Smoke and Mirrors—An Interview with Kathryn Kulpa

by A.A. Balaskovits Read the Story June 22, 2015

I was overwhelmed by the quiet sorrow of this piece, how loss infuses each of the three moments, from a revision of a recipe to a dream-memory to the (possibly welcome) invasiveness of memory in objects. All of these moments are internal. Do you think that we carry our grief alone and yet we cannot help how they infuse our material reality?

Yes, I think that we experience most of our deepest emotions alone, grief perhaps especially so, despite the shared rituals around it. As it happens, I’m writing this after having just attended a memorial service for a co-worker who died unexpectedly. We’ve all experienced the shock of that loss, but in hugely different ways. I can’t pretend to know what her daughters are feeling, even though I lost my own mother some years ago. Even within the same family, two children may in effect grieve a different mother, because their memories of her and the material things that trigger those memories are not going to be exactly the same. I once had to run out of an ABBA tribute concert in tears. I can’t think of anything more blithely, cheesily happy than an ABBA tribute concert! But they started playing a song my mom used to sing when I was a kid, and I just began sobbing uncontrollably. I think we all carry these strange, secret places of hurt inside us.

A really interesting layer of this piece for me was how it operated as a ghost story, and after your last answer, I wonder, do ghosts originate outside of our bodies, or do we create those ourselves from our strange, secret places of hurt?

A good ghost story, for me, is the Shirley Jackson mode of story: it can be read on two levels. And on one level this is a story about what is suppressed and how it finds its way to the surface. But at the same time, in my fictional universe, that piano really does play itself.

Ross strikes me as the inadvertent antagonist of this piece, though it’s a very common thing, isn’t it? A desire not to know about the lovers you’ve known before your current one. Do you think that is possible to forget the past like that?

Poor Ross! If he’s a villain, he’s an inadvertent one. He really believes you can live in the present. He believes in reinvention. I tend more toward the Faulkner view: the past is never dead. It’s not even past.

It’s always really amazing to see how the short form can create such large moments. What’s it like to work with so few words? What is your goal when you’re limited like that?

I don’t feel limited at all writing flash fiction, so maybe it has become my natural voice. I used to write longer stories—so long that people in my writing group would tell me I “should” be writing novels. But even those tended to be made up of short scenes and sections put together. I like to test the edges of what a short story can be.

I work with prompts a lot, and with timed writings: fifteen or twenty minutes. When I teach writing workshops, I always write along with my students, so whatever they’re doing, I’m doing. There’s something about knowing you only have twenty minutes that keeps the writing concentrated, I think. My goal is to find the words and images that suggest a whole rich and complicated life going on beyond the hints and glimpses the story is giving us.

Some stories need a lot of cutting and revision, and then there are some that I call gifts from God. They just come into being almost in their final form. This was one of those stories. My friends and I were doing writing prompts with random words. The word I got was “meatloaf.” Somehow it took me into this slightly gothic, mid-century place.

The dream section was based on a real dream that I’d tried to use in a story years ago, but could never get right. Here, I think the brevity helped.

I’m not sure where the piano came from.

Could you share a writing prompt?

I’d love to share a writing prompt. As I mentioned, this story grew out of a writing exercise, and it seemed to naturally take the form of three short sections. But Tara and one of my writing group friends pointed out the connecting element of salt, and Tara suggested I expand on that in the final section. So we have the tears, the peanuts, and the ocean. I hadn’t thought consciously about all the mythic connotations of salt, but of course that’s all in there: salting the earth, using salt as a barrier to keep out spirits, looking back and turning into a pillar of salt.

For the exercise, pick an essential element of the physical world—earth, air, fire, water—and brainstorm words that represent that element in some way. So earth could be dirt, but also stone, gold, steel, chalk ….

Then write for twenty minutes, using at least three of the words you brainstormed. For an added challenge, try to use one of your words in two different ways: once in its physical, concrete meaning and once metaphorically. So dirt, for example, could be digging in the dirt—gardening—or digging up some dirt on somebody’s past.

About the Author:

Kathryn Kulpa is a flash fiction editor at Cleaver magazine and has published work recently in NANO Fiction, Cape Cod Poetry Review, and KYSO Flash.

About the Interviewer:

A. A. Balaskovits is the author of Magic for Unlucky Girls (SFWP, 2017) which won the Santa Fe Writers Project program awards grand prize in 2015. Her works appears or will appear in Indiana Review, The Madison Review, The Southeast Review, Booth, Wigleaf and many others. She is the social media editor for Cartridge Lit.

About the Artist:

Ashley Inguanta is a former art director of SmokeLong Quarterly and author of three poetry collections: The Way Home (Dancing Girl Press, 2013), For the Woman Alone (Ampersand Books, 2014), and Bomb (Ampersand Books, 2016). Next year, Ampersand Books will publish her newest collection, The Flower, about how death shapes us.