Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Lucas Southworth
by Christopher Allen Read the Story June 19, 2017
Lucas, thank you so much for sending “Hunger“ to SmokeLong Quarterly. It is a rare read. Please tell me your bedroom floor is not like the one in the story. And after you tell me that, tell me which kind of suffering is worse: hoping for magic that doesn’t exist or having magic everywhere but the inevitability of decay?
My bedroom floor is a typical bedroom floor. I have, like everyone, too much dust. I was thinking about dust bunnies as I wrote the story. They’ve always looked to me like little planets surrounded by their own stormy atmospheres or like little cities surrounded by lumps of smog. In the story, there’s a city outside the bedroom window, and there’s a city outside my bedroom window as well. I’ve been writing mostly city stories since I moved to Baltimore four years ago. I grew up in Chicago, so I’m not new to cities, but I’m still astounded by how many people can live in one place so close together. And there can be so much apparent suffering in cities. Suffering right on the surface. Baltimore has one of the highest murder rates in the country, one of the highest rates of heroin use, and high rates of poverty and homelessness. Sirens are constant. Police choppers hover through the sky as you’re trying to sleep, their spotlights searching. This city, like all of them, seems to have no way to fix it, and no real desire. As humans, we don’t trust ingenuity or change, so we drag our feet. We let the suffering continue and do nothing. Sometimes I think about the evolution of our society, and I wonder if we ever had a chance to end up another way. I think the narrator in the story makes the point that no matter what, our greed, our lust for power, our need to create class systems and levels will always exist. So that gets to the answer of the second question above: there might not be a difference between having magic and hording it and not having magic and hoping. That’s a kind of macro answer, though. Another way to look at the question is through the experience of those being oppressed. I suppose there might be some solace in the way we have it now (magic-less) because our society is so complex. Even if we all agreed to fix everything today and really worked on it, progress would be slow and we’d mess up as often as we succeeded. Having magic would bring a different kind of hope, one that could be more crushing. In the little cities in the story, all someone would have to do is wave a magic wand or cast a spell or allow everyone access to magic. That’s ostensibly easy, and yet, it doesn’t happen. That seems potentially worse to me. Possibly.
Who is the sane one in the story? The narrator or the clod-hopping, awkward partner? Is he the narrator’s partner? Or does this lout represent something larger, more universal?
I never thought of either character—the narrator or the listener—as insane. I pictured them as a couple in bed in the morning, one telling a story to another. When I wrote “Hunger,” I’d been reading The Thousand and One Nights and writing my own version of the frame story. I’ve always loved the image of Scheherazade telling these tales in bed to her potential murderer. The intimacy of it, and also the danger. I’ve always loved her confidence to go in there and just keep Shahryar on the cliffhanger for so long. In “Hunger,” I purposely made the genders vague. I was picturing the narrator as a woman and the listener a man. But I knew it could flip for the reader or the couple could be two women or two men. Either way, the lout represents a kind of universal or willful ignorance. The listener (the lout) listens to a tale about starvation and then decides he/she wants breakfast right after. The way the listener can (and must) ignore the suffering the narrator describes is, for me, analogous to the way in which we live. As is the narrator’s need to tell the story—his/her guilt or awareness. I think most people oscillate back and forth between these extremes, so maybe, in a sense, the two characters really represent two sides of a single person grappling with these issues. The listener feels no guilt, but he/she also isn’t crushing people (or cities) on purpose. The listener’s doing it because he/she’s not really looking—because he/she doesn’t see or won’t see the cities (and the sufferings) that exist.
When I started “Hunger,” I wanted to write about the way I saw food working in The Thousand and One Nights. Hunger, of course, exists in those worlds, but it is strangely hollow and not at all visceral. It drives action, but doesn’t carry the pain. Food is usually granted by some higher power or luck or magic. It is given and happened upon at the same time. And when food comes, it almost always comes in abundance. The characters “eat their fill.” In The Thousand and One Nights, food denotes class; and sharing it both breaks down class and reinforces it. There’s also something magical and impossible about how quickly characters in The Thousand and One Nights can shift class. A man can go from being a beggar to a king in a single page and back again on the next. It’s totally understandable and sane to me why people would want to tell stories about these types of more fluid worlds, and why people would want to listen to them.
Repetition plays such a central role in the story. My reading of this is that it makes the narrator sound unhinged and desperate—yet lyrical. Is this the effect you were going for?
I love writing flashes because they can be so lyrical, like poems that have just a hint of story. In flash, the voice can be story, can carry it all the way to the end without the need of plot. Voice creates tone in every story (and memoir and novel), but in a flash, voice can be the entire point. I like that, and I particularly like stories that investigate tones that linger in spaces between all the emotions we already have words for, where emotions fade together and mix and bring us into the realm of something else. In other words, the way it really feels to live.
Each time I read “Hunger,” the tone feels darker. The story’s playfulness and repetition work to create the overall feeling (I hope). While I wasn’t thinking of the voice as unhinged, I do like that reading. The narrator and listener aren’t in love, but they are content together and comfortable talking and letting their imaginations spiral off. I think a morning like this is a common occurrence in this relationship. The narrator likes to tell stories and the listener likes to be there and listen.
In the end, the little cities become something rotten and fetid populated by demons. Is this a subversion of the narrator’s original message of mindfulness?
I think for the narrator it’s still about mindfulness. It’s still about simply paying attention. It’s still an attempt to wake the listener to this new way of seeing (or to seeing at all). As I wrote it, I felt a kind of anger or frustration in the narrator’s story. Possibly even a moment of dislike or disgust for the listener. Although they’re in this intimate moment, they certainly aren’t quite connecting. Their worldviews aren’t the same. This is true of all couples, and part of being one or staying one is a kind of acceptance that the other person doesn’t see the world the exact same way. Animosity and anger does creep in and it can linger, as can the feeling that one might be more “right” than the other. While the story is about how our world might compare favorably and unfavorably to other, more magical worlds, it is also about this couple who wakes up together. It is about how they talk to each other and communicate and understand each other on one level and, on another, can’t and don’t.
About the Author:
Lucas Southworth's stories are forthcoming from or have recently appeared in TriQuarterly, Meridian, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, Willow Springs, and others. His collection of short stories, Everyone Here Has a Gun, recently won AWP’s Grace Paley Prize (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013). Southworth is a professor of fiction and screenwriting at Loyola University Maryland and an editor for the Baltimore Review.
About the Interviewer:
Christopher Allen is a translator, freelance editor and the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press). Allen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Best Small Fictions 2019, [PANK], Indiana Review, Split Lip Magazine, Longleaf Review and others. He is the co-editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.