Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Tamara Schuyler

by Shasta Grant Read the Story September 18, 2017

First, I’d love to know where the idea for this story came from.

I had two main sources. One was related to the narrative voice and the techniques I wanted to use to craft that voice. That’s usually where I start—there’s a voice I’ve become obsessed with or delighted by, and I’m itching to try it, and I set out a few guidelines as I begin to conceptualize a story. For the original effort that eventually yielded this story, my notes for those guidelines included using a first-person plural narrator telling a story from a place of extreme emotion, using a hallucinatory tone, and letting time bend.

The second source was the material, or theme, I was interested in writing about. I don’t have a narrow set of specific interests, but I’m generally interested in trauma, and I often write about parent-child relationships (and not always in combination—I’m interested in parent-child relationships even when they’re not traumatic!). In this case there was also a news article I had read that served as inspiration. It was a report of a man who had been sentenced to two years in prison for tying up a dog in a field and leaving it to die. I was extremely distressed by this. After the initial strike of sorrow, I wondered what had happened to this man to make him capable of that. My story is not about that man, but the news article and the curiosity about his circumstances were the seeds of the idea.

This story is so beautifully written. In particular, you do a great job of weaving in subtle details that provide the reader with information. For example, you write, “Hottest sun and dust on our shoes too tight.” In lesser hands, that might have been conveyed with a sentence such as “Our parents couldn’t afford new shoes.” Can you talk about the choices you made with these details and how to present certain information?

I think the answer may essentially come down to trying to show and not tell. (I don’t think that instruction is always the right approach, though! I’ve read stories that use telling as an effective element of a successful voice.) But here, a crucial part of the voice I wanted to craft was that the narrator needed to be revealed through certain details of his experience, and not through any commentary upon that experience. This is not an older narrator reflecting back upon what happened to him when he was young and telling us his take on things from years down the road. The voice is the child’s. The selection of details is under authorial control, of course, and that highlights the difficulty in writing from a child’s point of view. There’s a tension between maintaining a voice that accurately represents a child’s point of view, while inescapably being an adult and exercising an adult’s judgment about which details will be revealing.

I focused on the sensory experiences of the child narrator and tried to think about details that would convey those experiences and also reveal the family’s circumstances and dynamics. That’s the short answer to your question!

The thing that really struck me the first time I read this story, and that I continue to think about, is how you’re able to create compassion for these boys even as they go about performing this terrible act. And I really wanted things to go differently for them—for them to be able to keep and love this dog. But they don’t, obviously, and I’m not sure they even wanted to. I’m also not sure what the question is in here. It’s such an emotionally complex story. I think what I want to know is how did you do it? Was it a difficult story to write? What was most challenging?

I can’t tell you how happy I am about your observation here. With every story I write, one goal is to elicit compassion in my readers for my characters, so I’m very glad to hear I was able to do that in this case. I strongly believe that to write in a way that brings out compassion in readers, the author herself has to have loads of compassion for her characters. She has to really feel that compassion and remain emotionally connected to the material throughout the writing. I credit workshops taught by the Writers Studio, which I’ve been attending for six years, for teaching me the importance of that.

My long answer to your second question above is very analytical, and yes, I do find it necessary to articulate guidelines regarding narrative technique very explicitly—another invaluable lesson I learned from the Writers Studio approach. But I believe it’s equally important for me to understand and nurture my emotional connection to the story, and that is also what ultimately generates my motivation and purpose for writing. When I’m successful, it also creates characters toward whom readers can feel compassion, no matter those characters’ behaviors or beliefs. Achieving this is probably easier if you have an underlying conviction that everyone—everyone—is worthy of compassion. And that’s a constant struggle, at least for me.

I’d love to know about your other work. Do you frequently write flash fiction? What themes do you find yourself returning to? What are you working on now?

I haven’t written—or at least completed—any other flash fiction. I do enjoy the challenge of compression, and I can imagine wanting to return to flash fiction for stories that pack an enormous emotional punch.

Right now I’m working on something very different—a longer story with a very patient third-person narrator who uses a lot of landscape description to convey the mood. This is also a very sad story. Or it will be, when I’m done, if I manage to pull it off.

About the Author:

Tamara Schuyler’s fiction has appeared in CutBank, Mulberry Fork Review, and Crack the Spine, among others. One of her stories received a special mention in Pushcart Prize XXXIX: Best of the Small Presses, and another was awarded honorary mention in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction contest, March/April 2016.

About the Interviewer:

Shasta Grant is the author of the chapbook Gather Us Up and Bring Us Home (Split Lip Press, 2017). She was the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellow and she won the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest. Her stories have appeared in Hobart, matchbook, MonkeyBicyclewigleaf, and elsewhere.

About the Artist:

Alex Hockett's work can be found at Unsplash.