First of all, such a great title! Did it arise out of the story structure you chose, or vice versa?
Thank you! I actually decided on the title and story structure at the same time; both stemmed from the themes that I’m grappling with in this piece. I wanted to write a story about society’s relationship with female beauty and appearance, and specifically about female beauty and appearance as portrayed in stories and in the media. I wanted to evoke fairy tales, but also modern beauty tips and fashion advice, which are often presented as lists (“Twenty-five tips to transform your skin!” “Five cold-shoulder tops to show off your shoulders!” et cetera). My title and structure are partly a tongue-in-cheek nod to these kinds of lists, but at the same time, I certainly didn’t want to vilify women who pay attention to beauty tips and to their appearances. On the contrary, while I was writing this story, I was thinking about this infuriating trend wherein women are expected to conform to beauty standards, but the products and industries and practices that they use to conform to those beauty standards are dismissed as frivolous and stupid. That line of thinking brought me back to fairy tales. In my view, the modern tendency to sneer at fashion and makeup while still expecting women to conform in certain ways is connected with the old trope in folktales where women are supposed to be passively beautiful, but if they covet beauty, or take steps to create beauty for themselves, they are condemned as vain and shallow and even evil. I wanted to engage with both old and new in this story, and so I wrote about fairy tale witches who take this desire to control their beauty to the extreme, but I used the structure and title to evoke a modern list of beauty tips and thus also tie my story to the relationship between women, beauty, and society today.
This story is written from an omniscient point of view, with the narrator occasionally breaking the fourth wall to pose questions directly to the reader. What was your intention in doing this?
Many modern stories are written with the intent to make their readers forget that they are experiencing a story; many modern authors don’t want the scaffolding that holds up narrative voice or character development to poke through. I had the opposite goal here; I wanted to remind my readers throughout this piece that they are experiencing Avarice and Lilé Mar through the lens of fiction. By extension, I wanted to remind them that every time they read a work of fiction, they are actually reading a work by a writer who made a conscious or unconscious choice to describe certain characters in certain ways. The women of fiction are often either quite beautiful, or intriguing despite their lack of physical beauty. And I’m not just talking about the women of old fairy tales: we’ve all read the fantasy novels featuring female characters who think about their breasts all the time, or the literary stories about nubile female college students. The problem goes deep: I just finished reading a modern fairy tale-based novel, written by a woman, that’s supposed to be about a young girl defying society and embracing her powers—and yet I learned next to nothing about that character’s interiority, and so much about how all the male characters around her considered her to be ugly but extremely alluring. In my story, I wanted to show how the way we view women and female characters often determines whether they receive a narrative at all. By the rules of fiction, ugly Avarice, ignored by all men, shouldn’t even get a story, but she wants a story, a way out of her peasant’s life, and so she makes one for herself. By the rules of fiction, Lilé Mar should get a story, because she’s conventionally beautiful, but she doesn’t want one: she just wants to be left alone. By breaking the fourth wall, I wanted to remind readers that we were operating in a world in which the tropes of fiction applied, and to encourage them to think about the ways in which I was playing with them and commenting on them.
You hold a day job as a journalist. Do you find it difficult to switch between writing fiction and nonfiction? Does the news serve as inspiration for your fiction, or do you find fiction to be an escape from the here and now?
I actually don’t work full-time as a journalist anymore: I’m currently working part-time at an online feminist historical archive (jwa.org, if you want to link it!) and pursuing my MFA in fiction at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. However, I still pursue freelance journalist assignments whenever I can, and journalism is still and always will be very close to my heart. I used to find it difficult to switch between these forms, given that my fiction tends to be very lyrical and language-based, whereas nonfiction is typically more stripped-down. However, as the years have passed, I’ve gotten better at wearing these different hats, and indeed have begun to find that writing deeper into these disparate genres has actually helped me improve my prowess in both of them. Journalism teaches you empathy, whereas fiction teaches you the beauty and power of language. Both of these skills are so important for all types of writing.
I don’t read or write fiction to escape the here and now. I think that fiction, even fiction that’s marketed as escapist, is always a reflection of the world in which it’s written, as well as the mores and beliefs of its author. The best fiction helps readers think about their world in a new way, or helps expand our culture’s narrative to include more experiences and voices. We are at a critical moment now in which the feminist movement is experiencing a horrible backlash, a backlash that has also exposed just how far we still have to go to achieve true gender equality. Writing stories about women feels more important than ever these days, and I’m certainly thinking of the news and the society we live in every time I write one.
You attended both the Odyssey and Clarion writer’s workshops. Did you find your experiences similar at both, and would you recommend such workshops to aspiring writers?
I would absolutely recommend both of these workshops to aspiring writers, although my experience was quite different at each of them. In my opinion, Odyssey is better for early-career writers; the workshop is run by one instructor, and is focused on the fundamental building blocks of fiction. Odyssey taught me the internal workings of story and narrative; I still think of the terminology and lessons I learned there, both when writing myself and as I gear up to teach my own students as part of my MFA program.
Clarion, on the other hand, is run by six different authors or editors, so the information taught there varies from year to year. In my experience, Clarion is more about developing voice and aesthetic, figuring out what kind of writer you want to be and how to get there. Two of my instructors, Kelly Link and Ted Chiang, emphasized the importance of writing stories that excite you. I’ve heard that other Clarion classes received that kind of voice-developing advice at the workshop as well. Also, since people are working on voice and meaning at Clarion, the workshop tends to be more political than Odyssey, although perhaps that’s also a function of the fact that I attended Clarion in 2016, in the lead-up to the US presidential election. So, I would absolutely recommend both of these workshops, but I would suggest attending Clarion after Odyssey; once you learn how to craft a story, you can then figure out what kinds of stories you want to tell.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently focused on revising a backlog of short stories I wrote both on my own and for my MFA workshop throughout 2017. One’s about tableaux vivant, which was a Victorian party activity in which guests would entertain each other by dressing up as characters from famous paintings or scenes from history. Another is about drama and demons (or, rumored demons) in an early modern French convent. I’m a huge fan of history and historical research and incorporating that into my stories, in case you can’t tell!
Spread the word!