Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Skylar Alexander

by Shelly Weathers Read the Story September 18, 2017

You are telling a very intimate story with “The Unicorn.” When you say “you,” you mean yourself, as in your character, but I feel like you’re you as I read it. I remember one of my teachers saying that we’re always every character in our stories. Do you think your you is more or less you than the Unicorn? How so?

The “you” of “The Unicorn” is a person in plural: me, the writer; the protagonist, who is a facsimile of myself based loosely on my experience; and you, the reader, forced to inhabit my headspace and your headspace simultaneously. Such is the power of the second-person: It forces you to become me and me to imagine you becoming me; it serves to highlight the many ways we’re all intertwined. The Unicorn in this story is someone I knew once, but is just as easily someone you knew once too, or know now, or will know someday. But you know, in the time since I’ve written this story, I’m sure I’ve been someone else’s Unicorn, too.

After reading your story, I wandered into all manner of unicorn thoughts, which eventually led me to The Unicorn Tapestries—in particular, “The Unicorn in Captivity,” in which the unicorn is tamed and penned. It’s a nice pen, though, with pomegranate trees. At the end of your story, the Unicorn has fallen in love. Is love a kind of captivity? What would the unicorn say about that idea?

Love is choosing a cage for the pomegranates. But caging any wild thing is the surest way to kill it. Being a mythical thing, the unicorn, like love, graces us in flashes, then moves onto other pastures.

The story is so lyrical and visual, it felt like a love song, or at least as though love songs should be sung quietly in the background as it’s read. Why did you construct this as a story and not a song or a poem? Or is it a song or a poem? How do you choose your form?

I’m a poet nine days out of ten, so my brief forays into prose are almost always brief; my poetic ear follows me everywhere, so everything comes out sounding poetic.

Your character, who is both narrator and protagonist, struggles with breaking the news to the parents that true love has come in the form of a unicorn. What is the hardest thing you’ve ever told your parents?

As a queer liberal Buddhist with conservative Christian parents/grandparents who have fervent anti-LGBTQ, God-fearing tendencies, the story is more in what I don’t tell my parents. When I wrote this story in 2015, I was completely closeted to my family, but out to friends. Today, in 2017, I am sad to say that I am still closeted to my parents/grandparents in a very real fear of being disowned by them, but am rather out and open with my siblings now. With them, the fear I had was unfounded. There’s a lot of that anxiety in this piece.

I’ve read this story about a dozen times now, and each time it seems ever more clearly tinged with a latent sadness. How do you strike a balance between the overt and covert in your work?

This story is sad, I think; at the very least I was heartbroken when I wrote it, so it’s no surprise to me that that heartbreak lingers. The Unicorn was my hope that healing would be possible, and eventually it was.

When I am writing about something I want to be covert about, I bury it in the soil of my work; I distract with stand-ins to hide the real actors present. But it does take a certain balance, as you say. Take cooking—the secret sauce can add real depth to a dish, but if the taster can’t identify what they’re eating for all the unspoken flavors duking it out in the background, then the chef is in trouble; the dish has gotten away from him. It’s our job as craftspeople to hold it all together. There can be secrets moving covertly in the background of a piece, I think, but the overt has to be tangible enough to grasp to.

About the Author:

Skylar Alexander is a writer, teacher, and freelance designer living in Iowa City, IA. She serves as the assistant director of the Young Emerging Writers Program (Midwest Writing Center - Rock Island, IL) and as vice chair of the Iowa Youth Writing Project's Community Advisory Council (Iowa City, IA). Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Forklift, Ohio, Hobart, PromptPress, Poetry City, USA, and elsewhere. She received her BA in English and Entrepreneurial Management from the University of Iowa in 2015.

About the Interviewer:

Shelly Weathers’ fiction has appeared in Tahoma Literary Review, Adroit, Sou’wester, Moon City Review, Timber, and elsewhere. Her work has been recognized with the 2013 Beacon Street Prize in Fiction and the 2014 John Steinbeck Short Story Award. She lives in the desert Southwest with her family.

About the Artist:

Alex Hockett's work can be found at Unsplash.