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Smoking With Adam Peterson

Interview by Brandon Wicks (Read the Story) September 24, 2013

Adam Peterson

art by Alexander C. Kafka

Tell us a little bit about “Bit Player”—how’d this idea come to you? Where’d it start?

For fun, I looked it up and this was my exact note in my file of inexact notes: Person who is not the main character in a movie. Everyone approaches them and says some clichéd plot (“My sister is gone but no one believes me.” “I’m in love with my sister’s husband.”) but she is just doing laundry or something.

(Interestingly/terribly, the note immediately above this one is: Someone approaches and inexplicably says, “it’s not a sex thing,” then walks away. Let’s just say I chose the right “person approaches and says something” plot and anyone else is welcome to that other one).

So, no idea where that note originally came from, but my guess is it’s from a long-held interest in the “best friend” characters in movies who just roll with these absurd plots the main character finds themselves involved in. Judy Greer is probably playing this friend.

For me, the voice is the driving force behind this story. The first two paragraphs take off with a mix of authority and comedy, nicely pairing a sense of hardboiled fantasy (murderers and spies!) with the banal frustrations of everyday relationships (people falling for assholes). If you will, share your thoughts on voice and its place and process in your writing.

So much weight hangs on having a compelling speaker presenting what is, often, a great deal more absurd than can be explained in 500 words. In a piece like this, I want a speaker who can insert some kind of pathos into that silliness and get it past the I am being zany/clever/writerly! stage—and into, you know, an actual story with some actual emotional resonance. Obviously there’s no plot in the sense of a novel or short story here, but there’s still movement, I think, in that voice that makes it something other than me just showing off. If it works at all—and you can argue it totally doesn’t—it’s what makes this idea a short short and that sex idea just a joke. Who is that speaker there? Who is that listener? I don’t know, but isn’t it a zany thing to say to a stranger? That’s dumb and that’s why I didn’t write it. But don’t let me discourage you from writing it, strangers.

Even though the police always take over, even though the narrator’s role in her friends’ lives is always small, there seems to be a burden, a heavy responsibility involved with being a bit player / “good friend.” What do you see as the responsibilities that encumber such people?

It’s casting oneself as a bit player, I suppose. Just erasing a person from her own life in order to be this support system in someone else’s. I think we probably all—unless we’re terrible—do this sometimes and it’s healthy and ego-correcting and an expression of love. It’s being in a real relationship with someone. You’re a bridesmaid at a sister’s wedding. You turn down a job to not force a partner to move. Whatever. Just basic not being a jerk. What’s lacking here is reciprocation which I really do think is a hallmark of those movies and thus the joke behind this (and an old one, maybe, if Tom Stoppard applies here though I’m sure his is a deeper, better point). And we’re probably all on both sides of this sometimes, but good friends, one hopes, wouldn’t let this define the connection. Everybody might be the main character in their own lives, but that doesn’t mean their lives are movies. Movies are movies.

I like that: an expression of love. Will the narrator ever get a story of her own? And how would she make that happen?

Her story is that she’s this person, I suppose, because that’s how she’s writing it. This whole thing with the policeman is just her imagining—as much as she can—what would happen and there’s this sad acceptance of her role as middling and ineffectual. Not terrible, not great. This is maybe what hits closest to home for me, how self-awareness not only doesn’t save her from herself but reinforces this malaise.

Give us a snapshot, one brief moment, when you realized that you were a bit player in someone else’s life.

Ha, I’m mostly a bit player, probably. At most a featured guest star during that weekend I sleep on your couch.

About the Author

Adam Peterson is a Kathy Fish Fellow and writer-in-residence at SmokeLong Quarterly for 2013-14. He is the co-editor of The Cupboard, and the author of The Flasher, My Untimely Death, and, with Laura Eve Engel, [SPOILER ALERT]. His short fiction can be found in The Kenyon Review, Indiana Review, The Normal School, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. Originally from Nebraska, he currently lives in Houston, Texas.

About the Interviewer

Brandon Wicks is the associate editor for special projects at SmokeLong Quarterly. He is a freelance writer and illustrator based in Philadelphia. His debut novel, American Fallout, will be published by Santa Fe Writers Project in 2016. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Pembroke Magazine, Potomac Review, Sou’wester, and other journals.

About the Artist

Alexander C. Kafka is a journalist, photographer, and composer in Bethesda, Maryland. He created the cover image for Lost Addresses: New and Selected Poems by Diann Blakely (Salmon Poetry, 2017). His work has also been published at All Things Fashion DC, BuzzFeed, Fast Company, Juked, Vice, The Washington Post, The Writing Disorder, and many other periodicals. He has been on the documentation team for the Washington Folk Festival at Glen Echo and is a contributing concert photographer for DMNDR. Kafka studied fine-art figure photography with Missy Loewe at the Washington School of Photography and portrait photography with Sora DeVore at Glen Echo Photoworks.

This interview appeared in Issue Forty-One of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Forty-One

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