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Smoke & Mirrors with Marcus Tan

Interview by Michael Czyzniejewski (Read the Story) December 19, 2022

Marcus Tan

Marcus Tan

I love the simplicity of the human connection here, two people on a bench, chatting. Was there any temptation to make it bigger, at least in the background, screaming, sirens, rioting, praying, etc.?

Absolutely—I had played around with many iterations of scale, including dialing everything up to the level of screaming and sirens. But after a while, it had all felt too distracting from what I saw as the heart of the story, which is a little moment between two humans on a bench. And so I eventually went in the opposite direction, keeping the exterior world as small as I could while enlarging the interior worlds of the characters, going deeper and deeper into memory and nostalgia and all that good stuff.

If this story was up in one of my workshops, there’d be all kinds of theories about the asteroid not being real, just a construct of the narrator’s longing. Or Mr. Chan actually being Baba somehow. (And who knows—maybe that’s what you’re going for!) Fiction seems to have reached that point, nothing is as it seems. Will we ever escape that?

Funny you should bring that up—I did indeed workshop this piece, and hearing everyone’s theories about the asteroid was really crucial in helping me refine the narrative and walk the razor edge between reality and imaginary construct. It was important to me that the asteroid could be open to interpretation. In many ways, the end of the world is a unique, individual experience. Some fear it, some are curious about it, some welcome it with open arms. Everyone will have their own Final Moment, and I wanted to capture that spirit with this story.

With the meta question on fiction—there seems to be some sort of magic that inhibits that in-between, dreamlike space, where nothing is as it seems. I think what’s appealing about that space is the idea of infinite possibility, or at the very least the proffering of a wonderful alternative to everyday reality. I very much wanted my story to live there. And no, there is no escape, I’m afraid. Certainly not for me!

Which camp do you find yourself in: Deep Impact or Armageddon

If I had to pick between the two—Armageddon, simply because it’s such a fun movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And I’m never going to complain about Bruce Willis and explosions. Never ever.

If I could pick something I love from the realm of fiction, it would absolutely have to be The Road by Cormac McCarthy, even if it’s technically post-apocalyptic rather than end-of-the-world. The sheer brutality of McCarthy’s world in contrast to the tender relationship between father and son. It is a great, great read.

With all the talk of fathers and sons, the narrator focuses on his mother in the end, his true happy place. What is Mr. Chan thinking about at the same moment? 

I like to think Mr. Chan is also in his happy place, which like the narrator, is probably somewhere in the past. Perhaps Mr. Chan will revisit his last memory of his wife, or the first day he met her, or any other day in between.

In earlier drafts of the story, there were more direct references to Mr. Chan’s late wife and his memories of their time together. I ended up cutting most of it to keep focus on the narrator. At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s too important for us to know exactly what Mr. Chan’s happy place looks like. I find it comforting enough to know he has one he can revisit, with or without the threat of the end of the world.

Name any famous person in history, living or dead, you’d pick as your emergency contact. Play out that phone call.

Ahhh, this is a tough one. I presume that if I’m in an emergency contact situation, I’m probably barreling down my final moments. I’m going to call Michelle Yeoh’s character Evelyn from Everything Everywhere All at Once. She’s tough and fearless, fully equipped to handle anything thrown her way, no matter how bizarre and unexpected, and she’s just an all-round good person with so much heart. In our phone call, I’m thinking she can give me some good practical advice if I’m in a dangerous situation, or if all else fails, at least offer me some comforting words to ease my transition into the next plane.

About the Author

Marcus Tan is a writer from Singapore residing in Hong Kong. His latest story, ‘All This is Yours to Lose’, was a finalist for the 2021 Masters Review Short Story Award and was shortlisted for the 2021 Exeter Story Prize. His fiction has been anthologized in The Best Small Fictions 2021 and published in Prime Number MagazineNo Contact Magazine, and elsewhere. He is a slush reader for The Masters Review. Find him at marcus-tan.com.

About the Interviewer

Michael Czyzniejewski’s fourth collection of stories, The Amnesiac in the Maze, is forthcoming from Braddock Avenue Books in 2023.

This interview appeared in Issue Seventy-Eight — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction 2022 of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventy-Eight — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction 2022
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