Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Charlotte McCall Pattison

by Anastasia Berkovich Read the Story December 18, 2017

How did you balance the knowledge of something terrible with the voice of an 11-year-old? The narrator knows true fear and still maintains some childlike characteristics.

I think when you’re a kid, you experience a special kind of atmospheric fear, a knowing fear that can’t always be explained to adults, who are often more practiced at organizing and rationalizing anxiety. The character knows she is not being rational, but she can’t help noticing these little unsettling details, and she’s trying to get a grip—to gather evidence that will both contain the fear and allow her to feel a sense of control over her destiny. Learning to compartmentalize anxiety is an adult skill, and something the therapist tells her to practice when he explains about the gray box. But kids still believe in a kind of magic logic—if you name the fear, if you tell someone about it, you might give it more weight and reality, and then it might have more power over you. I think of this narrator as negotiating the balance between a child’s fear and an adult’s coping mechanisms.

What made you choose this point of view?

When I was writing this, I played around with a couple of approaches, but I ending up thinking about the story as a kind of restless internal monologue. I was drawn to the rituals of repetition because that’s how managing fear feels to me: bad thoughts repeating until they take on their own persuasive rhythm. The narrator is constantly trying to box up her fear with logic, and it keeps getting loose. The “even if” refrain in the story is a touchpoint of attempted rationality, and a nervous tic. She has to put away all of this information in order to keep moving forward, but the accumulated fear becomes insurmountable.

What, if any, research went into this piece? How much is memory, and how much is knowledge?

This story is kind of an autobiographical riff. I lived in Brussels as a child, and I had piano lessons on the other side of town. This necessitated a long journey by tram that used to make me feel very exposed. I have a vivid recollection of the time between childhood and the teenage years, when you become aware of yourself in public as vulnerable and as a girl child who is being increasingly perceived as a woman. I was also living in Belgium during the highly publicized trial of a terrifying child murderer, Marc Dutroux. This case had been a huge source of controversy in the country because he wasn’t caught for a long time, despite being a key suspect in the kidnapping of several young girls. Although he was eventually arrested in 1996, many Belgians believed that his crimes were enabled by an incompetent police investigation, and there was a mass protest in Brussels called “The White March,” where thousands of citizens gathered in the streets to demand reform in the police force and criminal justice system. It was in this atmosphere of fear and within this residual aura of police incompetence that I first began to travel by myself on public transport. There was also a lot of atmospheric fear that I associated with being an expat, especially after 9/11. Some of these fears were logical. I worried that in an emergency I wouldn’t be able to call for help and be understood, or I worried that I wasn’t reading threats correctly because I was so out of my element and culture—but some fears were way out of proportion to any actual danger. When you’re a kid, it’s sometimes impossible to tell the difference between a realistic fear and something imagined.

We are conditioned to brush off strange and even dangerous encounters, to turn away when the man continues to walk past us, even when we know danger is near. The narrator of this story knows this well. Did you know how you would convey that at the start of the story? How we must think in a struggle to knock the hat off the man, in order to reveal his face?

I don’t really know where I’ll end up when I start writing a story, but as this started to take shape I was thinking of the ending as a kind of final isolation. The narrator has to face the fear herself and no one else can help her. In the final moment, her therapist cannot help her, her mother cannot help her, and she believes that in the event of a kidnapping the police might be useless as well, so with this determination to knock the man’s hat off, she kind of accepts the narrative of victimhood and tries to prepare herself. As a woman I still know these fears; a creepy guy catcalls you or follows you down the street, and you tell yourself to act normal and keep walking like the danger isn’t there, but you still get your keys out of your pocket and hold them between your fingers like a weapon.

I love the line “He does not consider his own neck snappable.” It says so much in fairly few words. Do you tend towards those sentences, saying more with less? Or was that a necessity with the form?

Thank you! I probably do gravitate towards a more restrained style. I don’t write short fiction very often, but when I do I think it puts a useful pressure on my sentences to be sharper and more focused. I wanted to use the constraints of the short form to emphasize the claustrophobia of the character’s fear, and in turn the narrowness of the scope helped me to establish a rhythm that replicates the experience of negotiating fear, building the box we try to put our fears inside.

About the Author:

Charlotte McCall Pattison grew up overseas as the daughter of US diplomats. She is currently a student in the MFA program at Cornell University where she's working on a novel and getting really into reading her horoscope. This is her first publication.

About the Interviewer:

Anastasia Berkovich is a graduate student studying fiction at Missouri State University, where she also serves as a graduate teaching assistant and assistant editor for Moon City Review.