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Smoke & Mirrors with Emma Brankin

Interview by Shelly Weathers (Read the Story) March 21, 2022

Emma Brankin

Emma Brankin

The mom template is so often burdened with affectual clichés. In “All the Ways We’re Hurting,” Ellie is emotionally exhausted, angry, ashamed, and alone, all of which is poignant, but also explosive. Is her shame the most or least transgressive thing about her?

I am not a mother (well, I am a cat mum but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count), so it was a little daunting to approach a story from the perspective of a parent. If this story somewhat avoids the aforementioned affectual clichés, then I am delighted. The idea of writing a story about an extremely difficult child and an apologist parent has been on my mind for a while. I think most people have been out and about and seen a teenager behaving pretty appallingly and imagined their home life and what tactics, if any, guardians are using to try and help the child make better choices. In regards to Ellie’s shame and whether or not elements of her were transgressive or, indeed, cliché, I just tried to stick to what I best envisaged could be her emotional truth in such a difficult situation.

At the tenderest possible moment, Ellie wishes her son had hit her harder, left a bruise, an injury. I can see this as self-flagellating or, less generously, as a desire for the cover offered by victimhood. How valuable is ambiguity in your characters?

I definitely like ambiguity in storytelling. I always remember being very young and watching Lost In Translation and loving the ending where we don’t hear what Bill Murray whispers—only to have my sister declare the movie an abomination to cinema. I think that’s when I realized that some people are going to hate when you leave them to interpret it themselves and others, like me, will value it. That being said, I have quite strong opinions as to what Ellie means in that last sentence, but, now my words are out there, it’s up to the reader to make of them what they want.

Chasing the issue of time, fictional time is one of my favorite topics—you take Ellie through current and future reactions of relatives, back to her son’s infancy, to her thoughts about his potential reactions to theoretical events that have yet to unfold. How do you decide to set your narrative time machine dial—is it a functional decision of pacing and plot, internal versus external movement, an intuitive process of unfolding and tracing, or something else entirely?

Well, the piece is a failed attempt at a one-sentence story, so if I remember correctly, initially, I was trying to use the breathless sentence as a way to cover all the complex, rapid-fire panic going on in Ellie’s mind in a short space of time. And even though a few more full stops entered into the equation, I was still going for that relentless churn-of-thought effect. The fact it follows an external-internal-external structure is really just because that’s how I envisaged it playing out in real time. I also dabbled very briefly in future tense with her imagining, after striking her son, how everything was going to play out—which, again, was hugely rooted in shame. She knows she’s going to be judged terribly for hitting him, just like she’s being judged for her lack of control over him. But the future tense was pretty horrible so it only survived one draft ….

As a person who has written quite a bit about familial violence, I connected with this piece quite strongly. Once, an editor sent me a note saying they were hesitant to publish a story in which a child suffered an act of violence. Thankfully for the story, a different editor had no such qualms, but I kind of see the former point. What, in your opinion, are the ethics that influence depictions of childhood trauma? Or, conversely, why is the fictional depiction of childhood trauma less an ethical dilemma for editor or writer?

I guess with anything you choose to include in your fiction, whether childhood trauma or something else, you need to ask yourself is it valuable to your story, does it serve a purpose, are you handling it with the level of understanding that it deserves …. If it’s just in your word count to shock or to be “edgy,” then its inclusion would be, in my opinion, badly thought through. And, to a lesser degree, likewise with the son’s earlier offences such as sharing porn with his little cousins!

In the story, relatives are angrily shoving evidence of Ellie’s hacked Facebook status at her. What is the worst thing you’ve ever hit SEND on and then rethought?

There was a lot of debate over what the piece should be titled and there were so many options on the maybe list that, at one point, things were so desperate that “Ellie Ray is a Dirty Fuckin wHORE” was somehow in the mix. That being said, although I didn’t want it as a title, that Facebook “hack” her son posts really helped inform who Ellie was. The message had been posted and she hasn’t deleted it … who does that? You’d delete it straight away, right? But she’s so in shock and upset by the events, too busy dealing with the more immediate issue of her son running away, she leaves it up, and it kind of foreshadows her desire to have a bruise on her face. But, to answer your question more directly, I’m forever writing the email or the text that would undoubtedly grenade my professional or personal life, then, I read it over, calm down and delete 98 percent of it and just reply “OK, sure,” … but it’s fun to write the first email—it’s just never fun to send it and deal with the consequences.

About the Author

Emma Brankin is a teacher from Glasgow, Scotland with a Masters in Creative Writing and Education from Goldsmiths College, University of London. She was recently shortlisted for the Bridport Prize’s Short Story Contest as well as winning Fugue Fiction‘s Short Story prize and the To Hull And Back Short Story contest. Other work has appeared in places such as Reflex, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine and Maudlin House. You can contact her on Twitter via @emmanya

About the Interviewer

Shelly Weathers lives and teaches in the Southwest. Her short stories have appeared in Moon City Review, The Adroit Journal, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere, and has received the John Steinbeck and Beacon Street prizes for fiction.

This interview appeared in Issue Seventy-Five of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventy-Five
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