Natanya Biskar

Interviewed by Payal Nagpal

You write about the independent school your narrator works at with a great deal of fondness and a touch of cynicism. I was wondering how your own experience working at independent schools influences your writing—your experiences have obviously served as fodder for some great content, but beyond that, has working with children influenced your use of language?

That is such an interesting idea, and the short answer is that I don’t know if working with children has influenced my prose. I do know that children tend to show up in my stories, whether those stories are set at a school or not. I enjoy writing about children, not in a kids-say-the-darndest-things way, but rather because I think kids bring out interesting vulnerabilities in adults. For one, kids are often excellent adult observers, and their perception can be unsteadying. They also have an unfiltered, self-serving logic that is so rational it circles all the way back around to being absurd. Their logic is also revelatory: it can locate the seams in all the little rationalizations we grown-ups use every day so we don’t burst into tears. Most of all, I think what draws me to write about kids is how powerless they are, how they have little say about most of the things that happen to them. In the real world, adults tend to forget the powerlessness of kids. We forget what it is like to have other people in charge of our decisions.

When I used to go to teacher conferences, I’d be exhausted by the end of the day because I was so unused to having my minutes and hours regimented by someone else. It made me cranky! Kids exist with very little control, so of course they’re going to grab it where they can. They are going to squirrel away pencils and wear the same rain boots five days in a row and lie about strange things. I think my grown-up characters relate to kids through that shared sense of powerlessness, whether they realize it or not. Before I began my MFA program, I had the privilege of working for two wonderful independent schools. All of the fondness that you perceived in how I write about the fictional school in this story comes directly from my experiences as a teacher at those organizations. The cynicism is just my natural state.

Neve is described as lamb-like in your story, and the narrator’s mother is represented through a snake. What sort of animal do you think your narrator would be?

I love this question! I think she believes herself to be a moray eel. She would like others to think of her as something mysterious and self-possessed, like an albatross or a giant squid. Her true animal self, though, is a possum. She is clever and misunderstood, protective and resourceful. She can be vicious, but only as a mask for her vulnerability. Did you know that possums cannot control when they play dead? I just learned this about possums. Playing dead is their automatic, reflexive response to stress, which seems to me like a pretty great metaphor for the narrator’s defense mechanisms. Are we all secretly possums? I suppose the fact that I am wondering this is pretty revealing, so I’ll stop there.

I’ve always found the phrase “I’m hungry if you are” fascinating—it embodies both passivity and unexpected empathy, something that seems to be characteristic of your narrator’s relationship with her mother. I was wondering if you could talk more about your choice of title?

Passivity and empathy—that’s it, exactly! Years ago, a good friend told me that whenever she offered her mother food, her mother would respond, “I’m hungry if you are.” The anecdote stuck with me, and it showed up in this piece, not by design. The phrase is fascinating to me, too. It has back-seat-driver energy. Again, I think it goes back to power, which is something I am interested in. (Sidebar: I heard somewhere that every conflict in fiction can be reduced to one of two questions: Who’s in charge? How much do you love me? I think my stories veer towards the former question, though obviously there is overlap.) To say “I’m hungry if you are” as a parent to a child is especially fraught. The parent who says “I’m hungry if you are” is pretending to be easy, but really they are saying, “Take care of me, please.” They are saying, “Tell me your needs so I don’t have to share mine.” So there is also a self-protective aspect to it, a deflection of vulnerability, while at the same time the subtext points to the speaker’s buried desire for care.

If you had to choose any artist—living or dead—to illustrate your story, who would you pick and why?

It would have to be someone who is good at illustrating kids, so my initial instinct is Edward Gorey, who draws children wonderfully. I also love the work of Amy Cutler, though I think this story isn’t fabulist enough to warrant her talents (I want Amy Cutler to illustrate the stories of Kelly Link or Helen Oyeyemi or Amelia Gray). The energy and humor of Yuko Shimizu’s work would be fun to see as an interpretation. I feel like she would do great things with the scene with the dryer lipstick. And the intimate strangeness of Nicole Wargon’s women would be fabulous, too. She also has several illustrations of women with snakes already.

What are you working on right now?

I have several short stories in various states of hot-messiness. (Now I feel bad, like I am talking about my stories behind their back.) I am also in the very early stages of a novel about sound art, oysters, and female friendship.