Thanks to New Voices author Dale Bridges for answering a few questions about his recently published story, Life After Men. If you haven’t read the story, be sure to check it out, here.
I’m never bored with hearing this answer from authors, especially from a story I enjoyed so much. How did you come up with the idea for this piece?
I have two answers to that question. The first is true but boring, and the second is less honest but more fun. The first answer is that I don’t know where any of my story ideas come from. Not a clue. They appear magically in my head and they won’t go away until I write them down. That is the absolute truth, but it’s not very satisfying, is it? So let’s move on to the second answer. I wrote the first draft of this story in 2005 when I was working as an administrator at a private university in Orange County, California. The official title of the job was “Resident Director” but unofficially I called myself “The Freshman Babysitter.” For two years, I managed a dormitory of 300 eighteen-year-old, hormone-saturated college students. During that time, I interacted with numerous young men and women teetering on the edge of adulthood. Somewhere along the way, the voice of Emily started showing up in my dreams. She was this snotty, politically incorrect Cali girl who put up a tough front but was emotionally fragile. She was kind of a bitch, but I liked her anyhow. I started writing in her voice and eventually discovered that she lived in a post-apocalyptic zombie dystopia. The story just sort of unfolded from there.
Zombies have certainly made an impact in pop culture trends lately, but this story is entirely fresh. How did you achieve that balance? Did you have any reservations about writing “a zombie” piece?
It’s strange; I never planned on writing “a zombie” piece. I’m a fan of classic zombie movies like Night of the Living Dead, Dead Alive, and Zombi 2, but it never crossed my mind that I was writing something that fit into that genre when I started. For me, the story is really about the relationship between Emily and Tiffany, two teenage girls struggling to maintain their friendship as the world tries to pull them apart. I wanted to create an extreme universe where men were no longer relevant but still dangerous. There’s this Louis C.K. joke where he says something like, “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is insane. There’s no greater threat on the planet to women than men, but they keeping going out with us…alone…at night.” That’s the theme I was exploring with this story. Turning the male population into mindless, bloodthirsty zombies allowed me to reduce “men” to a convenient metaphor without being too literary about it. Emily has been hurt by all the men she has ever known, but she’s still drawn to them. She loves them, but she also wants them to die. I think that’s how I would feel about men if I was a young woman.
Emily is a pretty insufferable character, but she has great depth. Can you elaborate on her character? I can’t help but feel a lot of writers would have chosen to use Tiffany as narrator, and yet, the story wouldn’t have had the same impact. Do you agree?
That’s a great question. I can honestly say that it never occurred to me to write the story from Tiffany’s point of view, but I’m not sure why. Emily is the one who started talking to me, and the whole universe where the story takes place was built around her. It was surprisingly easy for me to write in Emily’s voice. I think that’s because we are so different physically that it gave me a lot of psychological freedom. As a young writer, you’re often worried about how people will interpret your stories, especially if the main character resembles you in any way. Emily is so obviously not me that I didn’t have to worry about any such misunderstandings. Ironically, it turns out that Emily and I have more in common in some ways than any other character I’ve ever written. I’ve been known to be a harsh pessimistic bastard, which can be quite tiresome after a while, but Emily can get away with it. I had a lot of fun pretending to be Emily.
You’ve done some writing in cultural criticism. What elements or themes in our culture were you trying to examine or expose by writing this story?
I never think about examining cultural themes while I’m in the act of writing. I know it’s happening on a subconscious level, but I purposefully ignore that part of my brain until I’m finished. I don’t know how it works with other authors, but if I try to write “important literature” it comes out as “pretentious shit.” Instead, I focus on character and plot. This is hard enough for me without trying to add cultural criticism into the mix. When I’m finished, I allow myself to view the story with a more critical eye, and at that point I might recognize some themes and draw them out a bit more in the editing process. With “Life After Men” the primary themes are obvious: sexuality, gender, and patriarchy. Emily has been abused by all the men in her life, but she is still drawn to them emotionally and biologically. Her only healthy relationship is with a female peer, but Tiffany is leaving her behind. Emily can’t hurt the men in her life (they don’t feel emotional or physical pain), so she lashes out at other women with homophobic insults and callus observations. That’s how hegemonic systems work; they turn the victims against each other.
Lastly, on your blog you have a poem that was published by Transgress Magazine called, “Texting the Apocalypse”, which seems like a blood cousin to “Life After Men”. Is this narration style a common one for you? What does it allow you to do or comment on thematically?
I guess I have written multiple stories in that voice. Interesting. I wouldn’t say it’s common for me, but it does feel weirdly natural. Writing about horrific scenarios in the voice of a teenage girl is wonderful because you get to be simultaneously harsh and sensitive. You can chop off zombie heads and tell Satan to go to hell, and then sit down and have a good cry afterward. It’s very cathartic. Male characters don’t always express such a wide range of emotions. I think young women are the most interesting literary characters out there right now, but they’re seldom written with enough complexity and depth.We try to protect them, but they don’t need our protection; they need to be heard.