Having a body is strange! Talking about the absurdities of the human vessel, white noise machines and the okay-ness of Shakespeare with Rita Bullwinkel, author of Belly Up

Sandra Partanen
Posted on October 08, 2018, 3:07 pm
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What happens when you start feeding your hungry, local church? Can you restore someone’s sight with a doll’s eyes, and how do you acquire a black tongue? These are only some of the questions you would receive answers to upon reading Rita Bullwinkel’s Belly Up.

The wonders of the body, the strange things it can do and its decay is the focal point of Belly Up, and it will leave you nothing short of amazed. Each of the 17 stories are as bizarre, sometimes even grotesque, as they are careful and tender. After finishing the last page of the collection, you will most likely stand in front of the mirror and observe your own being in confused wonder.

Bullwinkel has been featured widely in magazines and journals like Tin House, Conjunctions, BOMB, Vice, NOON and Guernica. Belly Up is her debut collection, however, published by Texas based, all-women’s press A Strange Object on May 8th, 2018. Both her fiction and translations have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, and Belly Up has received remarkable praise from other talents like Jeff VanderMeer and Lorrie Moore.

Belly Up was released earlier this year (congratulations!), what has the experience been like for you?
It’s been wonderful and joyous. As someone who writes things, you can forget – or I forgot – that people are actually going to read the book. And then any time that anyone read it or had anything to say about it, I first and foremost felt a huge sense of gratitude, that anyone was willing to spend that much time in my mind, with me. It’s definitely the first time in my life that I have engaged with people who read my writing and came to conclusions about it who have no context of having ever met me. That is a bit of an unreal sensation that perhaps some writers get used to eventually, but does feel a little bit surprising to me.

So a little bit tumultuous in some ways, maybe?
I don’t know if I’d use the word tumultuous as much as a bit of a surprise. With other artists that work in other mediums I think that the separation of the work of art from the artist is much more obvious. When a sculptor makes a sculpture, the sculpture is a physical object, which is very obviously something separate from themselves. Writing and language is weirdly porous because it operates in these linguistic symbols. It doesn’t quite have that separation from its maker that maybe some other art forms have. I’m curious – I don’t know if as a journalist, or if you’re also a fiction writer, if you also feel that way. That with writing specifically, the separation of the work from the author, the artwork from the maker, is maybe a little more complicated or carries more weight than perhaps one would say about the painting from the painter or the sculptor from the sculpture.

I do write some fiction, and I definitely agree with you. I think when it comes to language it becomes not more personal per se, but harder to untangle the personal, if that makes sense?
Yeah. I think that’s because language is such a strange medium to make art with, because we use it in so many utilitarian ways, right? We use it to order our breakfast or pay our phone bill or speak to each other. Something about its utilitarian nature makes it culturally harder to separate from the author and the product. I guess that separation has just been a little bit jarring for me. To see the book as product being interacted with and reflected on back to me as a person, in both positive and other ways. I guess I was just profoundly ridiculous to not have expected that!

I wouldn’t say that!
It’s such a strange thing to make things. As you know, one’s motivation for making something is not attached to the idea of how it will be consumed. And so it’s been kind of a novel, interesting experience to see how it’s been engaged with.

You didn’t start writing until college, is that correct?
Yes, that is correct.

What prompted you to do so?
I took a creative writing class when I was a sophomore in college. I was around 19. I met a brilliant writer named Joanna Howard who was the first person to ever assign me a book of fiction that I found moved me at all. Prior to that I had never read any fiction that I found moving, and therefore did not think of it as something that I was interested in, and would perhaps have gone as far as to say that, as an adolescent, I didn’t think I liked literature.

I went to very large public schools in California, which have a very strict state curriculum. I feel very attached to my public education and feel very identified by it, I’m a huge proponent and advocate for public education, which is deeply under threat in the states. But, when you’re in the system, you do have to take these standardized tests and there’s a list of 150 books that are supposed to be called “great literature,” and what happens is that in order for a state to declare something as great literature, it must be old. It has to be totally non-threatening, and so we were reading things like Macbeth. Macbeth is fine, Shakespeare is totally fine, you know, nobody’s willing, myself included, to stand on a podium and be like “Shakespeare, that guy…not a fine guy!” But I just hadn’t read anything that had really excited me and that I felt reflected the way I live my life, or that had cracked my world open and made me see the world in a new way.

So in taking this class with Joanna Howard who had this incredible syllabus featuring Jesse Ball, Lydia Davis, Kelly Link, Ben Marcus, Diane Williams, Sam Lipsyte and Christine Schutt, to name a few, I felt more moved by the work I had read in this class than anything had previously moved me in my life. It was because of the reading I was assigned in that class that I began to start writing fiction.

Do you have any rituals, at all? Any specific places, types of places, sounds?
I write almost exclusively in bed or reclining on the couch. I write really early in the morning, because I work in an office during the day. My long-time lover is a violinist and often practices in the morning, or at other times when I’m trying to write, so I listen to a lot of white noise. I have a very expensive white noise machine, which I love. I listen to 10-hour rain tracks. I’ve never been able to write listening to anything that has a narrative or words. Or even really emphatic classical music — I feel really distracted by it. So I mostly go with ambient drone stuff.

So you listen a lot to things like rainymood.com?
Yeah, a lot of sketchy rain tracks on YouTube.

You work a little bit on the “other end” of the publishing spectrum as well. You do editing for both NOON and McSweeney’s. Would you say that that’s an advantage to you as a writer, and maybe vice versa, as well?
It’s an interesting question. I think that, ultimately, even though I’ve worked as an editor for several magazines, I don’t identify as an editor as much as someone who deeply loves beautiful fiction and enjoys advocating for things to reach an audience. I’m very familiar with some extremely talented editors out there in the world that can take projects and make them into something that gleams in a way that maybe they hadn’t previously. But I don’t think I have a skillset like that. I think that I am someone who deeply loves reading fiction and feels genuinely invested in seeing work that I adore finding an audience, finding platforms. To have it be read and consumed and adored as much as I adore it.

I do think that working for a literary journal is a very valuable experience for any writer, because sitting on the other end of submissions is brutal. There are so many beautiful small literary journals that are in dire need of editors, and of help reading through submissions, and spending time doing that is a very moving and humbling experience. I truly believe that the act of making something is a very genuine, pure and benevolent act. We have such little time on this earth, and if you spend an hour or two hours, three years or five years of your life making something, then that’s a very genuine and ultimately positive thing to have put into the world – regardless of if a magazine is going to publish it or whether or not it finds a home somewhere. So I think that being an editor, in that way, or for any writer to spend time as an editor in that way, can be a powerful and moving experience.

Let’s talk a little bit about Belly Up. I read that the title story never made it into the collection — was it hard to settle on which pieces to use?
My brilliant editor, Jill Meyers, felt strongly that the manuscript needed to be short and tight, which I agreed with her about, and am very grateful to her for seeing. There were about 100 pages of stories that got cut from the original manuscript. Some were easy to cut. Others were thought over a little bit more. That was the point where Jill and I had to start thinking about the shape of the collection. How it was going to read if one were to read it in one sitting. Ultimately, though, by the time it got to that stage, I didn’t feel that attached to anything.

Like you said, we put a lot of time into making these things, these texts, so I just assumed it must be hard to choose between your creations?
No, no, I have a real what’s called — or what I call, it’s not an official thing — jumping-ship syndrome. As in, if shit’s bad or I’m tired, I go like “why don’t I just move somewhere else?” Stories are so strange when you’ve written them five or six years ago, you’re like well, some of them are making it out! I’m not terribly attached, in the way that I don’t think I’m very good at looking at my own work. I’ve had people ask me “what is your favorite story in the collection?” It’s hard for me to make that distinction, because, in a way, it feels like they’re all coming from the same pool.

Speaking of pools, actually. Belly Up features some very varying types of stories that could be categorized under several genres. What are your inspirations for these stories? I’m thinking specifically about stories like ‘Mouth Full of Fish’, how did that one come to be?
I wrote that story in 2012. When I graduated from college, my long-time lover and I planned a very long driving trip. We had been told by many people to stop in Marfa which is this kind of fancy art town in the middle of Texas. There’s a very beautiful modern art museum and lots of beautiful women in modern clothes and some fancy expensive cocktail bars. Stuff like that. It was very disappointing. I thought I was going to get a side of beef or some authentic ranch or something like that, and I didn’t get that. I am not the only person who feels this way about Marfa, by the way! You know, Ben Lerner, he wrote a whole story shitting on Marfa, which made me feel very seen.

The day after we exited Marfa, we spent the day in Balmorhea, which is in Big Bend National Park, which is where ‘Mouth Full of Fish’ is set. We were only there for about half a day, but I found Balmorhea to be so beautiful and the hot springs there to be just magnificent, and there was a rock-shop there. There are a lot of rock-shops in California as well; driving these Northern California freeways, you will frequently see these small shacks of (mostly) men who’ve gone hunting for rocks that they put through these rock polishers and then sell. It’s a very strange thing, and I used to love going to rock shops when I was a kid, which, if someone hasn’t read the story, one of the characters owns a rock shop. The story, really, came out of falling in love with Balmorhea and Big Bend National Park, and thinking it was beautiful. And also thinking about the ways in which different people can be sick, which is part of that story. And how people can be very sick and you cannot really see it, and how people can be sick and it will be very visually obvious. And how those two types of sicknesses can be equally traumatic, or at least be comparable in some way. What I was interested in in that story specifically was having a protagonist that had an intense, life-threatening illness that was invisible in some way, and then encountering Frank, who was very visibly sick; he couldn’t walk, he had an oxygen tank and that sort of thing.

In contrast to the matter of genre, the main theme is of course bodies. How come this became a reoccurring subject matter to you?
Oh my goodness, Sandra, I just feel like having a body is so strange. It’s very bizarre. I think I have been able to hypothesize two reasons as to why I think about this so much. One is that I’m a woman. I think that having a body as a woman is a particularly bizarre and strange experience, because, as a child, you’re taught that your body is what you will be most applauded for, in the way that young girls are told that they are pretty at the age of 3 or 4. And so having that strange juxtaposition between having a body that is supposed to be used for this very specific thing and having to navigate that and figure out where the power structure lies in that from a very young age, like 3, 4, 5, is something that I think anyone who has a compromised body in any marginalized sense, is hyper-aware of. Specifically, with being a woman, most women walk through the world in a way that the world is constantly yelling the word ‘woman’ at you, most days. I may go to work, and have a perfectly professional meeting, but on my way to work I may be cat-called or harassed.

The other thing that has made me very aware of my body as a tool is that I was an extremely competitive youth athlete. The United States is very attached to the idea of winning basically everything. They also want to win at women’s sports, which is unique. American female athletes are extremely competent and groomed from a very young age in general; there are development programs, there are systems in place, to develop and cultivate young female American athletes. It’s in such stark juxtaposition with the whole obvious and blurring patriarchy of American society. And so within the athletic world, which is incredibly sexist even in the women’s athletic world, I was, from a young age, taught about how my body worked and what I needed it for, and what I was using it for, and what it could be good for. Thinking about it as a tool, and something separate from myself and my mind, was something that I did when I was very young. I was recruited to play water polo in college and participated in a lot of international competitions, and was ranked nationally and internationally from age 12 to age 22. When I took that first fiction class when I was 19, I was still spending like 30 hours a week being a competitive athlete.

You’ve mentioned you’re working on a novel. Can you tell me more about it?
It’s about a youth women’s boxing tournament in Reno.

Going back to sports, in other words!
Yeah, it’s a place that I feel comfortable writing in. The writing of it has felt very easy. I’ve gone through a couple drafts. Most of my questions around it are questions about compression. But I mostly just want more time in my day, and in my week and in my life, to write, but I’m hoping it will be done soon. It feels close in some ways.

Rita Bullwinkel recommends:

Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera

A work of unrivaled genius. Yuri Herrera is a Mexican writer who teaches at Tulane University in New Orleans. Kingdom Cons is a breath-taking novel translated into English from Spanish that tells the story of a narcocorrido, which is not a type of person I was familiar prior to reading this book, but narcocorrido’s are the songwriters that the drug cartel lords hire in Mexico to write songs about their exploits, to get put on the radio. The novel is told in a close third to this narcocorrido who witnesses a murder by a drug cartel lord. He writes a song about it that the cartel leader loves, and gets pulled into this court of drug cartel characters and it’s just brilliantly, captivatingly, lyrically written.

The Outline trilogy by Rachel Cusk
It totally blew my mind. Expertly rendered. With Outline specifically, I found the structure of the book to be captivating. The way she moved around characters and took the form of the book by the way the protagonist encountered the people, it felt like a grand architectural building of a book. I was totally taken by the structure of it. All of it is brilliant, but the structure is especially magnificent.

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