Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Johanna Robinson

by Elisabeth Ingram Wallace Read the Story September 16, 2019

There is an eerie sense of hyper vigilance in this story; the sense of a ghostly haunted woman, searching outside of her body for her identity in her son. Sometimes I feel her as a controlling presence, or a narcissistic one, always “looking for words that might mean me.” Do you see this as ghost story? Or something else?

There is definitely a sense of the mother having lost her identity in the overwhelm of motherhood. There’s the paralysis that she feels at the duty of being a mother and being needed combined with her desire and inability to make things right for her son. The story began with an image of a boy with a crayon, as I walked across the landing into my daughter’s room. There’s a sense of power in a child holding that crayon (and anxiety, too, and expectation). This is the point at which the child realizes he can make a mark, create something permanent outside his own body—while for the mother her son is her new permanence. I don’t actually see her as narcissistic, more that she’s aware of her loss of self now that she has someone else to care for, but that this duty is now forever entwined. There’s no going back. But I love that your interpretation was a little different, that you saw her from another angle; the story, like a visual piece of art, can elicit different interpretations. The phrase you chose, “might mean me,” is potentially where the conflict lies, between wanting and not wanting to feel needed, wanting to find herself in her son, yet not wanting to see herself reflected.

The world of this story is marks and scars, in how hard it is to read the world. It’s a bold, brilliant choice to write a story about how inept language is as a form for expressing pain (or anything)! What prompted this subject matter, what interested you about it? Any influences?

I think families are one of the most difficult places for language to live up to its full potential. There’s so much shorthand in families, isn’t there? In the sense that related people living together learn to judge each other’s expression, tone, body language—there’s a general awareness of the other people who share the space. I think this can allow those gaps to grow between people, that language could bridge, but often doesn’t because, well, talking takes effort and can be a bit embarrassing. And talking can lead to misunderstanding too. I think in this story, the mother and son both feel their insecurities and anxieties intensely, but for much of their relationship, this draws them apart. The bigger the gap, the harder it can be to fix with words—people can often either retreat into silence or explode into arguments. And sometimes the way forward is through indirect things—shared passions or hobbies, music or sport, things without words. I didn’t write the story with this consciously in mind, though—I just started it with the crayon and a toddler and unravelled it from there.

The structure is honed. You use white space to jump and stitch through twenty years in under a thousand words. Can you tell me why you chose to tell this story this way? Do you play with structure a lot in your writing?

I love playing with structure, although I don’t do it consciously—the story seems to dictate when and if it needs it. In my novella, Homing, there are maybe eight flash chapters that have a structure based on sections, or that play with structure. Few of them were planned like that—it just seemed there was no other way to write them once I got going. That’s what a flash novel or novella often does, I think; it uses the white space between chapters for some effect. In Homing, it was to deal with thirty-seven years in less than eighteen thousand words. Also—and this applies to “Marks,” too —with an intense subject matter, the reader needs breathing space. A physical gap can provide relief, help the reader not get overwhelmed. I note you did something similar in your SmokeLong story ‘Liquid History’. Anthony Doerr talks about this in his long novel with short chapters, All the Light We Cannot See, which I love. He has said that the lyrical text and the intense subject matter require white space around and between the short chapters. He calls it “bursts of recovery time.”

In the “Paint” section, the narrator tries to read the boy’s paintings like a Rorschach test—and she sees bones and butterfly wings in him. In the final section, “Ink” you write about tattooing, how Sam “worked out a way to capture pain”—I thought it interesting that the tattoo the pair choose is a butterfly. What is the significance of the butterfly?

Now, this really interested me, because when I wrote the story, it was the mother’s footprints I was thinking about, her black marks that she is treading onto the paper. Reading it back myself, it fits either interpretation, which is marvellous. In terms of the butterfly, I had recently read an article about how geneticists had programmed butterfly genes to alter the pattern in their wings, with one wing identical to the other. I liked the idea of twisting the butterfly thread with family, and genes, through the story. I didn’t want to info-dump though in such a short piece, so left out anything overt.

Do you have any tattoos? If you had to get a hip literary quotation tatted on you tomorrow, what would it say, where would it go, and why?

Nope! I’ve never felt the urge to have one. But clearly neither had my narrator …. Literary quotation? Ha! Probably something from Adrian Mole or Bill Bryson. Something to make me smile. “Guilt is a destructive emotion” (AM), perhaps. Or “It’s quite wonderful, really” (BB).

About the Author:

Johanna Robinson is a proofreader and short-fiction writer from the northwest of England. She has been writing since 2016 and her work has since appeared in a number of magazines including Ellipsis, Reflex Press, and Mslexia. Her novella-in-flash, Homing, was runner-up in the Bath Flash Fiction competition, and was published in June 2019 by Ad Hoc Fiction.

About the Interviewer:

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 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.