Smoking With Ellen Meister

Read the Story June 15, 2008
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You guest edited issue 4, then joined the SmokeLong staff for issues 5 through 7. What do you, as an editor, look for in a story?

On first read, I tried to react more like a reader than an editor, and so I had no set criteria. It was more a gut reaction. Did the piece move me in some way? Did I have an emotional response to the story, the characters, the language or the message? My editor hat didn’t go on until after I had already decided I wanted SmokeLong to run the story. Then I had to write my paragraph telling the other editors why the story worked for me. The process of deconstructing was always illuminating.

In “Alone with Cooper,” security is a reoccurring theme. The blanket offers Coop comfort, while the scent of rose lotion does the same for the mother. But don’t the blanket and the rose scent also, in a sense, offer courage? Is one a natural progression to the other?

Cooper’s autism affects his central nervous system to the point where the environment is a constant sensory assault. If you can imagine a world where everything is as powerful as an oncoming freight train—the bird in a distant tree, the voices of children playing, a truck rumbling by, the sun bouncing off the playground equipment, a gentle breeze against your skin, the scent of cut grass, the movement of shadows, your mother’s voice—it’s easy to understand why retreating into a security blanket would be a necessity. I wanted to give Cooper’s mother a similar retreat because she has her own perception issues with the world. I’m not sure courage is exactly what I had in mind, but I can see the connection. Surely, Cooper and his mom are both fortified by their sensory escapes.

Love that ending! What made you decide to turn the story around like that?

For mothers of special needs kids, it’s easy to get defensive about your child. You love this little person so fiercely and so protectively, but are very much aware that the world doesn’t see him (or her) the way you do. I wanted to go right inside Cooper’s mom’s head and acknowledge how easy it is to forget that the world isn’t always judging. And as far as the real reason behind the attention of the man in the playground, it was more than just irony. It was my little gift to Coop’s mom.

Your second novel, THE SMART ONE, is scheduled to be released on August 5th. Do you write short fiction anymore, or is it all about novel making?

I love short stories, and the flash form in particular has a special place in my heart, but right now deadline pressures and family demands don’t leave me any time for it. One of these days, though, when my schedule lets up, I hope to write more shorts. Maybe even more about Cooper and his mom.

This issue marks SmokeLong‘s fifth anniversary, which has me thinking about longevity and growth. There’s no denying the literary arena is a fickle one, with journals coming and going, writers shooting onto the scene then falling into a long hiatus, editors changing houses, agents merging, and the trends! Don’t even get me started! How do you, as a writer, endure the ups and downs? Have you experienced any setbacks? What measures have you taken to grow?

How do I endure the ups and downs? I whine privately and then just keep on going.

As far as growth, I just do the same thing I’ve always done: read. Every novel has something to teach me, so as long as I’m reading, I’m growing.

Happy Anniversary, SmokeLong!

About the Author:

Ellen Meister lives and writes in the suburbs of New York. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fiction Warehouse, Word Riot, Pindeldyboz, Yankee Pot Roast, Haypenny, Amarillo Bay and Light Quarterly. You can contact her at ellenmeister@hotmail.com.