In my work, I think non-realism can be a way to insist on something different. It’s a way to tap into aspects of being a woman that can be surreal or somehow liminal—certain experiences that can feel, even, like horror. It allows you to defamiliarize certain topics like sexual violence that some people might unfortunately dismiss as “oh, just another story about rape.” Non-realism makes room for mythic expressions of the female experience, and I think can be a way to satisfy the hunger for narratives in which women have rich inner lives.
Being queer, too, can feel surreal. There’s this sense that you’re seeing things that other people don't, which I think is true of many groups of people who exist apart from the more culturally dominant perspective. You pick up on currents that other people don’t notice. I remember seeing the new Ghostbusters movie and having a gay revelation about Kate McKinnon’s character—I assure you, that character is queer, even if my straight friends can’t see it. Or the “friendship” between Theodora and Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House, which is unmistakably some of the gayest shit I’ve ever read, though another reader might miss it entirely. It’s very surreal to have this perspective where you experience reality in a slightly different way, and I think that’s one of the things I’m interested in exploring.
It took about five years to write these stories. A few of them I wrote at Iowa—“Difficult at Parties,” “Real Women Have Bodies,” and “Especially Heinous.” All the others came after. The hardest part was after graduate school, where I didn’t have any funding anymore and I was working retail, which made me cranky and miserable and tired all the time.
I was working at Lush—they make luxury bath and beauty products. I love their products, actually, and still use them, but it was horrible working there. I was unhappy and exhausted, and just felt like I was never going to have time to write again, would never publish anything. At work, I just wanted to be alone, to have the space to think. But people were constantly demanding things from me—of course they were, that’s the job. Sometimes, I could have a moment’s quiet in the back, where cutting soap and weighing it and wrapping it could be this meditative, physical process. But even then, people always seemed to want to fill that space with talking. I just felt like they wanted my head.
What helped, finally, was going to residencies. I work really well when I’m in a space that’s removed from everything and I can focus. I can’t work in snatches—five minutes here, 10 minutes or an hour there. What I need is to be able to tell myself: I have nothing to do today except write, and I’m going to write all day. It was residencies that finally gave me that space.
The world finds ways to weigh on you, to take away that free time, to tell you that you don’t deserve your cup of stars. And I feel that it affects women disproportionately. I’m lucky I don’t have to think about children when I plan my time. I know mothers who really want to go into a residency, but it’s just super hard because they can’t leave their kids. There are some residencies that allow mothers, or have accommodations for children, but most do not. That’s just one example. We don’t allow certain types of people that space for all kinds of reasons; there are so many ways the real world doesn’t value our purest time. When I think about the art that didn’t get created because of stuff like that, it makes me sick and sad.
I am driven to find that. Even if it’s just my own mind, I want to have my cup of stars. The response to that attitude can be: Oh, that’s so selfish. Or: That’s so not accommodating to other people’s needs. Or: How dare you demand that thing? But you have to. “I want it,” we deserve to say. “Give it to me.”