Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Martha Witt

by Amanda Hadlock Read the Story September 16, 2019

I appreciate how “My Father’s Soul” explores the human need to create stories to explain the past. Erica and her mother both feel this need to create a story for their past, though perhaps for very different reasons. Why did you decide to narrate from Erica’s point of view?

The more chaotic and unfathomable the experience, the more we need story to provide us a way to organize and understand that experience. In this particular case, Erica knows—and refuses to know—that her mother, though she’s been exculpated, is guilty of her father’s murder. Now living in a foreign country, Erica is completely dependent on her mother and must bear the weight of the horrible knowledge. She may herself, of course, be in danger. The thought that she might tend a snail embodying her father’s soul becomes a tale of comfort and hope in an otherwise terrifying atmosphere. I chose the point of view because that was the only way to create the tension between what Erica knows and what she cannot allow herself to fully grasp.

I love how Erica’s mother is described as “… attuned to any trace of unarticulated thought.” It’s a real feat of craft how much of the mother and daughter’s conversation in this story takes place in what is left unsaid. Do you think their tendency to communicate indirectly in this way makes their relationship stronger, like a quiet understanding between them? Or could leaving things unspoken be putting a strain on them?

My hope is that the horrific aspects of this story live in what is left unsaid between the two. Though their relationship hinges on the fact that Erica must never articulate the truth, her mother makes Erica understand by the end of this story that she is not allowed to mourn or honor her father in any way. He and the circumstances of his death must remain forever buried. More frightening than that, Erica’s mother is truly expert at interpreting all gesture and subtext, so Erica cannot even retreat into her own thoughts. I do think that the relationship is “strong” in the sense that Erica and her mother share a deep secret that will continue to inform and orient their lives, but that may also result in more tragedy down the road.

Your website mentions you held residency at the Casa delle Traduzioni in Rome. Did this experience inform the setting of “My Father’s Soul?” How does your environment affect your writing?

For the past several years, my mother and I have worked as co-translators of Italian plays and novels. In the summer of 2018, we were granted a residency at the Casa delle Traduzioni, which is situated near some of the most beautiful sites in Rome. While my mother is, thankfully, nothing like the mother in this story, our stay in Rome working in our “mother tongue” inspired me to set several stories in Italy and Brazil, two countries in which I have spent a good deal of time. Living in a non-English-speaking country while working on translation into English allows the translator to indulge in language without interruption. In other words, when I relegate English to a literary space and am not using it to order my coffee or chat with a neighbor, the mot juste becomes more accessible. When another person, specifically my mother, shares this linguistic space, a new kind of intimacy is created around language that cannot help but spill out into story.

I also love how the snail functions as an objective correlative for life and death and moving on from the unexpected in this story. Why did you land on the image of a snail?

The snail sort of landed into this story on its own, so your question gives me a lot more credit than I deserve here, but once it appeared in the story, the snail struck me as a being both tough and fragile, which I believe captures the story’s essence. I did imagine Erica’s father as a rather passive person, lacking in passion and engagement, a stark contrast to her mother’s character.

Any last advice on letting go of grief?

I have no advice on letting go of grief and no advice on how to live with a murderer, especially if that murderer is your own mother. I guess I’ll circle back to my response to the first question and again point to the instrumentality of stories for seeing us through all tragic and unfathomable situations.

About the Author:

Martha Witt’s debut novel, Broken as Things Are, was published by Holt in 2004 and issued in paperback by Picador in 2005. Her flash fiction and short fiction have appeared in journals such as Boulevard, One Story, The Chattahoochee Review, The Literary Review, Harpur Palate, Spork, and elsewhere. Other published works include translations of Luigi Pirandello’s plays: Six Characters in Search of an Author and The License (Italica Press, 2014), as well as Henry IV (Italica Press, 2016). Her translation of Grazia Deledda’s L’Edera was published by Italica Press in February of 2019.

About the Interviewer:

Amanda Hadlock is a graduate assistant at Missouri State University. She has a self-erasure essay forthcoming in The Florida Review. Her work has also appeared in Hobart, Wigleaf, New Limestone Review, Moon City Review, and other venues.

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.