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Smoke & Mirrors with Michael Don

Interview by Michael Czyzniejewski (Read the Story) December 21, 2020

Michael Don

Michael Don

This story seems like it comes from experience. Yes, for the relationship part—we all have that—but I’m talking about the listening part, overhearing drama through thin apartment walls. Will you share your story with us? How close is it to what happens here?

The story is inspired by two different ex-neighbors. As a twenty-five-year-old living in a shitty apartment in Boston with a bunch of housemates, I was often awoken in the middle of the night to my room shaking and sex noises from the couple in the apartment above me. In the year I lived in that apartment I barely caught a glimpse of these people, though I imagined a lot about them and was even mildly in awe of them! But I wasn’t getting much sleep, so at one point I drafted a letter asking them to kindly consider shifting their sex schedule or reduce the physical intensity. I never ended up doing anything with the letter, but I still have it in my Google Drive. I just sort of accepted that their sex life was part of my life until one day I realized I was sleeping through the night and I could only assume they broke up. As a grad student in Illinois, my neighbor who played video games all day at an ear-shattering volume against our shared wall where I kept my desk, once shouted something about the absurdity of a Bears’ player’s arms. I scribbled down that line and drafted the first two sections of this story in what must have been 2012. Then I let it sit for eight years. I found it in my folder of story halves and pieces early in the pandemic and promptly finished a draft. Perhaps being locked down in my apartment, surrounded by the same walls all day, drew me back to this piece that I had all but forgotten.

Sex can sometimes heal all wounds. Other times it’s a Band-aid, like it seems to be with this couple in the next apartment. No question here, just an observation you can riff on.

I think you’re right. Sex is often not really just sex, and even when it is just sex it probably isn’t just sex. I think the narrator of my story is trying to sort all of this out through his own experiences as well as through experiencing others’ experiences.

This character is a fickle guy, willing to grasp onto the closest thing that makes him happy, or at least grasps back. Is that real happiness, or just anxious settling?

I think this character desires something more substantive than, let’s say, Thin Mints or the neighbor’s sex life. Is he looking for a partner? Maybe. But I think first he’s looking for a certain level of comfort in his own skin. Perhaps he’s looking to trust his senses. Desires. Emotions. Intuition. I think happiness at our core is often tied to how much we accept and trust ourselves.

What do you say to people who eat Thin Mints that haven’t been put in the freezer?

I’ve heard of these people but I’m not sure if I know any. Though I recognize this might be too polarizing of an issue for either side to hear one another, my first instinct would be to flood their inboxes with some very important articles in effort to convince them they’re on the wrong side of history with this one. Another option would be to say nothing and move to a country where this type of person doesn’t exist.

In all seriousness, I respect the room temperature Thin Mint. It’s inferior to the frozen Thin Mint, but it still has a lot going for it. It’s still a Thin Mint.

Your excellent collection, Partners and Strangers, has been out for nearly two years now. How has having this book out changed you as a writer? What’s your encore?

Thanks very much. I think having the book out has made me more deliberate in how I’m spending my writing time. It wasn’t uncommon for me to have three or four stories open on my laptop at the same time. For many years I didn’t have much of a plan, didn’t worry all that much about how my work fit together. I just wrote what I wanted to write and figured eventually I would have a cohesive body of work. Then one day I realized my non-plan plan had worked. Having the book out has also led me to experiment with different kinds of characters. I’m finding myself writing characters that have sharply contrasting world views from the set of characters in Partners and Strangers.

Not yet sure about the encore. I’m working on a novel and close to having another collection ready. We’ll see which manuscript gets there first!

About the Author

Michael Don is the author of the story collection Partners and Strangers (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2019) and he co-edits Kikwetu: A Journal of East African Literature.

About the Interviewer

Michael Czyzniejewski grew up in Chicago and now lives in Ohio, where he teaches at Bowling Green State University and serves as editor-in-chief of Mid-American Review. Recent stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Bellingham Review, The Los Angeles Review, Monkeybicycle, Moon City Review, and the anthologies Best of the Web 2009 and You Must Be This Tall to Ride. His debut collection, Elephants in Our Bedroom, was released by Dzanc Books in early 2009.

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