On The Year of the Monster with Tara Stillions Whitehead: An Interview by Shannon Wolf

I sometimes wonder how one person can do so much. At any one time, when I speak to Tara Stillions Whitehead, she is in departmental meetings, corralling children, squeezing in writing time, and still somehow finds the time to be a friend to all in the literary community. It is unsurprising to me that Whitehead—someone who is so often a cheerleader for many great artists—is now being celebrated and championed by the best and brightest writers I know.

In 2021, Whitehead’s chapbook Blood Histories dropped at Galileo Press. This year, she’s had work out at Hobart and Five South, as well as trampset, where her piece “Drive” was recently nominated for Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net anthology. Next year, ELJ Editions will release her second book They More Than Burned. However, right now, all eyes are on her debut collection, The Year of the Monster, from Unsolicited Press.

Blurbed by the likes of Tommy Dean and Kathy Fish, The Year of the Monster contains sixteen stories which dash back and forth between the fraught underbelly of surburbia and the glamor of Hollywood. It’s more than time for Tara Stillions Whitehead to get her roses.

Shannon Wolf: I want to jump right in and ask you about my favorite quote of the book. On page 124, you write “Parenthood was a slow and violent removal of the heart.” I think a lot of people will empathize with that and with books like Nightbitch now on the scene, it’s very much in our collective consciousness. How does it feel to write about parenthood? Have you found it challenging to be as honest as this quote is?

Tara Stillions Whitehead: That is your favorite quote? I’m asking that with a smile. You can’t see me, but I’m smiling. Because I love that essay so much. It’s a really painful essay to read at times because I was so newly sober when I wrote it, and the pain of my addiction and the proximity to all of the wreckage I’d caused in my life, to the life I’d been denied as well, were all overwhelming. “Not for Syndication” was a very pivotal essay for me to write for this book, but also for the healing process. I’d never wanted kids, never envisioned myself a mother, until I met my husband in 2008.

Actually, I think the desire to have kids came before the ability to see myself as a mother, but that’s because I was reconciling the identity I had as a filmmaker and writer who had been cast out of a soaring career with that of a person who had made a life partner with someone who dreamed of becoming a dad and who, really, taught me that I didn’t have to be afraid of having kids. Really, I was afraid of having kids. My childhood was full of trauma, and I didn’t want to have any responsibility for keeping other people alive, let alone thriving. I also didn’t want to sacrifice a career—because, let’s be honest (you asked for honesty) motherhood permanently changed my DNA. Emotionally, physically, creatively. And 100% professionally. I carried a lot of shame about the resentments I felt towards motherhood and the institutional expectations that I could immediately balance work and home life. I had severe post-partum depression with both of my kids, and with my son, I had to go back to working as a full-time professor within ten days of having him because I hadn’t earned my FMLA yet. I was ashamed of feeling fearful, that I was going to mess up both my kids and my career, that I would fail again at something I put everything into.

I think I needed to have my heart removed from my body. I needed to see it exist outside of myself, in my kids—but also in my writing. Before kids, I hid my heart, its excessive longing, its self-righteous indignation, its formidable desire. Once I got sober, around the time my kids were 3 and 5, I learned that I didn’t have to carry shame around with me everywhere. I didn’t have to apologize for how I felt. I say I hated being a mother on Monday, that I could not pretend to love it more than myself, and God wasn’t going to smite me. I wasn’t unique. I’m not. My kids are my greatest teachers, and like good teachers, they challenge me to become a better person in spite of myself.

Writing about my kids is not difficult. Most of Blood Histories, my chapbook that was released with Galileo Press, is about parenthood and legacy and identity. Writing about it helps me better understand the fears I have brought into adulthood from my own childhood. It also allows me to put down a paper reminder that I am not in control of who my kids are, who they will become, or how they see me. I don’t find that honesty hard anymore. I don’t know if that’s because of acceptance or what, but I definitely think I would feel differently if I was still in my addiction.

SW: Can you walk us through the process of this book to some degree? What was it like working with Unsolicited Press? What did you learn along the journey of writing, submitting and publishing?

TSW: I have to begin by saying that Unsolicited Press has been absolutely phenomenal. Their books are gorgeous, their editors and designers are badasses, and they have done everything they said they would do—and then some—for this book.

I wrote the first story for The Year of the Monster (“General and the Tornado”) between 2008 and 2009. It was part of my submission packet for MFA programs and is the one story that has changed the most, stylistically. I am a painfully slow writer, but I was glacial before my MFA. It took me until 2017 to complete the first version of manuscript, which was originally titled After the Almost End of the World. I submitted that manuscript around for about a year, sending to Unsolicited Press in May of 2019. While I waited on publisher responses, I continued building the manuscript. It wasn’t that I thought the book wasn’t “finished,” necessarily, but I kept writing these stories that ended up being siblings to the 2019 draft. In January, 2020, I published “The Year of the Monster” in PRISM international, and I queried Unsolicited Press with an updated draft of the manuscript, trying my best to be respectful and not presume they would want to read a new draft while the other was under consideration.

Unsolicited Press contacted me a week or so later with a contract, this was February 19, 2020, and they told me they wanted to feature it as a September 2022 release. I remember thinking that two years and seven months was going to be unbearable. I was so hungry for immediate gratification, for a 2020 book—I was actually slightly deflated. The thing is … Unsolicited Press does it right. They adhere to a carefully curated editorial schedule, and little did I know that we were about to be thrust into a pandemic that would force publishers to shutter indefinitely. So, I trusted the editors, and I signed the contract, and I am absolutely thrilled I did.

I had six months to reshape anything I wanted to reshape in the manuscript, and then the editors and I did a back-and-forth with drafts, sensitivity reads, and the proofs for another six months. The design team stepped in during that time as well. I cannot stress how amazing these humans have been—and during a pandemic!

In the end, I have ended up with the book of my dreams. I love every word between these covers. The editors did their best to bring out my best.

One thing I have to add here is that, during that year of editing the book, I somehow ended up with a chapbook. A few pieces that I took out of The Year of the Monster ended up in what was to become Blood Histories. I hadn’t been planning a chapbook, but I was working in a lot of flash and hybrid forms in 2020, and the book just presented itself to me. Galileo Press’ Barrett Warner taught me so much about my voice during that book’s editing process that I actually went back into The Year of the Monster and started applying what I could now see about that voice to those stories. That was probably the greatest surprise of the entire process.

SW: If you feel comfortable, can you talk about how your experience of recovery (which you’ve talked about online and written about at length) informed your writing in this book, specifically “God and Laundry” and “Life Zero”?

TSW: Yeah, recovery has relieved me of so much suffering. I used to think that I had to suffer to be a writer. And many of these stories were written when I was deep in my addiction—“Life Zero” being one of them. Before getting sober, quitting drinking felt like giving up oxygen. I didn’t know how I would live without being able to drink. I couldn’t handle the idea of not being able to escape feelings or enhance them with alcohol. I certainly couldn’t unlock the door to creativity without it. That’s what I thought at the time, anyway.

What I didn’t realize what that, aside from damaging important relationships in my life, threatening my marriage and custody of my kids, and killing me physically and emotionally, drinking was actually keeping me from finishing my book. I had gotten to the point where I would sit at my desk, pull out a pint of Jaeger that I kept in there, and I’d black out almost immediately, only to wake up in my bed at 2am sweating and having heart palpitations. In the morning, I would look at what I had written, and it would be incomprehensible. Yet, I would sit down like that, day after day, and pretend that it was a necessary part of the ritual of creation (and not destruction).

I wrote “God and Laundry” at the end of my first year of sobriety. I actually didn’t write anything that first year. I was such a mess physically and emotionally. I couldn’t even listen to music or read books. Everything was a trigger, a portal into some past feeling or emotion I associated with drinking. I felt like my life was over. It really did get worse for me before it got better. I was lucky to have the kind of recovery community I had then. I was suicidal at the end of my drinking, and when I put down the drink, I wanted so badly to live, to stay alive long enough to see life get good. I think that’s where “God and Laundry” came from. In early recovery, I knew people who went back out and died, people who were chronic relapsers, people who killed themselves. I had actually tried to get sober in 2011, but I relapsed after seven months. I got pregnant quickly after, and that slowed me down. But to be honest, I didn’t completely stop drinking while pregnant; that’s how powerful my addiction was. When I got sober, I sponsored a woman who relapsed twice and finally went back out for good. I remember thinking that I could have done more. I know that I did the best I could with what I had … and I think that’s where “God and Laundry” came in. It’s really about how helping others helps us, even when our helping others appears to fail.

The funny thing about “Life Zero” was that I wrote and published it right before I tried to get sober the first time. When I look at the protagonist in that story, I see a painful awareness of my own addiction that I projected onto a character because it lessened the shame and pain. If I could fictionalize the suffering, if I could externalize it, it wouldn’t be mine anymore. That actually wasn’t the case.

SW: You’ve worked in the film industry. What should readers know about your work outside of this book?

TSW: So, after I went to film school, I jumped right into working in television production, on a pretty predatory show that was being shot in San Diego. I think I logged about 6,000 hours on that show in a period of 18 months, most of those hours as an assistant director. I was not prepared, as a 22 year-old woman, for the kind of misogyny and abuse that I would endure from crew members, actors, and producers. When I moved back to LA to work at Warner Bros. on two hit shows that I thought would have a level of equity the lower budget shows I worked on didn’t, I found more of the same. I wrote about it in The Year of the Monster. I wrote about it in my next book, They More Than Burned. The film work I have done outside of that has been very small-scale, but it is meaningful and works towards equity. I’m actually an assistant professor of film, video, and digital media at a small private university, and every class is purposed towards equity and industry reform.

SW: Following that, how have you found writing about the film industry in The Year of the Monster? I’m thinking of “Rising Action,” “Plot Point 1,” and “Climax,” among others. Do you find it cathartic to write about?

TSW: Oh, God, yes. At first, it was terrifying. “Plot Point I,” “Rising Action,” and “Deleted Scenes” were actually part of a triptych I published in Fiction International in 2017, right before the #MeToo hashtag was born and Les Moonves, whom I had met and worked with at Warner Bros., was indicted on assault charges. One of the producers who had worked with me at Warner Bros. when I was assaulted actually messaged me that read the pieces and he was sorry he hadn’t done more. I don’t think I had talked to him in years.

“Climax,” which is the only story in the book that is not published anywhere else, is probably the most cathartic because it calls out the violence but also calls out the victim’s use of violence as revenge. It’s not meant to victim shame or minimize the damage that abuse in the entertainment industry inflicts on people—often women and other marginalized groups. However, the desire for a revenge narrative where the staff writer murders her abusive showrunner and becomes the hero cannot be how we exhale. That said, I cannot understate how fun it is to use satire to still write that revenge narrative, but also call attention to the fact that what would otherwise be cathartic is a senseless perpetuation of violence.

SW: Our friendship came about through the practice of nonfiction, and I loved seeing some of those pieces crop up here. Tell me about your special blend of fiction and nonfiction. I’m seeing some big shades of gray (and loving them). 

TSW: I was so grateful to you for soliciting that nonfiction piece for The McNeese Review. I think it was one of the first times I got really vulnerable in my writing about my addiction and recovery. I trusted you! Haha. [You can find Tara’s work in The McNeese Review, Spring 2021.]

So much of my time at my MFA was about genre bending and narrative inversion. I used to fight autobiographical content in my writing because I’d been told that I was too confessional, and for some reason, I took that to mean that my stories didn’t matter, that they were shameful, or attention-grabbing. (Therapy helped me get over a lot of that, by the way.) So for the longest time, I reached for characters that were just far enough away from me that they could not be confused with fiction. Little did I realize that I was seasoning them with parts of myself I was unconsciously trying to excise. I realized that when I was writing that triptych for Fiction International. I was the woman injecting the actress in the ass with antibiotics brought up from Tijuana. I was the one taking shots with her in her trailer when she refused to go to set. I was the one walking in on her boss masturbating before our live audience shows.

At some point—again, probably when I got sober—I realized a few things: 1) I don’t have to hide myself, 2) If people are uncomfortable with my confessional or autobiographical storytelling, I’m not the one that has a problem, and 3) fiction and nonfiction come down to intention and ethical treatment of audience expectations.

My favorite way to take nonfiction and twist it into fiction is through formal manipulation or slipping into another genre mid-story. For instance, in “Deleted Scenes,” 90% of the narrative happened to me, but to shape the climax the way I needed to, I needed to frame the interaction between the assistant and her boss in a way that felt exceptionally cinematic but in a way that removed the reader’s sense of immersion. Script format draws attention to itself, and it allowed me to use some of those formal tools to focus the imagery and the staging in a way that simultaneously mimics a hyperreal traumatic moment while also reminding the reader—it’s just a show! See those scene numbers and the shot heading? It’s not real!

And maybe that’s something I play with a lot on my fusion of fiction and nonfiction, this idea that we find comfort in knowing something isn’t entirely real, isn’t entirely a threat, isn’t entirely outside of our control.

Shannon Wolf is a British writer and teacher, living in Denver, Colorado. She received a joint MA-MFA in Poetry at McNeese State University and also has degrees from Lancaster University and the University of Chichester. She is the Co-Curator of the Poets in Pajamas Reading Series. Her poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction (which can also be found under the name Shannon Bushby) have appeared in Bending Genres, The Forge, No Contact Mag, and HAD, among others. You can find her on social media @helloshanwolf.

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