Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Kendra Fortmeyer

by Ariana Calvo Read the Story March 21, 2016

Your title, which I’m assuming refers to some of the name possibilities for the turtle, made me very interested in your piece. I kept hoping that they would give way to some explanation, and I’ve realized that two other times you list a set of three names. Do these names signify something meaningful to you?

I had a tremendous amount of fun thinking up names for the turtle. It became this little game: what are all of the things a would-be hip, vaguely sad twentysomething would name an unconventional pet? Like: if you wanted to be very cool, but weren’t sure exactly what cool was, and felt exhausted by the prospect of having always to perform coolness. None of the turtle’s names ever stick in the story; if this turtle were to have a real name, it would be someone screaming in a whisper, “I AM BRUTALLY CLEVER AND HIP!” (with undertones of “SOMEBODY LOVE ME!”).

On the nerdy side: I really love the meter of it. I was teaching high school Shakespeare when I wrote this piece. We’d just spent the day clapping out the stresses in iambs and trochees, and discussing how iambic pentameter is everywhere (try speaking aloud: “I’ll have the daily special and a Coke”). The title I settled on–Leonardo or Lenin or Princess Diana–isn’t in iambic pentameter, but it’s tremendously fun to say. It’s got this almost-rhythm that lulls the tongue into galloping along until the end, where it stumbles just a little.

Jon and Jenna seem to play an important part in the narrator’s life. Why did you not give them more of an explanation?

The specifics of Jon and Jenna are, in a lot of ways, not important to the story. It’s a tenuous “you” who inhabits this second person. Like any “you” in fiction, this you clearly isn’t the reader (unless, by happy coincidence, you also have a maybe-dead pet, and live somewhere that it is very cold, and have fielded wrong numbers for poison control, in which case, respectively: I’m sorry, I’m sorry, and I hope you handled it with grace). But I do think most of us have had long, strange winters; have made rash or uncharitable or hubristic social decisions and had to pay for it in various ways. Jon and Jenna, here, stand in for “unfortunate romantic decision” and “friend who’s not speaking to me for reasons that are maybe justified or maybe not.” Their relative blankness creates a space that most readers can enter (unless they haven’t had either of these social experiences–in which case, they should definitely write a guide book to life; it would sell like gangbusters).

I’m dying to know that the narrator missed when she has to take that phone call!

The best joke ever! The joke you had to be there for. The joke that can definitely never be repeated or explained but that everyone in your social circle is going to bring up until the day you die: the ultimate MO in FOMO.

What inspired you to write a piece about the unexplainable sensation of seeing death?

I love that you asked this question. To me, this piece is less about death than about social anxiety–the sense that, though you are in the best and warmest place ever, there is a small miracle waiting for you in your basement at home (read: me at every party). I’m also interested in the “it doesn’t count unless you take a selfie” attitude of our culture–how this runs counter to the immediacy and authenticity of being in the moment. For this character, whose sense of well-being hinges so powerfully on social inclusion, the ending–the realization that you don’t need anyone to see your happiness in order to validate it, or you–is the first step toward a kind of redemption.

Assuming you don’t have a pet turtle, if you went out and bought one tomorrow what would you name it?

I don’t have a pet turtle. I did have two pet tadpoles when I was eleven, whose names were Snow White and Alfred. As far as the hypothetical turtle-name goes, I can only paraphrase what I seriously said to my (very amused) parents at the time: “You’ve got to get to know the turtle.”

About the Author:

Kendra Fortmeyer is the prose editor for Broad! magazine and the author of the fiction chapbook The Girl Who Could Only Say ‘sex, drugs, and rock & roll,’ (Awst Press). Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize as well as Best American Nonrequired Reading, and has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, Black Warrior Review, The Literary Review, PANK, The Toast and elsewhere. She received my MFA in fiction from the University of Texas at Austin.

About the Interviewer:

Ariana Calvo is currently enrolled at Marymount University and is working for both SmokeLong and The Thrill Begins as an intern.

About the Artist:

Alexander C. Kafka is a journalist, photographer, and composer in Bethesda, Maryland. He created the cover image for Lost Addresses: New and Selected Poems by Diann Blakely (Salmon Poetry, 2017). His work has also been published at All Things Fashion DC, BuzzFeed, Fast Company, Juked, Vice, The Washington Post, The Writing Disorder, and many other periodicals. He has been on the documentation team for the Washington Folk Festival at Glen Echo and is a contributing concert photographer for DMNDR. Kafka studied fine-art figure photography with Missy Loewe at the Washington School of Photography and portrait photography with Sora DeVore at Glen Echo Photoworks.

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