Today, it is our pleasure to feature an interview with the incomparable Rita Bullwinkel. Her debut collection of Short Stories, Belly Up, recently came out from A Strange Object. We chatted with Rita about her path to publication, craft, cannibalism, and what we can expect to see from her next.
“And, I think, because of this, because writing is a thing I do to please myself, to remind myself that I am living, that I don’t allow my mind to get in the way with how my writing should or should not be.”
Your first collection of stories, Belly Up, just came out from A Strange Object. It’s a beautiful collection, both in terms of the vivid prose and as an object in itself. Can you tell us about your path to publication and what it was like to work with ASO?
Jill Meyers, who is my editor and the co-founder of A Strange Object, is a completely fearless warrior of words. I’ve adored working with her, and am immensely grateful that she saw a book in what was sent to her. The paper and finish of the book, as you well noted, are magnificent. Also, the interior design of the book, which was designed by Amber Morena, is incredible. The exterior of the book was designed by Kelly Winton, who also designed Maggie Nelson’s unforgettable Jane: A Murder. Winton is a master. And the hands belong to Geoff McFetridge, whose work I’ve loved since I picked up his beautiful, now shamefully out of print, compendium of visual body questions titled Studies.
Jill was very generous about allowing me a say in the visual identity of the book. She has impeccable taste in all arenas, including the visual, and so I trusted her selections for design with my eyes closed.
You have a style that I would describe—for lack of a better word—as deadpan disaster. Your characters bear witness to terrible misfortunes: In the first story, the protagonist witnesses a fatal car wreck on the way to work; in another, a man is called to sleep (in the same bed) with women in his neighborhood whose husbands have just passed; in yet another, a woman loses her husband to a heart attack. At the outset, these characters all deliver the news of these misfortunes in very matter-of-fact, unaffected language. That is not to say that these characters don’t have deep layers of emotion—they certainly do!—but these are revealed as the stories progress. The stories resist meditating on these disasters head on, which is perhaps more realistic.
This is difficult to describe, so please forgive me if I have failed altogether—but it is really admirable. How did you develop this style? (If you would agree with me,) how do you view this craft choice?
I don’t think of writing fiction as a series of choices. I think of it as compulsive, and something I can not help but do. I would write if no one told me to, and, indeed, let me be clear, no one is telling me to write, no is making sure that I write anything but me. And, I think, because of this, because writing is a thing I do to please myself, to remind myself that I am living, that I don’t allow my mind to get in the way with how my writing should or should not be. It is, simply, the things I am circling, written in the style in which I circle them. Even my earliest stories had some of the same mannerisms, and were circling some of the same things. It’s not that I think I haven’t gotten better. One must believe they are getting better, that their mind is becoming sharper, but, I’ve never had a conscious thought while writing about what kind of style I wanted to write in. The brilliant writer, Diane Williams, when once asked why her stories are so short, replied something like, “I am a pear tree. I make pears. I would be equally happy if I bore walnuts, but I don’t. Only pears to see here.” I feel similarly.
I really admired your story “Arms Overhead,” in which two girls who are just entering high school make sense of the disrespectful and violent ways that adults are starting to view their bodies (men yell at the girls from cars, teachers get angry when one girl accidentally bears her midriff) by conducting thorough research on cannibalism. Can you talk about the process of writing this story? Where did you get the idea to combine these two themes and how did you come to create these two great, complex characters?
There was a period of time between 2012-2014 where I read a lot about cannibalism. I did read historical accounts, but I mostly got stuck in these long reading bouts of news articles about modern day criminal cannibals, which nearly universally involved a man murdering a woman and then eating her limb by limb. There are a few documentaries about people who have been convicted for eating other people. And then, while I was already in this cannibalism hole, the story about the cannibal cop in Queens began to unfold. I was living in New York at the time, and had a friend who was working as a paralegal for a public defender that got assigned to defend him. So, through her, I had all this inside cannibal cop information. Every time I saw her I asked her about him, how he dressed, how he acted, what he said that was worrisome or made him seem very sad or very normal and fine. But I wasn’t interested in any of this because I wanted to write a story about it. I was just very interested. And then, in 2016, I met Mary and Ainsley, who are the two teenage girls in “Arms Overhead”, and they came to me, and it seemed that they would be likely to also be interested in cannibalism and what it implies. From what I gather, the desire to eat someone does have to do with the desire to possess them. Men want to possess women so badly that they kill them. I was interested in this desire for possession, specifically as it pertains to the way Mary and Ainsley walk through the world in “Arms Overhead”. A desired girl is already being eaten bit by bit, by the evil, dehumanizing society in which she lives. I wanted Mary and Ainsley to be able to eat the world that is trying to eat them. I wanted Mary and Ainsley to be able to figure out a way to get revenge.
What are you working on now? What can we expect to see from you next?
Interviewed by Sadye Teiser