Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Rebecca Saltzman

by Kristen Arnett Read the Story December 18, 2017

Your view on place in this story had a lot to do with setting. Can you tell me how setting factors into your writing?

I love place-based fiction. One of the first things I visualize when I’m writing a new story is the setting, because I’m interested in how the landscape my characters move through—the natural and cultural environments, the history and mythology—affect them and the way they understand their world. I’m fascinated by the living memory of place. In his book Ghostland, Colin Dickey talks about how memory is tied to physical space in our minds, and how a haunted house is haunted by the memories we bring to them. And aren’t all human landscapes haunted houses in a sense? When I write about place, I’m always looking for which ghosts, which collective memories, haunt this particular setting and its characters.

What made you decide to cover a topic that had to do with a post-storm Florida? 

This story grew out of a day trip I took with my family this past spring to Crescent Beach, which is located on this sliver of barrier island. I was intrigued by how isolated and fragile the land felt. This was probably five or six months after Hurricane Matthew, and my kids wanted to visit Fort Matanzas, but the ferry had been damaged by the hurricane and still wasn’t running. So that got me thinking about how vulnerable and ephemeral the things we build are, even things we’ve designated as national treasures to protect. At that point, a major hurricane hadn’t made landfall in Florida in over a decade, but we knew that it was only a matter of time, which is the inevitable doom the narrator feels. And of course we ended up seeing that streak end this year with Hurricane Irma.

In the story, you wrote a lot about transformation. Can you explain a little bit about that?

The transformation in this story grew out of my anxiety about the transformations going on in the world right now, both environmental and political. I was thinking a lot about climate change in particular as I wrote this. Living in Florida makes climate change feel especially urgent because you’re on this flat peninsula that’s already hot and swampy. What will the future look like for Florida, with rising sea levels and more severe hurricanes? The narrator mentions the ocean reclaiming us, and that reclamation, that fear, becomes physically manifested by her. And maybe some anger, too, that climate change is something people in power are actively choosing to let happen. Also, having octopus tentacles for hair is just cool. What woman doesn’t want to be a man-eating sea monster?

I see that you’re a recent transplant to New York. Has this changed what you’re writing about currently? Does it inform how you write about place?

I just moved back to New York, which is my home state, two months ago. I haven’t begun to grapple with that in my writing yet, but there’s something powerful about returning to a place where you have roots and history. I spent so much of my childhood wanting to leave the rust belt city in Western New York where I grew up, and now I’d like to spend some time there in my writing and see what stories I can find. But I’m living in the New York City area, and right now I’m just trying to figure out how the subway works.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a short story that evolved out of my obsession with people dying in Florida’s underwater caves, which is a super cheerful topic, and I’m in the beginning stages of tackling a novel. Like so many writers, I’m trying to understand this moment in history that we’re living in and how to address that through fiction. And mostly feeling at a loss.

About the Author:

Rebecca Saltzman’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Midwestern Gothic, Anthropoid, and elsewhere. She lives in New York with her husband and children.

About the Interviewer:

Kristen N. Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer and author of the short fiction collection Felt in the Jaw. Winner of the Ninth Letter's 2015 Literary Award in Fiction, her work has been featured in North American Review, The Normal School, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, Volume 1 Brooklyn, Catapult, Tin House Flash Fridays/The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Find her on twitter: @Kristen_Arnett.