Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Mardith Louisell

by Nancy Stebbins Read the Story June 22, 2015

The friends in your story feel so familiar. Is it possible we all know each other?  

Absolutely, we all know each other, although I’m not sure how many of us choose to travel with the narrator. Nevertheless, after reading the story, several people wrote their friends and said, “I thought we travelled well together!” or “I’m a great travel companion.”

Were you at all worried about causing an international incident with the portrayals? Why or why not?

Hmm. Was blissfully unaware—before you asked—of the  potential. I watch a lot of international mysteries on TV. From these I’ve learned that I should never contact the police (from Engrenage), should never bring children to Scandinavia (Norwegian and Swedish series), and should distrust all Eastern Europeans (all Western European series). What I wrote seemed pretty mild re: trafficking in stereotypes, e.g., the German wasn’t overly orderly, the Irish wasn’t overly lyrical or drunk, the Russian wasn’t mafia. I may have a slight stereotype that Russians are more into their own food, why I don’t know—maybe the Russian Dressing on Reuben sandwiches at Jewish delis?

The photographs on your site are breathtaking, but now I seem to be seeing ears in everything, a weird sort of pareidolia. Can you suggest a treatment?

I had to look up “pareidolia.” Don’t get treatment. There’s nothing wrong with seeing ears everywhere—they ARE everywhere and fascinating (have you checked out ears on television? In paintings?). Ears get bigger as you get older, something I discovered at chamber music concerts where most attendees are older types and you have time to study ears, especially those attached to male heads due to minimalist (or no) hair styles. If you look, you will agree that ears get ENORMOUS as you get older, or when you’re very young. They are far more distinguishing than I had thought. Criminologists since the 18th century have thought ears are identifiers. Their characteristic features remain unchanged from pre-birth to death. Why do they get bigger? Some say cartilage continues to grow. Others say, no, it’s gravity, dropping and stretching the ears (and also the nose). There’s more but this is probably enough.  It’s like the phenomenon of reading a story where the daughter worries about her old mother slipping on a rug. Once you’ve read it, all you see when you walk into a room are rugs. Stories are far more effective at conveying worries than warning letters from an HMO.

I read the rug story on your site, and the image does stick with you! What I remember thinking is: a person can change the obvious risks (the wrinkled rug she steps over every day) and that might give her a comforting but false sense of control, but it doesn’t change fate. And in a way, the action of removing a familiar rug robs her of something.  Was that your point, or have I (someone who trips over her own feet, rug or no rug) read too much into it?

Yes, the rug story is about being robbed of something—and my focus was also on the narrator’s lack of understanding, the sad lack of understanding the younger have of the older.

Please describe your habits as a writer.

I read years ago that developmentally delayed persons often have elaborate pre-task avoidance rituals, aka procrastination. Like me. Dust across the room enlarges itself when I sit down at the computer, which is where I write. I envy those who can do it by hand. I think I should do it by hand. That would make me more writerly, especially since I now write flash.  But I’m not a careful writer. I want to get it out and then revise.

Anyone who says anything, especially revision, will only take a minute, or an hour, or a day, is deluded. It is ALWAYS longer. I have a hard time starting—because I’m scared I’ll never finish—and in many cases, I don’t. “I have to keep moving forward,” my husband says every morning. It’s an example of the difference between men and women. He’s a man with a mission, unlike me and most of my women friends, who have to trick ourselves into having a mission because academia’s post-modernist theories showed us that any mission is colonialist in nature and none of us has anything to contribute to the world. I’m also afraid I won’t know how to do it well enough. This comes from a belief held by many people that you should only do things you were born good at. (Singing is another area like that. When I tell people I sing, more than half say, “I can’t sing.” Not true. Anyone can. You just have to learn.)

I’m not a person who gets rhapsodic about how happy I am when writing. I think writing is hard. I wonder what life would be life if I didn’t try to write. Would I feel free, enjoy myself, be happy, play the piano, sing, paint, swim, travel, read?

I keep a praise file on my computer and when someone says something nice about my writing, I file it there so I can remember during the bad times that something was once good. I forget to look at it, though.

I worked for years on a memoir about my sister who died of a brain tumor and about our difficult relationship. I finished and sent it out, but no takers. (This sister had encouraged me, in fact, insisted, that I write by giving me an old computer from her law office. My typing skills, tangential mind and the speed of the computer were a good match.) Rather than endlessly revise the memoir (again), I decided I wouldn’t spend any more time in tears, and turned to short stories and flash, where I discovered that what really interested me was how minutiae, the ordinary, defines us—it’s where we live, much more than we think.

 

 

About the Author:

Mardith Louisell's short fiction, essays and memoir can be found most recently in Sleet, Solstice Literary Magazine, Best Travel Writing 2012, Travelers’ Tales, and Huffington Post. She grew up on Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota, and takes photos of people’s ears. Beside Myself, a book of flash fiction, is her current book.

About the Interviewer:

Nancy Stebbins is a former editor at SmokeLong Quarterly.

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.