Rita Bullwinkel’s first story collection, Belly Up, is a kind of miracle. Imbued with darkness and absurdity, the stories in Belly Up announce Bullwinkel as a writer of deep intelligence and bold style. A snake thinks of himself as a pear in a tree, two high school girls fantasize about turning into plants, and a woman becomes slowly unhinged after witnessing a car accident. Bullwinkel is a gifted technician of words and moods. The quotidian is turned on its side. The economy is so bad that instead of buying a bra, a mother pays a man off Craigslist to hold up her daughter’s breasts. A missing thumb leads to a suicide. Desire for knowledge leads to misery. The dead come back. The scale of what is possible in Bullwinkel’s worlds is overwhelming. Upon finishing this book, I was deeply moved.
A couple years ago, when Bullwinkel and I first met, she told me that she had walked from where she was staying in East Los Angeles to our meeting place, in Chinatown. In Los Angeles, there are no direct walking routes; there are no grids or city blocks. There are steep hills and chickens in backyards and sidewalks in disrepair. She said the walk took her over an hour. And yet, I was surprised to find, she wasn’t sweating. A year later, I spent a few nights in her apartment above a hardware store in San Francisco, where she lives with her partner, a musician. I remember art on the walls, various musical instruments, and plants with bright-green waxy leaves spilling over the edge of a kitchen table. Bullwinkel is very good at keeping things alive. Her home, like her writing, gives one the impression of a peculiar and generous mind.
This interview was conducted over email.
When you were young, were you focused on writing, or were you interested in other arts?
I didn’t start writing until I was in college. Before college I had never read any books of fiction that I liked, so I thought I didn’t like fiction. I used to make all of my own clothes. I also painted and made furniture out of broken surfboards and other trash I found in dumpsters. I was not very good at any of these things, but I knew I liked making things. The thing I was best at as a child was sports. I was recruited to play water polo in college, which I did all four years. I now view that as a completely insane and irrational thing to have done. I have almost no connection anymore to that part of my identity.
I think there’s definitely a connection between competitive sports and writing. Both require motivation and rigor if one wants to improve. Do you consider yourself ambitious? What motivates you to keep writing?
I suppose the leap from being a reader to a writer is an opaque one. They are intertwined for me. I only became a writer when I became an obsessive reader. I’m not sure why I have a desire to write things, but it makes me feel more human than any other thing has thus far in my life. It makes me feel like I’ve done something worthy of the earth hours I’ve spent doing it. Even if no one else ever reads it, if no one ever wants to publish it, I still feel this way. I don’t think I’m ambitious as much as extremely desirous. Once I’ve decided I desire something it is practically impossible to get me to think about anything else, or to get me to change my mind. I am sure this has something to do with why I was a proficient athlete. Water polo is a brutal sport, and one that requires a great deal of beating up on. My nose and all of my fingers have been broken. One time, when I was sixteen, I vomited for two days straight because of a full-force kick I took directly to the stomach (I later learned I was probably experiencing some type of internal bleeding). It is also notable that literally no one cares about women’s water polo. I cocaptained a top-twenty NCAA Division I team, and we played games for ghost towns. Nobody ever cared if we won or lost. Nobody even knows how the sport is played.
May I ask, Patrick, what motivates you to write fiction? Why do you make these beautiful books and stories that I read out loud to myself and that I so adore?
I’ve always read fiction. I didn’t start to write until I was in my late twenties because I ran out of things to do. I tried being a musician, a barista, a teacher, a librarian. For a few months, I pursued a masters in social work, then gave up because there was too much busy work. A few years ago, I decided to write a book because I thought a lot of contemporary fiction wasn’t that good, so I might as well try. I know that sounds arrogant, and I was. I don’t feel that way anymore. Putting a book out into the world has been humbling. Any aversion I had toward contemporary fiction has died down. I’m even dating a contemporary writer.
I love the idea that the ultimate embrace of contemporary literature is dating a contemporary writer. I haven’t gotten there yet, but maybe soon!
In Belly Up, there’s often a sense of absurdity in relation to every day life. For example, in “Decor,” a woman working at a high-end furniture showroom becomes obsessed with a man in prison who writes to her requesting fabric samples. Where did this story start?
I’ve worked many retail jobs where I was meant to be a decorative object whose sole purpose was to enhance the consumer’s purchasing experience. Occasionally I would fold some clothes. But mostly it was just about being a young warm body at the ready to attend to someone’s every need. I think the labor one has to offer the world can be an absurd thing to consider. We have these bodies that can perform tasks and the completion of said tasks can earn us money. We also have to live and think in these bodies, both privately and publicly. The range of things one can do with a body for money is staggering! Surely that, in itself, is absurd. I do find the experience of having a body, especially a female body, to be bizarre.
“Black Tongue” begins with a young girl sticking her tongue into an electrical outlet. Later on, she says, “There are good things about having the impulse to throw yourself off the side of a cliff.” How do you understand this line as it connects to the line that appears later in the story—“There is only so much of your body you can ruin”?
I think there are good and bad things about having the ability to change oneself completely. It’s a dangerous thing to do, but it’s also a survival tool. I am self aware enough to know I have a type of flight syndrome. My solution to most difficult situations is to leave. This is true for all aspects of my life, except for my love life. I’m always threatening to leave my partner of ten years, but now the threat feels a little tired. He’s my favorite human, so now my fantasies of flight usually involve dragging him along.
Would you say you’re an intuitive writer? Or do you work from an outline? As you’re writing, do you know what will happen next?
I don’t work from outlines, though I wish I could. Sometimes I make them, and then immediately deviate from their course, so that the outline just becomes this relic of a thing that never could, or never will, be. I do try to wield the momentum of writing when I can grab it, and write in long, drawn-out bouts. There is energy there, when that happens.
Which story took the longest to write, and why?
“Decor” took me the longest to write. It used to be much shorter, and it had a different ending. I think it required more time because Ursula, the protagonist of the story, is so angry and delirious with envy that she’s a hard person to sit in for too long. She feels awful. It was difficult for me to sit in that awfulness for long periods of time.
Many of your stories have a cool temperature. And by that I mean that you approach things from an odd and absurd angle. The reader doesn’t have much access to your characters’ emotions, as this isn’t how they understand the world. I would compare the tone of Belly Up to the coolness of Fleur Jaeggy or Thomas Bernhard. I find this kind of writing incredibly brave and moving, because it trusts that the reader will invest in the world without dangling in front of them some kind of emotional pay off. I’m curious if you think about a reader as you write.
I do think about the reader. I want my writing to be compelling for them. It is so much to ask of someone, to sit with your fiction, and so I am hyperaware of the need for brevity and momentum. In life and fiction, I have found that sentimentality is something that is not to be trusted. It’s not an honest feeling, and so I don’t find it moving. It’s a screen feeling, as in, people feel sentimental about something when they are unable to look at the truth of it. I find so much of life to be about making nice with people. We must smile and we must get along. And so, I find it deeply refreshing, when reading, to sit in voices that have stripped all of the superficiality away and tell things plainly. This plainness seems the most honest to me.
Do you remember reading the first book that made you want to write?
The first book I read that made me want to write fiction was Jesse Ball’s The Way Through Doors. It was assigned to me in a Fiction 1 class taught by the brilliant writer Joanna Howard. Other books on her syllabus included Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, Lydia Davis’s Almost No Memory, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and Ben Marcus’s magnificently curated Anchor Book of American Short Stories. I loved everything Joanna assigned, and, over the summer, read everything each of the authors had ever written.
What has changed in your process since college?
My mind feels like a bigger space to play in. I used to only write very short stories, but now I write both very long and very short fiction. I feel I can hold a whole book in me. I wasn’t able to do that ten years ago, when I first began.
You’ve worked with Diane Williams on NOON, an innovative fiction literary journal. Diane is an amazing writer, a genius. Her use of language is peculiar and surprising. I read one of her stories aloud to my girlfriend. She said listening to it made her very uncomfortable. Can you tell me a little about what it was like to work with her?
Diane is, indeed, a genius. Her story “All American,” which is a masterpiece, was in the Ben Marcus anthology that Joanna Howard first assigned to me, so Diane was one of the writers I read the summer after my sophomore year. When I moved to New York, I wanted desperately to find a way to work for her. I acquired her email address, through a friend of a friend of a friend, and cold emailed her and asked if there was anything I could do in any capacity to work for NOON.
Diane is an intensely magnetic person to work for. She treats each sentence, each story, like it is the most important thing that anyone ever has, or ever will do. It was intoxicating to be around a person who took sentences so seriously. Perhaps the most bizarre, and most brilliant, thing about working for her was that she made the other editors and I read the stories we were seriously considering out loud to her. We would sit in her living room on beautiful sofas surrounded by her beautiful art and read stories to each other for hours. Diane would often edit out loud. She would ask us to make changes verbally, and then read the stories out loud, with the changes, back to her. I loved working for her.
The opening story, “Harp,” has a smooth, placid surface. People are polite to each other and cook nice meals. They drive in cars and go to concerts. But there’s anger coursing underneath the surface as the narrator becomes more and more unhinged.
This feeling of impending disaster is a feeling I experience frequently. I think this is because I, like everyone else alive, am constantly having to reckon with all of the things I know are wrong with this world. It’s extremely difficult to carry those wrongs, acknowledged and ignored, around with me while I go get a cup of tea. I assume that many people feel this way. There is a way one feels and a way one must act outwardly. It’s a difficult but universal performance.
One of my favorite stories in the collection is “Arms Overhead.” It has this curdled reality that reminds me of Jane Bowles. The protagonists in the story, Mary and Ainsley, are precocious girls entering high school who fantasize about being plants. Later on, they become obsessed with a “man in Japan who wanted to eat both himself and other people.” Can you talk about how you see the grotesque in your stories?
I am interested in the grotesque because the most repulsive things are often sheet masks for societal poisons. The grotesque often represents the thing in front the real thing. It’s a lens with which to get the reader’s attention. I think that for grotesque things to be written about successfully they must be turned on their head in some way. One has to make the reader want to get a little a closer and reconsider whether or not the thing they are seeing is grotesque after all.
Something I’ve been thinking about lately is what it means to be mortal and to be trapped in this flesh container we call a body. I suppose I’m thinking about this because my cat is very ill, and I love her, but she’s going to die one day. Many of your characters grapple with their own physical being, their physicality, and the ensuing trauma and grief that goes along with that. So I’ll end with, what does it mean to you to have a body?
Bodies are such strange vessels to be contained in. I fantasize about growing old and having mine dramatically change. What will my body be like when I am ninety? Will I still be able to see myself inside of me? When I was a small child, I was primarily taken care of by my great-grandparents who were eighty-three and eighty-eight at the time. My great-grandmother spoke to me primarily in Italian, a skill which has, very sadly, completely left me. We went on long walks together every day. She spent hours cooking for me. My favorite thing she fed me was carrots and sweet onions sautéed in butter. My great-grandfather only had nine fingers. He lost the middle finger on his left hand lassoing a bull. He used to own a dairy. They lived in the same neighborhood I now live in, only a bit further north on California Street. I spent so much time with them. I loved them. Even though I was very young, just three or four, I remember being acutely aware of the differences between our human forms. They were the same in some ways. The four us—my great-grandparents, my sister, and I—walked places slowly. I had such a small body.
Patrick Cottrell is the author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace. He is the winner of a 2018 Whiting Award in fiction and a Barnes and Noble Discover Award.
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