Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Ashley Kalagian Blunt

by R. Cross Read the Story December 17, 2018

“The Unicorn” is a piece that, through the use of language, content choices, tone, and voice, creates for readers an emotional embodiment or essence of a character that ends up being the narrative; in other words, The Unicorn, as a character within this story, essentially is this story. And I can’t really imagine her being any other way (really, she’s perfect just the way she is). I was wondering what early drafts of this piece were like, whether you at any point felt pressure to pull this character through a more conventional narrative arc, or how you came to decide on leaning into the character study aspect of her in relation to place/setting.

“The Unicorn” was a rare moment of pure inspiration—the story came fully formed, practically dictating itself to me as soon as I touched pen to paper. This is about as common for me as encountering an actual unicorn.

I write mostly nonfiction, and most of my fiction comes from a real-life starting point. The Unicorn is based on a woman I saw one afternoon when I was actually in Lane Cove, a sleepy suburb of Sydney. In a different neighbourhood, the woman I came to think of as The Unicorn might not have stood out the way she did in Lane Cove. When I sat down to write something new a couple weeks later, she came to me immediately, and I was keen to explore who she might be.

How is “The Unicorn” telling of the kind of writing styles or themes that might be common threads in your work, and how might this piece be different from other pieces you’ve completed or are working on?

“The Unicorn” takes the everyday and looks for the sparkle in it. Really, it’s pretty banal—a person asks for change at a bus stop. But that person is a force unto herself, so she makes the story. The playfulness at work here, the way the story endeavours to entertain while also saying, Go ahead, be your own person, is actually new ground for my fiction. My most recent major fiction project was a crime thriller drawn from real events, including a series of international terrorist attacks in the 1970s and ’80s; it wasn’t quite so lighthearted. My nonfiction is likewise divided. I write serious work about genocide, but I also write comedic pieces that, like “The Unicorn,” aim to portray the everyday from a compelling perspective.

Towards the end of the story, there’s a part where The Unicorn “… realizes she’s left her wallet at home, and she has chosen you to give her change for bus fare,” situating her in scene and moving through narrative time in a really rooted sense for the first time. Your choice or instinct to ground her in this specific moment is what links the descriptive characterization in the middle to the early the narrative thread of The Unicorn being “Lane Cove’s natural enemy,” and creates the sense of reaching the climax of a robust narrative arc. Was this always how the story apexed? How did you arrive at this as your way of creating a narrative turn?

The Unicorn stood out, and she stuck in my mind, and when I sat down to write she demanded to be written. The story starts with her almost as she was, slightly improvised. But in real life I only passed her by, which doesn’t make for much of a story. In the writing, I imagined what sort of interaction we might have had in that moment, on that street corner. I felt this character would make that interaction unique to herself—which she does, by offering her eyeliner advice. I also knew she’d be bold enough to envision a Lane Cove in which more people did rock electric blue eyeliner or whatever would add some spice (or Spice Girl) to their lives.

The final line of the piece is a command to “bow and receive [The Unicorn’s] benediction.” I love how the piece leaves absolutely no room for any other ways of receiving The Unicorn. She moves through her life and interactions in a state of complete authenticity. What is it about this character that interested and intrigued you as a writer, and what do you hope her impact ultimately is?

The Unicorn was really owning it. For comparison, on that same afternoon in Lane Cove, I was wearing plain jeans and a gray jacket, like I was trying to camouflage myself against concrete. I couldn’t have walked down the street wearing the same outfit as The Unicorn, even though I really liked her outfit—it had a lot more personality than mine! What struck me most was that she exuded comfort with who she was, even when everyone around her was dressed more or less like me. In a way I wrote the story for myself, to remind myself to just be who I want to be, to not blend into the concrete so much. And by extension, it’s for anyone who needs to hear that message.

About the Author:

Ashley Kalagian Blunt is an award-winning writer. She’s been published by Griffith Review, the Sydney Review of Books, Kill Your Darlings, and more, and her non-fiction work Full of Donkey: Travels in Armenia was shortlisted for the 2017 Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award.

About the Interviewer:

R. Cross is a writer from the Midwest. She’s an MFA candidate in fiction at the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. Her stories have appeared in Day One, Meridian, and Reservoir.