Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Jen Julian

by Tyler Barton Read the Story June 17, 2019

How did you make me (a writer/reader who complains often about Magical Realism) love this story? 

Magic. :)

Even though it’s magical realism, this story keeps it real. How did you decide to write an ending so morally complicated and grim and, honestly, uncomfortable. 

Part of the joy and challenge of this piece was allowing its strange conceit to direct me into unexpected places. I kept asking myself how I could turn the story a new way by evoking an interesting image or surprising bit of language or a character contradiction. In that way, I tried to stay clear of anything that served to simplify things or flatten the magical nature of the conceit into some kind of abstract metaphor (even if a reader can see something metaphorical or familiar about the story). I tried to stay open to all possible directions the story could go. Then, at a certain point, I realized that what I found most interesting about the conceit was this kind of bland, matter-of-fact cruelty these people seemed to have toward the suffering of others, and their lack of interest in really understanding that suffering. Once I had that pinned, the narrator’s voice made sense to me, and the razor wire net compromise and all it implies seemed to fall into place.

This story treats everything, even the goriest details (blackberry cobbler) with an even, detached tone. Was this a purposeful move, to not have the narrator get too emotional?

I was definitely trying to convey a certain kind of person with the narrator, and that tone seemed to fit their perspective and values—they’re very practical, very uncurious. And I think that generates an extra dimension to a story, establishing tension between the horror of what’s happening and the coolness with which its being represented. In a weird way, that accentuates the horror, because it gives the sense of something fundamentally wrong, not just with the specific situation, but with the people in the story, their understanding of the world. It’s uncanny to have a sense of normalcy established around abnormal or disturbing events. A lot of my favorite authors do this so effectively. They make the contradiction work for them, and that’s a skill I’ve been trying to develop.

If this story were a pie chart, about 23 percent of the chart would be “The Versailles Joke,” and I love that. Was there ever a point in editing this story where you considered cutting the joke or replacing it with something less light/silly in order to, as a workshop might say, “create a consistency tone throughout the piece”? 

Haha. I admit I did enjoy including that joke. I don’t know if I put that much thought toward consistency, but this might again be me trying to hit that tonal tension. I also saw the joke as establishing a kind of context. I grew up in a small town in North Carolina, which had a very slow, casual, but very proud way of going about its business. And then I also lived in Missouri for five years, where I was in a moderate-sized city surrounded by these rural farming communities with names that evoked exotic locations very unlike Missouri—Mexico, Cairo (pronounce KAY-ro), and yes, there is a Ver-SAILS, MO. And then all that fit with the title, and the conceit of these people falling out of the sky, and the small-town sensibilities of the community. So there’s a lot of time dedicated to that silly exchange, sure, but I also see it pulling a lot of narrative and thematic weight. I didn’t consider cutting it.

Who’s your current Flash Fiction Hero(ine)? You get one.

Lydia Davis. I just really love her precision and her sense of humor.

Does your full length collection use magical realism in the way “Flyover” does? 

It does, but with different levels of strangeness throughout. There are a couple stories that could pass for something close to realism, and some that are quite bizarre, and some that veer into sf, near future stuff. I’ve found that the physical possibilities of non-realism let me access some interesting things I wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. It lets these core concerns and anxieties and longings come to the surface of a story indirectly. In this collection, there’s a lot about the breakdown of communication, losing people or losing a connection with them or failing to really understand what a connection means. And as a result, there are ghosts, characters literally disintegrating, robots and AI, apocalyptic threats. But even so, those are the elements that feel most normal. The surreality of something like grief or isolation or cruelty, or, on the flip side, the sublimity of a person’s love or resilience—that’s constant no matter what kind of world a story takes place in. That’s what I think non-realism illustrates so well.

What’s your favorite line in the story? Mine is: “We are proud of being kind.” 

I’m a little absurdly proud of “her body blood-purple like a smashed blackberry cobbler.” I fiddle with my prose a lot, especially certain images or similes, and this one just dropped into my brain out of nowhere and seemed ready to do the work. It was a lucky moment.

About the Author:

Jen Julian's fiction and essays have been published or are upcoming in JuxtaProse, TriQuarterly, Beecher’s Magazine, Greensboro Review, and Chattahoochee Review, among other places. Her first short story collection, Earthly Delights and Other Apocalypses, was awarded Press 53’s Short Fiction Prize and was released in 2018. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Missouri, Columbia, and an MFA in Fiction from UNC Greensboro. Currently, she teaches fiction and literature at Allegheny College, though she considers North Carolina her home.

About the Interviewer:

Tyler Barton is the co-founder of Fear No Lit, the organization responsible for the Submerging Writer Fellowship. His chapbook of flash fiction, The Quiet Part Loud, won the Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest and was published this January by Split Lip Press. His stories are forthcoming in The Iowa Review, Paper Darts, CRAFT, and elsewhere. Find him at @goftyer or tsbarton.com.

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.