Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Elisabeth Ingram Wallace

by Zach Powers Read the Story September 16, 2019

So, personified shipwrecks …. Do you always write weird stuff, or is this story an outlier? Any influences for this one?

Yes, I always write weird. Weirdo forever!

Weirdness is just honesty though—you might say, “Whoa there crazypants, a talking ship! WTF?”—but if Ruby is the most honest, autobiographical way I can explain life, that is the only way to go. It’s counterintuitive to say something so unreal is the realest thing, but life is a bit delirious, might as well write that way, too.

All good writing is experimental by definition. If it’s not experimental, it’s just a museum piece. I think about that a lot, what George Saunders says, that a story is a really weird art object that should contain life but not be enslaved by the banality.

My gut instinct is always to throw humor at a problem, which is a weakness as much as a strength. Because sometimes you shouldn’t diffuse a situation. Sometimes it’s better to light the fuse, and humor can do that—but it can also distract from or dilute truth. I am overused to diffusing maybe—but honest is better. Honesty alongside kindness. That is the goal, anyway. Especially when writing about assault. It must be done with honesty but also—moreso—kindness.

How to most respectfully write about the immediate aftermath of sexual assault? About processing of intolerable pain?

The influences to this story are not literary, but from life. Real people. The horror and frequency of sexual assault, the norm of it going unreported, and when it is, it is primarily dismissed, or the people reporting it are hounded. There is wreckage everywhere around us, decades and oceans of it, but then there is also the bravery of survivors, in their voices or equally in their silences. Just keeping on keeping on is brave.

To write pain, my instinct was to cut back—and cut back again—on anything graphic, because that is most respectful to the reader, it regards the intelligence of the reader and the goodness of many people, and the intimacy of this situation—we are in this together, on this same page—I don’t want to sully that.

Flash is an impossibly difficult form, so maybe a good form to talk about impossible things. I say maybe, because that’s the weird experimental side—I don’t know if this works, but it is what it is.

Maybe I do always write weird stuff. This year I’ve written “Corvidae”—which starts with hyper intelligent birds baiting squirrels to get hit by cars. And “Granny Smith, Queene”—where a pensioner takes mushrooms and runs around with a chainsaw. In my newest story a woman thinks she is a wolf, kills an elk and hangs it in the modern literature section of a library.

In the spirit of full honesty, “Liquid History; is an outlier though, because I threw this story away.

I put it in my trash folder. I wrote “This is bollocks” as the file name.

It was too heavy, too dark, too flamboyant, too mad and verging on the sing-songy for me—I just thought, shit, have I written some kind of musical theatre flash fiction about sexual assault? Is this just plain offensive? Does this overexpose me as a writer? As a human? Yes, probably.

But the night I wrote it and chucked it. A friend of mine had read it, a brilliant writer and person who I trust more than myself. If she hadn’t read it, and said it’s not total bollocks, I would never have sent it out, because I had trashed it.

It’s scary to talk about the scary things.

One of the reasons I love this story is how it starts as a speculative, experimental conceit, simmers with that for a while, and then turns to a very human and especially timely narrative. Why did you tell this story this way? What did your shipwreck’s point of view allow you to do than a more traditional perspective wouldn’t?

The shipwreck’s point of view is a life raft. Ruby is imagination, escapism, hope. Imagination is what saves us from the worst pain, and telling a story is strength, a way to contextualize yourself into something bigger and worth saving, rather than just a pointless fleshbag.

The shipwreck’s point of view allows me tell a story of sexual assault. I didn’t plan to do that. I feel like it would be and grandiose and smug—and hopeless—to do that (today, I write flash about assault, tomorrow, I solve climate change via Haiku!).

To talk about conceits and design might give the impression I had a plan—I didn’t—this story came out of wordplay—I purely wrote down ‘Ruby is a wreck,’ and a shipwreck came out of nowhere, very quickly, then I let the energy of the weirdness of the individual words do the work in revision. The truth is, is that my only intention with editing and re-writing, was to edit and write towards the energy in the writing.

With the cruelty of the later, human section, the gravity of truth, you have got to have early levity—baroque poetic glinty bits, studded with dark humor and hope, sing-songy language and playful dives through months and centuries—a kind of a messed-up bedtime story of Once Upon a Time where in the end there will be justice, and everyone can snooze well, safe in their beds.

If you flicker around with that degree of unreality the readers’ ears will prick up, there’s hint upon hint upon hint that all is not what it seems.

I hope the bad bits of life are more tolerable, if you can mizzenmast them with other worlds, talk about shipwrecks, zebra hogshead and thrones.

Let’s talk words! How did the language of ships, shipbuilding, and seafaring influence your prose style for this piece? Does new terminology affect how you write in general?

I think I naturally either write in a very blunt and sweary, funny way—or in a kind of obtuse baroque pretentious overly poetic way with lots of rhythm and rhyme and wordplay that entertains only me. This is probably the first ever story where I’ve just done both, and not listened to my fears that I sound like an intolerable wanker. Normally I’d kill all the poetic whiffly bits.

Language used as a defamiliarizing and distancing technique is the most fun, because it actually makes you a child again, you don’t understand what you are reading entirely—I can’t necessarily write with seventeenth-century vernacular and have it make sense, but I can futtock, cutlass, kedge, wiggle the syntax up, jangle language and chop it; energize sentences, and you still pretty much “get” the drift of the paragraph. There’s a tide.

And we can do whatever we want with language – important to remember that. It’s easy to forget that we are allowed to have fun writing, or reading. I read a lot of stuff that I feel was torture for the writer to get on the page. That sucks.

So there’s the rhythm of the sea in there, repetition, rhyme, all that mad ostentatious joy.

It’s important to oddify language to the same degree the world is odd—and if something horrific is happening, you might distance yourself from it not just with a story, but with the language you choose to use to describe your pain, a form of evasion that I went all-in on. You have to steer towards the rapids. Accept that esoteric shit and dive towards it, you can’t outswim who you are—find a way to play. Become one with the squid. Find your inner sea turtle.

Finally, if you could be any sentient inanimate object, what would you be? Why?

It’s really tempting to say a taco or a haunted convenience store.

I am going to say a mediaeval Book of Spells, high in the stacks of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Something once scary and now slightly ridiculous, assumed for centuries to be useless by academic scholars and tourists alike, but potentially I could turn you into a toad. With the touch of the right haunted woman, under the right moon.

About the Author:

Elisabeth Ingram Wallace lives in Scotland, and her work has appeared in Atticus Review, Flash Frontier, New Flash Fiction Review, and Best Microfiction 2019. Her short stories have won the Mogford Prize 2019 and Writing the Future 2017. Elisabeth is a Scottish Book Trust ‘New Writers Award’ winner, and recipient of a Dewar Arts Award. She is the Senior Editor for Flash Fiction at TSS Publishing. Find her on Twitter @ingram_wallace

About the Interviewer:

Zach Powers is the author of the novel FIRST COSMIC VELOCITY (Putnam, August 2019) and the story collection GRAVITY CHANGES, won the BOA Short Fiction Prize. His work has been featured by American Short Fiction, Tin House, and elsewhere. He is Director of Communications at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and teaches writing at Northern Virginia Community College.

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.