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Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Thomas Renjilian

Interview by Michael Czyzniejewski (Read the Story) March 19, 2018

Thomas Renjilian

Photograph by Ryoji Iwata

As I think of questions to ask, I keep thinking of the adage “The eyes are the window to the soul.” I don’t think there’s a question there, so pretend I asked you a question with that adage as part of it—a really good question—and answer it.

I think Allen implicitly accepts that adage throughout the story, though I wonder if by the end he would reject or at least reinterpret it.

The idea that other people’s interiors, and particularly those of women, are knowable through observing the body has a really dangerous history and an equally damaging influence in the present. Obviously, people aren’t transparent, but the belief that they are is still a compelling and insidious myth. It encourages a form of knowing that leaves the observed without a voice to challenge the viewer’s perceptions. It lets viewers imagine and control a fiction of someone else rather than engage with the real person, which requires ceding control and accepting uncertainty and unknowability. I wonder to what extent Allen’s search for eyes is driven by the desire to know and empathize with the cell phone’s owner, as well as the desire to possess and preserve a fantasy.

Allen believes he has a desire to know the girl who owns the phone. He pursues that knowledge voyeuristically by looking at photos of the girl, but also to some extent empathetically as he tries to relive photos she’s taken, almost trying to see not just into but out from the girl’s eyes. Still, he resists any form of knowing that involves interaction. I wonder about his motives. Does he want to know her or merely confirm who he hopes she is? What would happen if he found her? When do photos of the girl confirm his ideas of her, when do they refute or complicate them, and why is the final image he sees of the girl so affecting to him?

Your story uses double meaning and metaphor as well as any story I can name. I’ll nod particularly to the title, how your hero can’t unsee what he sees on this girl’s phone. What from your life, if anything, would you unsee?

I watched The Shining once as a child in the nineties, and I’m still terrified of that scene where Jack Nicholson finds the woman in the bathtub. I couldn’t tell you a single other thing about The Shining, but that scene really haunted me. It gave me with a phobia of tubs. It’s actually been decades since I’ve bathed, which has been an incredible detriment to both my personal and professional life.

Your ending is as perfect an ending as can be, your hero unable to capture the world the way this girl had, the camera completely misinterpreting the strip of pink. Besides the obvious—what happened to this girl—what else isn’t he seeing correctly?

I love that the constraints of flash fiction require so much more to be omitted from a story than included. Reading flash fiction reminds me that characters are defined just as much by what they ignore as what they focus on. When I step back and view the story as a reader limited by Allen’s point of view, I’m left wondering, what’s up with Connie? There’s a real, living person in Allen’s life, yet while he spends the whole story seeking out other, usually inanimate eyes, we barely see him interact with her, and he never reflects on their relationship. What aren’t we learning about their relationship, and what’s stopping Allen from giving Connie the same attention he gives the nameless girl who owns the cell phone?

Your story reminds me of that failed taxidermy website that became a meme several years ago, the one with the smiling foxes and goofy-looking badgers. In the same vein, describe Thomas Renjilian’s ideal Awkward Family Photo, a real picture from your life that would make the scroll.

Coincidentally, someone once said the same thing about my Tinder profile.

Just curious: When researching this story, did you ever look up the price of eyes? I mean, what does a bulk unit of eyes go for these days? (Consider this the inverted-stepbrother version of the price-of-a-loaf-of-bread question they ask presidential candidates.)

I did! I’m no expert, and I didn’t really comparison shop, but depending on the animal they seem to range from ten to fifteen dollars per eye.

About the Author

Thomas Renjilian is an MFA candidate at Oregon State University. His work has been awarded Vassar College’s Ann E. Imbrie Prize for Fiction and has appeared in Word Riot.

About the Interviewer

Michael Czyzniejewski’s fourth collection of stories, The Amnesiac in the Maze, is forthcoming from Braddock Avenue Books in 2023.

About the Artist

Find more of Ryoji Iwata‘s photography on Unsplash.

This interview appeared in Issue Fifty-Nine of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Fifty-Nine

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