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Smoke & Mirrors with Robert P. Kaye

Interview by Brooke Fossey (Read the Story) March 23, 2020

Robert P. Kaye

Art by Katelin Kinney

Which adult do you think is most at fault for Frank Twombly’s crime besides him? Which adult is the most blameless? Why?

The Onion runs the same headline after every mass shooting: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” There’s plenty of blame to go around, but it comes into the story as an externality. The United States has more guns than people. Charts showing gun violence for developed countries makes the scale look broken because the U.S. is such an outlier. The way we got to this delusional state was telling ourselves stories about what guns mean. Freedom! Cowboys! SEAL Team 6! But that’s not what “The Stories We Will Always Know” is about. I began writing in despair after one of the many school shootings, but what really drove it home was an article about the impact of such events on children, 26 percent of whom expect to be involved in a school shooting. Fear becomes the story our children live with every day. We’ve supplanted Goodnight Moon and Horton with Columbine and Sandy Hook. We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.

The children’s education begins to deteriorate until it revolves almost exclusively (and quietly) around bloodshed. Do you think their education on violence ultimately perpetuated it?

Yes. The gun in the classroom is a catalyst that starts a chain reaction with unpredictable results. Violence is one of those caustic chemicals that reacts badly with just about everything it touches. School shootings and mass shootings are very much a copycat phenomenon, like suicide “epidemics.” It’s usual for shooters to research previous atrocities. The embedded story about the schoolmaster’s sparrow is true. I can’t stop thinking that the sparrow being crushed underfoot was the start of something ongoing. Violence may be part of the human condition, but if it isn’t on the decline we’re doing something wrong.

Ms. Price was never equipped to handle violence, and Max was never equipped to be in the classroom. Was there any scenario where they could have succeeded together?

I think they did succeed together, but their happiness didn’t last very long. Without Frank, they would have married, had their own children, Max would have become a teacher and they would own a lot of books. But stories require heartbreak so readers can recognize their own lives. I like to think the suffering of Ms. Price and Max are not in vain, but writers are sadistic monsters. It’s part of the job description. Without a story to serve they would have been fine.

The pacification of Max is steady but certain. After his complete role reversal from protector to protected, who is left to defend the children?

A free and open society will always be vulnerable to violence and terrorism unless it becomes the opposite, destroying itself. Therein lies the problem. Ms. Price was always the protector of the children’s humanity, the one who borrowed the blankies, the teacher who knew the right stories, the one who tried to talk Frank down instead of throwing beakers. Good teachers and good parents are the real everyday heroes of our lives. It works until you introduce assault rifles. Safety and protection are only a matter of probabilities, but this is something children shouldn’t know until they’re ready to deal with the terror of uncertainty.

You facilitate the Works in Progress open mic at Hugo House in Seattle. Tell us about it.

I’ve hosted WIP for over six years. 3,387 reads in my tenure as of mid-November. I’m a volunteer who inherited custody of a reading that’s been going for over twenty years. We always get people who have never read in public alongside the well published and practiced. The most exciting thing is to see someone start with their hands shaking and find out they have a voice. Some come once and never come back, some go on to glory. All the flash I’ve published has been battle tested at open mics, including three different versions of “Stories We Will Always Know.” There is nothing like it to improve your writing. I highly recommend it.

What’s your next work in progress about?

I tend to work on a lot of things at once, at least when I’m not trying to write a novel. I have short stories coming out (or recently out) in Gulf Stream (a realistic piece for once), Jersey Devil Press (about people who live in invisible houses) and Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review (the pov narrator is a dead psychic lemur escaped from a private zoo who gets made into a hat—and then it gets weird). I love the writing of Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Haruki Murakami, George Saunders, Colson Whitehead, John Crowley, and others who dance over the boundaries between realistic and fantastical. I just discovered Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here, about children who burst into flame. I’m having a great time, but eventually I have to do a final draft of the damn novel.

I think “Stories We Will Always Know” ultimately upholds the necessity of fairy tales. Do you have a favorite one, and why?

“Little Red Riding Hood” has all the essentials, from wolves in dark forests to consumed grandmothers, especially when transformed by the genius of Angela Carter in “The Werewolf.” In that version, Red knows her way around a knife and the world contains brutal poverty, witches, vampires and (of course) a werewolf. The ending dispenses with the rescuing Woodsman. The sentences take your breath away. All in two pages. Every story in Carter’s collection of transformed fairytales “The Bloody Chamber” is stellar, but this is my favorite, at least for now. If one person reads Angela Carter because of this our work here is done.

About the Author

Robert P. Kaye’s stories have appeared in Penn Review, Potomac Review, Hobart, Juked, Fiction Southeast, The Los Angeles Review and elsewhere, with details available at www.RobertPKaye.com. He facilitates the Works in Progress open mic at Hugo House and is a fiction editor at Pacifica Literary Review.

About the Interviewer

Brooke Fossey is a native Texan and the current president of DFW Writers’ Workshop. Her debut novel is forthcoming in 2020 from Penguin/Berkley (US), and Piper/Pendo (DE).


This interview appeared in Issue Sixty-Seven of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Seven

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