HER KIND: Ladies, Welcome to the Conversation. Poet and novelist May Sarton once said: “We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.” Are you concerned with the ideas of the self, the soul and/or authenticity in your writing?
AIMEE PARKISON: The idea of the “soul” and “authenticity” in any kind of creative work gets to the heart of what an artist does. As a writer, sensitivity is so important – sensitivity to the self and others. For me, authenticity comes from sensitivity, but that’s what makes art and life dangerous – you have to feel everything so deeply to create something meaningful, powerful, authentic. And that’s where the danger comes in – a psychological and “psychic” danger in that higher level of sensitivity, which leads to vulnerability, and can sometimes be deeply painful, crushing the soul, therefore threatening authenticity as the soul will try to protect itself from harm once the sensitivity becomes too great. That’s where the creative risk comes in. It’s the same risk as with extreme intimacy. To be an artist – a creative writer – one has to be open and to remain open so that the pleasure and pain of others influences the work. That’s what it means to “create” a character, a mood, a voice, or a story that sings lyrically and universally with pleasure, pain, joy, depression, sensuality or fear – any real and deeply felt emotion that moves from the page to the reader’s heart and mind.
JANET MITCHELL: Well said, Aimee. Authenticity comes down to telling the truth. We may not like the truth of our hearts — the wounds, the passions, the hatreds, etc. — but our hearts must be honored, must be put down. We as artists can do little else. Writing is an act of courage, of danger.
AP: Absolutely, Janet! I couldn’t agree more. It takes courage to write the truth. Sometimes the truth has to be mined, uncovered, searched, sought for— language can lead to a hidden truth, as in poetic or surrealist moments, when language uncovers a truth we didn’t know we knew. Sometimes, writing a realistic story about risky subject matter leads to telling the truth in a courageous manner because our characters can say things that we are not encouraged or allowed to say, at least publically. Or, when writing stories, sometimes our characters will tell us a truth we need to know, something we once knew and have somehow forgotten, a new necessary truth to unlock meaning in our lives. Sometimes “the truth” is something that society has convinced us to repress or abandon, as when the truth isn’t “politically correct.” Authenticity can cut through the lies of political correctness to uncover a truth that’s waiting to be spoken.
JM: All this talk about “truth” has made me think about how I am a natural born liar. Do you consider yourself one, Aimee? I always find it interesting when someone I know wants to know if a particular story in The Creepy Girl has actually happened. Actually happened in what way? Yes, it actually happened as I was writing it. I experienced it happening, and the story cost me. But no, it didn’t happen in my daily life. Have you been asked that as well?
AP: Have I been asked if something that happened in my stories happened to me in “real” life? Many times! It’s interesting the dichotomy that’s being established here — the “real” life verses the “fake” life of the writer, as if the reader doesn’t have that exact same boundary to negotiate in reading a good book, where the “real” life and the “fake” life become one in the mind. If more people understood that reading can be an act of total imaginary immersion in the story and its characters, then people wouldn’t be so consumed with understanding the role of the writer, which is similar to the role of the reader.
Readers do have a tendency to confuse the writer with the character when a story seems authentic. If a female writer writes well about rape, she knows readers will assume she was raped. If she writes authentically about abuse, readers will assume she was abused. If she writes about sex, readers will assume she is displaying private moments from her own sex life. It’s like stripping naked in public or having sex on stage or being raped in front of an audience to get into a victim’s character and point of view, especially at fiction readings when performing certain works. And, sadly, society judges women so much more harshly than men when it comes to sexual confessions and “damage” to the body, mind, and reputation. In some ways, to explore certain subject matter in writing is to know your reader will view you in a dangerous light, but only if the reader feels the work is authentic.
But am I a natural-born liar? I’m a natural-born something, but I don’t know the name for it. I wish I were a natural liar, but I’m a moody person, so tone of voice and facial expressions give me away in person. I betray myself in the flesh. Life would be much easier if I had more control over my emotions and less of a compunction to tell the truth in relationships, which gets me into trouble. I even feel I have to tell the truth in email, which is usually a huge mistake!
But in stories, screenplays, or poems— well, that’s another matter. Lying on paper, when constructing imaginary worlds and people, comes naturally. I think in images, and images are what make a scene come alive. A well-chosen image is what makes the reader believe any lie, no matter how great, and that’s where the art comes into play, making a “lie” even more authentic than “the truth.” Is this a conundrum? Or, is it a fiction writer’s paradox? Or, does it mean that all writers are hypocrites somehow? How deeply ironic is it that we’re talking about authenticity when our job as a fiction writer is basically to lie and to lie all the time, and to lie as well as possible to make the reader suspend disbelief, to make even a lie seem authentic, and somehow “truer” than the truth? What does it say about humanity that our greatest narratives have to lie to express contemporary society’s truth as theme, message, or metaphor? And, when we lie well enough, why do readers want to believe the fictional lie is somehow the writer’s autobiographical truth—that metaphor is the new reality for the writer, the artist of authenticity?
So much of my fiction is about personal damage. That’s why it scares me a little to know that when readers feel I’ve written about damage in an authentic way, those readers might assume that I’m a damaged person. And, maybe in some ways I am a damaged person to be drawn to the stories I create and the characters I write about . . . I don’t know. I’ve had several readers approach me privately to ask about stories from my books, Woman with Dark Horses or The Innocent Party, and those readers want to know if what happened to the people in my stories really happened to me, or why I really wrote a particular story. It’s flattering because the question suggests a level of authenticity, but also disturbing because many of my stories are about exploring the dark side of society, sex, love, and family— including rape, murder, suicide, or abuse.
Janet, you’ve explored some rather risky subject matter in The Creepy Girl— looking at the secret realties of growing up female, and identity’s link to sexuality in growing up, I can imagine it must be disturbing when a reader asks if a story is “true,” or if it “really” happened to you. How do you answer such a question when the story is about a family falling apart, or a young girl’s allowing herself to be objectified by men as a reaction against her father? Your stories stand out to me as amazingly brave, vivid, stylish, and “risky” because of these very issues with the reader’s possible reaction to your own brand of feminist authenticity.
Do you see your fiction as feminist, Janet? Do you feel like readers see you as your characters as the result of the authenticity of the stories? And, are you all right with being confused with “the creepy girl” to those who know you best as a fiction writer? Isn’t that what makes writing about “risky” subject matter so brave, not just the dark places a writer has to visit in the mind in a mad, method-actor masochistic manner –but that in some ways you write knowing you’ll be forever thought of as your character, if the character resonates enough to dwell within the reader’s mind?
JM: All this talk about “truth” has made me think about lying. I consider myself a natural-born liar. I mean, this in regards to my being an artist. (And when I’ve lied in my every day life, it usually has been to my mother and my father. Ah, the family romance.) I’ve told stories since I was very young. (I remember my mother being so delighted that she had a writer, and I still have much of what she kept from those years.) And when I read Ray Bradbury, I fell in love with his words and his worlds. He was so important to me because I have always been told that I have “a wild imagination.” I never quite understood how that was different from “an imagination,” because my imagination such as it is, is simply me.
I always find it interesting when someone I know wants to know if a particular story in The Creepy Girl has actually happened. Yes, it actually happened as I was writing it. I experienced it happening, and the story cost me. But no, it didn’t happen in my daily life. At least not in that way. And this is funny: what I just told you is “actually true” and yet it feels less authentic, somehow less “true” than any fiction I have written. Why? Probably because it doesn’t come from some unearthed place inside of me, some passion, some wound, some joy, some…
It just is, and being just is has never been what makes me heart glow. (Well, other than for my son.) I have always preferred my thoughts, my “wild imagination” – as my mother, my teachers called my imagination – my busted-up heart, to what was happening in the real world. I never understood people’s fascination with news, televised or in print, even when I was working so hard at doing so. And I never understood why my imagination was “wild” when to me it was just my imagination. A given thing. So I am not a hypocrite when I write my fiction since it comes from the most Janet parts of me, and those parts, as long as I am honoring them sentence by sentence, are true. Even if they are lies.
However, I am a hypocrite when I write my television and movie scripts because I am stringing together lies to make an authentic truth. I am thinking about making the viewer suspend disbelief. I fret about it, and yet it is so much fun.
Now, as to what it says about our humanity that our greatest narratives have to lie to express contemporary society’s truth as theme, message, or metaphor, I do not know straightaway.
I can understand why someone would want to know if your stories have actually happened— how could a reader not? Your writing is as frank, honest, and non-flinching as it gets, and yet there is all that beauty as well – I would think that their asking has to do with what they have experienced while reading you rather than their thinking of you as damaged. I can see how a reader may simultaneously be blown away and yet wanting to make his or her messy feelings be less messy by being able to say “oh, but that happened to her. I understand.” Or I can see how another reader might ask you because he has experienced some dark side of society, and he wants to know if you are a kindred soul. Have you ever asked the person why he or she thought the story is autobiographical? I never have because I am always so taken aback by the question that I say some quick answer and turn to get out of wherever I am as fast as I can. I find the question embarrassing. I don’t know why.
I feel as though I am going to disappoint you here: I do not see my fiction as feminist. I see my work as what I needed to write at the time it was written. We all have only so much time to get down our hearts, to carve them into the stone, and I do not to waste what time I have left.
I see myself as a writer. An artist. I think of when I read Sammy Davis Jr.’s Yes, I Can, and how he wrote about not being seen as a “black performer,” but just as a “performer.” I have to say that I look forward to when we can see artists that way, without gender, without color, without any label that makes them even more other than they already are.
I am not all right with being confused with “the creepy girl” because I am not that girl. Well, I am to Holly Brickley, a wonderful writer that was in my thesis workshop at Columbia. One afternoon, as she was talking about my stories, she was pulling up the skin on her foreman and saying how my stories just stayed underneath there. “It’s creepy,” she said. Then: “Hey, you’re the creepy girl.” She laughed. That’s how the collection got its title. Thank you, Holly.
Now, Aimee, I’m going to ask you something very general. I want to know why you write. Have the reasons changed from when you wrote Women with Dark Horses to The Innocent Party? What are you trying to get down on the page? An authenticity? Or something else? Also, what have been your major influences? Any particular place? Any particular writers? I also would like to know about anything else you would care to share regarding my favorite story from The Innocent Party: “Dummy.” One favor: please discuss the sensitive and sensual relationship breathing at this story’s center. Perhaps you could talk a bit about how you created this seemingly “real” relationship.
AP: Janet, my story “Dummy” revolves around the sensitive and sensual relationship between two lesbian lovers – the narrator and her partner. The narrator’s lesbian lover committed suicide in the apartment where the narrator still lives. After her lover’s death, the narrator suffers as a survivor, enduring PTSD. Her post-traumatic stress goes hand-in-hand with survivor guilt. Initially both women planned to commit suicide together by jumping out the window of their high apartment, but the narrator hesitated at the last minute and her lover died without her.
“Dummy” was a complex story, as it evolved and emerged slowly over the course of several years with many drafts. In the beginning, I only had “the voice.” With each new revision, the voice led me to the “truth” of what happened in the relationship among the two women who lived together as partners enduring erotic connection, society’s judgment, depression, sensuality, love, and suicidal despair. Of course, the story began “in the middle of the action” after one lover had already killed herself and the other was left behind. That’s when the “love story” evolved as a “ghost story” – a narrative of “deathless love” – a love that transcends death to break the boundaries of dichotomies, so that the socially acceptable categories no longer count – male/female, dark/light, living/dead . . . all are one, the same.
In my writing and reading, I’m drawn to the “new gothic” – psychological tales of deathless love and doubling where the lover becomes the beloved, the self becomes the other. That’s the nature of true sensuality and authentic erotica and romance for me – the idea that sex literally breaks down the boundaries between the self and the other, the possessed and the possessor, the male and the female, the dominate and the submissive, so that the two literally become one and gender and “terror” of “the other” no longer matter in what I like to think of as a sort of “sublime intimacy” that makes for a new kind of story about relationships, human connection, gender, sexuality, and identity.
That’s as real as I know how to get at this point – that kind of unflinching intimate transgression of the self and the other, which mirrors the authenticity of crossing the boundary between reader and writer, the character and person, the reality and fiction, the real life and the fake life becoming one in the act of reading an authentic narrative.
In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes that the “fictional dream that will eventually fill the reader’s mind begins as a largely mysterious dream in the writer’s mind. Through the process of writing and endless revising, the writer makes available the order the reader sees. Discovering the meaning and communicating the meaning are for the writer one single act.”
Perhaps this explains why I find inspiration behind my eyelids before falling asleep. I lose a lot of insight upon waking. My mind reveals strange and beautiful things before I lose consciousness. Who knows what this means? In that moment when the unconscious mind takes over to let the conscious mind rest, images like paintings of people and places appear in flashes. Some of the flashes linger and start to stick to each other, connecting to make stories, dreams. Unfortunately, I sometimes forget them upon waking.
I write from two minds: the unconscious mind that finds surrealist truth in illogical images in the midst of disconnection; and the conscious mind that longs for control and wants to make everything logical, creating meaning, even when there is none.
Years ago, I began imagining a lonely woman who has an affair with the ghost of her lesbian lover, who committed suicide. “Dummy” is the only “ghost story” I’ve written so far, yet it’s shaped by reality and the conventions of contemporary literary fiction. In writing this “ghost story,” I learned something about life. I was able to answer questions I had been asking for a long time – Why do people commit suicide, and what happens to those left behind? I’ve known people who have committed suicide – some of them in my own family – and these are the questions that remain.
This is what my stories are about – not the “damage” of living but what damage makes possible in the lives of survivors. It changes our lives so that everything we see is suddenly altered. The more I learn from my characters, the more something odd starts to happen. The guilty suddenly appear innocent, and the innocent appear somehow guilty. This is probably why I became a fiction writer – to gain some sort of control over everything that’s raging out of control. I’m a storyteller, attempting to communicate with the heart as well as with the mind.
So Janet . . . Speaking of sensuality, narrative, and literary “authenticity” – what do you think of Shades of Gray trilogy? “Everyone” is still talking about the popular erotic series. I was blown away several months ago when at a grocery store checkout I saw a popular news magazine cover with the headline about the “secret feminist fantasy” that was revealed in Shades of Gray. The article’s argument was that Shades of Gray somehow defines the secret, politically incorrect but very real contemporary “feminist/post-feminist” erotic fantasy of male dominance and female submission. I went right out afterwards and ordered the series on my Kindle, and was shocked by how un-erotic, unsexy, banal, unimaginative, and immature the contemporary “feminist fantasy” really was.
How could Shades of Gray be a “feminist” fantasy? I was even further shocked to hear the current rhetoric defining the work as “Mommy Porn.” I find this new term quite sexist and dismissive of female sexuality – defining it as immature and outdated, as well as exceptionally conservative. (On a personal note: I’m not a “mother,” but even I find this term “Mommy Porn” offensive for many, many reasons for what it suggests about the sexuality, desires, and fantasy life of mature women in general. It’s even worse that the now outdated term “chick lit.” It seems that we’re going backward instead of forward in defining literature for and about women.) Is Shades of Gray what mature women readers really want? Is this what mothers secretly long for? If so, why?
Is this the “authentic” feminist fantasy: mature women 30-50+ years old secretly fantasize about being 21-year old virgins seduced by young, billionaire CEO’s who will literally bind them in ropes and chains and control them completely through the “art” of seduction with extreme wealth and a big cock, which apparently means a self-imposed sexual slavery for the “lucky” chosen woman? Is the popular heroine the one who must save her rich and powerful man by fucking him better than any other lover ever knew how – the female protagonist who will become the heroine of the story by receiving the big cock in any number of clichéd submissive ways? She is the vessel of the big cock – the one chosen to receive it in all its masculine “glory.” (Gag.) Is this the fantasy — the new contemporary fairytale for today’s woman? Really?
This is what scares me about the evidence of “authenticity” as marketability in the contemporary literary world defined by a capitalistic society’s idea of success. How does one define it? Is it in number of copies sold? If so, Shades of Gray is truly an “authentic” contemporary female/feminist fantasy because so many people are reading and buying it, and it’s made so much money and waves by being “marketable” in our capitalist society. But is it art? If so, where does that leave you, me, and the other serious women artists, scholars, professionals, mothers, and writers I know – the ones who don’t secretly long to be oppressed and dominated by powerful men? We dream of completeness, equality, artistic freedom, and the freedom of ideas where sexuality is more subtle, complex, and “messy” than the way traditional gender roles are defined by a misogynistic society. Where is our “popular” and “authentic story?
JM: I find it interesting that “Dummy” haunted you for several years before you got it down. Perhaps that is why the story seems to breathe on the page. The story is so sensual, so authentic that I would think readers would wonder if you are a lesbian. Why do you think there is an assumption that a straight woman cannot write about loving another woman in a truthful way? Why can’t a straight woman admire, even revel in another woman, her body, her beauty, her mind, her soul? Well, I guess we can, but then we are considered “on the edge.” Why? Why aren’t we just human?
I have only read Fifty Shades of Grey, but wasn’t sufficiently engaged to continue. I wasn’t even sufficiently engaged to ask anyone who has read them all to tell me how the story ends. (And will I see the movie? No, not even if Robert Redford was magically young again and cast as Grey.)
Why this book is being called “a feminist fantasy,” and worse yet, “Mommy Porn,” is beyond me. And I agree with your take on this new term. It’s deeply offensive for the reasons you have stated and for being dismissive of what women choose to read and to write. I’d like to know who coined that term. (And on my personal note, I am a mother, but perhaps not their “target mommy.” Rather than being highly aroused when I read the sex scenes, I was deflated and bored. Nothing was left to my imagination, and I’m sorry if this sounds smug, but my imagination is better than what was on the page. If a book has been marketed as the surefire way to get me off isn’t doing that, then there is a fundamental breakdown of the writer/reader relationship. I have spoken with other mothers and grandmothers—a small sampling, yes—and yet they had the same reaction: nope, not even a little. If other women have been aroused, then I’m happy for them. Far be it to block another woman’s orgasm.
Fifty Shades of Grey is commerce. How can it truly be considered anything else when the author has licensed rights for a clothing line? I am waiting for the store to open on Times Square. Right next to M&Ms World. But Literature? No. Unless I am throwing away the canon and those writers who I wish were in and are not yet. Art? No. I am not inspired.
Even before I read about the author’s connection to the Twilight Series, I was struck by how similar was to Fifty Shades of Grey. (I did read the Twilight series, and saw the first movie. I preferred the book; the film failed to bring anything new.) But Twilight makes a better read. Although I never fully entered the narrative and forget that I was reading, I could understand and believe the love story. It made emotional sense. Not so with Fifty Shades of Grey. It never made sense, emotional or otherwise, that our educated, intelligent heroine—who doesn’t know she’s beautiful because her best friend is more beautiful—I know that’s what makes Anastasia beautiful, right? Her not knowing—thanks, One Direction—allows herself to be stalked, controlled, and sexually abused? I know— she cannot help herself. Because she loves him. Because he has been scarred, literally and figuratively. Because she must save him. Because he is after all the most interesting character in the book. (What does that say? That our heroine is dull, passive, afraid to speak to her family and friends.) Because all she wants is what all women really want: to be thrown onto the pool table—well, against the elevator wall here—and screwed. Oh, and to be taken care of financially. Yawn. Are we really still here?
It seems we are, Aimee, and that saddens me. I do hate to rain on anyone’s parade. The author has achieved financial freedom and worldwide fame. Good for her. I have never felt diminished by someone else’s success.
Yet Disney Pixar has given children new takes on what it means to be a princess in Tangled and Brave. So there is a chance that the next generation will actually move on. Still what does it say that movies aimed at children are more feminist than a New York Times bestseller? Maybe that the book-buying “mommies” want to read what is familiar, easy and thus comfortable, and yet wrapped in a brown paper bag so that they can feel they are being “risky” and “wild.” Young again. Perhaps it is their form of a mid-life crisis.
I must believe that there is a way for you and I to write a commercial book. How will we find that way? Through the same means by which we write our short fiction. We will engage our hearts, our minds, our imagination, and strip away the most accessible layers to get at what must be said and what truly lasts.
AIMEE PARKISON, Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has received a Christopher Isherwood Fellowship, a Writers at Work Fellowship, and a Kurt Vonnegut Fiction Prize. Her story collection, The Innocent Party, was published by BOA Editions’ American Reader Series in 2012. Parkison writes and publishes fiction and poetry. She has an MFA from Cornell University. Her story collection, Woman with Dark Horses, won the first annual Starcherone Fiction Prize. Parkison’s work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in or is forthcoming from Hayden’s Ferry Review, So to Speak, Nimrod, The Literary Review, Feminist Studies, Mississippi Review, North American Review, Quarterly West, Cimarron Review, Santa Monica Review, Other Voices, Crab Orchard Review, Fiction International, Seattle Review, and Denver Quarterly. She is currently working on a novel.
JANET MITCHELL received her BA from Dartmouth, where she was awarded many honors, including Highest Distinction in English for her creative writing thesis. She received her MFA in Fiction from Columbia University, where she was the Bingham Scholarship recipient. Her work has appeared in such literary magazines as Gargoyle Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Quarterly and has been optioned by Lifetime Television as well as by independent producers. She earned her MFA in Film Production from the University of Southern California where she won the John Huston Award for Best Director and a Paramount Pictures Fellowship. Her award-winning short film How Does Anyone Get Old?, starring Mark Ruffalo and Mina Badie, was featured on IFC’s “Inside the Indies” and on NBC’s “Starwatch.” Her educational video “Behind Closed Doors” won a Cine Golden Eagle and is currently shown in over 250 schools and domestic violence centers nationwide. Photo Credit: Lisa Bevis.