Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Pete Segall

by Melissa Yancy Read the Story December 18, 2017

I’m curious about the Larkin reference in your piece. It’s a well-known poem, but there’s still a good chance that a reader might need to look those lines up, and those lines are essential. It’s a bold choice to send the reader off on an assignment. Did that give you any pause, or was that part of the fun? It said a lot about you as a writer and what you might expect from a reader.

At the risk of sounding like a jerk, it didn’t give me any pause at all. I don’t think there’s any reason literature shouldn’t be instructive or make, let’s not call them demands, but strong suggestions to the reader. Get a thesaurus if you don’t know a word. Google it. Ask a friend or trusted adult. Literature emptied of any sort of mystery seems a tad pointless. I see four outcomes: The reader knows it and nods; the reader looks it up and says oh; the reader doesn’t get it and says nuts to that; the reader doesn’t get it but doesn’t mind. I’m content with any of those. Also, I’m not sure the piece could have been constructed if it were more explicit. I’m trying to envision it with the reference spelled out and it looks like a book report.

And one final point, which may be beside the point but oh well: Many of the people I know are parents and “This Be the Verse” is practically gospel. For those who don’t know, I evangelize. (I put a copy over our firstborn’s crib when we brought him home from the hospital.) Maybe I’ve internalized it to a degree where it’s just part of my ether. (I mean, Larkin was right, even if he was an asshole.)

I decided (without much supporting evidence) that the story was about the death of a parent, maybe someone from the Greatest Generation or the Silent Generation, from the perspective of someone who is himself or herself a parent. The section that stumped me most was “Getting Coffee.” At first I thought that narrator was observing two people, admonishing the guy. And then I read it as the I, the narrator, admonishing himself—which made that section make more sense to me. Can you satisfy my curiosity? Is he lecturing himself?

It’s funny that you mention workshops and obscurantism. It’s been a minute (as the kids say) since I did my MFA, but one of the few benevolent hobgoblins living in my head is the voice of Ethan Canin from Iowa, defending a story of mine for using too much highfalutin language by telling a classmate of mine to get a thesaurus. (And it wasn’t an especially defensible story, which makes what he did all the more generous.) But it took me a very long time to incorporate that defense, to arrive at that confidence, and to recognize that the confidence runs in both directions: in yourself to say “Here’s this thing I’m not explaining; figure it out or not,” and in your reader to react in a way she finds suitable (that doesn’t involve immediately closing the tab or yelling at me). I lovelovelove untethered references, so it does make finally inserting them all the more fun. (Factoid: Six of the individual titles are preexisting! Why? Because I liked them! Playing with randomness is a hoot!)

Maybe the piece itself is a set-up, an invitation for the reader to connect as much or as little as she wants. Am I giving away too much by saying these were all composed isolation and then stapled together from a much bigger pile of fragments? That’s how I’ve found myself operating. Notional commonalities emerge when the pile is sifted: voice, theme, a feeling of ethereal cohesion that doesn’t vanish after they’ve all been lumped together. Still, I don’t believe it’s reductionist in the slightest to want a more visible sense of coalescence. A number of trusted readers have asked for that. It’s something that I grapple with a lot—how little gravitational force can I use while not completely bewildering people. Your interpretation fascinates me, and actually makes me wonder if suggestion isn’t something I can use more moving forward (so thanks for that). (And I apologize for having devolved rhetorically from answering to just thinking out loud.) What, if I can ask a question, hinted at the generational placement of the dead parent? I’m curious to hear.

To answer a question, “Getting Coffee” was always observational and outward—a very deliberate second person. But, thinking about your uncertainty, observation is always informed by character, so even if he’s not lecturing himself, there’s still self-reflexiveness to the piece, whether or not he or I intended it.

Regarding generational placement, I guess it was Tora! Tora! Tora!? The mind makes clues where there are none. So, your final question: In brief, why the short-short form? What does it offer writer and reader?

Short-short form: For the writer, it offers a mode of expression that has the advantage of being possible. For the reader, if I had to guess, it’s different, maybe? It’s really difficult to say. I write what I want to read. So I see James Tate or Mary Robison or Sarah Manguso, my heart does ecstatic things, and I try to do something that with luck does the same for others.

About the Author:

Pete Segall is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was a Truman Capote Fellow. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Conjunctions, Necessary Fiction, decomP, Forge Lit, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He lives in Chicago with his wife, the writer Kim Brooks, and their children.

About the Interviewer:

Melissa Yancy's short fiction has appeared in One Story, Glimmer Train, Prairie Schooner, Zyzzyva and many other publications. Her story collection Dog Years was selected by Richard Russo for the 2016 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and was a winner of the California Book Award for First Fiction, a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Prize, received a PEN/Hemingway Award Honorable Mention, and was longlisted for The Story Prize. She is the recipient of a 2016 NEA Literature Fellowship. She lives in Los Angeles where she works as a fundraiser for healthcare causes, and can be found online at www.melissayancy.com.