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Smoke & Mirrors with
Sara Kaplan-Cunningham

Interview by Dawn Miller (Read the Story) June 17, 2024

Sara Kaplan-Cunningham

Sara Kaplan-Cunningham

Much of what’s said in the story isn’t explicitly stated. How did you decide what to include and what to withhold?

I try to have my characters operate as if they’re holding the weight of their entire histories on their backs. I think that, if this is done right in a story, then the need for heavy exposition shrinks. And that’s good for me, because a narrative this small can’t do the same kind of heavy exposition as a longer work. One of my teachers always says: Mystery is best revealed through clarity. In this piece, I strove to give the readers enough of a 3D relationship—between the narrator and Nadine—to allow for the glaring mystery that is the narrator’s relationship to Cassandra.

The story is rich with evocative imagery, some highlighting the beauty of nature, some underscoring its brutality. How does this contrast work to reinforce the overall narrative?

Anything we are exposed to briefly has the capacity for great beauty. The thing about sticking with something or someone long enough is that we get to see the nuance, the cracks, the shadow side. I wanted there to be a kind of double juxtaposition going on: we’ve got the brutality of nature versus beauty of nature, and we’ve got this friendship, which has the capacity for both great connection and great disconnection.

I love the themes of regret, loss, and nature intertwined in the narrative. What was your process for writing the story?

My two best friends from high school were visiting me in Houston. We saw a heron kill a frog while we were walking through Memorial Park. We were all incredibly disturbed and kept bringing it up and laughing about it for the rest of the trip, not laughing “ha-ha” but laughing like, “Wow, that was so hard to watch and laughing is all we can do.” Even after they left, I found myself ruminating on this image of the heron killing the frog and the sounds the frog made, which were indescribable. So, I wrote a story about it. The initial writing process, I’ll be honest, is kind of a blur, but the revision process involved was, and often is: giving it to my partner, telling him all his thoughts are wrong, then giving it to my roommate, and accepting that most of her thoughts are right, and changing the story accordingly.

The recurrent theme of impermanence creates a strong emotional pull. Can you expand on the importance of the theme in the story?

Hmm. I guess I think impermanence is the theme after whom other themes are named. I’m kind of stealing and manipulating that Nicole Sealey quote, but I think it’s true. The understanding that anything—literally anything—can change chaotically and irreparably is terrifying and we all just walk around with that knowledge in the back of our heads every day! At all times! I wanted this story to not flinch away from impermanence, even if the characters do. Even if I do.

What do you hope the future holds for the narrator and for Nadine?

I really hope that they both go to therapy and perhaps read a book on nonviolent communication. They’re doing the best with what they’ve got, though.

About the Author

Sara Kaplan-Cunningham received her MFA in poetry from the University of Houston. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in DIALOGIST, The Cincinnati Review, Fugue, Washington Square Review, Redivider, and elsewhere. Her story “The Conversion” won F(r)iction’s Fall 2023 Flash Fiction Contest. She loves warm brownie sundaes.

About the Interviewer

Dawn Miller is a 2024 recipient of The SmokeLong Quarterly Fellowship for Emerging Writers. She won the 2024 Toronto Star Short Story Contest and is a Pushcart Prize nominee, Best Small Fictions nominee, and winner of Best Microfiction 2024. Her work appears in many journals and anthologies, including The Cincinnati Review, The Forge Literary Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, Fractured Lit, and elsewhere. She lives and writes in Picton, Ontario, Canada, with her writing helper, Maizie the goldendoodle.

This interview appeared in Issue Eighty-Four — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Eighty-Four — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction

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