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Smoke & Mirrors with Eliot Li

Interview by Mikki Aronoff (Read the Story) September 19, 2022

Eliot Li

Eliot Li

Your story tricks. It starts light then quickly bruises. Smack dab in the middle, a wrenching anguish: Oh, god, I don’t want to die alone. Do you think that’s a universal need or desire, and what inspired you to touch on this theme?

I don’t think it’s necessarily a universal desire. I’ve encountered people who were dying alone who saw it as a blessing, as they felt peace thinking they weren’t burdening anyone else with their suffering and loss. Some people may also prefer to be alone because they can be in control of how they want things to go.

Regarding my inspiration, as a middle-aged person, I think about death constantly. After my wife and I come back from seeing our doctors, we always slip into in this endless loop of bedtime conversation that goes something like, “I’m going to die before you.” “No, I’m dying first!” And we both work in jobs where sickness and death are common, so there’s lots of reinforcement. My wife says she won’t get remarried if I die first, and that she’s perfectly equipped to be on her own. But I’ve told her I’m not sure I can say the same thing—I don’t do well living alone. So that’s been on my mind, the fear of aloneness in life and when facing death. And the personals, with every ad basically being a declaration of not wanting to be alone, seemed like a perfect place to explore this.

Of note, my mother has been living by herself for thirty years after my father died, and she couldn’t be happier with her choice to be alone. She adores her freedom to live however she wants!

Faced with abstractions and generalizations, which you so deftly sprinkle throughout, lonely hearts can better project their fantasies onto someone. I almost answered this ad myself! The poetic specificity of “evanescent purpling and pinking” jarred me. I pictured his heart those colors. Was this change in tone intentional?

Totally intentional! For research purposes, I went on Craigslist and read through personal ads (hoping my wife wouldn’t think I had ulterior motives). What struck me about the ads was how nonspecific they were. Everybody liked walks on the beaches. Everyone was looking for someone to share laughter. I think the most important part of a hermit crab story is the moment where you try to break the form that you’ve appropriated. So I started the ad with generic abstractions that feel familiar in personals, and then tried to break it with images so specific and gruesome that they’re the farthest thing from what you’d see in a real ad. I tried to alternate between tones in escalating fashion, to convey the anxiety of what this narrator had just experienced in the hospital, what’s actually in his head, beyond the more superficial romantic side of himself that would be more prudent for him to advertise.

A “love wanted” quasi-generic ad is a great vehicle for a frightened, vulnerable man bleeding desperation and seeking security. I’d personally recommend a dog, but who might you picture answering his plea? 

Nobody! No one is going to answer his ad!

Back in my twenties, I placed a few personal ads in the papers. Maybe because of insecurity, or because I was trying to make it different from all the other generic ones, I way overshared in my ads, and probably as a result, I got a grand total of zero replies. The lesson for me at the time was that I needed to try to get a handle on my own insecurities and anxieties before I could expect anyone to want to answer my ads.

Who is this man, really?

I think he’s always relished life and been perfectly happy being alone. But facing illness and death has transiently knocked him off his equilibrium. However, with time, and after no one responds to his ad, he’ll return to his baseline of contentment. He’ll grow really old, and he’ll travel around the world, trying to watch the sunset from the edge of as many different oceans, seas, and ponds as he can discover, cradling a fluffy dog in his lap.

About the Author

Eliot Li lives in California. His work appears or is forthcoming in CRAFT Literary, Citron Review, Maudlin House, trampset, Atticus Review, The Pinch, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere.

About the Interviewer

Mikki Aronoff, has work published or forthcoming in Flash Boulevard, New World Writing, MacQueen’s Quinterly, ThimbleLit, The Phare, The Ekphrastic Review, The Fortnightly Review, Milk Candy Review, Tiny Molecules, The Disappointed Housewife, Bending Genres, Gone Lawn, Mslexia, and elsewhere. Her stories and poems have received Pushcart and Best Microfiction nominations.

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 SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction

Deadline November 15!

The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction (The Smokey) is a biennial competition that celebrates and compensates excellence in flash. The grand prize winner of The Smokey is automatically nominated for The Best Small Fictions, The Pushcart, Best of the Net, and any other prize we deem appropriate. In addition to all this love, we will also pay the grand prize winner $2500. Second place: $1000. Third place $500. Finalists: $100. All finalists and placers will be published in the special competition issue in December 2022.