Katie Farris is the author of boysgirls, (Marick Press, 2011), a hybrid form text lauded as “truly innovative,” (Prague Post), and “a little tour de force” (Robert Coover). She has co-translated several books of poetry from French, Chinese, and Russian. Her translations and original work have appeared in anthologies published by Penguin and Greywolf, and literary journals including Virginia Quarterly Review, Western Humanities Review, and Hayden’s Ferry. She received her MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University. Currently, she is an Associate Professor at San Diego State University’s MFA program and a faculty member at New England College’s MFA program.
“To Tell the Truth, Beautifully,” An Interview with Katie Farris
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Cass Murphy. Of the process she said, “boysgirls is the first collection I’ve read that is not easily categorized, and I love how much that opens up the reader’s experience. It was a pleasure to learn how Katie Farris approaches her writing and weaves together different forms through language.” In this interview, she talks about metafiction, freaks and madness, and what readers will face in her collection.
Superstition Review: The first page after the table of contents in boysgirls reads “O o o o o Madness! To you I sing – to you I dedicate – I sing my praises to you.” I was so intrigued by that phrase as an opening to the book and I was wondering if it can be viewed as a dedication. Could you elaborate on your process of choosing that language to start the collection? Whose voice do you envision to be speaking?
Katie Farris: That’s one of my favorite passages in the book, in part because I love playing with the tradition of invoking my “muse.” That poetic tradition that means a lot to me; it always struck me in works by Homer and Ovid (perhaps because, truthfully, I’ve read the first pages of so many of those books dozens of times, even if I’ve only gotten all the way through a handful!).
Of course, those writers invoked the Greek muses, goddesses, to help them speak truly and beautifully, to do honor to Art itself. My muse is madness, but I’m still asking it to allow me to speak through or with its power; to tell the truth, beautifully. The voice in this section is technically that of the madwoman, who narrates the introduction/implication, the riddle in the middle of the book, and the apologia, as well as occasionally interrupting the stories. She’s a bit meddlesome like that. Typically the madwoman’s voice diverges pretty strongly from my own; but in this invocation, I picture us both speaking, in stereo. I love reading this passage aloud; it enables me to step into her voice and become her, for a short period of time.
SR: The introduction includes lines such as “We are here for the purpose of being beautiful. Please do not attempt to use us otherwise.” This conveys reassurance, and you have said in previous interviews that there aren't any “hidden agendas” in your stories. I still ended up reading them on two different levels, and you have also stated that you think writing using irony or parody should be both stories and “brilliant social critiques.” What do you hope readers take with them after reading your collection? How do you envision your audience as you compose?
KF: The introduction is an odd thing. I knew the book was going to be heavily metafictional—it had to be, because any hybrid form text has to teach its reader how to read it. Because boysgirls isn’t a collection of stories, or poems, or a novel or a novella or any other form that’s traditionally seen, it can leave readers sort of uncertain of how to proceed—the form itself is destabilizing. And the introduction kind of underlines that destabilization—it’s seductive and reassuring in places, but also very challenging to the reader, i.e. “You were hoping to escape unscathed?”
To me, that’s the project of any writer—to invoke some change in our reader; have an impact. But usually that challenge is veiled, tacit, sublimated in the text. We seduce the reader into submitting, into reading more; by reading more, more of their perceptions are challenged, and ultimately, they’re forced to confront something they don’t want to confront—themselves.
Great literature is about challenge; it’s about growth, which is always painful. That essential tension between seduction and challenge is interesting to me, and the madwoman’s introduction attempts to dramatize that.
SR: I appreciated how varied the stories are in boysgirls. Sometimes a scene is what stuck in my mind, other times a character or a phrase. What do you typically start with to create your stories? Do you think the place you come from is different from other writers in a more traditional genre?
KF: I oftentimes begin with a rhythm or some other sonic element. I once walked around with the phrase “tips time on its side like a capsized boat” for about a month before I finally wrote a piece with which I was satisfied. More recently, I’ve been playing with very long, metered lines of poetry—the rhythmic phrase entered my brain and I couldn’t write ANYTHING that diverged from that meter: //u//u/uu/u/uu//uu/uu. And here’s a line from the piece:
Gaunt demons glow white— they scuttle the ceilings, hunting the damned. Bloodletting! Bloodletting!
After that, there’s usually an image, often static, that comes to mind. Often they’re fragments of dreams—I wrote “The Politics of Metamorphosis” after a dream that my baby, in utero, reached through the skin of my belly, as if it were a glove, and took my hand. That image drove the piece in its entirety.
I struggle most with the narrative of a piece, the motion of the characters as opposed to the words. That always comes last for me, though it’s something I enjoy so much in other people’s work.
SR: Our nameless narrator implies on page 35 that there are other things beside irony in absurdist metafiction and that we will shortly be exploring these. The following short story is "The Devil's Face", which, what with the devil in his horrifying kinky sex dungeon, does indeed seem to depart from all known literary realms. The question is, what is it? Is being left a bit dumbfounded part of the point?
KF: For me, “The Devil’s Face” has a comic edge, but it’s ultimately about the profound experience of recognizing your own shame in someone else, and knowing that they see theirs in you—that’s why the final line “And it is this, this turning away, this mutual shame, which finally moves her.” It’s a profoundly vulnerable and emotional moment. In real life, it’s also often an uncomfortable and humiliating one—and in an attempt to dramatize humiliation and discomfort, I constructed the worst scene I could possibly imagine. Hopefully the humor of the piece helps to offset that horror.
Your point about irony is a good one—the little metafictional aside at the end of “Cyclops,” narrated by our madwoman (“But you watch her fade away and feel suddenly old, tired of this irony, your only companion. It has come and gone. Let it. Now begin.”), is perhaps belied a bit by “The Devil’s Face,” which does have a strongly ironic tone to it. There are two reasons for this—first of all, that metafictional meditation, for me, is a bit didactic. “The Devil’s Face” blows it out of the water; makes it easy to ignore, if one wished. More mundanely, I placed “The Devil’s Face” after “Cyclops” because I needed a change of pace, because the end of Cyclops is a little slow, a little wound-down—the next piece had to have something with a lot of energy to it, a lot of verve. And few things I’ve written have more verve than “The Devil’s Face”—before I read it at readings, I tell people to pull up their socks!
SR: The final lines of the Girl who Grew are “This is what I know; that regimes of fear end in pain. Patent leather holds up remarkably well in swamp water. That people forget. That it is no pain to be forgotten.” Sidestepping the fantastic patent leather non sequitur, I read this segment as implying that the act of forgetting is a pain that cannot be forgotten. Could you explain what you intended by the “it” in the last sentence, and what role the concept of forgetting plays in boysgirls?
KF: What a fascinating question! For me, the Girl who Grew is happy that people have forgotten her, because after the witch-hunt that leaves her hamstrung and a murderer, to be remembered is to be reviled—it’s dangerous. They came after her because she was a freak, because she had power—physical power, but also power over their imaginations (“She let go a laugh that haunted the children into the arms of their mothers, and the mothers into the arms of their fathers, and fathers into the arms of the churches…”) One way to look at her understandably bitter conclusion at the end of this experience is that it’s better for her to be forgotten than to endure the pain of being remembered.
As for the idea of forgetting in general, I think about the idea of freakishness in the book, so closely aligned to madness. A freak is unable to hide, to “pass” for a “normal” person. They are unforgettable—and that’s a precarious position. Some freaks are beloved for their freakishness (the Girl with a Mirror for a Face, Cyclops, the Inventor of Invented Things, the Boy with One Wing…), but they also long for something that could complete them—a mouth, a wing. Longing for something we cannot have is painful. Perhaps another way to think about the Girl who Grew’s parting words is that it’s easier for her to forget than to continue to long for what cannot be—a kinder world, perhaps.
SR: The boys section of boysgirls features The Boy With One Wing as a central figure in most, if not all, of its stories. Does the girls section get a similar protagonist? How did you use character to connect the stories together?
KF: The girls section is a bit more associative, but I consider all of the girls to be one girl, really—different facets of the same ur-girl, the experience of girldom.
SR: You have talked about your work-in-progress in previous interviews. Have you published the romance novel yet? What motivated you to write it anonymously? And as a birdwatcher, I’m very excited to read that novel about the blind birding expert. Will you talk about your inspiration for that book, as well as when I’ll see it on the shelves?
KF: I have published one Harlequin-type romance novel under a pseudonym—but not even my husband knows under what name it’s published! It was a great exercise in learning how to structure a book-length work, which is something I’ve always struggled with, but I didn’t really want it under my own name—I’m not ashamed of the book, but I consider it an exercise, not a work I want considered alongside my other books.
It came in handy while working on the novel I just finished, The Restoration of Dolores Eliana Reyes, a sort of horror-romance about a married couple in their 50’s, Dolores and James Reyes. They’re deeply in love, and have a spectacular sex life. When the book opens, Dolores is 373 pounds and has truly extraordinary appetites, sexual and otherwise. The book opens with their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary—at the end of the night, Dolores gets violently ill. Over the next few months, as doctors struggle to understand the illness, Dolores continues to lose weight, and she and James struggle to understand their relationship without appetite, without desire. Eventually, James’s fear of Dolores’s death overcomes him, and he begins a series of risky surgeries to restore her, and their marriage, to their former mythological proportions. It’s a dark book, but one that I’m really proud of—hopefully it will find a home with a publisher soon!
SR: What does your writing space look like?
KF: I have a small writing office, which is an incredible luxury. It’s full of overflowing bookshelves, a desk I never use, the world’s most comfortable armchair (inherited from the wonderful novelist, David Matlin), and an enormous corkboard, which I use in various ways at different times in my process with a book. As I was finishing up with my novel, I printed out the pages in ¼ size and hung them all up on the board so I could get a sense, visually, of where/when different scenes occurred in the text. It was one of my favorite exercises, in part inspired by Lucy Corin’s wonderful essay, “Material,” in the Tin House anthology The Writer’s Notebook. Right now it’s more of an inspiration board for my new book about hell—images, chunks of text, structural ideas, questions I’m interested in exploring, historical tidbits, whatever feels relevant. It’s constantly evolving. Sometimes I go into my office after a party at my house and find someone has stuck something up on the board for me. It feels a bit like it has a life of its own!