Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with MFC Feeley
by Anne Rasmussen Read the Story March 25, 2019
The narrator of “Helicopter Parent” runs straight from her own terrible loss to a moment of complete transgression at the center of the story (which itself shocks but feels inevitable in retrospect). How readily I followed her there stuck with me long after I finished reading. Was there a particular image or moment that served as a jumping-off point when you began writing?
One of my kids had a serious illness, so I spent time in the children’s hospital and saw a lot of trauma. The incident with the lost child in Barnes & Noble really happened. One morning, in my twenties, I came upon a baby in a stroller alone on an empty sidewalk. I guarded her for several minutes until her mother returned and then yelled at me like I was a kidnapper. I had these in the back of mind, but I started with the moment you cut: reaching for your baby and finding her cold.
As a backdrop to the narrator’s grief you describe specific landmarks in New York City as well as the bland corporate comforts of a children’s section in a Barnes & Noble, a sort of neutral territory in the middle of the metropolis. Can you talk about the role of place in this story?
It’s startling how when your personal world falls apart, the general world holds. The more unsettling a story, the more I want to ground it in a real place. The path she walks is one I trod for years. The Barnes & Noble is real but while its predictability comforts, it’s also disconcerting, like a perfect Barnes & Noble would be a portal transporting you to all Barnes & Nobles. Instead of the Astral Plane, you’re on the Barnes & Noble plane, where everything that ever happened in every Barnes & Noble happens concurrently and when you exit you might walk out anywhere Barnes & Noble has a storefront. When she gets out, reality floods back; she knows she doesn’t have much time and has to work to keep her thoughts out.
She sidelines her thoughts about Hannah so completely that her grief slips out sideways and manifests in all these mundane details. We aren’t aware there’s a baby in the stroller until the sudden pronoun shift. Addressing the strange baby as “you” locks the story into such an intimate space that I felt like a voyeur. Did you anticipate that shift in POV or did that emerge in the editing process?
That shift happened in the very first draft. I wanted to erase the distance of past tense and third person and plunge the reader into the moment.
Who are the writers (flash or otherwise) you’d most like to see your writing share a syllabus/reading/shelf with, and why?
Everyone! But topping my list:
James Madison, because I just finished a series inspired by the Bill of Rights.
Meg Pillow Davis. We were fellows together at The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and it’s been exciting to watch her take off. We share some themes and she always surprises me. Plus, she writes a great beach, puts you in the car—she’s great with setting.
Colson Whitehead, for exuberance. I read The Underground Railroad in one sitting. He’s in touch with ideas he had as kid (me, too!), inhabits every character, and, like Camus and Ibsen, writes about the explosions that happen under societal pressures. When I met him (for about three seconds) at a reading, he was remarkably kind.
Truman Capote, for writing stories that you have to share. I spent a week relating Music for Chameleons to the early birds at DBA while I stocked the bar. “Handcarved Coffins” may be my favorite work of nonfiction.
And for ballsy, brilliant brevity, slide me next to a collection of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s Tweets.
I’m intrigued by the idea of a Bill of Rights series of stories being written today. How did that project come about? In what ways did the concept change and develop as you completed the series?
Four years ago, I ran for school board. It was a divisive election in a small town and the social backlash was significant. Repeatedly, people whispered that I had their support. I thought, “It’s a good thing voting booths are private or few would challenge the status quo” and began wondering what else our founders got right. (I still lost.)
The 2016 election intensified my interest; I pitched the series to Brett Pribble at Ghost Parachute; the tenth story published on March 1.
The central questions were always, “Why is this right vital? What would happen if we lost it?” I read the Federalist Papers, the Magna Carta, court cases, veterans’ websites, etc. Overall, we’ve been asleep at the wheel; all ten rights are threatened and we’ve arguably lost those guaranteed in the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Amendments.
Monthly deadlines taught me about rhythm. I love research and need a stop date. My first drafts wander, many were thirty pages. One week before deadline, I’d hate it, then I’d reach either epiphany or acceptance and be happy again. I still don’t like the “hate it” part, but now I recognize it as part of the journey.
About the Author:
MFC Feeley lives in Tuxedo, NY and attended UC Berkeley and NYU. She has published in Northern New England Review, Brevity Blog, The Tishman Review, Ghost Parachute, Liar’s League, and others. She was a fellow at the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and received a scholarship to the Wesleyan Writers Conference. Winner of the 2018 Raven Prize for Creative Non-Fiction, she has been nominated for The Best Small Fictions and was an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Quarterfinalist. She has judged for Mash Stories and Scholastic and is currently writing a series of short stories inspired by the Bill of Rights. More at MFC Feeley/Facebook and on Twitter MFC Feeley @FeeleyMfc
About the Interviewer:
Anne Rasmussen lives in Portland, Oregon. She has taught writing in jail, advised graduate students, and constructed giant bear costumes worn by Rockettes. Her writing appears in or is forthcoming from Split Lip Magazine, Jellyfish Review, Sundog Lit, Cosmonauts Avenue, and The Southeast Review. She edited Late Night Library's Late Night Interview column from 2014-2017 and her interview with author Jim Grimsley is included in the paperback edition of How I Shed My Skin (Algonquin Books, 2016). She sympathizes with unreliable narrators.
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.