I was first introduced to Carol Guess’s collaborative work while I was editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review and we published her story, “With Animal,” co-written with Kelly Magee. It was the first collaborative work I’d read and profoundly affected my understanding of authorship and the “rules” of fiction, eventually inspiring me to pursue my own collaborative project. I was thrilled when, years later, I saw that Carol Guess had co-written a new book, this time with Aimee Parkison, another writer I greatly admired.
Girl Zoo, published by FC2 in February 2019, is dark, funny, morbid, and joyful all at the same time. Most of the stories are very short, rarely longer than a few pages. Guess and Parkison experiment with our expectations of fiction, sometimes even using footnotes to develop stories further. This collection asks us to question how we perceive women’s bodies and roles in society, metaphorical cages turned real in these haunting tales.
Aimee Parkison is the author of Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman: Stories, winner of FC2’s Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize; The Petals of Your Eyes; and the story collections The Innocent Party and Woman with Dark Horses, winner of the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. Parkison is the director of creative writing at Oklahoma State University, where she teaches fiction writing in the MFA and PhD programs.
Carol Guess is the author of nineteen books of poetry and prose, including Darling Endangered, Doll Studies: Forensics, Tinderbox Lawn, and With Animal (co-written with Kelly Magee). In 2014 she was awarded the Philolexian Award for Distinguished Literary Achievement by Columbia University. She teaches in the MFA program at Western Washington University and lives in Seattle.
Dana Diehl: Let’s start at the beginning. What first inspired Girl Zoo? How did you two start collaborating with each other?
Carol Guess: Aimee contacted me about an article she was writing on women and violence. I already admired her work, and suggested we collaborate. Then a year passed, and I thought she’d forgotten. I was thrilled when she wrote and said, “I have time now!”
Aimee Parkison: I interviewed Carol for AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle magazine and was impressed by the wise, authentic things Carol had to say about the culture of innovative writing and writing on women and violence. A year or so later, I was surprised, delighted, and a little afraid when Carol invited me to collaborate with her. I had very little experience with collaboration. The idea of writing an entire book with a co-author was exciting but new to me. Carol, having so much experience with collaboration, suggested a process that started with our brainstorming about topics we were both fascinated by and what we had in common in our art.
DD: Carol, you are a seasoned collaborator, with work co-authored by Kelly Magee, Elizabeth J. Colen, Daniela Olszewska, and others. How has your experience with collaboration changed with each project? How did you first become interested in collaboration, and how have you changed as a collaborator since then?
Carol: My earliest collaboration was with Daniela Olszewska. I’d written maybe a dozen books, and I felt burned out. Then Daniela and I started playing (which is how I think of collaboration—serious play). It brought back my passion for sound, for emotional ambiguity, for capturing ideas with music and imagery. Every collaboration is different, and I learn new ways of engaging with language from every literary partnership. For example, Kelly Magee taught me how to actually write a short story. I came to short story writing as a poet; my stories just trailed off. With Aimee, I learned about weirdness, about incorporating the grit and steam of bodies into writing about political topics.
DD: All of these stories are titled “Girl.” “Girl in the Mall.” “Girl in the Silent Room.” “Girl in Doubt.” These titles set up expectations in the reader that the stories then play with, or subvert. Can you speak to this choice? What does the word “girl” represent to you?
Carol: Taken on its own, the word “girl” feels uncomfortably timeless. I’m always bothered by the slippage between “girl” and “woman” in casual conversation. I’m as guilty of this as anyone; our culture doesn’t help. But beyond the question of age and sensibility lies the question of repetition. The word “girl” is in constant circulation in our culture to symbolize an object (not a person) associated with both sexuality and danger, with beauty and horror. We wanted to highlight this repetition, and to bring the reader’s awareness to the personhood of this lineage of girls.
Aimee: Girl is both a comment on femininity and on the limitations of being female. It’s a term of perpetual childishness as well as of objectification. As a woman, you own the term girl or it owns you. It’s a term of endearment but also a trap. From birth to death, it follows women, defining us in any story, real or imagined. It’s like most gendered terms—a prison in the form of an identity, an insult in the form of a compliment, at times rather insidious, at times sexual, at times so pervasive as to be innocuous.
DD: Many of the stories in this collection are written with footnotes. How was the process of writing these stories different than writing in a more traditional form? What about footnotes was appealing to you?
Carol: A few years ago, I co-wrote a book about wedding traditions with Kristina Marie Darling, titled X Marks the Dress. She used footnotes to bridge themes in the story; they were also a visual cue, a hem. I started using footnotes in Girl Zoo because I wanted to emphasize that the voice in some of the pieces was speaking under duress. I envisioned many of our female narrators speaking from within locked rooms, parked cars, basements, attics. They were trapped, and I wanted to capture the voices of the anonymous people who were holding them captive. Sometimes the footnotes pointed to larger cultural messages or narratives; sometimes they were meant to represent individual voices studying the girls as objects under glass.
Aimee: The footnotes were fun in collaboration because we would take turns, one of us writing the story and the other footnoting the story. It was a delight to see what would happen, since the footnotes often took on a life of their own and sometimes teased or even antagonized the voice of the story. There was a dynamic conflict in the footnotes that opened doors and windows by calling the reliability of the speaker into question.
DD: There’s a theme in Girl Zoo of women being observed, watched, studied. In some stories, they live behind glass. In others, they’re ensnared (either voluntarily or involuntarily) in demeaning experiments. How do you think this theme in your stories reflects on the way women live and are treated in different parts of the world today?
Carol: I can’t really respond to how women are treated in different countries or cultures, but as a queer white woman living in America under the current presidential regime, I feel empowered by the resistance movements catching fire across this new landscape. At the same time, yes, I absolutely feel observed, watched, preyed on, monitored, harassed, assaulted by both some individual men and the collective gaze. I think things are changing, but the fact that POTUS could casually talk about grabbing women by the pussy, about harassment and assault, could insult women in so many public forums and still get elected, still be seen as somehow fit to lead this country—well, things haven’t changed at all, when you look at it that way. I want to be part of the resistance, which is how I’ve always felt, but now it feels fiercer, less individual and more about my responsibility to others living now and future others. I do love the way different resistance movements are linking forces, connecting. That’s exciting to me, because violence against women is intersectional, is part of violence against people of color, against LGBTQ+ people, who of course sometimes identify as women and sometimes don’t. I’m thrilled by the resistance movements that seek to give voice to marginalized groups, and our girl zoo is just one of many metaphors for this historical moment.
Aimee: Ditto what Carol said—While I can’t respond to how women are treated all over the world, sometimes being a woman/girl in the US feels like a bizarrely demeaning social experiment. Women and girls are constantly observed and judged and objectified—by people of all ages and genders. Why? I keep wondering. I think it’s because there are certain cultural expectations of how women/girls should look, behave, dress, speak, eat. It’s all very unspoken, but there are “rules” for being a girl—for being a “good girl,” that is. Crossing into “bad girl” territory (or god forbid “bad woman/difficult woman”) is dangerous for women on some many levels. Girls who break society’s rules are punished, usually in subtle ways like shaming or shunning but also in not-so-subtle ways, like violence.
DD: The women in your collection are wild, powerful, brave, and noble. But they’re also selfish and weak. They shit. They stink. I don’t think that’s something we often see in stories. Was it fun to write your characters this way? Why is it important to show this “ugly” side of women in writing?
Carol: I learned this from Eileen Myles, who creates imperfect voices, imperfect characters, and who writes about sex and bodies in such a hilarious, powerful, innovative way; and from Rebecca Brown, who allows her queer characters to flail and make mistakes, and who emphasizes the interiority of beauty and safety. I also feel indebted as an artist to Kelly Magee, because her imagination unravels every taboo; from Kelly I learned so much about making my characters multi-dimensional. There’s more power when you step out of that glossy shadow. With Girl Zoo I learned new strategies from writing with Aimee; she takes so many risks and pushes the edges of the sentence. My characters don’t usually get this dirty; their bodies hold together better! In one of the first pieces we wrote together, Aimee had a man’s head explode, all blood and mucous, and I realized, oh, I’m in another literary universe with Aimee. I better keep up!
Aimee: For this collection, it was absolutely necessary to show the “ugly” side of women, to write characters this way. We had to bring in the dirt, the stink, the shit, the blood and mucous, and even an exploding head because the word “girl” has a pretty, pink, sanitized, perfume cupcake connotation that needs to be challenged. Carol and I wanted the “girls” in our collection to break stereotypes and to be fully human to subvert and challenge society’s notions of the word girl.
DD: And finally, what are you enjoying right now, outside of books? What TV or music or art has you excited?
Carol: I just saw The Favourite and loved the excesses and emotional compression of the film. For art’s sake I’m mostly studying the sky and light on my block in Seattle. I’m about to be surrounded by seven-story apartment buildings, coming in 2020, so I want to engage with the light while I can.
Aimee: Vintage jewelry, old houses, strong coffee, wine, long walks, listening to owls outside my window.
Dana Diehl is the author of The Classroom (co-written with Melissa Goodrich, Gold Wake Press, 2019), Our Dreams Might Align (Splice UK, 2018) and TV Girls, which was the winner of the 2017-2018 New Delta Review Chapbook Contest. She earned her MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University and her BA in Creative Writing at Susquehanna University. Her work has been published in North American Review, Necessary Fiction, Passages North, and elsewhere. She lives in Tucson.