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Smoking With Emily Darrell

Interview by Stefani Nellen (Read the Story) December 21, 2009

Emily Darrell

mask of smoke by Julian Schwarze

What a great story, with a wonderful voice. You had me at the first line. “Becoming a bird was not what I expected.” Where did that idea come from?

First of all, thank you. This story was actually originally written as a poem (all I did for the conversion was take it out of stanza form) and like every other poem I’ve ever written (or tried to write) it started not with an idea, but with a first line. I was literally just standing on the sidewalk watching a bird hop around pecking at some trash, when a voice in my head said: “Becoming a bird was not what I expected.” I don’t know how first lines come so easily like that, because generally everything that comes after is like pulling out my own teeth.

I love it how this piece effortlessly skips from light to “serious” for lack of a better word. How did this happen?

I actually have no idea. I wrote this piece without thinking too hard about what I was writing or what it meant. I was trying to make it flow, to sound good. When I showed this to a friend of mine to read he said “It’s just like how you talk.” Though I can’t imagine that I actually talk that way. At least I hope not.

In the beginning in particular it almost sounded as if becoming a bird is similar in many respects to growing up: building a nest, learning to “feed” (i.e. spread your resources), and even pretending to know more than you do (move the beak instead of singing). Would you agree with this or did you have something else in mind?

Yeah, it definitely seems like a metaphor for life, though I’m not sure if that is what I intended. It’s funny that I often find myself using anthropomorphism, because, as a literary device, I kind of consider it cheating. The writers I admire most are those who can create a strange or surreal atmosphere or convey deep emotion (or both) without resorting to anything that couldn’t happen outside the bounds of accepted science. But I think these writers are just more talented than I am; therefore I have to rely on gimmicks like cross-dressing giraffes and disgruntled birds. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t a lot of brilliant fantasy or sci-fi writers out there who are also much more talented than I am; it’s just that that style of writing isn’t generally to my taste. Although I do like some writers who use elements of magical realism, I don’t quite get as awed as I do by writers like Chekhov who can write about banalities like drinking a cup of tea in a way that makes me lose my breath. That sort of stuff really floors me.

It sounds as if the flying is well worth the minor annoyances associated with becoming a bird. I really love the last two paragraphs of this story. So beautiful. I wonder whether there is a human equivalent to this experience—or is this a story about longing for the impossible (as impossible as becoming something you’re not)? In other words, is the story about limits or about possibilities?

Well, from a literal standpoint it’s about the fantasy of being able to fly, which is probably a fantasy just about everybody has had at one time or another. But on a metaphorical level I guess it’s about the reason why we don’t all kill ourselves. Even though life is hard at times, incredibly hard for some, most people still choose to stick it out until their natural deaths. Maybe it’s only from a sense of duty to their religion or their families or whatever else, but I still think it is an indication that most people have judged the good to be worth more than the bad, even if the good comes less frequently. I guess, yeah, it’s about those small, beautiful moments that make up for all the drudgery, hard work, and confusion. But I’m no hedonist, and I do believe that without some drudgery, you can’t really have bliss, either. I can never fully enjoy myself if I feel I’ve been being too lazy. If I want to really feel happy, I have to feel I’ve earned it.

About the Author

Emily Darrell is just back from a year teaching at a university in Bucharest, Romania and is planning her next move.

About the Interviewer

Stefani Nellen is a psychologist-turned-writer living in Pittsburgh and the Netherlands with her husband. Her short fiction appears or is forthcoming in VerbSap, Bound Off, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Cezanne’s Carrot, FRiGG, and Apex Digest, among other places. She co-edits the Steel City Review.

About the Artist

Julian Schwarze, born on May 12, 1989 in Frankfurt / Main, studied product design at the University of Art and Design Offenbach, graduated in 2015 and is currently a research associate and PhD student in project-mo.de with a focus on mobility design. His doctoral thesis deals with system transitions in mobility spaces and their user-centered design. During his studies he completed internships in design offices in the Netherlands and Hamburg. The main focus was on  brand- and user-centered design of industrial products, everyday products and packaging.

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

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