Smoking With Stephen Mills

by Tara Laskowski Read the Story March 24, 2014

Assuming everyone has a double in this world, where do you think yours is hanging out right now?

Probably watching people on the subway and trying to find a way to write about them, or drinking wine and watching old episodes of Law & Order on Netflix. It’s a toss up.

Can you talk a little about the point of view here? First it seems like an omniscient POV, but then halfway through the “I” comes in, which is startling and yet works. What’s going on? Who is talking to us?

The POV is reflective of the experience of being on the subway and seemed to be a natural progression for me when writing the piece. In cities like New York, you often play the witness to many acts and situations, but then you turn those experiences onto yourself. The piece starts with the clear facts of the situation (two men on the subway with cellos) and then moves more to one person’s perception of what he sees and overhears. That shift seems important to the experience of living in a crowded city.

I like the tug-of-war going on in this piece between that which is predictable and inevitable and that which is random and striking. There are the unusual details—the cello, the meeting, the cow costume and udder—and the sense that all here will end up on the same path of all relationships, the sense that “you are unique, just like everyone else.” Did you intend this juxtaposition here, or did it just happen in the writing?

I’m normally a very heavy reviser, which means most pieces go through many drafts. This piece, however, came about more organically. It seemed to fall into place more easily and not as many changes were made in the process. But it speaks to some of the major themes of my work. I’m interested in the everyday and also in breaking down some of the American “myths” around relationships and self-identity. We spend so much of our lives trying not to be something that we probably will inevitably become. The juxtaposition here helps highlight that journey.

What are the worst and the best parts of living in New York City?

I love New York. I moved here a year and a half ago and I feel like I’ve truly found my home. The best part is the diversity and culture available in the city. There’s something amazing happening at every moment. I’ve also never lived somewhere with so many free cultural events and community events (which really goes against the idea of NYC being so expensive). The worst parts? Grocery shopping is pretty terrible, but honestly, living here is just a very different life and not for everyone. There’s such an odd balance between the old and the new in New York. Moving here I was startled to see some really outdated methods of doing things like the voting machines or that cash is still a real necessity here or that most places don’t have very good air conditioning or heat in some cases. But on the other hand, some of the newest and most innovative things happen in this city. That’s why it fits me. I’ve always had a real love of the old and an appreciation for the new.

What are you working on now?

I just completed my second book titled A History of the Unmarried, which will be coming out in September from Sibling Rivalry Press. I’m currently working on a new project and having been doing more narrative essays recently.

About the Interviewer:

Tara Laskowski has been editor at SmokeLong Quarterly since 2010. Her short story collection Bystanders was hailed by Jennifer Egan as "a bold, riveting mash-up of Hitchcockian suspense and campfire-tale chills." She is also the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, tales of dark etiquette. Her fiction has been published in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, and numerous other journals, magazines, and anthologies. Tara lives and works in a suburb of Washington, D.C.