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Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Jennifer Wortman

Interview by Michael Czyzniejewski (Read the Story) June 18, 2018

Jennifer Wortman

Photograph by Saffu

This is a powerful piece about loneliness, about what people will do to make that feeling go away, but here, that just seems to lead to guilt and regret. What’s worse, at the end: this woman missing her husband or her feeling like she has to tell this story, justify her actions to whomever she’s telling it to?

Missing her husband. My husband is alive and well, but I’ve lost others I’ve loved, and not much is worse. Plus, I don’t view this woman’s need to tell this story as sad. Guilt and justification definitely figure in, but her main impetus, for me, is to make a little sense of the madness of grief and to break through her isolation by sharing her experience.

I have a broad view of this narrator, because this story belongs to a series of stories, mostly still unwritten, about her. Each story shows her navigating her loss in different ways. But she will probably have more sex, because I like writing about sex. And she will probably feel more guilt and regret, because I like writing about guilt and regret.

Your story made me think of Charlie Rose, how he’d walk around with no pants on at work, his special brand of sexual harassment. I’ve heard that he and Matt Lauer and other creepy celebs want to go on TV, roundtable-style, to apologize, tell their story, save their careers, etc., which is the worst idea in the history of ideas. But really, I pray they do it: Wouldn’t that be the biggest car crash of a TV show ever? I’d make popcorn. Would you watch that?

Nothing could persuade me to watch that.

What’s your best cure for loneliness?

Loneliness can be a bear, even if you’re lucky enough to have great people in your life. I can’t say I’ve found a cure. But a good hug from my husband or kids helps. Barring that, I turn to my weighted blanket and a mind-numbing amount of Netflix.

When you originally submitted this, it was called “The Living Room.” I can guess why you changed it (or why we asked you to change it), but will you tell the story?

Titles are hit or miss for me. When I can’t come up with a good title, I just try to pick one that isn’t bad, and sometimes I fail. I chose “The Living Room” because the story opens in the living room, the name of which takes on extra meaning in the wake of death. But Tara suggested the title didn’t quite capture the story, and, in hindsight, I agreed: It’s both heavy handed and off the mark, emphasizing the story’s beginning at the expense of the rest. We decided to provisionally go with “Neighbors,” which, if broad, was at least less strained. From there, after scouring the story for a motif that would sharpen the title, I came up with “A Matter Between Neighbors”; I think it sums up the story without giving too much away, while also evoking a detachment and ambiguity that fits the narrator’s mindset.

The inciting incident of this story is when your protagonist walks into her living room, naked, while her neighbor is waiting on the couch. She claims it was an accident, and does so in past tense, adding perspective, but I don’t really believe her, hence an unreliable narrator. And the way she keeps adding details to her story, making it less believable, recalls the universal paradox. That’s seven vocabulary terms in less than 900 words—I want to assign this to my intro classes next semester … only it’s pretty graphic for that audience, all the sadness and fingering and whatnot. What do you think?

First off, I’m honored that you’d even consider teaching my story. Thank you! I also appreciate your breakdown: I usually throw myself into the writing without consciously thinking of such things, so I always learn something when someone points out the craft.

As for the story’s suitability for intro-class students, I get why you’d think twice. But from what I remember, sadness and fingering—and then some—are pretty much college graduation requirements. It probably won’t hurt them.

About the Author

Jennifer Wortman is the author of the story collection This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love. Her work appears or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Electric Literature, Brevity, The Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction America, and elsewhere, and has been cited as distinguished in Best American Short Stories. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and MacDowell, she lives with her family in Colorado, where she teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and serves as associate fiction editor for Colorado Review.

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 photography by Saffu at Unsplash.

This interview appeared in Issue Sixty — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction

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