Smoking With Elissa Cahn

by Nancy Stebbins Read the Story June 24, 2013

You are the nonfiction editor for Third Coast. How do you divide your writing time between fiction and nonfiction? Do you always know starting out, whether a piece will be one or the other?

Actually, I rarely write nonfiction—I just happen to love reading nonfiction. Most of my fiction does have elements of real life in it, though. I had an excess of Holocaust education growing up, which had a paradoxical numbing effect. I remember going on a middle school class trip to the Holocaust museum and being surprised and touched that the tough-seeming kid with the green mohawk was sitting on a bench crying. That image has always stuck with me.

I love the title, specifically because Marissa does not speak on behalf of the class. What is your process for coming up with titles?

Thank you! A lot of times, I look for a title in the text—something that seems to speak to the piece as a whole. Originally, this was titled “These Are Our Lives,” but that sounded too soap opera-y. Then again, their lives are pretty soap opera-y. Still, I like “On Behalf of the Class” better.

For me, the juxtaposition between the Holocaust and the teenage drama was particularly powerful. Was that the starting point for this story?

Yes, it was. I knew that I wanted to write a story about a middle school class trip to the Holocaust museum—I thought it would be a great setting. Then one day, I was in my office conferencing with a student, who said she loved learning about the Holocaust in eighth grade. After the student left, my friend, who’d overheard the conference (I shared an office), said something like, “Isn’t eighth grade miserable enough without having to study the Holocaust?” I started thinking more about the story and felt compelled to write about a bunch of kids who couldn’t process the Holocaust museum because they’re so involved in their own petty dramas.

What are you reading now?

I recently read and absolutely fell in love with The Safety of Objects by A.M. Homes. I also recently read A Class Apart by Alec Klein—narrative nonfiction that follows a group of students through a semester at an elite school in New York, and Teach Me, a YA novel by R.A. Nelson. And of course, I had to reread bits of The Great Gatsby after seeing the movie. I’m currently reading Kiss Me Again by Rachel Vail, one of my favorite YA writers, and American Salvage, a story collection by Bonnie Jo Campbell. I’m also really enjoying the website Rookie these days.

What was your take on The Great Gatsby movie?

I mostly really enjoyed The Great Gatsby movie, especially the depictions of Gatsby’s parties. So glittery! So feathery! In real life, I hate huge impersonal parties, but found myself excited seeing Gatsby’s parties. The rap music was an odd choice—I’m not sure what purpose that served, yet enjoyed it anyway. It’s been half a lifetime since I’d read the book, but I remembered the joy of the book being in the language rather than the plot, so I imagined that a movie version would fall flat. But I loved the visuals and thought the actors did a great job conveying a longing for meaning in something other than the hollowness that they’re experiencing. In rereading parts of the book, it seems that the movie remained faithful. My one real criticism is that the frame story seemed unnecessary.

About the Author:

Elissa Cahn is an MFA student at Western Michigan University, where she serves as the nonfiction editor for Third Coast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in NANO Fiction, Midwestern Gothic, Harpur Palate, Quarterly West, and The Chariton Review.

About the Interviewer:

Nancy Stebbins is a former editor at SmokeLong Quarterly.