An Interview with Katie Farris

So much of the book is about being comfortable with paradox, especially the paradoxes that surround us every day but we prefer not to consider—for instance, what is the experience of a person who is both girl and boy? What is the experience of unexpectedly falling in love with someone of the same gender?


Welcome to The California Journal of Poetics! Your new book, a beautifully crafted and illustrated collection of short-shorts written in the vein of modern fairy tales, is titled boysgirls and divided into the sections “girls” and “boys.” Multiplicity is an important theme in your stories. Can you tell us a little bit about your intention behind the title and the division between girls and boys?

Trying to figure out how to arrange boysgirls into a sequence was a little like throwing a dinner party for all your dear friends, from your crazy college days to your new conservative job, and you can’t figure out who to sit next to whom. The girl with a mirror for a face would do well next to pretty much anyone, but what about the girl who tries to please the devil? She’s not really the dinner-party type…


The decision to divide girls and boys into their own sections took a long time, in part because I didn’t want to privilege one gender over another. My hope was not actually to divide, but to provide a continuum of gender expressions—that’s where the Riddle in the middle comes in, as well as the decision to slur “boys” and “girls” together for the title (incidentally, the decision to name the book boysgirls was a purely aesthetic one—I liked the way it sounded better than girlsboys. I tried to subvert that by making the first section in the book “girls,” and also by having the whole narrated by a female character. ) I love the idea of liminality, the borderline, that which is neither A nor B but some part of both A and B.


So much of the book is about being comfortable with paradox, especially the paradoxes that surround us every day but we prefer not to consider—for instance, what is the experience of a person who is both girl and boy? What is the experience of unexpectedly falling in love with someone of the same gender? What is the experience of being in the doorway between one physical state and another (like in “The Widow’s Belly”), or between one emotional state and another (like in “How to Tame a Lion”)?


The book begins with the narrator’s implication of the readers, telling us that we are more than bystanders. The narrator, the invented “godlettes, hopefuls, poseurs, and freaks” already live inside of us. The stories are more than entertainment; they are a reminder of our multiple personalities. What attracts you to this form of storytelling that involves the readers to the point that they feel present in the actual story?

I’ve always loved writing that implies the reader in the action of the text—a couple of great examples of this style are “A Rose For Emily” by Faulkner and “Becky” by Jean Toomer. Though “A Rose For Emily” is usually trotted out in high school as a great example of Southern Gothic, or even horror fiction, the most fascinating element for me is the use of the first person plural through the text—“we” is the narrator. When a reader reads “we,” just as when she hears someone else say “we,” she is implied in that “we.” In “A Rose for Emily” the tragedy of the story is placed on the backs of the townspeople, the “we” and therefore, readers themselves. In a very roundabout way, Faulkner tells us—you, you did this, you contributed to this. We feel the guilt and the horror of the story much more intimately as a result.


My attempts to implicate the reader are even more confrontational, to the point of being alienating (the introduction section is subtitled “implication.” It’s pretty bald.) Perhaps the reason I chose to be more confrontational was that I wanted the readers to feel that they are participating in something challenging, something that matters. To feel that they would be challenged (there are a couple stories in the book that I think will be challenging to almost any reader), and that if they choose to turn the page, they are choosing to do so at the risk of their own ideas. I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind—only to provide them, as intimately and viscerally as I can, the experience of being ‘other,’ and let them draw their own conclusions.


Throughout the book, the narrator addresses the reader. Do you think this technique of narration has helped your stories? Do you think your stories would have worked without the narrator’s strong presence?


In her introduction, the madwoman vacillates between being extremely challenging to the reader (threatening to reach out and take them by the throat on the first page), and groveling in her humility: “I’m only here to make you smile, never to think, never to think.” She is clearly unstable, but she’s also trying to unsettle the reader, which is essential to the book. It’s an old trick of mind-washers, anybody from cult leaders to boot-camp sergeants—if you want to have a blank slate, you have to keep changing the rules. It’s a little like going under a huge wave, where you’re suspended in water and don’t know which way is up. You’re going to swim toward whatever looks like salvation, even if it turns out to be the wrong thing—a shark, a shipwreck, another drowning person. In a similar way, when someone is being brainwashed, they never know what’s going to come at them next, so they submit more readily to any kind of authority, even to ideas that would have seemed absurd or repugnant to them in their former lives. Of course, the madwoman’s authority is a false authority—the reader always has the upper hand. They can only change if they allow the stories to change them. The question is, will they submit?


You use the fairy tale as a model, and allusions to Greek mythology appear throughout. Your stories address the process of metamorphosis and the idea of embracing otherness. Why do you think the fairy tale lends itself to reinvention and this particular idea? Did you draw from any popular fairy tales?

Fairy tale lends itself to reinvention because it doesn’t need to be reinvented, not really. The nature of the tale, the fact that it exists outside of real time, in some idealized past that our grandparents can relate to in much the same way that we do, transcends the temporal. The issues that fairy tales revolve around too transcend time: rights of passage like marriage or birth, dealing with difficult family, class struggle.


Traditionally, fairy tales have been focused on social mores and rules (don’t go off the path, Little Red!), rather than on breaking through those codes to find the ambiguities individuals necessarily bring to social structure. In this way, fairy tale is actually not always a great avenue for the exploration of the acceptance of others.


However, what does change are the lenses through which we view and analyze the tale—Marxism certainly created a whole new system of analysis, and subsequently feminism and queer studies et al. We can of course write through these lenses, too—for many, reading Angela Carter’s book The Bloody Chamber was revolutionary, in part because she chose the lens of feminism to write through, and in doing so, challenged us to dig deeper into these tales and see what’s been hiding there all along. And that’s what I love about tales—they’re an unlimited resource. No matter what you go looking for, you can find.


The only fairy tale I knowingly drew from is Anderson’s “The Wild Swans” a fairly common tale (variations include “The Seven Brothers,” “The Seven Ravens” and many others). The tale in brief is that a witch cursed a girl’s twelve brothers to become swans—the only way to turn them back to boys was for their sister to knit them shirts from nettles and not speak for seven years. At the end of that time, she had finished all but one sleeve of the twelve shirts, and so, though all the brothers were saved, the youngest still had one wing. I just plucked the character of the youngest brother, about whom nothing was really said, from the end of the story. He became, of course, the Boy with One Wing. I also realized, after publication, how much the beginning of “The Girl Who Grew” was like “Alice in Wonderland” when Alice grew as big as the White Rabbit’s house. It’s amazing how these images from childhood ingrain themselves in us!


In your book we encounter all kinds of fantastical characters. From the girl with a mirror for a face, the Cyclops, to the Worm Girl and the Boy with One Wing, all the characters are connected by the theme of reflection and vision. In “a riddle,” Tiresias, the blind prophet, is described as having only known halves. To be seen and to see seems to be at stake in your stories. Can you speak a little bit more about this theme of reflection and vision?

Well, to start with, the book revolves around the outcast, the freak. And (as many writers know) those who are physically, mentally, or socially different are watched with a degree of intensity that ‘average’ people are not. They are forced into the position of performer, like that poor guy in the spaghetti western who is told to “Dance, dance!” while some gunslinger shoots at the floor around his feet. Some outcasts eventually make a living from this—from the freaks in the circus (like the Worm Girl in “The Hierarchy of Freaks”), to socially awkward writers living out their fantasy lives on the page. (Not that I have any personal experience with social awkwardness. Nope.) So many of my characters, like the Boy with One Wing, or the girl in “The Politics of Metamorphosis,” are forced into the public eye, often against their will.


The book also obviously deals with gender and sexuality. One much talked about concept in this field is the “masculine gaze” (which gave rise to the idea of the ‘objectification of women’—the idea that women are turned into objects through the lens of male film-makers, for instance), which is very present in “The Girl with a Mirror for a Face” and “Cyclops.” Cyclops is particularly interesting in this way—she’s a woman without orifice, completely seamless, impenetrable in the most literal of ways—and yet still an object of intense scrutiny for this scientific male gaze. She’s a lovely paradox.


“Mise en Abyme,” the title of one of the stories, is a French term meaning “placed into infinity,” which refers to the idea of someone between two mirrors, seeing themselves reproduced infinitely. It also has to do with self-awareness of the artist, and of the art itself, to the point that meaning can begin to break down. I remember being a pretty young kid the only time I experienced this—standing in a bathroom in some hotel where the mirrors were angled just right. I looked until I terrified myself and then I turned out the light while I screwed up the courage to do it again. (If only there was a place in the babybook for “Katie’s First Existential Angst.”) The repetition of images and metatext inherent in mise en abyme is also fascinating to me—obviously mirrors themselves are one such recurring symbol, but there are many more.


Can you tell us about your collaboration with Lavinia Hanachiuc? Her illustrations are perfect mirror images of your pieces. Did she read your fiction and illustrate based on that, or did her work inform your fiction? Or were your hearts simply in the same place and the illustrations and words came together organically?

I found Lavinia’s work on Etsy, where I troll for little ceramic figures, my “freaks” I call them. She had crafted a beautiful kiln-God, and was asking for people who purchased her art to respond in some way for a gallery show. I wrote a small story that she posted on her blog.


After that little collaboration, I knew that she would be a perfect illustrator for the book. To me, her work is both delicate and subversive, and she often works with fairy-tale like figures and characters. I also find her work, in all its subversion, to be free of irony—and that is essential to me. Some of my stories can be read as tongue-in-cheek, but each of them was written to be read exactly as it’s written, with no hidden agenda. I strongly believe that a story that uses irony or parody or any other tool like that should work on both levels—a great example being The Wizard of Oz, a brilliant social critique that can also be read as a gorgeous children’s tale. So I needed an illustrator that could help me bridge that possible gap, and Lavinia was a perfect choice. I’m so grateful to have stumbled across her work, which you can find here. She also has a lovely blog (including our first collaboration) here.


Your pieces are short-shorts written in a highly lyrical style packed with beautiful repetitions, anaphora, rhyme, and surprising metaphors, such as the grandmother who is a machete. Was your work influenced by any particular poets or fiction writers that cross genres?

Certainly. Anne Carson, Michael Ondaatje, Borges, Calvino, Dylan Thomas (whose plays are almost as fantastic as his fiction), and, although he wasn’t much of a genre crosser, my dear sweet Hopkins, without whom I would not attempt such strangled syntaxes for the sake of sound.


Nabokov couldn’t help but let his passion for butterflies populate his fiction. Is there something you are obsessed with that reappears in your writing, no matter how hard you try to abandon it?

The fantastic. I think it’s because I never want to write metaphors as descriptions—the comparisons are always far more interesting to me than the reality. If I write, “The boy was feeling prickly as a hedgehog that day,” I’d be much more interested in his growing spines (fantastic fiction) than I would be in the fight he would get into with his mother in a more realistic piece. I call it “concretizing metaphor.” I’m afraid I encountered “The Metamorphosis” at a rather formative moment in my life.


The fantastic and madness have a close relationship, too, which is why it is to madness that boysgirls is dedicated. I saw Black Swan recently and was completely mesmerized—the movie captures a lot of what I want to do in my fiction—question the line between reality and fiction, between madness and sanity, between this and that—anything between.


What should we look forward to in the future? Are you working on any new projects?

Hoo-wee, I am working on a lot of new projects. A nearly completed romance novel which will be published under a pseudonym (no one will ever know), a novel about a blind birding expert, another novel about race in Detroit in the 1950’s, another book of short-short tales… I’m really great at beginnings!


More Katie Farris:


Visit Katie Farris’s website
Buy boysgirls at Marick Press

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