Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Sutton Strother

by Ahsan Butt Read the Story March 25, 2019

The first thing that struck me in reading “Not Louise” was its perfectly tuned voice and measured rhythms. I can only assume you care deeply about the acoustics of your sentences. What did you want this story to evoke and sound like?

I wanted the story to sound like a homespun myth or tall tale. My little sister is about the same age as the narrator in this story, and watching her navigate romance in a serious way for the first time reminded me what it’s like to fall in love at that age, how you mythologize the object of your affection, like they’ve got some secret magic or like you’re two parts of some shared sacred destiny. In hindsight, it’s easy to be embarrassed or cynical about those notions, but there’s something really lovely and pure there. I wanted to write a story that not only made that magic literal, but also took those feelings seriously. In my mind, the narrator wants the reader to experience this girl in the same way she does, to see her magic. I needed her voice to capture the purity of that reverence and awe as she’s doing her myth-making.

Central to this story is the idea of a “true” name as a kind of magic, one that’s discovered rather than given. What’s your relationship to your own name? Does it—or a nickname—make you more you or perform some magic?

“Rumpelstiltskin” was my favorite fairy tale as a kid, so the magic of naming has held some fascination for me for a long time. I don’t have much occasion to think about my own name, and I rarely hear someone say it out loud, but when I do, it shocks me for a moment and makes me feel weirdly exposed. It’s an instant visceral reaction, that stomach lurch you feel when you’ve just been caught doing something you shouldn’t do. I’m not sure what that’s about. Maybe “Rumpelstiltskin” warped my brain. He didn’t react well to hearing his own name, either.

For a story that indulges in the surreal, the details are so wonderfully earthy and visceral. What’s your process for conjuring details like “gagging on bitter ink” and “the name that spilled out with the afterbirth”?

If I have a good sense of what a story is about, or even just a strong focal point in mind, I can let that dictate where my thoughts land as I’m uncovering the details. In this story, for instance, I started with Louise (or Not Louise, rather), this girl who’d grown up poor in the woods in a rural town, and I understood that whatever magic she’d have would be rooted in that landscape and in the body because those are the tools she’d have to work with. So from there, that was the direction I steered my thoughts—dirt and moss and feral cats, afterbirth and the taste of ink.

I will say, writing flash has made me so much better at this whole process. Working with a more economical form forces you to pinpoint the precise details that will best serve your story. There’s no space for anything extraneous.

Short story endings are so cruelly difficult to land. Your ending—both its surreal reading and its sexual intimations—feel so exquisitely conceived that I can’t imagine any other ending. Did you start with the ending or discover it? What does a perfect ending mean to you?

This ending—where the narrator hears the name and says she’ll never speak it to another soul—actually started out as the ending to something else I was working on. That other story never came together, though, and after writing the first paragraph of “Not Louise,” I realized this new story needed the old one’s ending. So, I started out with a beginning and an ending, and the discovery came in figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B. It’s a gift to be able to write with an ending in mind, because few things about writing make me more anxious than not knowing where a story is going to end.

It’s hard to say what a perfect ending is. You just kind of know one when you find it, don’t you? Broadly speaking, I’d say a perfect ending has to correctly punctuate everything that’s come before it, and that it should leave the reader feeling like they’ve finished a self-contained, complete thought—even if it’s not necessarily a tidy one. But there are as many ways to skin that cat as there are stories.

These two characters are so sweet and sincere. What future do you wish for them?

Oh, I’d love for them to grow old together, maybe in a cabin off the grid where they grow their own vegetables and take in strays and concoct magic potions or something, just quiet and happy and in love like they are here. There’s so rarely a real future for teenage first loves, though. If nothing else, even if it didn’t last, I think their romance would remain a sacred, beautiful memory for the narrator for the rest of her life.

About the Author:

Sutton Strother is a writer and composition instructor living in New York. Her work has appeared or will appear in Pithead Chapel, Atticus Review, CHEAP POP, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere.

About the Interviewer:

Ahsan Butt was born in Toronto, is of Pakistani descent, and currently lives in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, The Rumpus, Pacifica Literary Review, The Offing, and elsewhere.

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.