Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Maia Jenkins

by Emma Smith-Stevens Read the Story March 19, 2018

“History” takes place in an elite boys’ boarding school in England. However, one might also say that the story is set inside of misogyny and rape culture, which are aspects of culture worldwide. Did you know the setting before you began writing the story? Or did the plot lead you to the boarding school?

The elite boarding school was always the setting of “History,” even before I started writing it. While thematically rape culture, misogyny, and gender inequality are fundamental here, I also wanted to explore the question of privilege in another sense: that of money or class. These boys are legacy. They know the “right” type of ties and shoes; they come from grand families. For me, this is a very English problem: this fetishization of heritage, our class deference and our obsession with aristocracy. Holly’s father—the boys’ history master—is loathed for his perceived lack of class, and the boys make him suffer for it in the worst way possible.

I am British. I went to university with these boys. They do the most stupid, horrific things, but then are blithely absolved because their bloodline extends back to Henry VIII’s fifth wife or whatever. This happens everywhere, sure, but the U.K. is especially bad for it.

That said, you could transpose this story onto any situation where men decide to cause damage for fun. Many people—mainly women—will know the feeling of holding their breath as they walk past a pack of men on the street, outside a bar, in a club. Will they say something? Will they grab you? Will they follow you? That’s where I wanted this story to exist: those few seconds as you pass them by, too scared to look up or even breathe.

The collective “we” telling this story denotes the boys. As a result, the narration is brimming with entitlement, grandiosity, hunger for conquest, and callousness. Simultaneously, though, you enable readers to access the young girl’s world, making her reality the note that reverberates after the last word. What challenges did you have to overcome in order to achieve this effect? How did you pull it off?

The story was originally written in the second-person singular—the accusatory “you” mode—but as I was redrafting, I realized it was exclusion rather than accusation I wanted to convey. The boys are predatory, entitled and cruel, certainly, but they’re also inhabiting a very specific, cordoned-off world. The collective “we” allows the boys to make enemies of Holly and her father—an “us versus them” situation—which of course creates fertile ground for Holly’s later exploitation and abuse.

In her short story “Princess Ida,” Alice Munro describes a group of men as having “an aura of anonymous brutality, like a smell of burning.” It was that anonymity I wanted to examine—the things we are capable of once our identity is subsumed into a group. To emphasize this, I had to make Holly’s humanity and individuality central to the story’s texture. She’s the only named character in the story for that reason. I also tried to include details that extended her existence beyond the boarding school’s walls—her friendship bracelet, her love of horses, her hiccup, her fogged breath. She has a life that does not include these boys and their posh school.

I also had to work hard to set up a contrast between the boy’s destructive, broad-brush gestures—dumping the statue in the pond, swiping tequila, chugging water, bellowing school songs—with Holly and her father’s smaller, more contemplative behaviors. Certain people are forced to live less conspicuously because they simply cannot afford not to. For many of us, being noticed means the difference between life and death. Here, the boys notice Holly and it’s game over.

There’s that line from The Great Gatsby about Tom and Daisy “retreating back into their money or their vast carelessness.” Holly and her father don’t have the luxury of that carelessness. The boys do. What will happen to them? You want to hope they’ll pay for their actions, but they’ll most likely retreat back into their money, and end up running the country.

You recently moved from London to Mississippi. Have you visited Faulkner’s house? What was it like? Did you know that milk is the official state beverage—and do you have thoughts on this? There is a law on the books in Tylerton, Mississippi, making it criminal for any man to shave while standing in the center of Main Street. Would you care to weigh in on this controversy?

Mississippi is a wonderful place, very different to London. I can’t drive yet, and I miss walking places. The people are so friendly, though, and great story-tellers. And yes, Rowan Oak is beautiful. Mississippi does a pretty good job of celebrating its many artistic traditions and legacies.

I must admit the American mania for milk-drinking baffles me. Milk is a complement or addition—to tea, cereal—and the idea of drinking a whole glass as a “beverage” makes about as much sense to me as eating a bowl of ketchup and calling it a soup. However, I think it’s commendable the state is represented by such a healthy choice. You can’t argue with strong bones!

As for the criminality of public shaving, I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment. Does this law only apply to men? I’d have to look into it more.

What writing projects do you have going now? Are you working on anything you are especially excited about?

I’m redrafting a second novel. Provisionally entitled Au Pair, it’s told from the perspective of young woman who goes back to Seville to revisit the family she nannied for ten years earlier. I’m also applying for MFAs here in the South, and playing (very tentatively) with an idea for a screenplay.

About the Author:

Maia Jenkins is a writer living and working in Meridian, Mississippi. Her work has previously appeared in GQ, Grazia, Litro and The Upcoming. In 2013, she won the GQ Student Writing Prize and was named Fiction Fellow at the Norman Mailer Writer's Colony in Salt Lake City. She is also the winner of the 2014 Bailey's First Chapter Prize.

About the Interviewer:

Emma Smith-Stevens is the author of the novel The Australian (Dzanc, 2017). Her writing has appeared in BOMB Magazine, Literary Hub, Conjunctions, SmokeLong Quarterly, Subtropics, Wigleaf, Joyland, and elsewhere; and her essay "The Sun" is forthcoming in the anthology Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture (Ed. Roxane Gay, Harper Perennial). She's had two stories included in Wigleaf's Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions and received a Special Mention in the 2016 Pushcart Prize anthology. Originally from New York City, she lives in New York and is fiction editor at The Mondegreen.

About the Artist:

Find more of Ryoji Iwata's photography on Unsplash.