Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Annie Lampman

by Shelly Weathers Read the Story September 16, 2019

I’d like to start with the title. Titles keep me up at night and my stories tend to go through multiple titles, which, okay, makes my desktop a mess. But “Stormy’s Port and Polish” holds information that appears nowhere but right there. Which came first in this instance, the chicken or the body of the story itself? How calculated was the relationship between title and egg?

Well, there’s not actually a clean answer to this chicken-or-egg question, although the title did come early and whole with this story and never changed throughout drafts even though I questioned it pretty hard. After the following three things were established—character, title, and setting/action—I tried to make sure each component was part of a circular movement, hopefully informing and enhancing the meaning and characterization of the other. 

This is a breakdown of the story’s mental birthing in order of appearance: 

1) the character—a woman who polishes cell phone screens on her chest 

2) the title—“Stormy’s Port and Polish,” which refers to the process of conditioning an engine’s heads to make it more high-performance, but most importantly for me as I wrote, bestowed upon the character her name and persona, characterizing everything from Stormy herself to her business and fair booth (especially when I realized the title was the sign advertising her business)! 

3) the setting: the county fair as the venue/place for the character’s business and the movement/action of the story 

I found the setting of this piece descriptively very satisfying—I recognized it, it’s familiar to me. Pretty sure the boy with the chew is Skeeter D from Mrs. Ballew’s sixth grade class. Did you, do you generally, rely on experience or research for specificity in detail? 

I’m glad it was satisfying! Setting is my absolutely favorite part of forming story, and in this case, as in all of my writing, I directly relied on personal experience for detail, drawing on the annual Clearwater County Fair I frequented as a child, and also the Latah County Fair that comes through my town now. I tried to pay special attention to the rich sensory world that a fair delivers—a wonderfully challenging thing to try to capture in such a short space, those smells and sounds and tastes and sights, the feel of the specific experience and the people who make it.

As a lover of county fairs, I have to admit this setting made me somewhat homesick for a place that probably wouldn’t really feel like the place it was anymore. How much affection do you have for your places and characters–tons, some, none? How does the that differential affect your process?

I always have very strong feelings of affection for the places in my writing—even if they are places in real life that I don’t actually love (I have to admit that at this point in my life I’m not sure if I love the fair in person anymore, but I do love my memories of it from childhood)! Place for me is the beating heart and emotion of everything I write. I can’t even conceptualize a story without knowing, intimately, its place of being. I have to work a lot harder to understand my characters than I do the story’s setting, so I often have more complex relationships with my characters than just one of affection, although the same could also be said of many settings that populate my stories—places that are sometimes the very demonstration of everything in society over which I despair.

Late capitalism is strong in this depiction of service commerce. Who is in control, the salesperson or her customers? Culture or production?

As in all things related to capitalism, I think both the salesperson and the customers inform the movement of commerce, one feeding off the energy of the other, but in this case I would like to believe in the power of this particular salesperson, seizing opportunity and empowerment for herself as she makes her audience, her “consumers,” believe in their absolute need and desire for what she has uniquely offered them, much like the real-life Stormy Daniels, who has so fearlessly played such an outsized political and cultural role in our current socio-political environment and who inspired another view of that same kind of persona in this story—a woman ready to take the world wholly as it is and make it her own in whatever ways she has available to her, offering her own very specific kind of “consumption” and with it wielding supreme control over her customers.

If we are all the characters in our dreams, and let’s just say we accept that for a sec, are we all the characters, places, and circumstances in our stories?

This is such an intriguing question! I think the short answer is yes. I see aspects of my deepest self in all the characters, places, and circumstances of my stories. And in fact, when I personally know the author of a novel or collection of short stories, I often feel an almost uncomfortably intimate sense of recognition of that author’s particular psychological nature on the page. But that’s the beauty and one of the things I love most about fiction—how it grants a window into the human soul and psyche sometimes more clearly and completely than even personal nonfiction writing does. However, I try not to think too much about what I’m really revealing about myself as I write or I wouldn’t ever be able to write again—baring myself to the world like that when I often don’t even recognize what I’m divulging at the moment! Because that’s the trick of it, isn’t it? Delving into the subconscious and all it has to offer, capturing some truth for yourself, making some kind of sense out of life’s movements, exploring as deeply as you can all that it means to be human.

About the Author:

Annie Lampman’s works of short fiction, narrative essays, and poetry have recently been published or are forthcoming in journals and anthologies such as The Normal School, Orion Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, and Women Writing the West, among numerous others. Her work has been awarded the 2020 Literature Fellowship special mention by the Idaho Commission on the Arts, the 2019 Dogwood Literary Award in Fiction, a Best American Essays “Notable,” a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, first place in the Everybody Writes poetry contest, an Idaho Arts writing grant, and a national wilderness artist’s residency through the Bureau of Land Management. She lives with her family in Moscow, Idaho where she received her MFA in fiction from the University of Idaho. She is a professor of honors creative writing at the Washington State University Honors College.

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:

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.