Interviewed by Michelle Neuffer
Your story begins with Rhonda watching her neighbors through the window, and the rest of it sort of mimics that experience for the reader—we get glimpses into Rhonda’s art, her job, her marriage, the neighbors’ house. These glimpses hint at longer stories that feel like they remain just out of frame. Can you talk a little about how you find your way into a story, how to find the right beginning?
I always want to start with something destabilizing. I like stories that shock you into their world, as opposed to guiding you carefully by the hand. This approach, of course, alienates certain types of readers, and it’s the biggest thing I focus on when going back through a piece for revisions: how to keep a wild, unpredictable energy without throwing my reader off the ride. So, in the beginning, I honestly just want to create an image or present a voice that is new to me, something I haven’t seen on the page before. It’s a way of signaling to a reader, right off the bat, that things are going to get a little ridiculous. It’s almost like I’ve read so many stories that begin with a character waking up in bed that I’ve developed an allergy.
I get bored very easily, in my own writing and things that I read. It may be a symptom of my generation, but regardless, the impulse persists.
This aversion to boredom probably explains what you’re describing about the story giving a series of glimpses rather than a deep dive into a single aspect of Rhonda’s life. I get bored. I want to move from aspect to aspect to keep things interesting, but also to (hopefully) fill out the character’s dimensions. I’ve got 6,000 words to show what this life is like on the outside, inside, at work, in public, alone with art, dreaming in the garage, pleading on the phone, etc. I want it all, even if that means I can only afford to deliver a little bit of each aspect. I imagine my writing will become more focused as I grow as a writer, however.
Your story deals with heavy topics, but there’s a lot of humor as well. How do you find that balance?
Humor is the beginning of anything I care about. I always begin with something that makes me laugh. My friends and I spent many summer days at the end of our driveway, fucking with cars that would drive by. We loved Jackass (the TV show) and really did try to “sell” my sister, Jenna, to passing cars. We loved it, the idea of injecting a little absurdity into the random lives that sped past our property. I love pranks. I love improv comedy. I love videos of people’s reactions to things they don’t understand. Sometimes this motivates me to write fiction that tries to make a reader do a double-take.
The deeper issues come out when I begin to write further past the initial jokes. Because what’s funny almost always has something unfunny lurking behind it. Why did we need that kind of attention? Why did we think it was funny, this idea of giving my sister away to a stranger? Where was I learning toxic masculinity? Could what seemed harmless have been abuse? To what lengths will loneliness push us?
Revision and re-writing and editing are so difficult because I have to locate these serious issues and turn up the color on them in the story without making them seem maudlin or sentimental.
Though I know it’s currently on hiatus, I have to ask about the Submerging Writer Fellowship. In addition to being an exquisite name, it seems like an incredibly thoughtful means of support—can you say a little about its conception/goals/future?
Well, we can stay on theme: the Submerging Writer Fellowship started as a joke. With Fear No Lit, the organization I run with my partner, Erin Dorney, most of our best ides start as silly jokes. In late 2016, we saw an ad for an “emerging” writer fellowship. One of us said, “Do you think we’re emerging?” And the other said, “No, more like submerging.” It made us laugh and seemed to make people laugh on Twitter. But it was partially true. We felt a little like we’d been writing hard and taking shots and just not getting a break. We wanted to make a fellowship for people who had felt that way for a long time, or in a worse way. In addition to a writing sample, the fellowship application asked writers to talk about their biggest failures and where they find hope. We had 300+ applicants from all over the world. The two of us pored over applications and decided on 10 to send to our judge, the amazing Jenn Givhan. She chose Angelica Maria Barraza, and we printed her chapbook, gave her a cash prize, and set up a reading for her (and the three finalists) at AWP 18 at the Florida Museum of Photographic Art. It was an incredible success, but it all came out of our pockets. We’re currently looking for a sponsor for the project so we can do it again in 2020.
What’s your writing process like? Do you have a ritual?
I write every morning between 6:30 and 8. I revise and edit when I can find time, usually weekends. When I was in grad school (I’m out now and have a full-time job), I edited for about an hour or two every afternoon. That’s how most of my story collection was created. The most important part of my process is workshopping my stories with writers I trust.
What are you reading right now? Or looking forward to reading? OR BOTH?
I just read the novel How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas. Early this year, I heard her read her story, “The State of Nature,” on The New Yorker “The Writer’s Voice” podcast, and I’ve since listened to it like fifteen times. That story is flawless, the best piece of fiction I read in 2018. So, I went out and got her novel. It’s so fun and deceptively simple. I laughed out loud so many times.
In 2019, I can’t wait to read Bryan Washington’s debut collection, Lot.
And the companion question—what are you working on?
Just this week I sent out my first full-length book of stories to a publisher. As always, chances are very low of that working out, but having actually finished this newest revision of the manuscript and hit send was a great way to finish the year. I also have a chapbook of flash fiction (The Quiet Part Loud) coming out this winter from Split Lip Press, so I’ll be doing a number of readings in 2019.