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Smoke & Mirrors with J.V. Skuldt

Interview by Ahsan Butt (Read the Story) December 20, 2021

J. V. Skuldt

J. V. Skuldt

I can’t decide what’s more remarkable—the subtle movement of moods throughout this piece or how it traces. Sweetie’s entire life in so few words. What came first—Sweetie or a mood?

Definitely Sweetie.

This flash comes as a continuous stream as Sweetie vacuums. At first, I thought, this is one of those profound moments in which the arc of your life crystalizes before you, as if you’re seeing your life from outside yourself; but then I thought—no! This is a thing that happens a hundred times a day, a string of associations and memories that comes in the course of a feeling or two without us even noticing. Is Sweetie having a profound moment, or is she just vacuuming?

Yes, for sure it is that thing that happens a hundred times a day, that continual reel playing our lives back to us. We may not even know why certain things return again and again. If we’re lucky and open, there are those crystalline moments of profundity, but for Sweetie, I think she grazes the truth and swerves away. It’s her way of making sense of her life, of what she hoped for and what she got. For her, she lives in a world that is both selling her a myth of how life can or should be and how dangerous and messed up things really are. And I believe that tension exists within her own mind as well. There is a lot of anxiety in both the vacuuming and the expending of mental energy to try to preserve what is good from her life.

Sweetie doesn’t push it when she finds a love letter from a girl in the office to her husband. But the language suggests, especially in its repeated use of “maybe,” that she did consider pushing it, making “that point.” Is there a Sweetie who does? How different is she from our Sweetie?

Absolutely within Sweetie is the woman who wants to confront this and all the other losses. But facing the potential consequences of that is a bigger gamble than she’s willing to take. The Sweetie who would confront any and all of that is much more confident and values herself a great deal more than the one in the story. The Sweetie of the story has derived most of her value from things outside herself—her relationships, her home, her constructed life.

It’s a fleeting reference, but it felt so resonant that I have to ask: What is the romance of Elvis and Graceland for someone like Sweetie, especially considering that one doesn’t have to scratch too hard to find the bleaker reality beneath the myth?

Well, I think the American (human?) obsession with celebrity exceeds simple appreciation of an individual’s talents or abilities. There’s a tendency to hold famous lives up as some kind of attainable possibility—assemble the right accoutrements of life and one can achieve something akin to invincibility or immortality or perfection or unshakable happiness. To me it seems like a kind of collective self-deception. Which is why, in part, it can be so devastating when those who are held up and admired in a mythical way fail or die young or tragically or in some other way reveal their human susceptibility. It takes a baseball bat to that myth. What I find similarly intriguing, though, is how equally obsessed we are as a culture with digging up those human failings. We are constantly building up the idea of a person and celebrity and then dismantling it (sometimes viciously). Or we embark on convoluted exercises in an effort to excuse or “recontextualize” what is essentially unacceptable behavior in order to preserve the dream. For Sweetie, I think Elvis and having a connection to him (even something as ridiculously inconsequential as a microwave) is both disheartening and oddly comforting.

“Sometimes you have to sleuth out love.” Love is gifts from a guilty husband. Love is being told not to eat rat-tainted chocolate. Love is also the carpet Sweetie vacuums at four a.m. because “new things don’t stay new.” Love seems to be something universal, as Sweetie yearns for it without having heard the word, yet it’s so malleable a concept. Is there a thing out there, pure and untainted, called love? Is it attainable, giveable?

Ah, love. I do believe that in and of itself, love is a pure and selfless thing. But in this life, when it is inevitably given by broken, imperfect people and received by broken, imperfect people, it is often something we have to salvage from the mess of fears, insecurities, damage, and self protection.

About the Author

J. V. Skuldt is a writer and editor living near Chicago. She has her MFA from Eastern Washington University and was formerly managing editor at The University of Wisconsin Press. She has taught art, writing, Latin, and started an after-school arts program for elementary school children in her community. Her work has appeared in The Wisconsin Academy Review, (in)courage, among others.

About the Interviewer

Ahsan Butt was born in Toronto, is of Pakistani descent, and currently lives in Los Angeles. His short fiction and essays have appeared in BarrelhouseThe Massachusetts ReviewThe Normal SchoolSmokeLong QuarterlyBlue MinaretThe RumpusPacifica Literary ReviewThe Offing, and elsewhere. Also, he is currently a Senior Editor at South Asian Avant Garde: A Dissident Literary Anthology (SAAG), as well as Managing and Fiction Editor at Lunch Ticket.

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

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