When I first picked up Circe’s Bicycle by Tara Campbell with its clean, stylish cover, I had to remind myself exactly who Circe was in mythology. Here’s the Wikipedia definition:
Circe (/ˈsɜːrsiː/; Greek: Κίρκη Kírkē pronounced [kírkɛː]) is a goddess of magic or sometimes a nymph, witch, enchantress or sorceress in Greek mythology.
I soon found out how perfectly this title fits Tara’s collection of eighteen singular pieces of flash fiction and poetry. Her work focuses on family, love, and disappointment and it’s her decision to divide the collection into two thematic parts, “Tradition and Transition” and “Love and Consequences” that gives meaning to the word “bicycle” in the title as it suggests duality, movement, and mores.
Tara Campbell, taracampbell.com, is a fiction editor at Barrelhouse and an MFA candidate at American University. Prior publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, b(OINK), Booth, Spelk, Jellyfish Review, Strange Horizons, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. Her debut novel, TreeVolution, was published in 2016, and Circe’s Bicycle, was released in March 2018.
Gay Degani: Your work has a strong sense of magical realism so I can see the connection with myth and fable in your work (“The Collector,” “We Are Twenty-Six,” “The Real Stuff,” for example, and of course, “Circe’s Bicycle”), but how did you ultimately decide on your title?
Tara Campbell: The story “Circe’s Bicycle” is about being transported to a strange, magical place and not really knowing—or caring—how you got there. I think that’s the kind of environment I wanted to create in the collection. It’s a place where unreal things can happen, but if they make a deeper emotional sense to you, you don’t really question a giant bee carrying you off through the window. Ideally this book is an odd little island where you can go with the flow and, for a moment, forget the million other responsibilities you carry around with you.
GD: We definitely need stories that transport us these days. You’ve kept it real, however, by breaking your book into two sections, Tradition and Transition (ten pieces) and Love and Consequences (eight pieces) and these stories remain true to their themes, flowing from one to the other without a hitch. Why are these themes important to you?
TC: These themes actually presented themselves to me as I was putting the collection together. I had submitted a couple of microfictions to Lit Fest Press for their magazine, and they asked if I had enough for a book. I didn’t have a manuscript ready, so at that point I went all CSI: I removed the paintings from one wall of my office and taped up dozens of poems and stories, drawing arrows between them and trying to figure out linkages. Eventually I winnowed them down and wound up sorting them into two categories. It was an oddly tactile process, kind of a thematic Rubik’s cube (I’ve just aged myself, I think).
GD: The cube is still around so shhhh about your age. Let’s talk about tradition in the story “Monkey Roast” which does a good job of introducing the first section of the book by presenting us with a monkey instead of a turkey, a mother and daughter instead of a large, grateful family, and disrespectful language instead of prayers. You are creating something different here from what appears on TV shows, greeting cards, and Norman Rockwell’s famous painting. It spotlights how life is transitioning toward a more casual, irreverent view of tradition. Can you talk a little about the genesis of this piece?
TC: Well, my quick answer is that the phrase “monkey roast” just popped into my head, and I knew I had to tell a story around it. But it was also influenced by my mother’s aging process—she was in her late 80s when she passed away last summer. As with many families, she was the one who brought us all together around holidays and food, and as she aged and became less able to do that work herself, traditions changed. As the kids grew up and moved away, the large Thanksgiving gatherings waned as well. So, I guess there’s some nostalgia at play here. Now, my mother never mistook a turkey for a monkey, but she did start forgetting words now and then—but so do I!
GD: In the micro, “Stardust,” you present another transition, one that is brought about by loss. You use imagery to convey your meaning in this piece, and it’s a very carefully rendering of childhood. How do you go about incorporating visuals in your work?
TC: Shorter forms like flash, micro, and poetry are perfect places to slow down and consider specific images. I was thinking here about the ways in which you can lose someone to substance abuse. Death isn’t the only kind of loss. Even when they’re still alive they can become a different, unknowable person, and the person you used to know seems as unreachable as the stars. Images of “before and after” came to mind as a trajectory of loss.
GD: I know you consider imagery important in your writing both as fiction writer and a poet. In the poem, “Freedom Bras,” you describe this particular female apparatus as “itch monkeys.” This reflects the status of women and what is happening in the “Me too” movement. What are your thoughts?
TC: The poem came about before the hashtag “Me too” became a “thing,” but it is definitely tied to the ways in which we require women to assume responsibility for how men react to their bodies. As a girl, I thought it was so unfair that I had to bind myself with this supremely uncomfortable piece of clothing before I went outside, but by now I’ve been trained to feel naked without it. Just as we went through the bra-burning phase in American culture, now we’re burning the “look-the-other-way” mentality toward abuse and harassment.
GD: You are fluent in prose, both micro and flash, as well as poetry. Which form do you like best and why? If you can’t choose, what do you like best about each?
TC: That’s a hard question, because I don’t really make a conscious choice. I tend to write poetry when I’m pissed off about something, and perhaps that sense of immediacy lends itself to verse. My prose tends to come from a “what if” question popping into my head, like what if your flowers started talking to you? Then I have to figure out how that would happen in the first place, and what it would mean, and that process of figuring out is where the stories start. Each one is doing a different thing, and ideally each one informs the other.
GD: What are you working on now?
TC: If Circe’s Bicycle is an exercise in short, now I’m going LONG. I’m working on a historical novel about an ethnographic exhibition in the late 19th century featuring a “troupe” of Ashanti that travels through Europe. Think of it as an amalgam of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the National Zoo—because, bizarrely, they were often housed within zoo grounds in the various cities they visited.
The thing I like about this particular story is that, unlike too often in the past, the Ashanti actually had some degree of power in the business relationship. That question of choice and agency is what I’m digging in to, and it’s fascinating—and daunting to write about. So yes, this will be occupying my time for a while.
Gay Degani, a resident of Los Angeles, has had four flash stories nominated for Pushcart consideration. Along with Pomegranate Stories in 2009 (Prometheus’ Forge), her full-length collection, Rattle of Want, was published by Pure Slush Press in 2015 and her suspense novel, What Came Before by Truth Serum Press in 2016. She occasionally blogs at Words in Place, wordsinplace.blogspot.com