. Do Catholics ever think about whether or not the Pope is gassy or itchy? Or, as children, if our grade school teacher had a nasty hangover on rhythmic instruments day? Or if our therapist who’s “an amazing listener” might want to be listened to? I wanted the attention to be drawn to Elliot, who is taken for granted, while everyone else orbited largely nameless around him. I also wanted it to reflect a certain extent of detachment Elliot had developed, like in not knowing if he had a grandson or a granddaughter, or thinking of his wife as a houseplant, which I think startled even him.
Having never done it, I have always found the idea of climbing in or out of windows fascinating. I would love to hear of a memorable one of those for you.
In high school, I always wanted to live in a two-story house with dormer windows where I could climb out onto the roof at night while my boyfriend scaled the rose trellis to join me, and we would sit and read Neruda to each other by starlight, or some similar scenario inspired by nineties teenage television. As a reality, I lived in a one-story ranch with screens on all the windows, and have no memory of ever needing to crawl out one. One July afternoon, however, my mom did take the screens off the windows to clean them. My brother and I were lighting those blooming flower-type fireworks in the back yard and throwing them for fun (this is what constituted fun in small town Idaho). In a one-in-a-million scenario, I threw a firework that made a crazy curve and flew right in through my mom’s screenless, open bedroom window. It burned a hole in her pillow and headboard before snuffing itself out. That’s probably the most exciting window story I’ve got.
About the Author:
JSP Jacobs is a graduate of the Boise State University Creative Writing program and Tin House Workshop. She lives and writes between Boise, Idaho and Huntington Beach, California. Her fiction, flash fiction, narrative non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous publications including Nano Fiction, Hawaii Pacific Review, Parent Map, and Litbreak. She is also former host of The Writers’ Block on Radio Boise.
About the Interviewer:
Hananah Zaheer lives, writes, and improvises (life and theater) in Dubai. Her latest work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review and Michigan Quarterly Review, where it won the Lawrence Foundation fiction prize. She is working on a collection of short stories and a novel. She tweets @hananahzaheer.
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.