Smoking With Scott Stealey
by Beth Thomas Read the Story December 20, 2009
Where did the inspiration come from for this?
I was sitting around by myself and thinking about monsters, having just finished re-reading an old library copy of Frankenstein. It’s incredibly sad, I don’t think I ever realized that—the poor monster just wants to be happy and have sex with a woman. Perfectly rational creature, but what’s scary is that he comes off as only driven by that impulse to connect. So I considered that given the proper motivations, most mythical creatures were probably that way, too. Even unicorns. A unicorn struck me as another of these solitary outcasts who might come out if given the right motivation. In this case it was the combination of zither music and glass. Then I stumbled through some writing and came upon that line, “Sometimes all a person needs to start a new life is a way to flee their old one.” It’s such a strange sentiment to put your faith in. It’s about “moving on,” something that in my opinion is very sad and loaded with uncertainty, However in our time “moving on” has for some reason come to represent personal freedom. What gets lost in personal freedom is how goddamn lonely it is. It might be exciting, driving across the interstate by yourself, starting over, finding a new place, new friends; it might be an adventure. Many people I know see “moving on” as an adventure. But to me, you have to be incredibly comfortable with being alone in order to do something like that, otherwise it will overwhelm you. I guess I don’t think many people are like that, because comfortable solitude is something you have to really cultivate. I think the world changes all the time, and most of the time you’re better off sitting still, rather than taking off. The narrator in this story isn’t very comfortable being alone, but hides that from herself by dithering around in a number of ways. Which is kind of funny and relatable. I dither around so much before getting down to writing or whatever I have to do that day. Anyway, that intersection of a lonely creature looking for its reason to live from another lonely creature seemed right for a story.
I love the absurdity here (especially the detail about Kevin loving to eat bits of glass) and how you make it totally believable with the voice and tone. Does this wildly imaginative writing come easily to you, or do you find it a struggle to find just the right detail? Was this fun to write?
Thank you, it was fun to write. That doesn’t mean I took it any less seriously, just because a unicorn is in there. Nothing comes very easy to me in writing; I have a very slow process. Especially if it’s imaginative writing, because it’s harder to pull back the reins on my imagination. I have to be really careful to keep things grounded in the very real emotions going on. Struggling for the right details is part of the fun, I think. Certain things just strike me as weird—zithers, hanging mobiles. They aren’t as absurd as a unicorn, but they represent a strangeness I can’t put my finger on. Maybe it’s that those objects to me seemed very solitary. Have you ever heard a zither? Accompanying anything with that instrument would be insane.
Who named the unicorn Kevin?
The narrator did. She doesn’t give her ex-husband’s name in the story, which to me is very telling about who she is. Naming him would give him more of a presence and that presence now is occupied by Kevin. She is struggling with being alone, not having a job, not knowing what to do. She knows she wants her car back, she knows she wants to flee, and so she’s practical regarding Kevin. She wants to sell him. To her he is just another thing about her world that she wishes to leave. There’s nothing significant about the unicorn’s name, more just that he has one, while the ex-husband doesn’t. Although I suppose Kevin could have been the ex-husband’s name. I saw him as more of a Jack, though. Or maybe a Greg.
What other mythical creatures live in this world? Surely it’s not just unicorns.
That’s funny that you say “surely.” I had been talking with a friend recently about True Blood and New Moon and the other new vampire stuff coming out, and how it bugs me that in those worlds, vampires just aren’t enough—werewolves, shape-shifters, maenads, all these other things also show up, even though these stories ostensibly are about vampires. It seems that once the writers declare that there are vampires in this world, that allows the mythical floodgates to open and welcome all other types of monsters into the story. But I have to wonder, why aren’t vampires enough? At first I imagined some influential producer giving a Glengarry Glen Ross-type speech to the writers of this stuff, holding his brass balls and shouting, “We must have MORE mythical creatures! More zombies, more witches! We must blow their minds!” Because I feel like there’s this tendency now in these kinds of stories to do just that. You must blow the audience’s mind. Like you have to give them their money’s worth, and the only way to do that is add more fantastic crap on top of the already fantastical tropes. It feels fallible to me: you’re taking away from the vampires’ time, as if you didn’t trust them to develop as characters. Aren’t vampires rich enough on their own? Of course they are. It’s so odd. Remember Teen Wolf? That movie stuck to only one mythical creature. But what if a vampire swooped into the gymnasium when the werewolf was shooting hoops? What if Boof turned out to be a witch? Would that be acceptable in that world? I don’t believe so. It would take away from this werewolf coming-of-age story. As a reader/audience member, I just don’t want something seeking to blow my mind, and as a writer, I don’t want to write that kind of story, either. The simpler the story or the premise, the better, even if being simple equals a unicorn. I mentioned I’m a slow writer—I’m a slow reader too, and don’t like complicated plots and tons of characters to remember. I think leaving lots of room to explore a small amount of characters—even in ridiculous or supernatural worlds—will always make a story richer. One tweak in reality often is enough. Let that premise grow and shape the character in real, human ways. I know it’s funny to say, but just tossing Bigfoot in there won’t necessarily add to an already weird story. (I actually kept hoping for Bigfoot to show up somewhere in the Twilight books, but unfortunately he never does. Why couldn’t he? What’s stopping him in that world? Why can’t he fight for Bella’s affections, too?) My story is about a lonely woman who happens to have a unicorn come out of the woods and into her backyard. Bigfoot doesn’t follow Kevin into the backyard. Nor would he, in my opinion. That’s another story altogether, and one I don’t think is very interesting, because I’m left wondering what happened to that lonely woman. So I’d say that there are no other mythical creatures in this world. While it may be strange to accept a unicorn, what’s even stranger to me is accepting Bigfoot because of a unicorn’s existence. The weird and unexplainable occurs with a certain singularity, I think.
We end in a very sad place. You could have told us what happened next, but we end on this question, “Where is your family?” How did you decide when to end the story?
I knew I wanted to end the story there because that question is pretty reflexive for the narrator herself, so perhaps her repeating it signals her coming to that conclusion as well. After all, where is her family? Where’s that unnamed ex-husband? Why did they break up? And why doesn’t she call her mother, or a best friend after she loses her job? She is so alone, and the real strangeness is that she still wants to flee and remain lonely in another place even though this creature, a new companion, has found her. That resonated with me, how loneliness can just take over your head and make you retreat into stubborn ways, thinking that only you can help yourself. Yeah, it’s very sad. But I trust that she’ll be ok.
About the Author:
Scott Stealey lives and writes in Chicago. He runs a webzine called Please Don't (plzdnt.com).