Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Kate Finegan

by Joel Coltharp Read the Story March 25, 2019

Let’s begin with your story’s narrative voice, which has a “breathless” quality due to the combination of present tense and a streamlined prose that prioritizes imagery over conventional grammar. How do you see this reflecting the narrator’s experiences within the story?

That breathless voice was something that developed during editing. The first draft began with: “On the way up, we stay in one of those motels with a charcoal grill outside every door and single-speed bikes chained to posts.” Then, it became: “You take stock of the invasives on your family farm, this farm that is now half-mine.” Finally, I arrived at the current first line, which quickly throws us into a fast-moving, almost-relentless relationship. I think the narrator is looking back at her recent life and thinking, “How did I get myself into this?” By empathizing with the narrator, I found her voice.

On a related note, you also give the dialogue an unconventional structure—italicized and not put inside quotation marks—as though calling into doubt the absolute veracity of the words being spoken. What does this imply about the nature of communication within the characters’ relationship?

Oh, I didn’t think of the issue of veracity! That’s interesting. The narrator’s thoughts, like the yes in the first couple of lines, are also in italics, and I wanted to foreground her thoughts throughout. I wanted to show this marriage filtered through her experience—like a “memory play,” almost, to steal Tennessee Williams’ term—so I didn’t want to put others’ dialogue on a different level, through the use of quotation marks, from her thoughts. This is another change that came about in the final developmental edit. I had been committed to a single-paragraph story without any dialogue because I wanted to stay firmly within the narrator’s head, but, finally, I decided to try adding paragraph breaks and dialogue. I used italics as a way of staying in the narrator’s head. In this marriage, the narrator’s survival mechanism is to retreat into her own mind and not share her thoughts; I think the italics blend her thoughts with the ideas of others in a way that shows just how much she is living inside her head. It shows how isolated she has become.

Your story seems to pit old-fashioned sensibilities and practices—for example, throwing rice at a wedding, tying tin cans to the back of the newlyweds’ car—against modern advancements, including online dating. Is there a connection between this contrast and the divisive issue of immigration referenced midway through the story?

Even for couples who meet online, fathers often “give away” their daughters at the wedding, so I’m not sure how old fashioned these wedding practices really are; I think weddings continue to be fairly conservative and generally kind of cringe-worthy in their paternalism. And even the online dating, for this couple, is full of old-fashioned sensibilities, like discussing children on the first date. I guess what I’m saying is I’m not sure how much these old-fashioned sensibilities have really been left by the wayside, and xenophobia has, similarly, always been stitched into the fabric of the United States. I imagine couples have had the same fights—or silent, unspoken conflicts—for years and years and years in this country.

Nature also serves as a contentious issue within your story: The husband regards it as a nuisance, and various forms of undesirable fauna are referenced throughout, yet the narrator objects to pesticides and encourages the spread of weeds. Can you say a little about the symbolic intent of this imagery?

I’m just always interested in nature, especially human efforts to control it. My first published story was all about a mother and daughter trying to get rid of a buckthorn patch, and since then, I’ve noticed that many of my stories center around the characters dealing with something—natural or otherwise—that’s unwanted or out of place. I think that in relationships, we are often reluctant to look the major ideological conflicts in the face—they’re too big, too overwhelming. So we focus on little things, like different approaches to maintaining the yard, and those little things stand in for the big things. There is also the fact that dandelions were not considered a weed until the twentieth century and were actually desirable and widely cultivated before that. I think this reflects how arbitrary national attitudes and fears can be. If you look at what Benjamin Franklin was saying about the Germans, it looks eerily similar to what racist politicians are saying today about different immigrant communities.

Finally, regarding your writing in general, what is your personal approach to writing flash fiction versus longer works?

Drafting for both of them happens in roughly the same way—quickly, although with longer works, particularly novels, I write a fairly detailed outline at some point. I don’t do that with flash. Where the processes really differ is in the editing, which is honestly where I think the writing really happens. When I write flash, I almost always do subsequent drafts from scratch. In other words, I’ll write the first draft, think about it for a few minutes or a day, then turn the page and write the whole thing again, without looking at the first draft. I find this useful because the first draft has clarified my vision, but the language often doesn’t quite carry that vision. Leaving that draft behind helps me to move forward with completely fresh language and a clearer understanding of the story. I often do this two or three more times, and because the pieces are short, this isn’t a huge time investment. Of course, with a novel, that would take forever, though I have done this for individual chapters that are giving me trouble.

About the Author:

Kate Finegan recently published the chapbook The Size of Texas with Penrose Press. Her work has won contests with Thresholds, Phoebe Journal, Midwestern Gothic, and The Fiddlehead, and been runner-up for The Puritan's Thomas Morton Memorial Prize, shortlisted for the Cambridge Short Story Prize and Synaesthesia Flash Fiction Prize, and longlisted by Room. She is Assistant Fiction Editor at Longleaf Review. You can find her at twitter.com/@kehfinegan.

About the Interviewer:

Joel Coltharp lives in Springfield, Missouri, where he is an instructor of fiction. He is also fiction editor for Moon City Review.

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.