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Smoke & Mirrors
with Amy Cipolla Barnes

Interview by Lori Martin (Read the Story) September 19, 2022

Amy Cipolla Barnes

Amy Cipolla Barnes

I am wild about the extended metaphor—mother as an abandoned Kmart. One question I have, though: Why is it Kmart? Is there a further connection to be made—an inability to adapt, perhaps? Or is there some more personal reason for including it?

The simple answer is: a childhood connection to Kmart and what it was, what it isn’t. The run for Blue-light Specials. The first Little Caesar’s. I wrote it as a nostalgic nod to seventies and eighties childhoods. A Gen-X tie to things and stores that don’t exist anymore, juxtaposed against interacting with aging parents and siblings. There are only three Kmarts left in the United States, which makes me sad. It may feel a big jump to label my mother as an abandoned store, but that also makes me emotional.

I struggled with choosing which words to use. Should it be “my mother is an abandoned Kmart” or “my mother lives in an abandoned Kmart?” My great-grandparents lived in an abandoned school for several years and I considered adding that in but decided to focus on one relationship. The word twist felt like it gave me the latitude to have my mother appear abandoned, present the labelscar, have her internalize our relationship, make me an outsider gawking at a building shell.

I love the word “labelscar,” which I’d never heard before. Would you mind talking about the importance of specific word choices and images in a piece this short and piercing?

I’m admittedly and eternally fascinated with abandoned stores and malls—a Toys “R” Us turned Spirit Halloween, letter shadows that are all that’s left of a store, all that’s left of me. Nostalgic fonts. The word labelscar evokes a lot. The history of a store that is no more. The history of a child that is no longer in the area. The flash itself becomes a definition of that one word. I’ve used more obscure words like “failson” as a title, but here I loved the title leading into the first sentence for more immersion. In retrospect, “Labelscar” could have been a fitting title here. There’s something intrinsically scarring about the mother/child relationship, too.

What inspired this story (beyond the obvious)?

Abandoned stores and malls. My mother. Pop culture. Dealing with generational norms and relationships. Running the aisles in search of Kmart objects that defined the store—nearly-expired cans of peaches jumbled in wire baskets waiting for speedy kids dispatched by moms to whatever aisle was “special.” Being that special sibling designated as the runner. The objects I equate with Kmart become the objects my mother/Kmart sends home with me; actually put under a blue light because there’s too much or it takes up inventory space.

Looking at those touchpoint objects as an adult brings a focus on childhood experiences/objects/stores that we often look at through rosy glasses. Kmart was honestly probably struggling in its high points. The things sold there were cheap or low quality. We went there because there wasn’t money for whatever the fancier stores sold, but my mother managed to make it fun, something special. Just like many other mothers. The issue becomes—I left home. I left childhood behind. I left Kmart behind. I left her behind. And that is the inspirational juncture where we’re both stuck in a childhood Kmart, but for different reasons.

The story is both funny and heartbreaking—how do you think the humor (and absurdity) works with the darker elements and vice versa?

In rereading, I noticed despite the overall darker premise, it is basically a traditional story. There is reflection, loss, an examination of relationships. The idea of the abandoned Kmart becomes the overall metaphor but is only a shell (pun intended.) Because this is CNF, the opportunity to use the surreal metaphor is my way of softening what is painful—a look at mother/adult child estrangement. I see the connection now like I also stare at Kmart buildings—longing for blue light specials and sub sandwiches that I elevate in my mind above what Kmart really was in its heyday.

What are you working on currently?

I just completed a collaborative micro series with Sara Hills for Reckon Review. I’m in the editing/cover design process for a full-length collection forthcoming from Bellepoint Press in late 2023. Find me @amygcb on Twitter to see other upcoming flashes at Cease, Cows and Complete Sentence.

About the Author

Amy Cipolla Barnes is the author of three collections: Mother Figures (ELJ Editions, 2021)Ambrotypes (Word West LLC, 2022), and Child Craft (Belle Point Press, 2023). She has words at The Citron ReviewSpartan LitJMWW JournalNo Contact MagLeon ReviewComplete SentenceGone LawnThe Bureau DispatchNurture LitX-R-A-Y LitMcSweeney’s, -ette review, Southern Living, Cease, Cows, and many other sites. Her writing has been nominated for Best of the Net, the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfiction, long-listed for the Wigleaf Top50 in 2021, 2022, and 2023, and included in The Best Small Fictions 2022. She’s a Fractured Lit Associate Editor, Gone Lawn co-editor, Ruby Lit assistant editor, Narratively Chief Submissions Reader, and reads for The MacGuffinThe Best Small Fictions, The Porch TN, and CRAFT.


About the Interviewer

Lori Martin’s work has lately appeared in The Maine Review, The Whimsical Poet, The Tampa Review and Tin Can Literary. She is a graduate of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in Kansas where she teaches creative writing and American literature at Pittsburg State University.

This interview appeared in A SmokeLong Summer 2022 — Special Issue of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly A SmokeLong Summer 2022 — Special Issue

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"The Shape of Things: Movement, Momentum, and Dimension in Flash CNF" with Steve Edwards

Book Now!

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.