Smoke & Mirrors with Shawn Mangerino

by Janika Oza Read the Story December 16, 2019

I was fascinated by the recurrence of ghosts, haunting, and memory in this piece. Can you talk about what these themes are doing in the story and what you want your readers to take away?

It just came out that way. This piece was an opportunity to explore my own past and the town I grew up in. The idea of ghosts for me is what’s left over on the other side of change. This story is about the memory of who we once were and what we’ve lost along the way. It’s a nod to how the past haunts us.

As far as my readers … I hope that there’s a sense of intimacy that comes across. This one feels so much more personal to me than my other stories. But beyond that, I invite them to take what they will from it.

The title of this story has an instructive quality (“how to leave them”) and your story is written in eight parts. Can you talk about your decision to structure the piece this way and how you conceived of the title?

Structurally speaking, I wanted a clear pause between sections. I think to read this piece as a connected string of paragraphs would water down the experience. Breaking into sections was a way to let the white space help pace the story. I wanted each bite tasted and swallowed on its own terms before the reader moves on to the next. Each paragraph deserved the respect of a numbered section. They warranted the formality.

The title came after the piece was polished up. The instructive element played well with the structure, and is a reflection of the speaker’s plight to understand the nature of change and loss. The piece ends with the speaker recalling driving through the desert before some of the key events. He hasn’t left his desert town behind. His memory is drawn to a moment in which things are likely how he would have wanted things to stay. When he acknowledges being able to see ghosts, it’s a sort of acceptance. He’s moving on but with his ghosts in tow.

How does “On Desert Towns and How to Leave Them” speak to your own personal and writerly questions? How is it building on or breaking from your previous work?

All of my short fiction is set in the same desert town, for better or worse. But this piece breaks from my usual writing. My stories tend to be very tangible, minimal, and understated. That and I don’t typically write flash fiction. With this piece, I got out of the way. With the brevity of the form, it worked nicely to be a little more indulgent. I could write about ghosts and smelling the stink of prayers and it didn’t feel like too much. I could invite the reader into the place itself. Really invite them in. It all felt so much more personal, once it was all done.

You’ve also written a post-apocalyptic children’s series—tell us more about this!

I’ve got three young children and I love the post-apocalyptic genre. At some point, I became fascinated with the idea of parenting in that reality. How would you teach your kids? How would you explain depravity, the threat of violence, the importance of staying hidden? The “My Name Is Fall” series was a chance to tell a story completely appropriate for children, but that would simultaneously have some of the more mature themes lurking in the background.

At about the same time that I started writing the books, I had become fascinated by crowdfunding. I used to follow board games on Kickstarter. I loved the community and I saw an opportunity to self-publish.

We’re two books in with the third scheduled for next year (and I’ve loved every moment of the process).

What are the books or stories that inspire you, that you find yourself coming back to over and over?

Anything written by Cormac McCarthy. His books have stayed with me more than any others I’ve read in the past ten years. I don’t care for his lack of quotation marks, but that aside, I think his books are wonderful and terrifying examinations of human nature and a master class on antagonists.

About the Author:

Shawn Mangerino is a writer from Southern California. His work has appeared in Fiction International, Mason's Road, The Oklahoma Review, and other literary magazines. He received his MFA from San Diego State University.

About the Interviewer:

Janika Oza is a writer based in Toronto. She was the winner of the 2019 Malahat Review Open Season Award in Fiction for her short story, "Exile”, and was longlisted for the 2019 CBC Short Story Prize. She has received fellowships from VONA, Tin House, and One Story. Her writing is published or forthcoming in Guernica, The Best Small Fictions 2019 Anthology, The Columbia Review, Into The Void, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. She is currently at work on a novel. Find her at www.janikaoza.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.