Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Mike Minchin

by Desiree Cooper Read the Story December 19, 2016

“Quiet Hours” joins a family three years after the death of the 12-year-old daughter from a congenital heart condition. The family members are still trying to find normalcy, especially one of the surviving sons, whose grief is turning into self-destruction. The mother lives with a constant fear that death will claim her son as well, and is desperate to bring him back from the precipice. The story is aptly named: it’s very quiet, both in terms of timbre and plot. Why did you decide to paint these characters with such subtle tension, rather than more direct conflict?

I’ve been writing about Linda and Cody, and their family, for the past three years. They exist in a novel I’ve just finished. After I wrote the last chapter, I felt compelled to keep writing about them, especially Linda, because she is never a point-of- view character in the novel. I wanted to go back in time and see what it was like for her when it all began, so to speak. The novel, which takes place years after “Quiet Hours,” has more of the direct conflict you mention, though it also has quiet moments. So much, I think, can be shown in fiction through subtlety; whenever my characters pick up guns or throw punches, I tend to ask myself if it’s necessary and if the action arises genuinely. But the thing with Cody is that he is most vulnerable in the cemetery by his sister’s grave, and I wanted Linda to see him there, to see the less-confrontational, wounded part of her son, the part he tries to hide and escape from.

What is your secret weapon for compressing a narrative? Do you write short and add in details afterward, or write long and prune the prose?

I usually have some sense of scope before I begin. I think of it like selecting a certain size canvas to work with. It doesn’t always work out the way I think it will; sometimes a short piece becomes longer, or the reverse, but with this one I wanted brevity and a small cast, and so I wrote with that in mind.

Who are you in the story: the mother, the son, the town or the night?

Oh, the night I suppose, and the town. If I am anything, I am the silent presence in the woods, maybe the coyotes. Mostly, I am listening.

The turn. Flash doesn’t require one, but without it, a story can slip from prose into poetry. Where is the turn in “Quiet Hours,” and what does it signal about what will become of the mother and son?

For me, it is when Linda fears she might have already lost Cody. That is a moment she will remember for years, that sense of understanding, a glimpse of the growing struggle she will have with her son, and I think it begins to change her approach.

You’re on a desert island. You can’t get off until you write a successful flash story based on a song lyric or title. What song would you choose, and why?

“Empty” by Ray LaMontagne. I’m a huge fan of Ray’s music, and “Empty” is my favorite lately; there is something hypnotic about his music that I love. But the title alone is not really what I want; I have to hear the music.

(Interviewer’s note: Here are some of the lyrics—they really are perfect inspiration for flash)

I never learned to count my blessings

I choose instead to dwell

In my disasters

I walk on down the hill

Through grass grown tall

And brown and still

It’s hard somehow

To let go of my pain

On past the busted back

Of that old and rusted Cadillac

That sinks into this field

Collecting rain

Will I always feel this way

So empty

And estranged?

What’s the answer to the question you wish I’d asked you?

The answer is, yes, I am writing more stories about these characters, obsessively, I suppose. And why can’t I leave them alone after three years? What is interesting about writing fiction, for me, is how stories become real, how the characters become real. And though I know that characters are, well, characters and that I should keep a certain distance from them so that I can feel free to torment them, I do have compassion for them, and I try to write as honestly as I can about them. Part of that compassion, I think, comes from writing about them every day and seeing their struggles. It is a strange journey to be on—writing.

About the Author:

Mike Minchin’s stories have appeared recently in Gargoyle Magazine, Vermont Magazine, Green Writers Press Greenzine, and Mud Season Review. His fiction has received Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers and the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. He earned his MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

About the Interviewer:

Desiree Cooper is the author of Know the Mother (Wayne State University Press 2016), a collection of flash fiction that dives unflinchingly into the intersection of race and gender. A former attorney, Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist and community activist, Cooper is a 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow whose fiction and poetry have appeared in Callaloo, Detroit Noir, Best African American Fiction 2010, Blood Orange Review, and Tidal Basin Review, among other online and print publications. She is currently a Kimbilio fellow, a national residency for African American fiction writers.

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.