Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Venita Blackburn

by Nicole Rivas Read the Story March 25, 2019

The characters and dilemmas presented in “Easter Egg Surprise” are socially salient and unsettlingly familiar. What inspired you to write this particular story?

Weirdly enough, this is based on a true story. The very first section did happen. I witnessed it a little boy threaten to kill his entire family one at a time; it was hilarious, and of course that hilarity became both alarming and disarming. I’m often thinking about how children are interacting with technology and how their behaviors are not changed by it but amplified. The school of thought that claims violent media creates violent tendencies in kids, specifically boys, has never been that convincing to me. There are outlets for violence in our culture and we steer masculine ideals into the realm of violence as one’s entire personal narrative. That’s not excusing it, just naming it.  Side note: I have a story in I in a previous edition, “Chew,” that is also based on a true story with a similar theme, weirdly enough: Ha!

I’m struck by the narrator’s voice in this piece; phrases like “creating suspense and shit” and “genetic transfer of fucked-up tendencies” come across as pointed and powerful. How did you decide that this story would be told from the perspective of a struggling parent? Further, how did you go about crafting their personality?

I’m not a parent, but I’ve been around babies my entire life. My brothers are much older than I am, so I became an aunt/babysitter early on (quite an expensive babysitter, btw, $50/hr.). Come to me only when most desperate. I did discover that parenting is very very hard. There had to be a bit of an edge to the dad’s voice, if it served as an echo of an authentic parent to me. There is naturally something more tender and accepting that comes along with it as well. Voice is very special to me and really drives my interest in any prose. If the voice is not interesting or compelling, I won’t be that invested in the total story. So, the language needed to reflect a kind of weary, irreverent and earnest frustration.

 “Easter Egg Surprise” works incredibly well as a piece of flash, though the issues it’s in conversation with are quite massive. How did you know or decide that the story of Lil Benny, Ben Sr., and the narrator would be flash fiction versus a longer story?

This one seemed destined to be shorter in scope from the very beginning. The genesis was the Easter egg video phenomenon from a few years ago. Kids were watching these videos like Game of Thrones episodes. They are addictive, and I will admit that I could watch them in a sort of mesmerized state for more minutes than I care to admit. But that’s just the gateway. The videos lead to other videos of not just toys, but kids playing with toys then whole families playing together with millions of hits, all for this simulacrum of playtime. I found it totally bizarre and telling, telling of our consumerism based system of instant rewards for minimal effort, plus technology’s ability to provide the illusion of success and social interaction. Fascinating stuff.

How does your process for composing flash fiction differ from when you’re working in other forms or lengths of writing? What stays the same?

I usually know how long a story is going to be when I finally start writing it. Most of the time I walk around with ideas, listening for voices and waiting for a situation worthwhile for particular characters. When the characters take on a lot of descriptive components, I know it’ll take some time to use all of the parts. I’m big on unity and not having a lot of arbitrary details. If I use something once, an object, an internal insight, I like to revisit that again in the story, each time widening the lens on the thing until everything is clear and connected.

What other creative projects—writing or otherwise–are you working on right now?

More stories. More stories! And a novel (whisper voice). I’m thinking about generational trauma these days, all the things we do from one generation to another with the intention of providing something useful, something that builds character and strength, but in actuality the gesture is quite devastating.

About the Author:

Works by Venita Blackburn have appeared or are forthcoming in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Paris Review, Los Angeles Review of Books Print Quarterly Journal, American Short Fiction, the Georgia Review, Pleiades, Madison Review, Bat City Review, Nashville Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Café Irreal, Santa Monica Review, Faultline, Devil’s Lake Review, Nat.Brut., Bellevue Literary Review, audio download through Bound Off, and others. She was awarded a Bread Loaf Fellowship in 2014 and several Pushcart prize nominations. She received the Prairie Schooner book prize for fiction, which resulted in the publication of her collected stories, Black Jesus and Other Superheroes, in 2017. In 2018 she earned a place as a finalist for the PEN/Bingham award for debut fiction, finalist for the NYPL Young Lions award and recipient of the PEN America Los Angeles literary prize in fiction. Current projects include finishing a new novel, a collection of flash fiction and creative non-fiction.  Her home town is Compton, California, and she is an Assistant Professor of creative writing at California State University, Fresno.

About the Interviewer:

Nicole Rivas lives in Savannah, Georgia, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama. Her chapbook of flash fiction, A Bright and Pleading Dagger, was the winner of the Rose Metal Press 12th Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest.

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.