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Smoke & Mirrors with Shawn Nocher

Interview by Michael Czyzniejewski (Read the Story) December 16, 2019

Shawn Nocher

Art by Paul Bilger

While processing this story and formulating questions, my first thought was to assign blame, figure out who was at fault, mother or daughter. But this isn’t about who’s responsible for this or that. Why is it our instinct to want to point a finger, to identify a clear-cut bad guy?

I think we all want absolution. In fact, we tell stories about ourselves amongst our friends—even the most confessional of stories—in order to see if we can gain our audience’s backing. We hope we were on the right side of what was at play and so we pass the guilt among the characters like a hot potato. I think a second person narration is, by nature, defensive and works especially well in this regard. You’re telling the reader from the onset that you know they’ll agree, they’ll feel the same way, that they would have done the very same thing.

I noticed consistent tree imagery throughout your story. What is it about trees that made you utilize them in this way? 

Ah, the trees, the most malleable of metaphors! Actually, I have to work pretty hard to stay away from tree imagery because it’s too easy. But the maple still calls to me. The many varieties, the different kinds of bark, the changing riot of colors through the seasons, all tend to show up in my work. And then there is the way a tree filters the light. If you have ever stood under a sugar maple on a sunny fall day you know what I mean. It’s breathtaking and changes everything, as any good metaphor should.

The narrator was the mother’s favorite, yet their relationship was so inimical. In my own family—seven kids—the sibling who’s caused the most ado clearly has the closest, most complex relationship with our mom. Why is it so often like that?

So true! As both a daughter and a mother, I’ve lived this from both sides. Maybe it has its roots (tree-thing going on here) in the old adage that you’re only as happy as your unhappiest child. There’s this constant struggle to alleviate your own pain and it is unfortunately tethered to that child who simply can’t get on with it.

This story’s really not about the mom’s death—you skip her expiration, jumping us ahead, three days later. It’s more about how her mother dealt with the traumatic experience she experienced as a teen, Mom’s failure as a parent, her recalling it at this particular time.  Fiction writers have a lot of tricks, but my favorite might be making your thing not be about the thing it seems to be about. 

This is an awesome observation. It’s especially true in regard to flash. In every flash piece I fall in love with I find myself intensely following a storyline and then—Bam! I get something totally unexpected that tilts that world. For me, at least, I can never set out to do that intentionally. It comes out of a compulsion to tell the reader something I haven’t quite figured out for myself and don’t yet know either the meaning or significance of. It’s that little nagging something …. And when it happens, when my perspective is forced to shift, there is that wonderful Aha! moment. If I’ve done my job I’ve taken the reader right to the edge of it without ever letting on as to what lies around the corner, and yet, when they look back, they will be surprised to find they have been led by the hand every step of the way.

Famously, Oscar Wilde’s last words were, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.” What’ll be your coda line?

Like any writer compelled to do this writing thing, I have fantasies of leaving a body of work that outlasts me. Can’t help it. But as I have repeatedly told my husband and children, should I achieve some degree of critical success, please don’t let them name a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike after me.

About the Author

Shawn Nocher’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of online journals including Pithead Chapel, Literary Mama, Five on The Fifth, and Eunoia Review, and a piece won an honorable mention in Glimmer Train‘s 2018 Very Short Fiction contest. Her debut novel, A HAND TO HOLD IN DEEP WATER, is scheduled for release June, 2021 from Blackstone Publishing. She lives in Baltimore City with an assortment of sassy rescue animals–but no rats.

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

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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