Rose Bunch's fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Tin House, New Letters, Gulf Coast, River Styx, Fugue, Poem, Memoir, Story, and Speed Chronicles, a multi-author collection coming this fall. Winner of the 2010 New Letters Dorothy C. Chappon essay contest, a Pushcart Prize Nominee and third prize winner of the Playboy Fiction Contest, she received her MFA from the University of Montana and will complete a PhD at Florida State University in fall of 2011. As a Fulbright Full Grant Scholar to Indonesia she spent the 2010-2011 academic year in Bali, and is completing a novel set in her homeland, the Arkansas Ozarks.
Superstition Review Editor Stacie Fraser conducted this email interview with Rose Bunch. She says of the experience, "I was very excited to get to know Ms. Bunch's thoughts. Her short story 'Ghosts' shows how one person handles the obstacles life contains. The story allows people to relate to her on a personal level. Yet it also has many twists. Her storytelling ability is fantastic and her beautiful descriptions truly draw readers in. I am honored to have this interview with such an inspiring author. I appreciate the stories and insight Ms. Bunch has shared with us and thank her for her time."
Superstition Review: Not all people believe in ghosts and supernatural aspects. Describe how your audience reacted to the fact that "Ghosts" is a nonfiction work.
Rose Bunch: Only one person told me people would think I was crazy if "Ghosts" was ever published, but so far no one else has said so to my face—at least not about the essay. Maybe it is because I included the defense about how arguing the existence of ghosts is like arguing the existence of love, you've either experienced it or you haven't, and there's no point in sparring over differing experiences in relation to beliefs. Mock me if you will, but it won't alter my personal story or my willingness to tell it. It also won't make me think any less of you if you don't believe in ghosts, which is a reasonable stance to take. I don't really care if the audience believes in ghosts or not, but rather if you can suspend your disbelief long enough to consider my experience. If you don't believe in me as a narrator, that is another issue altogether and means I am not doing something right as a writer. Ultimately, whether a reader believes in ghosts or not is irrelevant to the story, which is about loss that is experienced while we are alive, and the uncertainty of what happens after death. This is something we all must navigate and does not require belief in the paranormal to consider.
SR: Explain how you felt about the Wilson family, especially once you heard the news that Mrs. Wilson's son killed her pets when she died.
RB: I thought about them often, not just because of the incredible ruckus during the remodel, but because I loved the house and tried to imagine their family there, just as I imagined I would someday have a family there. The daughter, I was told, was “off” and she seemed that way when I found her in the backyard. She was difficult to communicate with but was clearly displeased with us occupying her family's former home. The son lived in Memphis, I was told, and was an airline pilot. Perhaps he had no reason to keep his mother's pets or make an effort to find them homes. I love cats, so I wish the realtor hadn't told me that. Some of the details I was provided were designed to suggest more drama, in that small town way, than reveal much about the family.
I don't want to read too much into a few stories from surviving locals or an offhanded comment from the realtor though. No one said much about the children, and those were the only family members I met, albeit briefly. Their mother had been gone over five years, the house was sold for a fraction of its value due to its uniqueness and the rather bland, pedestrian tastes of the Arkansas River Valley. Perhaps they were ready and regretful to see it go. I've seen families go through this process again and again, and while I can imagine their life, ultimately they will remain a mystery to me. What I imagine about them from the details I was provided really reveal more about me than it does about them. One thing is for certain, they had excellent and progressive tastes for where and when they lived.
SR: Can you discuss how many ghosts or souls you have encountered in your life?
RB: Not so many really, although this essay might lead you to believe I inhabit a world inundated with spirits. Maybe we all do, but I've gone as long as eight years without sensing anything out of the ordinary. I believe there is an assumption, created by films and mediums, that experiencing the paranormal takes a special person or aptitude and happens every other day. Or, if you are a firm disbeliever, you might assume I am subject to frequent bouts of hysteria if the wind blows a door shut.
I had varying run-ins with maybe four spirits before the Wilsons, then nothing for many years until this past month. I am living in Bali this year on a Fulbright Full Grant Scholarship and the nights are very dark with only the sounds of distant gamelan music. I awoke one night feeling anxious, even terrified, and then a strong breeze blew across me from the direction of a windowless, bedroom wall a few feet away. This is a place where daily offerings are made around the house, at altars, on the ground, even on my motorbike, to appease the spirits both good and bad. I can be sitting at my desk and smell the incense when Ibu Desak arrives. I found this a quaint, beautiful tradition until the night of the breeze, and have since started burning incense myself. I even put out chocolate or a shot of vodka every now and then in an effort to placate whatever was blowing around the house that night. It means a lot to me to part with chocolate and booze, and I hope the spirits recognize that and leave me be.
SR: You speak about the ghost that was prominent in your childhood home and how he tried different ways to toy with each of your family members. Explain what made this an important quality of the ghost in your story.
RB: We've all heard stories of the ghost that walks the parapets, carrying its severed head, the school girl reappearing on the bridge from which she leapt, or strolling the same lane she once walked in life with her true love. These ghosts are going through repetitive motions at the place they died, or frequented when alive, without alteration. A reflection stuck on repeat. Because they do not alter their habits or interact, they seem less frightening, less acutely present than someone who is observing you, gauging your weaknesses, and capable of following you anywhere. If a ghost can exhibit a range of emotions and machinations, cognizance, then that suggests a fully aware afterlife as well. Think of how much we want attention now (and the problems that causes us), from peers, friends, family, lovers and society. Can you imagine needing that kind of affirmation for all eternity? A ghost stuck on repeat in one place seems a shadow of a memory of a person, a strange phenomenon but a nonexistent derivative of what was once a life. An obsessive ghost following you across state lines, knocking things about, begging to be noticed seems achingly human, immensely sad and real.
SR: What made you decide to tell multiple stories of incidents with ghosts rather than focusing on just one?
RB: To me, a single ghost story is an aberration, a campfire tale, something scary you do not have to overly concern yourself with and can easily dismiss. Multiple ghost experiences suggest maybe there is more to consider. What if becoming a spirit is something that could happen to any of us? What if we could become stuck in one place, or within one time in our lives, revisiting the same feelings and needs over and over again? Unfortunately, there is no way we can know anything about death or a spirit world, but the questions those numerous incidents raise are more frightening to me than the possibility that death really is the end.
SR: In your story, when discussing the ghost from your childhood, you never seem nervous or upset, yet you are so hesitant to move into the house. What uneasy feelings did you have about the Wilson's ghosts?
RB: I was always terrified of the ghost from my childhood, up until I told him to go fuck himself. In films people react with abject terror to the paranormal, screaming hysterically, but I never did. To be clear, I am not super coolheaded or anything. When I have stepped on a snake I have leapt into the air, making a sound something like a gargling clown. When something ghostly has occurred I go silent though, tuning in to it. I freeze like a hunted thing, uncertain for a moment what to do next. Then, I either continue my business and hope it will go away, or retreat slowly to another room, turning on lights as I go. A snake I could get away from, maybe the gargling clown noise I made was an archetypal/animal response to alert the rest of the herd, but with a ghost it seems personal, a communication meant for you alone, and unpredictable. You cannot really get away from something that technically isn't supposed to exist.
The Wilsons were personal. I understood their motivations for not wanting me in their house, just as I wanted out of the house my ex-husband shared with his first ex-wife. I also understood why they might still pester us after we moved in. My concern was with their feelings, because I was actually worried about how dead people felt about me living in what they still considered to be their house. I was an invader, and I didn't question their right to be pissed. But, since they were dead, this caused a great deal of anxiety about how their dissatisfaction might manifest.
SR: Your work consists of mostly short stories; describe what your next or current project is.
RB: I am currently writing my first novel whose narrator and setting are derived from the story “Sustainability,” which was published in Tin House in October, 2010. Northwest Arkansas saw massive growth and cultural shifts due to the rise of Walmart, which is based there along with Tyson Foods and JB Hunt. A culture once preserved due to poverty and isolation clashed with new money and international business, and families liquidated once worthless land. The traditions and folklore of the region were swept away by the homogenization that had long ago affected much of the country, yet we still had the memories of our grandparents plowing with mules.
The narrator, Jan, is a part of this new economy and culture. She is from Kingston, Arkansas, a small town in a beautiful neighboring county an hour outside of Fayetteville. It is too far away to have benefited hugely from the economic boom, but too close not to have been affected by the new money and opportunities. Many counties still maintain certain outlaw remnants as well, housing meth labs, cock fighters and dope growers in the remote hollows. People born here must either make the choice to leave and go to the growing corridor of Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers to make a living, or dig in with limited resources. Jan and her new husband make the choice to move to Fayetteville, where she hopes to study at the University of Arkansas and he works for the sanitation department. There is friction between Jan and her family, her husband, and the ideas she has for her own life versus the life her parent's had. She wants modernity while also clinging to a life that has already disappeared. This is her voice, her story, structured around a cross-generational class and culture conflict in the new South with a backdrop of international business, illegal immigrants laboring in the poultry industry, and new money and American cultures occupying old communities.
SR: What are your feelings on writing stories based off of real life super natural experiences. How do you react to the haunting aspects of the super natural?
RB: I think it is very difficult to pull off. The structure of "Ghosts" came easily to me as nonfiction because the connections were some that I had been considering for a long time. Real life supernatural experiences are only as interesting in a narrative as they can be related and tied to the mundane desires of the ordinary living. Otherwise, a ghost story is just a string of creepy events with a punch line meant to go “Boo!” We don't just want to be scared though. We want to try and understand our lives now, and speculate upon what happens when we die. Any “real” supernatural experience underscores just how much we will never know until we cross that threshold, if ever. Haunting, to me, isn't just about fear as it is reflected in film. It is about the idea that we can be so dissatisfied and disappointed in life that some of those feelings could possibly carry over in death. I don't know about you, but I was kind of hoping for an end at some point to all the day-to-day bullshit we each have to navigate. If what haunts us in life could do so in death, then…damn!
SR: At the end of "Ghosts," you move out of the home and describe the many different people interested in purchasing the house. Discuss if the super natural visited the new owners after moving in.
RB: The sale was difficult and the process unpleasant and demanding. I moved two hours away at once, and then later to Montana. I would not know them if I saw them on the street, and have had no contact with them since. It seems better that way.
SR: Which of your works was most enjoyable to write, and why? Which was the most difficult, and why?
RB: I had more fun writing “Sustainability,” a story published in Tin House last year, than anything else thus far. It started with a long night of wine and big talk at my friend John Wang's house, surrounded by fellow writers and PhD students in Tallahassee. I told a story about an x-rated dream I had involving a tornado. “I dare you to go home and write that,” another pal, David Rodriguez said. It helps to have extremely clever, talented friends who encourage all kinds of creativity and mischievousness in one another. I accepted the challenge, and what happened when I opened with such a crazy premise on a dare was that the story came easily and quickly, sorry for the pun. The narrator, Jan, seemed to have been waiting impatiently for me to tap into her. The process was playful, and it was all vividly there. Most stories and essays I have written have moments where I am pacing the house, eating something that isn't good for me and muttering until I figure out what to do next. Not so with “Sustainability,” and I am having a good time working on a novel with that same main character as my narrator.
The hardest was "Ghosts" for two reasons. One, it was difficult for me to tell a true story about something many reasonable people believe does not exist. Two, it dealt with a very painful time in my life when I lost everything that I had bought so thoroughly into—a marriage, a husband I thought loved me, and my sense of home. It sounds maudlin, but I wept when I wrote the end of that essay. That said, I am not a fan of writing as healing, which is antithesis to craft. For personal therapy, great, but if your main concern is how you feel and not how well you tell a story then I find it profoundly insensitive and selfish to assume strangers want to peer inside your wounded soul on the page for your benefit. It seems kind of like calling people in off the street to look in the toilet before you flush. I don't believe writing that essay healed anything and that certainly would never be my goal. However, it was the first time I had articulated deeply personal thoughts and fears in a narrative without hiding behind a fictional character, and I found that to be a very painful experience. You have to be brutal with yourself when writing nonfiction. Now, I am more desensitized to myself as a character, and, in retrospect, more than a little thankful my husband ran off.