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"I Can Feel Them, But They Don't Know I'm There": An Interview with Emma Smith-Stevens

Emma Smith-Stevens' stories have appeared in ConjunctionsPANKWeb Conjunctions, and elsewhere. She lives in Gainesville, Florida.

Her story "Mercy" appears in Issue Twenty-Eight of The Collagist.

Here, Emma Smith-Stevens talks to interviewer Joseph Scapellato about "tracking" characters, unspeakable need, and endings that deepen.

1. Can you tell us about the origin of “Mercy”?  Where did this piece begin for you, and how did it get to here?

I wanted to write a story that captures the feeling of simultaneous revulsion and attraction, the experience of flinching in the face of intimacy. I started with Nina’s voice and a few images: Sergei’s bedroom with the kinky modifications, Nina’s forced smile for the group photo, a dead deer bloodying a snow bank. For me, writing fiction involves crawling under my characters’ skin, connecting with them through empathy, and then sneaking away. It’s sort of like when scientists tag wild animals with tracking chips. My characters carry on with their lives, but I maintain that connection—I can feel them, but they don’t know that I’m there.

2. I love this story’s honest exploration of intimacy’s liberating and oppressive aspects.  Nina tells us that Sergei’s “warmer, spongier qualities” are scaring her off, that he “modified his apartment for me with hooks in the ceiling and the floor, ropes bought at Home Depot, an attempt to meet my fetishes halfway.”  To her, even Sergei’s native language, Ukrainian, is intolerably intimate, sounding “nonsensical and made-up, as though invented by identical twins.”  At what stage do you discover the ideas that your fiction is engaging?  And what do you do then?

The ideas in this story presented themselves first, and led me to these characters. The dynamic between Nina and Sergei gives life to ideas about intimacy, fear, sexual attraction, and control, and all of that is the natural result of these two people coming together.

Everyone wants to be desired, but no one wants to be desired too much. “Mercy” is a love story, but with romance in the background, and discomfort up front. Sergei and Nina crave each other intensely, but each of them wants what the other wishes to withhold. Some would assume that a relationship involving power struggles is doomed, but in the case of these two, it is exactly right. Their disturbances are compelling to one another. Nina needs to fear Sergei in order to respect him, and in the end his actions make that possible. Sergei needs Nina to express her longing for him, and that is what he ultimately earns. There is unspeakable need, for both of them, to be together.

3. The ending of “Mercy” is powerful.  In the second-to-last paragraph, Nina thinks, “I will let him inside,” and the reader, who’s been pulling for this couple, rejoices—but the story pushes past this patch of hope: while driving, Nina and Sergei see two women stranded on the side of the road.  Although Sergei wants to stop and help, Nina persuades him—in a striking way—to keep driving, to abandon the women “in the midst of their struggle.”  This action, and the image that results, resonate.  As a writer, how do you find your endings?  What do you look for?

This story had three different endings over about six months before I finally landed on this one. I had to take time away from it in order find the image that would best express what I wanted to say about Nina and Sergei. I suppose that I often try to end that way—a sort of freeze-frame image that, hopefully, deepens the readers’ understanding of all that came before, and what will come next.

Some of my favorite story endings depict a beautiful moment with a very short lifespan. The past and the future are bearing down. As a reader you just want to hold on, but you also know it’s time to go, to get out before the whole house comes crashing down. Those endings gave me inspiration while finishing “Mercy.” 

4. What other writing projects are you working on right now?

I’m writing a novel.

5. What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

Until recently I’d only read a handful of Nabokov’s short stories, so I’m making my way through those, which is exciting. One of the best books I’ve read in the last few months was Chess Story by Stefan Zweig. I absolutely loved Michael Kimball’s Big Ray and Padgett Powell’s You and Me. Next on my list are Susan Steinberg’s Spectacle and Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances both of which I couldn’t be more excited about.

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