Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Seth Clabough

by Tyrese L. Coleman Read the Story March 20, 2017

This story is very much a commentary on storytelling itself, made very clear when “the girl” enters the page. You write, “There was a girl, too, not a character but an actual person, who really did say, ‘I want to be lost in the heat stink of jungle and surf, to raise the sea as my child, to have it break my heart.’ ” I also found this commentary weaved through the images, which felt like stock cinematic imagery of what you might find in a movie set in South America, but which were also very evocative and rich. And then again, in the beginning, and end when you allude to the idea that this story already exists…that it is not a tale, but rather something like a memory. This was all done so beautifully. What was the statement you wanted to make about storytelling?

Thank you. That’s kind. Regarding statements, I don’t know—my experience has been that such statements are rarely known to a writer at the moment of creation but become clear only afterward upon reflection. Rather than a statement, I believe I was just thinking about how the story was not totally fiction, nor was it non-fiction, but rather some blending of fiction, experiences, faulty memory. What I was going for, I think, was the truth of what this part of my time in Santa Teresa was like and how it felt.  Some of the things in the story really happened, some didn’t, most are a blending of that—things that did happen but not quite the way the story presents them. I think my hope was to convey as authentically as possible what it felt like to think about this place and this girl and sometimes to do that authentically you must make intentional use of the inauthentic in your story. I agree with Marquez and Chandler’s point about the absolute necessity to root one’s fiction in actual experiences so that your personal connection to a place or a person will help your reader perceive them as real and therefore connect with the story more deeply than they would otherwise. But I also agree with Lorrie Moore when she says if you’re trying to write things exactly as they happened, then the writing will be dead, and the story will go nowhere. Maybe the statement would be that perhaps good storytelling finds itself somewhere in the middle of those two ideas.

Have you read many South American writers? If so, who? Did their work inspire this piece in any way?

Costa Rica is in Central America, so I’m thinking that’s what you’re asking. I’ve not had the chance to read a lot of longer works by Central American authors, but I can recommend a particularly excellent collection of short fiction by Costa Rican authors. Costa Rica: A Traveler’s Literary Companion compiles a great survey of contemporary Costa Rican fiction. Barbara Ras, a former Georgia Poet of the Year and the current director of Trinity University Press, edited the collection, so the works really do pack a literary punch. “The Girl Who Came From the Moon” is my personal favorite from the collection, but they’re all solid and a great introduction to writers from CR.

Who is Margriet? I like to imagine she is the girl in the story, but I am probably wrong.

You’re not wrong! Margriet is a good friend of ours from Santa Teresa. She’s just this tall, kind, high-energy, incredibly creative, bad-ass surfer, and likely the coolest mom on the planet. [She’s also created the art for my story, and this second piece as well.] When my wife and I moved to CR for a few months, she was one of the first people to come up and chat and welcome us—just a very positive and inspiring person. She’s also an exceptionally talented painter and a bit of a local celebrity for her art, which is always a big hit with locals and visitors to the area. If you visit her café, there’s a good chance you’ll see her and her lovely daughter, Zaia, covered in paint and producing some brilliant new work on a large canvas. If she’s not there, then she’s likely out on the water killing it on some rather large waves or rocketing over the unpaved roads to Cobano to get art or café supplies.

This piece started primarily as a story about a place, but Margs is so much a part of that place in our heads. I found that this work was really the result of thinking about Santa Teresa and thinking about our friend and her daughter and the lives they’ve had, are having, and will have there. It was sort of beautiful and interesting to think about them in that way and then try and capture the feeling through the play of imagination and language.

I was very impressed with the language in this story. I imagine it took quite some time to get everything perfect. How long did it take you to craft this piece? Were the language choices there from the start or did they come from deliberate decisions during the editing process?

I’m not the editing process type, though a lot of writers I know are. This is probably because I have a short attention span and get bored easily. I pretty much write things in one go, revise a couple of times—maybe shift a line or two around—and then I’m pretty done with it. Either it works, or it doesn’t. I think what I’ve realized is that I write best when I’m feeling something unusual or in a particular mood, and that’s when I try to create and capture something in one go. Once the mood is gone, and I can’t feel the entirety of the story anymore, trying to do any significant changes would be pointless—like continuing to try and have a conversation with the story after it has packed up and left the room. The language choices are there from the beginning because the mood determines the tone and style of the piece.

About the Author:

Seth Clabough is the author of the novel All Things Await, and his work appears in places like Blackbird, Litro Magazine, New Writing, Barely South, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Women’s Studies, Aesthetica Magazine and numerous other publications. His writing has been selected for Ploughshares’ "Best Short Story of the Week" column and been nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction, Best of the Net, the Luminaire Award for Best Prose, the Million Writer Award and the Queen's Ferry Press Award. He teaches at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia.

About the Interviewer:

Tyrese L. Coleman is a writer, wife, mother, and attorney. She is also the fiction editor for District Lit and an associate editor for SmokeLong Quarterly. A 2016 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a nonfiction scholar at Virginia Quarterly Review's 2016 Writer’s Conference, her prose has appeared in several publications, including PANK, Buzzfeed, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hobart, listed in Wigleaf's Top 50 (very) short fictions, and forthcoming at The Kenyon Review.

About the Artist:

A Best Small Fictions 2015 Winner, Dave Petraglia's writing and art have appeared in Agave, Apeiron Review, Chicago Literati, Crack the Spine, Foliate Oak, Gravel, Jersey Devil Press, Necessary Fiction, Loco Magazine, New Pop Lit, North American Review, Pithead Chapel, Popular Science, Prairie Schooner, Stoneboat, theNewerYork, Vine Leaves, and elsewhere. He is a Contributing Editor at Arcadia Magazine.

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