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Smoke & Mirrors with Amanda Marbais

Interview by Amanda Hadlock (Read the Story) December 16, 2019

Amanda Marbais

Art by Paul Bilger

I loved your new short story collection, Claiming a Body. One thing I appreciate about your work is how you pay careful attention to the ways your characters experience life in their particular bodies. Do you have any advice for writing the body?

For me, writing about the body has two parts: capturing the visceral experience and rooting it in a character’s emotional response. For the reader, I think the intensity is often in the visceral experience. For the writer, I think it’s in rendering the character’s emotional response. It’s hard to shore these two things up. I really make an effort to be in the moment, then leave it behind. I try to suspend judgment on my character and myself, if something resonates with my own experience.

I also think there’s power in choosing what to share about the body and trauma. Lately, I’ve been more concerned with life after traumatic experiences. Making obvious choices about what to reveal shifts the focus to who a character has become as a survivor. Most people have gone through some shit. How they deal with it really interests me.

I love your use of second person in “Tolls.” How did you settle on that point of view choice?

I definitely wanted to both implicate and create intimacy with the reader. I wanted the point of view to amplify any sexualized content. But I also wanted to normalize pregnancy as an experience (as opposed to making it strange or funny). I think our culture can sometimes treat pregnancy as odd, cute, or even zany.

I also admire how image-based your work is. What inspired the image of broken, decayed teeth and dental crowns?

Thanks for saying this. I get fixated on images because I spend as much time watching film and TV as I do reading books. Images often orient me emotionally in the story. 

This story started with a visit from my friend a few days after I gave birth. She brought me artisanal caramels. Half my molar came out, and I ended up chewing it before realizing what had happened. I pulled it out mid-conversation and stared at it. My friend was horrified. I felt like I was falling apart. 

My dentist said my teeth were weakened by puking (morning sickness). And the molar probably cracked while gritting my teeth during contractions. She told me dental issues during pregnancy were common. I guess gum disease is a big thing. And I was like, “Good God. That’s disturbing. Why had no one told me this?”

The protagonist’s need for secrecy due to the expectations of her hetero, monogamous marriage really stabs me in the heart. I’d love to hear your thoughts on bisexual erasure in literature.

There is definitely some tension between how the protagonist sees herself and how she guesses other people see her. It’s suggested in the mother-in-law’s response. But the rest is subtext. It does feel like I’m highlighting that subtext.

Of course, the protagonist is queer. In addition to this aspect of her identity, she inhabits many roles (mother, love interest, wife, daughter-in-law). There is the suggestion that others expect her to fit a particular identity (hetero, monogamous, singularly devoted). The tension culminates in the disconnect. But she is okay living with her complex feelings and her complex desires. The problem is with everyone else, and the roles they project on her. 

So, her reckoning happens with a judgment of her body, specifically her teeth, by the dentist. I hope it feels like a physically vulnerable act.

What do you think of as the dentist drills?

I have a very nice, non-sadistic dentist, which I think is a must in your health care professional.

But, without question, drills make me think of American Horror Story. 

About the Author

Amanda Marbais’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Fugue, Joyland and elsewhere. She was featured in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading series and was shortlisted in the New York Times Book Review for her debut short story collection Claiming a Body (Moon City Press 2019).

About the Interviewer

Amanda Hadlock holds a Master of Fine Arts from Florida State University and a Master of Arts from Missouri State University, where she was on the editorial staff for Southeast Review and Moon City Review, respectively. Her writing has been published in venues such as Wigleaf, Hobart, Cleaver Magazine, Essay Daily, The Florida Review, WFSU/NPR’s All Things Considered, The Pitch Kansas City, and others. She currently lives in her hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, with her two cats, Alyx Vance and Honey Bear.

About the Artist

Paul Bilger’s photography has appeared at Qarrtsiluni, Brevity, and Kompresja. His work has also been featured on music releases by Dead Voices on Air and Autistici. When not taking pictures, he is a lecturer in philosophy and film theory at Chatham University. He is the art director at SmokeLong Quarterly. 

This interview appeared in Issue Sixty-Six of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Six
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From sentence-level craft concerns to questions of overall approach, this 90-minute webinar will explore strategies for adding shape, intensity, and depth to your flash creative nonfiction.

Steve Edwards is author of the memoir BREAKING INTO THE BACKCOUNTRY, the story of his seven months as caretaker of a 95-acre backcountry homestead along federally protected Wild and Scenic Rogue River in Oregon. His work has appeared in Orion MagazineThe Sun MagazineLiterary HubElectric LiteratureThe Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives outside Boston with his wife and son.