One story in Rita Bullwinkel’s debut collection Belly Up (A Strange Object) opens thusly: “By the time my daughter came of age, the economy was so bad that it was cheaper to hire someone to hold her breasts up than it was to buy her a bra.” Other stories feature a medium with unruly clients (“What gives you the authority to tell me who these spirits belong to?”) and a man who comforts widows by baking food and fighting their husbands’ ghosts. These are fantastic and surprising premises, but what is even more surprising is the way Bullwinkel employs these surreal set-ups to expose the connections and disconnections in our daily lives. The expertly crafted stories in Belly Up veer between surrealism and realism, present day and the past, short and long, but they always leave the reader with a new way to look at the world. I talked to Bullwinkel about reading, writing, and imaging your soul in a head of lettuce.
(You can read a story form the collection, “Phylum,” here in BOMB.)
Lincoln Michel Your stories are very strange, and often the strangeness comes from connecting the human body to nature. In one story, a narrator says “when I look closely at my tongue I can tell it’s actually a forest of flesh-colored flaps, small and floppy”. In these stories, bodies appear as plants and transform into animals. How does the environment and the natural world fit into your fiction?
Rita Bullwinkel Well, I’m not one of those people with fancy camping equipment, or anything like that. I’m from, and now live in, Northern California, so, naturally, I’ve got close friends that were forestry majors, and are experts in mushroom hunting, and work as park rangers in Yosemite, and know everything there is to know about native wildflowers, and the fauna of Joshua tree, but this is just as one does when you’re anywhere close to the Berkeley hills, isn’t it? I mean, I’m not a naturalist. I do love hiking. At this point in my life I prefer one of those “step-up” national park canvas tents that come with actual beds and heaters to car camping. I do often think about, and question, what exactly the difference is between me and a pear tree. I think I simply find the experience of having a body to be supremely strange, and so, when I look at things that are not my body, especially things I find beautiful, like plants or animals, I think, could this be me? Could my soul live in that head of lettuce? What would it be like to live as a lichen?
LM Is nature involved in your writing process?
RB I am an obsessive and utilitarian walker, and frequently my walks take me through nature. Many times before writing, after writing, in between bouts of writing, I will take walks from my home, through the forest of the Presidio, and over a small sand dune to get to Baker Beach. I also walk 6.8 miles to work and back every week day. But that is mostly an urban hike.
LM Moving from the natural to the supernatural, the stories in Belly Up feature churches, séances, and ghosts and you once considered a career in religious studies. Does fiction have a religious or mystic quality for you?
RB Like religion, writing fiction is an incredibly irrational and desperate thing to invest in. There is really nothing I could ever do to justify to myself, or anyone else, how much time I spend reading and writing. For me, writing is more compulsive than religious. It makes me feel like I’m living more fully, like I’m stretching out my earth hours and making the most of them. I love consuming all different types of art, but fiction is still the medium that affects me most greatly, which is why I write it. Fiction that I admire makes me feel changed by it. I love the feeling of being changed by something.
LM The 17 stories in Belly Up are a mix of very short flash fiction pieces to stories that run over twenty pages. How did you go about picking which stories to include, and in what order?
RB The stories shape-shifted into their current line up. They were in an order, and then in another order, and then I found them in the order in which they appear. My brilliant editor, Jill Meyers, who should be given a box of jewels, helped the stories find their final resting places. Jill has an incredible ear for pacing, which was something we had at the forefront of the mind when considering the ordering.
LM How did you pick the title Belly Up? And what do you look for in a title?
RB “Belly Up” was the title of a story I wrote that I ended up throwing away. I chose the title for the book in 2014, when only 20 pages of the book had been written. Death and food seemed like things I was circling. And I liked the way it sounded, and the movement it implied, like something flipping over, or floating, or thinking with only food on their mind.
I love titles that sound good in the mouth. I always read the titles of paintings.
LM The stories also cover a range of genres, with some stories taking place in more or less the real world and others involving fantasy or horror elements like avenging ghosts. Is “genre” something you think about when writing?
RB It’s not something I think about when I am writing, but I read very widely, including a great deal of what some people would call genre fiction. But I also read a great deal of poetry, and literary fiction, so it’s really a mixed-up soup I’m pulling from, if you know what I mean. I have a hunch that you, Lincoln, write and read similarly. Am I correct?
LM Absolutely. My shelves are a big jumble of literary realism, science fiction, fantasy epics, philosophy tomes, joke books, and everything in between. I think “mixed-up soup” is a nice way to think about influences. There’s a tendency to discuss literary influences as direct links, like fossils in an evolutionary timeline, but at least for myself I find the influences come out in surprising ways. If I’m writing a science fiction story, I may be drawing more from Flannery O’Connor than Philip K. Dick.
And often that influence is a fragment of language—some sentence or phrase or syntax that has stuck in my mind (possibly just a weird sentence I overheard on the street). Do you work this way? Do your stories begin with language or with something else?
RB My stories most often begin with images I want to get to, so that the writing of a story is a way, or a vehicle, for me to get the reader to look at something the way I want them to see a thing. However, I do also have stories that start with language.
When I teach I make my students do a ritual sentence exercise where each and every class begins with all of the participants reading aloud a piece of found language. It can be something they heard on the street, saw scribbled on a wall, or found in one of the assigned texts. The point is to sensitize students to the beauty of language, to make them see the strange shapes it can make, and to capture and write down those strange shapes when they can be found. This exercise also makes it so everybody has a small sentence stake in the game every class, which is a pleasant energy to achieve.
I think that language is an especially difficult medium to make art in because we have to use it for so many utilitarian purposes. One must cancel their credit card with language. One must yell at the dog with language. One must read nutrition facts and make up lies about why one can’t attend jury duty with language. It is a great challenge to liberate such a banal tool and make it look, and sound, new and beautiful.
LM We met through NOON, a literary magazine where we’ve both been published and where you worked for several years, which is run and edited by Diane Williams. Williams is famous for her brilliant and intense editing (she’s known to crop a 10 page story into a 3 paragraph story for publication). Did Williams’s editing style influence your writing?
RB Diane is, indeed, a brilliant writer and editor. The biggest thing I learned from Diane was the need to treat each sentence like a monument, like one of the most important things that one could ever accomplish. A sentence, Diane would say, I am sure she still says, is all it takes. Diane had me and the NOON editor with whom I worked most closely, Mary South, read submissions we were seriously considering out loud to her, from across the room, while sitting on the couch. Diane would stop us if she felt we weren’t giving the work it’s due justice. Louder, she often instructed us at those editorial meetings. Slower, read it slower. Annunciate like each word is a separate object. When you get close to the end, she instructed us, go especially slow. You’re savoring the reading for the listener. We spent dozens of hours reading stories out loud to each other. Those were truly magnificent afternoons.
LM Often I find I do my best editing when I’m preparing for a reading, and suddenly I’m forced to admit which parts of the piece are ugly or stupid or pointless. The parts I don’t want to read out loud are almost always the parts that need to go. Is reading your own writing out loud a practice of yours in writing or revision?
RB Yes. I read everything I write out loud. Some pieces do sound better, naturally, out in the air than others, which isn’t always a bad thing. Dialogue heavy stories, for instance, can be a challenge to read publicly. But I do write dialogue heavy stories, on occasion, and, when I do, I read them out loud privately.
LM How about your writing process in general? Do you have a strict routine? A set way to revise?
RB Unfortunately I am very bad at routines in all aspects of my life.
LM One of my favorite qualities in your writing is the humor. The stories are strange and lovely, but often laugh-out-loud funny at the same time. A moment that sticks out to me is “Burn” when a ghost is trying to connect to his wife and she screams, “Even the ghost of you is boring! You aren’t even threatening. You’re just sitting there trying to convince me I should have loved you because of your Goddamn vegetable garden!” Is humor an important quality for you in literature?
RB I think writing humorous language is very difficult, and so I’m very flattered that you think I’ve managed it. “Burn” is perhaps the most slapstick. It’s different than the other stories in Belly Up, in that way. It’s one of the ones I feel the most distant from these days.
I do love reading humor in literature. Many of the stories in NOON are hilarious. Specifically, I’m thinking of Vi Khi Nao’s “I Ask the Sentence.” Patty Yumi Cottrell, Ottessa Moshfegh, George Saunders, Joanna Ruocco, Barry Hannah, Russell Edson, Joanna Howard, Sam Lipsyte, Rivka Galchen and Sasha Fletcher are also masters of literary humor that I greatly admire.
LM What are some non-literary (films, music, toys, whatever) influences on your fiction?
RB I adore the photographs of Taryn Simon. The way her work investigates place, incarceration, viewership, voyeurism, political machinery, death and family ties is captivating.
LM In “Black Tongue,” the narrator makes a distinction between two types of people: “there are the types of people who constantly envision what it would be like to be beheaded, and there are those who don’t. My brother is the latter. He is very satisfied with his veins and the work they do to keep his blood within him. He never thinks about what would happen if they exploded and it all went wrong.” Is it safe to assume that you are in the former category?
RB Yes, it is true, I do often think about what it would be like to have my head sliced off. Surely anyone who has ever beheaded a turkey thinks this?
LM A line that has been struck in my head for days is “Things are so easy to ruin.” Simple, but horrifyingly true. Another longer line that stuck with me: “One of the rotten things about having a body is that you don’t realize how many parts you have until they’ve all gone wrong.” What draws your writing to the point where things—life, rituals, bodies—go wrong?
RB I spent most of my days from age 1-5 with my great grandparents, who were my babysitters, and, when I was child, I watched their bodies and minds slow and become less useful, and I’ve had a parent affected by cancer, and friends who were young, who were my age, who were alive and then, suddenly, dead, because they were hit by a car/took too many drugs/went to a party in a building that burned down—it just seems to me like this life, this business of having a body, is incredibly precarious. It’s ludicrous. We walk around in these containers thinking they maintain some type of boundary between us and the world, but really we’re just leaking skin flakes on the street and shedding hair. It’s a miracle I’m not bald already. You should see the hair in my shower drain, Lincoln! A wad of a miracle. One would think I was an animal.