Smoking With John Colvin

Read the Story June 15, 2008
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As part of an outreach to new voices, editors on staff were encouraged to approach writers new to SmokeLong. Kelly Spitzer selected John Colvin, and had this to say:

John Colvin’s story “The Candy Tree,” published in the winter 2007 issue of FRiGG, got a lot of buzz in the Showcase thread I ran on my website, so by the time I stumbled across “Sister Earth” in a writing workshop, I was familiar with his name. I read “Sister Earth” and thought: Holy Shit. I’ll never forget this story. That was over a year ago, and when it came time to put together this issue of SmokeLong Quarterly, I knew I wanted John Colvin and his magical human heart included. Thank you, John, for allowing us to publish this wonderfully quirky story!

Alchemy. There are many definitions and disputed origins. Is there one in particular that you adhere to?

Not really. I chose that word because I was thinking from a child’s perspective. When I was a kid I went through a phase where I thought I wanted to be a chemist, but I had pretty vague and romantic notions about what a chemist would do. You mixed stuff up in a test tube and discovered a potion that would make you invisible or turn you into the Incredible Hulk or something. So alchemy seemed like the best word for what a kid does when she’s experimenting, messing around and mixing things together hoping something magical will happen. It also hints at sorcery, so it works for the story.

I enjoyed the ambiguity of the setting and time frame of this story. The father comes home from “his” wars, which brought to mind images of countrymen and kings, and alchemy is an ancient practice, yet this story contains items from the modern world—a battery charger and extension cord. Of course, in fantastical fiction, life can take place in both realms…

The first draft of this story had a definite setting and time frame. The father was home from Vietnam. For some reason I had been thinking about that Raymond Carver story “Vitamins” where a guy just back from Vietnam has a box with a human ear in it. That got me thinking about war “souvenirs” and how weird it would be if a father gave his child something like that, and what she would do with it.

I also had my uncle very much in mind. When I was maybe six or seven, he showed me things (not body parts, just objects) he took off a Japanese soldier he killed in WWII. One of them was a picture of a little boy. “That little boy there, he looks about your age. I killed his dad,” my uncle said.

At some point in revising the story I realized there was no need to mention a specific war, because, you know, there’s always some kind of war going on.

What struck me most about this story is the sentiment behind it. For me, it’s really about a dad who missed out on his daughter’s childhood, and the realization of this “kills” him.

Yeah, I was also playing around with yin and yang. The female, creative force is waxing and the male, destructive force is waning. Actually, I think the male force is supposed to be creative and the female destructive, so I guess a Taoist would say I have it backwards.

You’re a reclusive writer whose work I don’t often see. Where do you keep yourself?

Well, I’m flattered that you chose the word “reclusive.” It makes me feel like I’m hanging with Emily Dickinson and J.D. Salinger.

No, I think a better word to describe me as a writer is “lazy.”

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?

I just do my thing and don’t worry much about whether anybody else cares. It’s wonderful to get published and to have people tell me they like what I’ve written, but I would still write even if nobody published my stuff. As a matter of fact, I have a number of stories that I’ve never tried to publish (most of them are terrible).

I haven’t written anything very good these past few months. That’s not unusual. I’ve always had long dry periods when everything I produce is pure crap. It’s not something I agonize over. I’ll just keep writing and see what happens next. Every once in a while I surprise the hell out of myself, and that’s the fun in it.

About the Author:

John Colvin's work has appeared in several online magazines, including FRiGG, Word Riot, and TQR stories. He lives and works in Indiana.