Friday, October 16, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Rebecca Fishow

Rebecca Fishow is the winner of the Holland Prize, and author of the forthcoming story collection, The Trouble With Language (Trnsfr Books). Her work has appeared in Quarterly West, Tin House, Joyland, Connotations Press, The Believer, Smokelong Quarterly, and other publications. Her chapbook, The Opposite of Entropy, was published by Proper Tales Press. She holds an MFA from Syracuse University. Find her at

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first chapbook, The Opposite of Entropy, published by Proper Tales Press, changed my life in subtle, yet beautiful ways! It helped me to feel more grounded in a literary community, more confident that what I’m doing has some value in the world. It also helped me to think in terms of building a collection - ordering work so smaller pieces build a larger narrative that’s cohesive and satisfying. My first full-length book, The Trouble With Language, will be published in the fall of this year. It was a huge honor to win Trnsfr Book’s 2019 Holland Prize with this manuscript. This collection includes stories from my chapbook and many more. This project, too, has really helped me to think on a larger scale in terms of narrative structure. And it’s been really amazing to work with my publisher Alban Fischer, who is a genius of book design.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I actually came to fiction and poetry at about the same time, as an undergraduate at Syracuse University. My inclinations toward fiction eventually won out, I think because I greatly enjoy exploring character, and building narrative. Being immersed in a story is one of the greatest feelings. But also I’ve always loved paying attention to language on a line level, and I’ve always valued concision and economy. I had a professor, once, who liked to say that poets make the best fiction writers. Who knows if that’s true, but my fiction has undoubtedly benefitted from experience writing poetry, and my voice as a fiction writer has been shaped by it.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

It really depends on the project. Sometimes an idea, and the execution of it, comes in a burst of inspiration, almost fully formed. That’s a spectacular experience, but rare. More often, an idea percolates in my head for a while before I work of the courage to start playing with it on the page. Sometimes, finding the right entry to a story can take years. I might write then scrap five versions of the same idea before finally finding the voice and structure that makes it click.

4 - Where does a work of short prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

A work of short prose might begin with a line, an image, a concept, or even an emotional state. Each story is different for me. For instance, my story “Timothy’s Severed Head” began with a line— Whoever suffers most receives the severed head— and also sense, right off the bat, that this story was going to consist of smaller sections that each feel complete, but strung together explode the world of the story. Some of my very short pieces might begin with an emotional state - loneliness, confusion, or love, and then it’s a matter of letting my mind find images and characters who embody that strong internal vibration. Other stories, still, may begin with a scene I witness in real life, or some bit of dialogue I overhear and find fascinating. Until now, I’ve mostly worked on short pieces without too much focus on how they might combine into a larger project. I’ve had faith that there would be something cohesive about my style, voice and thematic interests, which would hold pieces together. Moving forward, though, I hope to be more intentional about longer projects, and better have a sense of their whole from the get go.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I used to be totally terrified of readings. I’d get the sweats and the butterflies a good two weeks before the event. But I’m getting over that, and now I  find a ton of joy in performing for an audience. It’s a whole other muscle writers get to flex. When I’m preparing to read, I think about how I would want to hear the piece if I were in the audience. I think about the childhood experience of being read to, and how a good story teller is a bit like a hypnotist. You have to be seductive, somehow, and attentive. I love finding the sonic rhythm of a story. I love discovering its power when turned into sound waves.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

That’s a great, tricky question. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the honesty behind the nature of narrative. Narrative and story telling, at its core, depends of simplifying experience for the purpose of clarity. It so often depends of clear cause-and-effect relationship, and it necessarily imposes an arc that satisfies readers. But when I think about my actual life, when I think about the complexities of the world, causality is a huge unknowable mess. One outcome could be the result of a thousand micro events or decisions, on so many levels (psychological, social, cosmic). And then there’s the matter of chance and randomness. So I wonder if, and how, fiction might represent that kind reality. I wonder if it even should.

I have also been thinking a LOT lately, about Eurocentricity in narrative. For instance, we’ve got this catch-all rule of “show don’t tell.” But that rule only works if your reader is familiar with what they are being shown. It’s a privilege to be able to show, because it assumes common ground with a reader. But writers working from contexts that have been silenced and underrepresented in literature might need to tell, in order to be understood. And then there is writing that comes out of oral traditions. So I’m curious about power how power dynamics and bias shape our craft in possibly troubling ways. 

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Honestly, I don’t know. I think it’s up to each writer to decide what role they want to play. We probably need writers concerned primarily with entertainment. We need writers who are able to give people a source of relief from the stern realities of the world. Life is mega tense for everyone right now, and the world seems to be falling apart. I know many, many people who are turning to literature for escape. But we also need writers who are interested in challenging and and furthering political thought. We need writers concerned with the beauty and aesthetics of language. The role of writers should be as diverse as the role of musicians or visual artists. Put a label on what we should be doing, and we get a less rich literary world.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I love it so much! I’ve worked with a handful  of really careful, intuitive, and sensitive editors, like Emily Schultz at Joyland, James Tate Hill at MonkeyBicycle, and Stuart Ross at Proper Tales Press. The editors I love to work with just know how to make my work better by pointing out these subtle but essential challenges in the work, and nudging me to address them. Not all editors are like that, but when they are it feels so electric.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Oh gosh. That’s so hard. Once, a poet told me that if all else fails, keep it sad and simple. I’ve found that to be true. Also, trust your boredom. If you’re getting bored while writing, chances are the reader will too. So stay tuned into your own internal boredom meter.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

Well, I’d love to write more nonfiction, but I don’t do it very often. At least not in a straight-and-narrow way. The way I tend to move between genres is through hybridity, which I guess for me means ignoring labels about genre altogether when I’m writing. I’ll write some prose with bits of lists in them, or sections of play script. I’ll take real world experiences and throw them off the deep end.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Sigh. I WISH I had a writing routine. But I’m a full-time high school creative writing teacher, and nowadays I’m lucky if I can covet an hour a week to dedicate to my own work. My writing routine is essentially non-existent. I couple frantic minutes here, a couple there. Some jotting of notes on my phone. But, when I am able to have a routine, I prefer to write in the morning, when my mind is closest to its dream state, and I’m less anxious about a million dumb things. Mornings, for me, are the best.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I find that changing up my physical space to be helpful, but only in a relatively big way, like traveling. The well can definitely get dry, and it might mean I haven’t seen or done something that feels new in too long. Seeing people I haven’t seen in forever, or meeting new people can be inspiring as well. Engaging in good, challenging, flirtations conversation. The brain gets bored, and the writing gets tired. In smaller ways, reading can really help me feel inspired, or listening to music, or looking at art, or walking through nature.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?


14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Oh, for sure. Definitely both visual arts and dance. I’m also a painter, and I used to be a dancer, so I’m influenced by technical elements of both those arts. Choreography, in dance, is often narrative. It builds and coheres, it reacts to music. It deals with bodies relating and reacting. It’s so physical, and the best writing feels physical to me. Painting really helps me get a grip on process. With a painting, you have to start with the big picture, block in the whole composition, then build up the little details. If you start with one small part of a painting, you might mess up all the proportions. I’ve used that as a metaphor for fiction. Also music! I’ve thought before that for me, a perfect story might have the emotional effect of a song. I’m constantly trying to do that, but it’s next to impossible. Beyond those, nature is inspiring, in the way that it’s organic and relentless, and it does what it pleases. Also, just life itself, of course. All the messiness of memory and hope and regret and love.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

So many. I get writer crushes constantly. Some of my current favorite writers are:  Joy Williams, Sarah Rose Etter, Valeria Luiselli, Han Kang, Leonora Carrington, Mary NDiaye, Aglaja Veteranyi, Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Dey, Italo Calvino, Virginia Woolf, Michael Bible…so many more.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I would like to be way more Zen.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

As much as I’ve love to only be a writer, I’ve always had another occupation as well. Right now it’s teaching. I’ve also been a journalist, which is another form of writing. But I think that if I followed a different path, I might have ended up doing something more visual, some kind of design? Or maybe something more physical. Fire fighting? Park Ranger? I’m not really sure.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

A big part of it had to do with early encouragement. I had wonderful teachers who believed in me, and guided me. I’ve also just always loved to read, and I still love to play make believe.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last good book I finished was called How to Disappear. Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency, by Akiko Busch. I’m so interested in the topic, and I found the way she frames invisibility, as it occurs in nature, the imagination, and society thought provoking and fun. Right before that, I read Heartbreakers by Claudia Dey. It simply enchanting. The last great film I watched was probably Do The Right Thing. However did I manage to live this long without seeing that?

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m milling around ideas for a longer, possibly novelistic project.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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