Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Stephanie Reents

by Kim Magowan Read the Story September 16, 2019

I see that you’re a teacher—me, too! I love that the narrator gets pissed off at her students for careless or indifferent reading, for not being moved (in the way that she imagines they should be: appalled, galvanized) by the books she assigns. Have you ever been surprised by how your students respond to books?

I’m sure that this won’t shock anyone, but I’m always and forever mystified by some students’ reaction to literature and their tendency to subject literature to a relatability test. (Students’ highest praise about a book or story: “This was totally ‘relatable.’” Students’ criticism: “I just couldn’t relate to this.”) I think of reading as a deeply empathetic act—by which I mean books ask us to enter into another person’s experience. This doesn’t mean we’ve shared that person’s experience, or that we’re fully on board with a character’s acts or decisions. But rather, that we take an imaginative leap and we immerse ourselves in someone else’s subjectivity. Of course, this is a writer’s job. But it’s a reader’s job, too.

There’s a backdrop of violence throughout this story—the story the narrator’s son is working on, the Cormac McCarthy references, her son’s dreams of fighting bad guys—but the only violence that we see happen is relatively benign: the snapping of the rubber band. Yet I was shocked by it. Tell me about what you were trying to achieve with that dinner table scene.

As the parent of an almost-five-year-old, I’m aware of how easily I can hurt my son—by saying something sharp or holding on too tightly (or snapping him with a rubber band!). Sometimes, I accidentally hurt him. Sometimes, when our desires or needs collide, he feels hurt because he doesn’t get his way, or he’s upset by the intensity of my reaction to something he has done. There are still other moments where my mood overshadows everything, and a behavior that would not normally get under my skin (e.g., meowing instead of speaking) can really bug me. I think I’m describing aspects of being human. None of us are perfect. But with children, and with your own children, the stakes somehow seem higher because you’re a model for them. I am aware of my capacity to be a good parent, which makes me all the more attuned to my failures. I think that’s what I was trying to convey in the dinner table scene. The mother can do better, and she often does do better. But in that moment, she fails.

The story keeps considering ways language inflicts pain—awful things people say (“The magic is gone”), but also the narrator’s four-year-old seems precociously aware of the way language can hurt: “that’s a too-sad name he says looking at me.” It makes me wonder if words are as much the “things that can hurt” as, say, snapped rubber bands. What is your take on your title?

I’m sure most of us remember the schoolyard taunt: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Ha! If only that were only true. Words are deeply hurtful, and I think from a very young age, children are both the objects of hurtful words and the speakers of them. My little boy knows exactly how to wound me. (Mommy, why can’t you do anything right?)

I like how the narrator evades responsibility for errant, mean thoughts: “I pretend to chop something with the side of my hand. I do not imagine my ex-husband’s neck.” There, it’s funny, but later, when she’s struggling with her son over the rubber band, her evasion seems much more disturbing: “the rubber band stretches between the two of us until my end slips out of my fingers (on purpose?), and the rubber band snaps back on him.” Do you see her as a dysfunctional mother? Is she one of the “things that can hurt”?

The mother is definitely one of the “things that can hurt.” 

I’m reminded Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be The Verse”:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad. 

 They may not mean to, but they do. 

They fill you with the faults they had

 And add some extra, just for you.

Hurting others is part of being human—so I don’t see the mother as dysfunctional at all. In fact, I see her as being in a heightened state of awareness about the impact of small actions. One of the most deeply upsetting moments in the story happens when her husband jerks back from her touch. Is he trying to hurt her then? Probably not. He’s so buried in his own emotions that he has almost no awareness of her feelings. Throughout the story, the mother/narrator seems to be considering how much of what she might take for granted under different circumstances (or in a different mood) could be hurting her son. We’re always “things that can hurt,” but we’re often not very aware of this.

 At the end of the story, Arno, aka, Transforming Bat Robot, has decided to abandon his “too sad” book that he is dictating to his mother at the beginning. Has any event taken place in the week of the story’s duration to make him decide he can’t write (dictate) this story? What happened?

Children are so nimble. They try out different ideas. Try on different personas. Change their minds. Switch allegiances. Develop sudden fears. Discover new super hero powers. They’re truly little transforming bat robots. I’m not sure anything changes for Arno over the course of the story, except his ever-shifting mood and imaginative interests have changed and will keep changing. That’s what I find so miraculous about children: their curiosity about so many things, their expansive imaginations.

The mother/narrator is a different story. She has a much harder time letting things go.

About the Author:

Stephanie Reents' most recent book is I Meant To Kill Ye (Fiction Advocate) about her long obsession with Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Her first book, The Kissing List, was published by Hogarth/Crown in 2012. Reents' short fiction has appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories, Best of the West, and many literary journals.

About the Interviewer:

Kim Magowan’s debut short story collection, Undoing, won the 2017 Moon City Short Fiction Award and is forthcoming in March 2018 from Moon City Press. Her debut novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books. Her fiction has appeared in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Word Riot, and other journals. She is the fiction editor for Corium Magazine. She lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College.

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.