Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Melissa Benton Barker

by Colette Arrand Read the Story December 19, 2016

What caught my eye about this story my first time through is how you never stop adding detail. Though the setting is something familiar, a suburban public pool, each phrase adds more and more detail to the moms, the pool, and the small dramas playing themselves out in that space. In a piece of flash fiction, you have to do a good amount of whittling to give the reader this small, impactful thing—how did you decide that the best way to do that was to focus on the pool?

An outdoor pool is a natural summer gathering place, particularly for families with young children, and as such it’s a setting that can turn up the volume on the drama of daily (suburban) life with its inherent insecurities. After all, where else would you hang out with your neighbors wearing little more than your underwear?

Her son, even when he’s begging for attention, is only ever in her periphery. He and other children seem like agents of chaos, jumping over and over again from the diving board, leaping overhead to do cannonballs. What’s causing her to disassociate from this frenzy? Why isn’t it catching her eye?

As a writer who is also a parent of young children, the fleeting nature of childhood and of the parent/child relationship was on my mind as I wrote this piece. Children are constantly changing, and it feels like they are constantly moving farther and farther away. Yet it’s so often a struggle to pay attention. The main character here is really struggling to be present–and mostly failing. It’s as if her focus on her son sharpens and fades by turns, depending on how preoccupied she is with her own thoughts.

Towards the end of the story, you focus on the protagonist’s bikini, specifically how she’s fulfilling her promise to herself to wear it. As far as how things are marketed to women now, a moment like this is something we’re told needs to be celebrated, but there’s the issue of the fat escaping over the top of the bottom “like a lip, an unhappy lip.” Is her fulfilling that promise to herself a small act of defiance, and if so, what against? Her body? Her station in life?

There’s so much pressure on women—first to be perfect, but also to rebel against this notion and revel in our imperfections. As she wears her bikini, the main character is caught between these two impulses. She feels bad about her body; she feels bad that she feels bad about her body. She can’t even feel good about her act of self-acceptance (wearing the bikini). Rather than feeling self-acceptance, she finds herself performing self-acceptance.

The unpopular moms (the less popular moms?) are having a conversation that runs through the story about a ruined vacation. The popular moms are at the edges of the pool before they disappear. Your protagonist is somewhere between those two camps, in terms of her place in society. Is it really all downhill for her, or will she someday join her friend in the popular mom crew?

This character is very distracted by the questions, “Where do I fit in? Does anyone see me? Am I invisible?” It’s so big for her that she loses track of her son—her son becomes momentarily invisible to her. I would say that the prospects for her joining the popular crowd are not looking good!

Why does she push the dead bees towards the children? Could she will them to sting, would they?

She’d probably will them to sting the popular moms. That would stir things up a bit. Moms at the Pool Part Two—Attack of the Zombie Bees?

About the Author:

Melissa Benton Barker is an MFA candidate at Antioch University-Los Angeles. She lives and writes in a small town in Ohio. She has previously been published in the Manifest-Station and Literary Mama.

About the Interviewer:

Colette Arrand lives in Athens, Georgia, where she is a student at the University of Georgia. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Toast, CutBank, The Atlas Review, and elsewhere.

About the Artist:

A Best Small Fictions 2015 Winner, Dave Petraglia's writing and art have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, bohemianizm, Cheap Pop, Crack the Spine, Five:2:One, Gambling the Aisle, Hayden's Ferry, matchbook, Medium, McSweeney's, Necessary Fiction, North American Review, Per Contra, Points in Case, Popular Science, Razed, SmokeLong Quarterly, Up the Staircase, and others.