Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Amy Rossi

by Christopher Allen Read the Story September 16, 2019

Amy, thank you for sending “Friday Night at Debra Jo’s Phone Sex Emporium” to SmokeLong. Let’s begin with the ending. What a great and emotionally affecting ending. It hits exactly the right chord. What part of this story first occurred to you?

Thank you so much! This piece started with the title—the phrase just kind of popped into my head, and I knew it would be a title. I put it in a Word doc and let it sit there for a couple weeks, kind of seeing where it was going to lead me. I was interested in the idea of a physical place for phone-based work, a place that serves a purpose to the outside world but also has become a community for the people within—and where the work and the people who do it are valued. From there, it happened quite linearly. Sometimes I know the beats I want to hit or the image I want to end with, but with this story, each piece revealed itself along the way, and I truly didn’t know the ending until I got there.

I thought about this story all day today. I was on a bike. It was a beautiful day, and I was thinking about how lonely life can get. Thank you! The more I read the story, the more I see it is not only about loneliness but, at least in part, also about communication. The honest and endearing non-verbal communication of Sylvie’s coworkers is set against the specious communication of phone sex so so well.

I was definitely interested in the emporium as unburdened from the limits of verbal communication—that over time, the employees have found ways to relate to each other as they rest their voices or recharge between calls or before going back to the other parts of their lives. It’s certainly labor. Sylvie takes her job seriously, and she is committed to giving people what they ask for — and she understands the difficulty in asking. She talks about creating a fantasy, and there is a level of responsibility in being able to fulfill that for someone. Yet, I think that there are calls where the communication is freeing for Sylvie, where she takes respite in playing a part, in knowing what she is supposed to say.

One of the reasons this story is so powerful is that Sylvie could be any of us. We can all find ourselves alone despite being surrounded by people who care. You create this setting masterfully, and I think you make readers care. Each of Sylvie’s coworkers does something for her. If I were Sylvie’s coworker, what could I do for her?

You could do perhaps the most meaningful thing for Sylvie: give her a story that says I see you, that puts words to the feelings she has given up naming. I recently read this wonderful essay in The Offing where the author talks about being single and the freedom of always being able to be the one who picks what she’s having for dinner and also the stifling limitation of being the one who always has to choose (and shop for and cook) what’s for dinner. I’ve had a hard time articulating this feeling to most people in my life, who truly care and who are willing to listen, but also whose experiences are very different. To see those words reflected back was such a gift, and it’s one of the main reasons I keep writing, the hope that I can be that mirror for someone else, because there’s a whole bunch of experiences out there that people feel alone in but aren’t, at least not in the broader world. Helping someone get to that moment is one of the best things we can do for each other.

What are you working on these days? What inspires you?

I am working on my second novel, while querying the first. Both projects are rooted in pop culture of the latter half of the twentieth century, and particularly women’s roles. I am very interested in women on the fringes, the ones who get a brief mention in an article about a movie or an album and who sound more complicated and compelling than the actual subject. I draw a lot of inspiration from what kind of pop culture endures and what—and who—we remember about it.

Has the Internet killed the phone-sex star?

Based on my research for this story: No!

About the Author:

Amy Rossi lives and writes in North Carolina. Her work has appeared in places such as Wigleaf, Barrelhouse, and matchbook.

About the Interviewer:

Christopher Allen is a translator, freelance editor and the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press). Allen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Best Small Fictions 2019[PANK], Indiana Review, Split Lip Magazine, Longleaf Review and others. He is the co-editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.

About the Artist:

Paul Bilger's photography has appeared at Qarrtsiluni, Brevity, and Kompresja. His work has also been featured on music releases by Dead Voices on Air and Autistici. When not taking pictures, he is a lecturer in philosophy and film theory at Chatham University. He is the art director at SmokeLong Quarterly.