“An Undercurrent of Darkness”: Bess Winter Interviews Jen Fawkes, author of TALES THE DEVIL TOLD ME

Over the past several weeks I’ve been emailing back-and-forth with Jen Fawkes, author of Mannequin and Wife (LSU Press) and the recently released Tales the Devil Told Me (Press 53). Fawkes is a prolific writer whose work appears in One Story, Lit Hub, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She was also honored with the 2021 Porter Prize, which has previously been bestowed on notable Arkansan writers like Donald Harington, Kevin Brockmeier, and Jo McDougall—in other words, it’s a big deal.

The following is an only-slightly shortened transcript of that exchange.

Bess Winter: I’m entranced by this book. Guess I would be, because it concerns so many topics and ambitions that I think are fascinating in fiction, especially fiction written by women. Along those lines, one thing that strikes me about the collection is that nearly all of its stories—despite their origins in folktales, Shakespeare, popular fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries—are a reflection on contemporary family in one form or another, with a particular focus on parenthood. There also seems to be a particular attention paid to fatherhood, here: stepdad Captain Hook, Claudius’s fraught relationship with his nephew Hamlet, the Rumplestilt’s desire to raise a human child, Mowgli as beleaguered dad. What draws you to male voices from literature? Why take them on, especially as a woman who may be in some ways expected to write female voices?

Jen Fawkes: I’ve been trying to answer this question for a decade. Am I drawn to male voices in literature because they’ve traditionally been the loudest and most strident? Because high school/college teachers presented male writers to me as geniuses to be revered and imitated? Because I’m a woman who grew up primarily among women, and I am wildly curious about the experiential nature of a male body, a male persona? Is it because men are, arguably, easier to figure out and represent than women? Because the complexity of me and my ilk intimidates me, and I’m not at all certain that I can do the female experience justice on the page? Is it because I was an unabashed tomboy growing up, because I am overly ambitious, because I want to write books about the Human Experience? Is it because I am the world’s most abysmal feminist?

In all likelihood, the answer is all of the above. I wrote Tales the Devil Told Me during my MFA (between 2009 and 2010). At the time, I’d been trying to write fiction for 5-ish years, and I wrote exactly what called me, never thinking of an audience other than myself, never thinking of writing fiction as a gendered activity in any way. As I continued studying writing through a PhD, my awareness of the concept of “audience” developed, and I was forced to confront the astonishing fact that the “marketplace” has specific expectations of me, as a writer of fiction, based on my gender. This knowledge, sadly, has changed the way I write, has made it harder, and less pleasurable. 

I want to push against the idea that women write one way and men write another, but I feel pretty isolated in this belief. I applaud female writers who focus on stories/issues that primarily concern women, but I don’t believe that women shouldn’t write about men, or that men shouldn’t write about women. For me, the greatest pleasure of writing fiction is imagining my way into a situation/point of view that is wholly unfamiliar to me, and finding a way to live there, to sink down to a place that is authentic, even as it is fictional. I’d like to feel that I can do this with male voices and female voices, with the voices of pets and appliances and pieces of furniture, with the voices of the Dead. I guess the basic answer to the question “why take on these voices” is that these were the voices speaking to me; what could I do but answer?

BW: You mention that this was a manuscript you wrote during your MFA. It feels so self-assured and precise, both on the line level and plot-wise, that that’s something of a surprise. A lot of us use the MFA to figure out who we are as writers and what our voices are, but these stories are absolutely confident of their voice, and extraordinarily ambitious in scope. I mean, there’s a novella-length prequel to “Hamlet” in here! And it succeeds. Though it—and all of the stories in the book—relies heavily on a conceit, it doesn’t feel at all contrived. Did you workshop a prequel to “Hamlet”? How did that go? And did you always envision this being a unified collection of stories, or did you only realize later that you had a very particular writerly obsession you were working through during your MFA years?

JF: Thanks so much for your kind words about the stories in Tales the Devil Told Me! I’m thrilled to hear that they sound self-assured and uncontrived, since I wrote them twelve years ago and they’ve remained largely unchanged. Before I started my MFA at 34, I’d only taken three CW classes (in a community setting), so I was still very new to workshopping/critiquing other people’s work. And I was beyond unaware of the publishing industry, the pressures of the marketplace, any of that. I think the main reason the stories I wrote at this time feel confident and self-assured is because I didn’t know enough to feel full of doubt about every word I write, which is, unfortunately, where I live now.

I reread The Odyssey at the end of my first year in the MFA, and I decided to make my thesis project a story collection that retold the epic poem from the POV of the various characters Odysseus meets during his travels. The first piece I wrote was “A Moment on the Lips,” which takes the POV of Polyphemus (the Cyclops). Not long after I’d finished that piece, I learned of a book that does (essentially) the same thing and came out the year before, Zachary Mason’s Lost Books of the Odyssey. But I loved my Polyphemus story, so I tried to find another container that might be able to hold that piece, and other stories. I began to think about a thematically-linked collection whose stories reimagine popular tales, but re-centered on the story’s “villain.” I wrote “Never, Never” next—which reimagines a new life for Captain Hook—and I thought I might be on to something. So yes, I always envisioned this book as a unified, thematically-linked collection. I doubt I could have written the stories as quickly as I did without the thematic restrictions/conceits, which can make writing easier. And yes, I absolutely workshopped “The Tragedie of Claudius, Prince of Denmark” (the Hamlet prequel you mention) in my second year workshop, which was a four-person group. It’s basically a novella, so we had to break it up over a couple of sessions, but as far as I can recall, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

BW: I love both “A Moment on the Lips” and “Never, Never.” When I first read the former I laughed out loud often, especially at the (apologies for the crass Disney comparison I’m about to make, here) Shrek-like aspect of Polyphemus and his hopeless earnestness, his almost cringeworthy earnestness and the situational humor it creates as he fails to comprehend his own impulsive human-eating. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that move done well in fiction, actually, but it’s got the comedic timing of a great Mel Brooks film. A lot of the humor in the book, in fact, seems to come from characters’ earnest desire for love juxtaposed with their silly physical realities: Captain Hook is a mailman by day but still wears his plumed hat and velvet frock coat in his off hours. And nearly the whole book is this funny. It feels like every third sentence is some Vaudevillian one-liner—yet these stories also manage to paint a compelling portrait of the human heart. “Never, Never,” in particular, is such a beautiful, classic story of innocence and experience—plus Captain Hook.

It’s funny (pardon the pun) because I know you to be both a huge film buff, including classic comedy, and a person with a dark and wry sense of humor, but feel like I haven’t heard you speak about the importance of humor to you and your writing—and, come to think of it, I’m not sure I’ve heard you speak in a joking or lighthearted way about writing, in general. You’re really serious when you talk about it, especially about the importance of books and reading to your work. This collection is a testament to that love of literature, but I wonder if I could nudge (tickle?) you into talking about why you use humor, where your humor comes from. What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever read or seen?

JF: This is such a great question, but again, a difficult one for me to answer. Comedy is essential to my survival, for which I must credit my parents, who not only introduced me to phenomenal comedians/comedies—Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Mel Brooks, SNL, and so many more—but also handed down the use of dark humor as a coping strategy. I tend to see comedy as a more complicated mode than others might, as for me, comedy is so many things at once. Entertainment, absolutely, and distraction, and a form of release. But generally, the funniest things are funny, at least in part, because they’re masking anguish, fear, anger, pain. Comedy and tragedy are bound—two sides of the same coin. Two aspects of the same entity. Even in slapstick, someone has to get the pie in the face, seltzer down the pants, anvil on the head. For comedy to work, someone has to lose, which is just so inherently tragic. So when we say a situation/bit/joke is funny, I think we’re usually saying that it allowed us to glimpse something dark and scary, yet at the same time revealed a way to survive it—by laughing at our own fear, which is a kind of dismissal.

But you’re absolutely right; when I talk about literature and what it means to me to attempt to contribute to a literary tradition, I am deadly serious. But even as I’m serious about the importance of literature—and more broadly, of narrative, which allows us to structure our lives/personas, to say “this happened, and that led to this, and that’s how she got where she is today”—the writing I admire and respond to most strongly employs humor. The intent is serious, yes, but in terms of execution, texts that are able to laugh at themselves—to point to their own foibles, to acknowledge and even embrace them—always move me. Some people in the world of letters seem to see the use of humor as somehow cheapening literature; my feelings are the exact opposite. I think those writers of literary fiction who are blessed with a sense of humor are the most fortunate.

As for the funniest things I’ve read or seen, that’s tough! But here goes: I think the single funniest book I’ve read is The Loved One (1948), by Evelyn Waugh. It’s a satirical look at the death (funeral) business in mid-century America, and it is a riot. The 1965 film version starring Jonathan Winters and Rod Steiger is also insanely funny. I am a huge fan of Mel Brooks (as we’ve discussed) and have been obsessed with both Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles since I was a girl. But I think the single most hilarious scene in cinema is from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, when Chaplin, as a factory worker, is forced to demonstrate a Feeding Machine (with particular emphasis on the corn on the cob!).

I’d like to mention one more book here, one that demonstrates perhaps better than any other my above point about comedy and tragedy being conjoined twins—Mrs. Caliban (1982) by Rachel Ingalls. This slender novel—the story of a California housewife who has an affair with a Frogman who’s escaped from an Oceanic Research Institute—is so funny and bizarre and whimsical on the surface, but the story is carried along on an undercurrent of darkness—of hopelessness about humankind and the world we’ve made—that will ultimately tear your heart out. I would love to discuss Mrs. Caliban with you, Bess!

BW: Here again we’re mind twins, because I adore The Loved One. As a lonely and socially awkward teenager I was introduced to it through the Jonathan Winters movie, which aired on “Saturday Night at the Movies”: a classic film show on TV Ontario, hosted by an affable old man named Elwy Yost (RIP) with whom I spent most of my Saturday nights. That was my gateway drug to Evelyn Waugh. He’s a perfect example of a writer who can do both humor and the human anguish you talk about, and also write widely tonally different books. I mean, Brideshead Revisited? Written by the same person who wrote The Loved One? And yet equally brilliant. I haven’t read Mrs. Caliban but it’s on the list now. Your work also has the feel of Muriel Spark and Penelope Fitzgerald, in some ways, both of whom are very darkly funny. Have you read much of them?

For context, it’s probably important to explain to the reader of this interview how essential classic film is to your work—at least, I think so. Maybe I’m a bit biased because we were both students in a rather pedantic graduate film class about the blacklist. I think the biggest lesson I took away from that class is never to watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers alone again, but I have strong memories of your encyclopedic knowledge of classic film that came out in class discussions. You’ve written a fair bit about film, as well. I had a teacher in my MFA who used to emphasize that it was fine—even great—if one of our strongest literary influences was something like Scooby Doo, which helped me embrace films like The Secret Garden, Rushmore, and Fanny and Alexander as influences. What are your other litero-cinematic influences, besides the comedies you mentioned?

JF: Wow! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to hear this, but I had no idea how much you loved The Loved One! I actually also saw the film version first, and as a teenager. My mom was a huge Penelope Fitzgerald fan; she passed along many of her books to me when I was growing up, and I adore Muriel Spark, but I didn’t read any of her books until we read Memento Mori in one of Michael’s classes at UC. Strangely enough, I also first encountered Sparks through a film version of one of her books, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, many years before I read her work.

Which seems a fine segue into a discussion of cinematic influence. My generation is arguably the first for whom visual texts, rather than written, became the primary mode of encountering narratives. Like most Gen Xers, I grew up on Saturday morning cartoons and sitcoms, on MTV (at other peoples houses) and soap operas. At the same time, thanks to my weird parents, I was watching all sorts of classic and foreign films—Hitchcock, Wilder, Fellini, Lubitsch, Kazan, Powell and Pressburger, Kurosawa, Almodovar, Campion, so many others. And I think one of the dominant characteristics of my fiction—my desire to collapse the gap between “high” and “low” art—stems, at least in part, from this wildly bifurcated viewing I did as a child/teenager. I think this is one reason my work is so hard for people to get—it’s not high-brow enough for high-brows, not down and dirty enough for people who want to roll in the gutter. I feel as though I’m eternally trying to walk an impossibly thin line—in my life, in my relationships, in my work—between things I see as different but complementary, searching for a way to bring these seemingly disparate things together, to show people that all divisions are constructs—and that this very urge makes my work largely unsaleable. I feel like I’m eternally stuck between Moby-Dick and The Love Boat, but I don’t know where else to live.

I’ll talk briefly about Hitchcock and his influence. Love him or hate him, Hitchcock had real insight into what makes people tick, into what drives us. What I admire most about his work is that he had no illusions about us being anything other than animals. Bipedal, yes, capable of employing logic, yes, but animals all the same. His films not only revolutionized the horror, thriller, and mystery genres, they also helped collapse the idea that there are “good” and “bad” people. Guess what? Rich boys kill their classmates for fun. That is who and what we are. Deal with it! Which was all so shocking to mid-twentieth century humans! If aliens from outer space viewed all Hitchcock’s films, they’d probably get the impression that all people do is kill each other and try to solve mysteries. And they’d be right! These elements—people trying to solve mysteries, people killing each other—are also ever-present in my work, which makes it sound pretty dark, I know. But I hope the darker elements in my fiction are tempered by something you pointed out earlier—an “earnest desire for love” juxtaposed with my characters’ physical realities—as silly or horrifying or banal as those realities may ultimately be.

BW: As I understand it, you’re working on a novel and (surprise, surprise!) it’s pretty ambitious in its scope. Can you give us a sneak-peek of that, and how has the novel writing process gone for you?

JF: Absolutely! I worked on this book for three years, then put it aside for three years. I loved many of my original ideas, but the story was never working in its first incarnation. When I came back to it, I saw what seemed to me a revolutionary way to overhaul the book, and I spent about a year and a half working on that total revision, now titled A Young Lady’s Guide to World Domination

Set during the American Civil War, A Young Lady’s Guide to World Domination employs actual historical events and characters to tell the story of Sylvie Swift, a young woman who discovers that she is predestined to play a vital role in a fantastic, ancient, ongoing battle of the sexes. In Nashville, Tennessee, in 1863, Sylvie lives in a brothel staffed by literal Sirens and works on an English translation of a “lost” comedy of Aristophanes—Apocrypha, or A Young Lady’s Guide to World Domination. Interwoven with the story of this critical period in Sylvie’s life are two additional threads: excerpts from a biography of Gaia Valentino—the 16th century Venetian Courtesan who originally translated the play—and the text of Aristophanes’s comedy itself. Looking back from fifteen years on, Sylvie curates letters, clippings, pages of the translated Greek playscript, and her own written remembrances to create a pastiche that poses essential questions about war, family, prostitution, authorship, and the earth-shaking power of women.

This novel is formally inventive, epistolary, and grapples with questions that haunt me daily—questions about the shape of female power, questions about the power of indirect action, questions about what family does to us, and for us. The narrative carries the reader from late-19th-century Californian to Civil-War-Era Nashville to 16th-century Venice to Ancient Greece and back again. I hope the book is funny and surprising with a powerful emotional core. I suppose it is pretty ambitious, but I hope the heart I installed at its center is able to beat someday, for someone other than me. 

Figuring out how to write a novel has been difficult. I don’t draft; my short fiction is written from beginning to end with few changes, little editing and almost no revision. I can hold a very long story in my mind all at once, but a novel is too big for me to hold onto. In order to write a novel, one really needs to be able to draft, or to find another way to break a long-form narrative up into discrete, manageable chunks. For A Young Lady’s Guide to World Domination, it wasn’t until I began letting the story unfold through various sorts of texts—playscript, journal entries, letters, biography—that I found a way to make it work (at least I hope!). At this point, I’m working on two new novels, one of which is set in a haunted State Hospital for Nervous Disorders that’s been converted into luxury condominiums and deals with historical notions of female “madness” (current title: The Donjon). And I have two additional novels in the planning stages, because I am nothing if not consistently struggling to write books no one will ever read!

BW: I love how the final story in the collection, The Story Within, ties everything that’s going on in the book together so beautifully. We give a lot of thought and time to first stories but seldom pay as much attention to the how and why of a final story in a collection, but what works so well about this particular story is how it functions as a meta-analysis of storytelling, itself, particularly toward the end of the piece as the mirror contemplates making a decision that will change the witch’s fate, and her story. This story got me thinking about story order and how we make structural decisions in a collection of short fiction. Was this piece always meant to be the last in this collection and, more broadly, how did you decide what to include where?

JF: First, thank you eternally, Bess, for your attentive, thoughtful reading of my book. Your question captures precisely what I hoped readers would take away from “The Story Within,” which honestly makes me want to cry. As soon as I saw where that story was headed and understood how it would end, I knew it would close the book. This story, like all my short fiction, grew organically and was written from beginning to end, with no outlining/preplanning. I’m generally able to figure out what a story is doing, and how it will end, about 3/4 of the way through the writing. I hope I don’t sound like a complete asshole, but every time I read “The Story Within,” I am newly amazed that I wrote it. 

In terms of ordering this book, the lineup hasn’t really changed since I put the book together at the end of my MFA. At one point, I tried to write a “container” story to open and close the book, to tie all the other pieces together and make it feel like a “novel-in-stories,” a convention that was all the rage when I finished this book (2010), but that I honestly don’t much care for. I find that, inevitably, some of the pieces are too weak to stand alone, and feel as though they’re only there to fulfill the convention. But I digress. The container story that didn’t work was a retelling of Faust in which the Devil tells the collection’s stories to a woman in exchange for her soul. I’d already picked out the Rumplestiltskin quote that’s still the book’s epigraph, and those two factors led to the book’s title, suggested by my friend Heather Newton. So the opening and closing stories have always been in place, and “Claudius,” the novella, has always been toward the middle. There’s been a bit of shifting around of the other stories, but not too much.

BW: Finally, I’m going to sound like Bill Moyers interviewing Joseph Campbell here, but why do we retell stories—and why do you retell stories, specifically?

JF: This is a question I’ve thought about a lot. We all love familiar things, and we also love fresh things. In our experiences, in our texts, in our lives, people crave novelty, but we cannot function without some degree of familiarity. I’ve been obsessed with this phenomenon since I first began to become aware of it, and for a time I dreamed of a ratio (40/60, 30/70) that I could discover and use to guide my work, in order to create texts that would strike a universal chord with all human beings. Needless to say, this plan failed miserably, as I now believe that the concept of “balance” itself is a myth. But I feel like every retelling—for both the writer/filmmaker and the reader/viewer—is an exercise in striving for this perfectly balanced ratio of newness and sameness.

Another and obvious reason that people retell stories is that they dislike some aspect of the original. For instance, wouldn’t it be cool if the Prince married the Wicked Stepsister who cut off part of her foot to fit it into the glass slipper? She’s a badass, quite frankly, and she certainly is dedicated, even if she’s also wicked. I think many of us love some things about a particular story but would love to see what might happen if some aspect of the narrative were shifted. What if Tumnus had delivered Lucy directly to the White Queen, as instructed? What if Scarlett had abandoned Melanie in Atlanta? What if Emma Bovary had been a realist instead of a romantic? I think everyone who loves and engages with texts must have these questions, and engaging in a deliberate retelling can reveal aspects of even well-worn stories that were always there, only hidden from view—beneath the surface, behind the curtain, etc. Which, in my opinion, is pretty cool.

Bess Winter is the author of Machines of Another Era (Gold Wake, 2021). Her fiction has been awarded a Pushcart Prize and the American Short[er] Fiction Prize, and appears most recently in Kenyon Review and Cincinnati Review.

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