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Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Kevin Sterne

Interview by John Milas (Read the Story) March 25, 2019

Kevin Sterne

Art by Paul Bilger

If Jerry wanted to send himself up, would the clown help him? If so, how many balloons would it take? How would the patrons react if Jerry landed at the Italian restaurant?

Once Jerry reels you into one of his schemes, there’s no saying no. There’s no unbaiting that hook. Drug addicts have that effect on people. Even without ever having met this clown, I can tell you he was complicit from the start.

How many balloons? Hmm. I think you have to start by thinking how Jerry thinks. So, how many balloons does it take to lift a two-liter bottle of RC? Now, how many two-liter bottles of RC is a Jerry? I’ll say 250 balloons, if it’s those big party balloons. If those puny things kids take home from Applebee’s, I’ll go with 350. Granted, I’m not really a physics guy. I mostly use a shovel for my day job. They don’t trust me with much else.

As far as the Italian restaurant, I only know of the Olive Garden in Irving Park by the Kennedy. Or I guess there are some fancy shmancy Italian Italian ones in Lincoln Park and near the Loop. Maybe he was referring to those. If he landed in the rich parts of Chicago, they’d arrest him before he touched ground. Guess who would have to bail him out?

What are some of the mom’s CDs that Jerry and the clown send up? Does this story have a soundtrack?

We used to have band practice in Jerry’s basement and the walls were lined with CDs. Jerry on synth/keys, me on bass, and this guy Thomas on drums. We were a noise band called Hamm’s, because we really wanted to be sponsored by Hamm’s beer. That lasted a few years until Thomas burned down an Applebee’s and said he needed to quit the band because of this bogus excuse that he was on the run from the police. But, anyways, Jerry’s mom was really into hair metal. She dug Skid Row, Mötley Crüe, Def Leppard, all that. She was super into Axl Rose, so had all the Guns ‘N Roses stuff, but also the side stuff he did, like this terrible Don Henley album. Jerry hated all of it. I hated all of it. Thomas just wanted to burn it all.

The best thing she had by far was this disco Star Wars CD, which is exactly what you think it is: the New Hope soundtrack reimagined as disco. They couldn’t get the rights to the artwork, so it just has these two people with space suits dancing on the cover. Can you think of anything better than the Mos Eisley cantina theme as disco? I often wonder where that landed. Or maybe it’s still up there in the blue.

Section III punches the reader in the gut following a couple scenes which feel more light- hearted. What influences you to juxtapose the profound and the whimsical? What strategies do you consider when making this choice in your work?

You’d have to ask that Kevin guy that wrote it. I guess he’s writing a whole book about us, or has written a book already but is trying to publish it. I don’t know. I’m not much of a writer myself. I am an artist in my free time, though, so I’ll try to help out here.

I do wood block carvings and people often ask me where I get my inspiration. Sometimes there’s a symmetry in opposites. For example, I have this piece of this deformed and totally demented alley rat attacking this fluffy golden doodle—part of my “Animals of Chicago” series. Why this gnarly alley rat? Why this harbinger of famine and fear and disgust? And then pit this against a dumbass dog that rich people have. And to all that I ask: Why would you ever get a golden doodle as a pet?

I always try to make my work just true enough, just believable enough. When someone at the Sunday art fair picks up my woodblock of the man peeing into a Gatorade bottle, I want them to think, “Hey, this reminds me of something I saw on the CTA or would see on the CTA.” That true-to-life connection, you know? There’s a lot more to a carving than what’s on the wood. A whole story beyond the story. Maybe that’s what Kevin is getting at.

Who is Jerry when he’s not at the park? We know he huffs drugs and has gone on a date, but what else does he do all day? Did he get a second date?

Oh, man. You’d have to read Kevin’s book. I guess he wrote a lot about both of us.

I’ve never inhaled helium or witnessed the effects on anyone. Did any prior research or firsthand knowledge go into the portrayal of helium in the story?

You’re not going to the right parties. You haven’t lived until you’ve inhaled helium or nitrous oxide from one of those whip-its. Actually, don’t do that. But, hypothetically, if you were looking to do some research, or better yet, had a friend who was looking to do some research, that might not be a bad place to start. My parole officer and my mom won’t let me comment any further.

About the Author

Kevin Sterne is a writer and journalist based in Chicago. He’s the author of I’ve Done Worse (Long Day Press) and creator of LeFawn Magazine. His fiction has appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Jokes Review, Five2one, and others. Kevin went to community college and works in landscaping.

About the Interviewer

John Milas is a writer from Illinois. His debut novel, The Militia House, will be published by Henry Holt in 2023. His short fiction has appeared in The Southampton Review, Wrath-Bearing Tree, Superstition Review, and elsewhere.

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-Three of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Three

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