Today, we’re thrilled to share this interview with the 2nd place finalist from our 2019-2020 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers, Raeden Richardson. Digest the interview below and then wrap your head around the wonderfully bizarre “Joe Blake”.
I remember sitting down with the other TMR editors to read this story and we were all like “Joe Blake is a snake, right?” Tell us about that—is that a common name for snakes in Australia? What’s the backstory behind it? We’re still curious.
When I was a child, my father would jokingly warn me about cycling too deep into the bushland around the house for fear of encountering a “Joe Blake”. I never quite understood what he was talking about until one day I rode over a snake and swerved my bike into a tree! Using “Joe Blake” for “snake” is part of Australian rhyming slang, a dynamic, peculiar lexicon that overlaps with other codes of English language spanning Ireland, East London and West Hollywood. Rhyming slang is another reminder of the ways we use words to convey and obfuscate in the same instance.
Japanese anthropologist Hiroyuki Yokose wrote that “despite a preoccupation with drinking, gambling, body parts and fornication, the language is essentially good natured.” I feel that this is apt—but perhaps a little too naive. The history of rhyming slang is a history of vulgarity. We needn’t look too far down the list of phrases to see that these euphemisms conceal menace inside playfulness: “state election” for erection, “civil answer” for cancer, “optic nerve” for perve and “cut lunch” for punch. I’m captivated by writing that twists language to its limit, testing our rules until they crack and reveal the unexpected; that tension between threat and banter, at the very core of rhyming slang, seemed ripe for fiction.
Boring question but we must know: How did you get the idea for this story?
The story began with the image of a woman in an empty house, closer to the end of her life than the beginning, who survives her loneliness by accepting a gift from the outside world. Could the subversive quality of rhyming slang become a character? Could this character offer the woman an intimacy to transcend her suburban life? And, in accepting her new lover, would the woman also accept the menace and danger central to his being? The woman became Vrinda. The gift became Joe Blake.
During my early drafts I came across a newspaper article about a boy in Cambodia who grew up alongside a Burmese python. They shared a bedroom, lived happily together for twelve years and became celebrities in their town. By the time he hit puberty, she weighed 150kg (330 lbs)! But one day, after missing her massive daily meal, she bit the boy’s foot and was exiled to the zoo. I couldn’t believe it… maybe “Joe Blake” wasn’t as make-believe as I thought!
One of my favorite parts about this piece—and there are many—is how integrated and embedded the metaphor is, without being overt or blatant about it. How did you manage to walk that balance as you wrote, or dive into and fully embrace the metaphor your choice of characters presented?
This story began with the premise of a person falling in love with a snake. During the earliest drafts, I had to dive into this premise in order to plunder questions of loneliness, shame, dependence and predation. So much of this story rests on the divide between Vrinda’s private life and the outside world. Life in The Gully follows a logic coldly familiar to many of us: mass land developments encroaching on wildlife, faraway investments segmenting untouched land, tradesmen eyeing off housewives… But inside Vrinda’s house, as she grows to nurture and love Joe Blake, we find delicate desires and gradations of magic. All of this felt new and unpredictable! Why not sit the reader inside, right by Vrinda’s side, rather than out there? The pleasure of this story came when these two spheres would meet, and the reader, knowing full well the sinister aspects of Vrinda’s private love, could anticipate the inspector’s demise in way that he could never fathom—not in a million years.
What influences (literary or otherwise) feed your writing / imagination motor, especially in regards to “Joe Blake”?
One of my favorite stories is Henry Lawson’s “The Drover’s Wife”, in which a bushwoman defends her children and her dog from a rampaging snake. The story creates a sharp sense of desperation and terror, a classic human-versus-the-land story, that still endures even a century after it was first published. I also admire Lawson’s effort to make the domestic space, so often discarded or ignored, something dramatic and unpredictable. It feels as if every scene is wrought from urgent, biblical sentences. Ottessa Moshfegh’s “An Honest Woman” is also a delightfully menacing story about a woman and her pervert neighbor, separated only by a chain-link fence, with no one looking but the helplessly enthralled reader.
At an aesthetic level, I’m drawn to the work of Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie and C Pam Zhang, three (of many) writers who invite a plurality of voices onto a single page. I’m compelled by fiction that allows multiple iterations of English to sift out between its characters, giving us access to truth not through a singular, essential ‘voice’ but in the harmony between separate tongues. I wanted to bring the different variations of English used by Vrinda, her son, the inspector and the narrator into one story, allowing them to combine for something unexpected, like rubbing separate sticks together to start a single fire.
We’re aware you have a novel-in-progress. Is “Joe Blake” somehow part of it, or anything like it? How much is this style of story your “home base” as a writer and /or how is it distinct from your other work?
In some ways, “Joe Blake” is a distillation of the questions that echo throughout The Degenerates—How far can our language take us? How do we make fictional those moments of suffering when we hear our words become inadequate? Thematically, there’s also an overlap in preoccupations with displacement, loneliness and storytelling. But at the level of the sentence, however, the works are two totally separate beasts! To switch between codes in “Joe Blake”, I had to strip the narrator from the consciousness of Vrinda, or any other character, making it simpler and sparser, whereas in The Degenerates, each section drapes itself intimately in the different voices central to the novel.
Interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw