[This essay first appeared in the Full Stop Quarterly, Issue #8. To help us continue to pay our writers, please consider subscribing.]
I met Rita Bullwinkel almost four years ago when she was just starting her MFA in Nashville. Her home was impeccably decorated but not in a way that was overbearing or felt like you couldn’t pull off in your own home. It felt like you could maybe have a home that looked like that, if only you tried a little harder to make up for your lack of attention or personal panache. Don’t you have all the same things in your home? Lamps, plants, dish rack? Maybe you would spruce up the place next week — maybe it would look like this home. But it probably wouldn’t for whatever reason. Your dish rack is filthy.
When I opened Rita’s fridge, there was a frozen bird inside of it. The bird had a backstory, but I forget. She was planning on setting it on fire on a nearby river whenever she had a chance. Or, I think, she was waiting for the band to show up.
Things that look as comfortable as Rita’s home are susceptible to surprise. The well-adorned kitchen and the pre-pyre frozen bird.
Rita’s first story collection, Belly Up is effortless in the sense of how easily the author’s voice finds a home in your head, silently rearranges a couple of ideas, turns a few things upside down, and then does something completely surprising to announce itself and you’re left to wonder just when everything got all fucked up.
You’re brought in by the details, the ease of it all, and then you look inside the freezer.
Max Rivlin-Nadler: In a lot of your stories, each of them had an immediate sense of not necessarily where, but when, and it was often not the present. When constructing a story, are you thinking of a time or era?
Rita Bullwinkel: Time, I think, can be a convenient way to frame a narrative, especially a short story. And I feel like I’ve just begun to be old enough where I think of my own life in terms of eras, and there’s quite a few of them. I think with some of the newer stories, the ones I wrote closer to the present, those are the ones that were framed by eras or time periods. The one that does that most explicitly is “Decor,” and maybe “What I Would Be If I Wasn’t What I Am,” starts out with a time marker, but then departs from that. But I’m really bad at remembering my own stories. Time is so weird. One of the reasons to write fiction is to try to figure out how time moves in our memory.
A lot of your narrators push against what they’re supposed to be or what they are. A snake that doesn’t want to be a snake. Why is it important that they push back against the narrative trajectory of their roles as opposed to just being settled as a snake? Besides the obvious point that a snake being a snake wouldn’t be that interesting to read. Or maybe it would!
What if Karl [the snake from “Concerned Humans”] just lived a really normal snake life? I don’t even know what that would be. He’d just be happy eating children and satisfied and feel emotionally and spiritually at rest with that. I suppose a lot of people say this, but in writing, if I’m not surprising myself, then I feel something is deeply wrong with the process or the story itself is boring. So I want to be equally surprised as I’m writing as the reader. Perhaps it’s a product of my writing process that those surprises, in turn, happen. I’d be so interested to hear if you thought any stories really diverged or if you have any hypothetical alternate lives for them.
Well, since we’re talking about “What I Would Be If I Wasn’t What I Am” already, I’ll pick that one. The story ends with this woman looking back on her life from a nursing home, with this mix of regret and contentment, this feeling of being OK with the way she lived her life — I just thought that was an interesting mix of feelings for someone to have at that stage in their life. They seem to be conflicting.
Because that story was really image-driven, my impetus for writing the story was to get to different images. For that story, that was really the case. Even though the ending of every story ends up being this overly important gesture that shadows back on everything that comes before it, I think of the ending of that story where she makes this final reflection about how things couldn’t have been done another way, that she’s making peace with the narrative. I wasn’t sure I could actually get away with that.
She’s in a resting home and that seems like a really stupidly cliché place to end a story that spans a life. It’s the literal place that she will die and I wasn’t sure that was the place to end it. But it was the only logical place to reveal the point of telling. And it’s a bit surprising because the whole story is dramatically non-linear, so to end the story on the actual true place where this woman’s narrative and life also ends was…how else can one ever feel about a life, I guess?
I think about all the fucked up stupid shit I’ve done in my life and you have to have some sense of like — perhaps I could have done stuff differently, but ultimately there’s no way I could have done anything differently. But sure there were some times I could have done something differently and that would have been better for everyone, but mostly not! Mostly it just feels that it’s the way it’s meant to unfold. But she’s not talking about stupid things. She’s talking about loving someone.
Which is what makes the story so hopeful, it seems, and reflects the hope that everyone has, besides probably not dying at all, is that we’ll die old and peacefully.
Have you heard about this App called “WeCroak”? It just an app that texts you five times a day reminding you you’re going to die. It’s a very useful App. I would recommend it for all of humanity, actually. It’s just the most universal experience, and maybe that has to do with the contentment thing at the end.
But I do think the important thing about that story is the fact that she has other lovers after her husband dies, and before he dies. She never fucks the grocery store guy but she’s got a thing with a few people. But in the end her life was still defined by Ray [her husband] who was the love of her life, who made her what she was in some way.
Max, we’ve both been loving the same person for a while. I totally feel like that story is informed by the fact that I’ve just been loving the same person for eleven years and he’s my favorite person. It’s a pretty weird thing. It’s a pretty complex and strange way to exist, even though we live in this society that has these very stringent and rigid ideals around monogamy but when you really do endeavor on it or your life leads you to it, partnering and experiencing the world with the same person for a long time, and witnessing each other’s lives, and the traumas of each other, it can, at times, feel like the only thing that’s real, and sometimes can feel like one of the only meaningful things. I feel that story is about what it has meant to love a person for so long.
Maybe that’s part of my connection to the story because I was really moved by the way the narrator expressed this sense of being so close to someone forever, but at the end of the day, you don’t really know what’s going on in there. You hope your conception of what they’re about is similar to what they’re actually thinking, but you can only get so close even after being together for a while.
It can be so jarring, even in this other person’s eyes. Sometimes there are periods when it feels like you share a mind, but other periods when it feels like the human isolation we all feel is even greater because this person you spend so much time with and that you love so much, still you’re unable to communicate with them on a specific thing.
And they’ll never get it. It’s possible this thing you want to share that’s really integral to you, they’ll never really get, and that’s fine. In the story, there’s this long-term relationship where there are obviously things that never got reconciled and I really liked that.
Besides this story having parallels to your own life, where are you in these stories? How much Rita is there?
The joy I take in writing fiction is very much situated in my ability to use fiction as a mask to both understand and portray the world. I’m a deeply boring person and I don’t have interest in myself or my story or my narrative but at the same time I say that it’s obviously impossible to say that what I’m writing is not reflective somehow of my lived experience. I’m just never going to write a memoir or something like that.
I don’t want to read your memoir. I want to read your fiction. Is it fucked up to say that?
I think self-evaluation is really important. It’s critical to making good art. You must interrogate how you were raised and what privilege you grew up with. Or what was lacking. Or what abuse you endured. Or all of these things that make a person what they are. Publishing this book has shown me I’m a very private person and that I have a lot of writer friends who I love and respect who feel much more comfortable than me sharing about their lived experience. And I feel very anxious about revealing family relationships or something like that. That would not be something I’d be drawn to write about or interrogate publicly. I don’t believe that the personal has nothing to do with the art that’s produced, but I don’t think that’s something I, as a writer, am interested in.
I’m interested in writing in the gaps that are outside myself, although that’s really only partially true. For instance, with this novel I’m working on right now, it’s about a women’s boxing tournament in Reno. I’ve never boxed before. I’ve watched a lot of boxing, but I’ve never boxed. However, I have this long past as a highly competitive athlete as a water polo player, because it’s easier for me to write about some of the similar experiences that I had as a fourteen-year-old going to international youth women’s water polo tournaments, and the interpersonal relationships that happened as a thirteen and fourteen-year-old doing that in a lens that’s slightly off from my lived experience. The sport is different, but the conversations may be mirrored in the book.
Water polo is a sport where the violence is also overt. You develop a real physical relationship with your opponent.
Part of what I wanted to write about in this novel I’m working on is this aspect that youth sports, and especially youth women sports, are incredibly small, insular communities. And that I was raised in this community, where I, from a young age, knew where I was ranked nationally, from this very young age at this specific thing, and I knew every other girl in the country and where they lived and what position they played and how they were ranked. And there were these transnational rivalries between teams, between specific players — the stories people would tell about so-and-so in Florida and the way these youth national tournaments produced a rich and vivid culture. As a child, it felt to me, the apex of civilization. And now, with the reflection of adulthood, seems to me totally and completely insane because literally no one in the world cares about women’s water polo.
I’ve become interested in how, in my life, in the ways people become seduced into cults, but it’s way easier when you’re a child, where you build up meaning and worlds for yourself. And one can make this argument with the current literary world. It doesn’t happen just in youth sportsmanship situations. The dynamic of competitive youth women’s athletics is extremely weird and fertile and interesting.
For instance, there are these things called “zone camps” put on by the Olympic Committee, where you get a number, and you’re given a helmet with that number, and you get that number written in sharpie on your biceps and the back of your neck. You become this number and there’s this panel of judges that watch you as you compete one on one against a person and then do a series of swimming tests to see how fast you are and all of these other exercises including weight-lifting and you’re very much physically in a bathing suit on display from a young age to see how well you can utilize your body as a tool to defeat an individual. AND on top of that, every other single women that is there, you are determined to destroy and beat them. And you know where they were ranked last year, and where they should be ranked, and who’s the underdog, and who might beat them. And there are women, I mean, girls, taking steroids.
People being really preoccupied with your weight. The uniqueness of this situation in our modern society where you have a young woman who’s so fucking paranoid about being the lightest person in the pool. And it’s absurd in the way that patriarchy continues to exist within these female youth athletic committees that are supposed to be some example of a rejection of that. And it’s uniquely American. Because America cares about winning the Olympics.
The reason I ultimately landed on writing about boxing is because it’s structurally easier to talk about a single person competing against another than the dynamics of a water polo match in which there are seven people competing against seven people. But that’s where the energy was. The competition between individuals.
We all live many lives, but the older I get the crazier it seems I dedicated so much to this sport, but it drove all of my decisions. It’s something I’m only really six years out of.
You’re already too old for a water polo player, but young for a fiction writer.
I know, right?
Too old for professional sports but a really young president.
Oh god, Max. I wish you were the president.
Legally impossible at the moment, but thank you. That’s very kind.
Max Rivlin-Nadler is a founding editor of Full Stop.
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