Interview by Misha Rai
Originally from the Chicagoland area, A.A. Balaskovits has lived all across the American Midwest but currently calls South Carolina her home. She received her B.A. from Loras College, her MFA from Bowling Green State University and her Ph.D. from The University of Missouri.She has served as an Assistant Fiction Editor for The Mid American Review and the Social Media Editor for The Missouri Review, where she launched two series for the blog: the Working Writers Series which interviewed writers without major publications and Literature on Lockdown, which curated essays by currently or former incarcerated writers as well as the people who teach them.Currently, she is the Social Media Editor for Cartridge Lit, an online journal of video game
Your debut collection is deliciously dark and terrifying in the way that brilliant fiction tends to be. Congratulations! In equal measure the collection is thought provoking, groundbreaking in its depiction and range of female characters within the stories, and entertaining. I noticed too that in your acknowledgments you thank Angela Carter—another writer whose work changed and added to the landscape of feminist and fairy tale/magical realism literature—so I wondered whether there are particular stories in the collection that you think are natural heirs to the kind of stories Carter was telling. If yes, how so? And whether there are particular stories that break from the tradition in Carter’s work and push to become a Balaskovits original story?
Thank you so much for your kind words. Absolutely, Angela Carter has been a big influence on my work and writing. Many of the stories in Magic for Unlucky Girls were directly influenced by The Bloody Chamber, most especially “Beasts” and “Food My Father Feeds Me, Love My Husband Shows Me”. My reading of Carter is that she was reclaiming these tales for women: centering their experiences in these traditional tales and fleshing out their characters, so they were not an abstract, flat thing that gets pushed around the narrative. I try to do the same, because it is necessary to do that kind of writing today. My work differs from Carter’s in that she, at least in my reading, had a very positive outlook about the fates of women. Their mothers save them from their beastly husbands or they take the wolf into their own bed with a delight that is pure and salacious. Most of the tales she tells has a hopefulness that borders on liberation for the fates of those women: they take control in a narrative that allows them space to do so. I am much more pessimistic about my view of women’s lives as they currently stand. While there are moments when they do triumph in my stories, it is always at the expense of either someone else, or they have to lose something. I question whether an oppressed group can really struggle against what brings them low into the earth and get out unscathed. I don’t think so, not without causing some pain and scars to ourselves or others.
The fourteen stories in the collection are largely either retellings of fairytales/stories a reader may have encountered before like “Eden,” which is loosely based on the Garden of Eden, or operate in an alternate universe like that wonderful first story in which Superman is fragile and weeps because of his inability to communicate with other people, but the collection also has three startlingly original stories—“The Ibex Girl of Qumran,” “The Romantic Agony of Lemon head,” and “All Who Tremble”—and I wanted to know where the inspiration for these narratives came from? When you were writing this collection did you have a plan to include original work? I found that the “The Ibex Girl of Qumran,” was the more traditional story of the three where as the other two, especially “The Romantic Agony of Lemon head,” go into very interesting places; talk to me a little bit about what these stories are in conversation with?
When I started this collection, it was going to be straight re-tellings of classic fairy tales (and most of the ones that are those are earlier works – except “Juniper”, which was fairly recent). That changed over time because there were some things I wanted to explore that I felt I was not able to with the constraints of the fairy tale as a tradition. For example, “The Romantic Agony of Lemonhead” was incredibly loosely inspired from reading Reviving Ophelia, which inexplicably was in the bathroom of my parent’s household while I was growing up (not sure what the implications are there) and, while it isn’t a terrible book by any means, I am always a bit wary of catch-all’s for how to raise up good girls, as if their experience is limited to their central girlness. I did try to match that to a fairy tale, and Baba Yaga makes an appearance, but ultimately decided I could just write my own. “The Ibex Girl of Qumran” is, in its own way, about family folklore and the tales we pass down to one another, so I was still exploring fairy tales as narrative in that way, but it isn’t based on any actual story (that I am aware of).
I’ve mentioned earlier that in the collection there are a variety of female characters, almost all of them strong, independent, and often just plain vicious. Both “Bloody Mary” and “Beasts” took my breath away. What attracts you to write such type female characters? Why do violence and mutilation make up the backbone of your work?
Fairy tales are pretty violent! The Grimms brothers actually had two versions of the tales when they originally collected them from the women who told them: the first, for scholars, were very sexual and kind of violent. When they realized there was a market for children, they toned down the sex but increased the violence to the point of absurdity. Beyond that, the world is a violent place, and I don’t see a reason to not write what is a reflection of reality, even in a fantastical way. For many women, violence is a part of our lives, even in small unconscious ways, and I think fairy tales allow us to tap into that in a safe way, because the violence is usually over the top.
Women don’t often get to be violent themselves. We are taught from a young age to suppress those feelings and desires. When we read about ourselves in fiction, especially older works that form the canon, we don’t see ourselves acting out much, we are usually acted upon. I remember this one novel, which I cannot remember the name of but it came from the Modernist tradition, about a painter who on a date with a woman he fancied, and from his point of view she was so delicate she could not even tear a piece of hard bread in half because her wrist might break. That made me laugh, but also made me angry. We are as violent, or as hard, as men, even if we are trained very well not to act on it. We are born into a violent world and we understand it very well. It takes root. Part of the drive of this collection was to explore women as monsters in some fashion, either by birth or by effect of simply living longer than a few moments in the world. The idea of womanness is often portrayed as a kind of othere’d, monstrous, incomprehensible thing – why not embrace that which terrifies others?
Absolutely. I completely agree with that. Keeping that in mind, I was looking at the way the stories in the book are curated and realized that we begin with a long short story which features Superman (big-ass symbol of patriarchy) but as the stories progress, and although men play an important role in them they are mostly flat characters/are the supporting cast, the narrative of the women and their interactions is where the meat within the collection is with it ending with a young girl deciding on a course of action that may or may not end well in “All Who Tremble,” so I wondered what kind of female-female relationships were you interested in exploring as you were writing this collection?
That was the reversal: even in fairy tales which has flat characters as a rule, the men, for the most part, get to do things. They follow their dreams and are not always simply reacting to something bad happening to them, like encountering a wolf in the woods or getting kicked out of the home and forced to kill a witch they encounter. Of course, there are stories where women do do these things in traditional narratives, but we don’t tell them as often as we tell the passive-princess story. And there’s a sinister reason for that. So, in turn, I made the men flat characters (with the exception of “Eden” and “Suburban Alchemy”, which feature male protagonists). A few of the stories do feature lesbian relationships, which are not in fairy tales at all (unless you really squint at Rapunzel or just read Anne Sexton as canon). I’m bisexual, so I wanted to feature that part of my own identity, which is lacking in these stories. I can’t think of any that are particularly queer unless you read between the lines. So these stories need to be queer’d. I also explore the mother/daughter relationship in these tales quite often, because one of the trends of fairy tales, and actually a lot of fiction regardless, is that the mother is dead from the beginning. Why is the mother always dead? It’s like she does her duty to the narrative by birthing the protagonist and then, having nothing left to contribute, fades from existence. So I have to have mothers. Bad mothers, good mothers, and mothers who are good but do bad things.
Makes sense. Which bring me to (in a round about way but through a story about a dead mother) to Britney! I have to ask. I literally screeched when I read the words “Britney woman,” in “Suburban Alchemy” and realized that Solanum was obsessed with Britney Spears! I totally was at one time, so was my baby brother who had on one wall a poster of Christina Aguilera and on the other Britney Spears in a sort of face-off. I’m going to assume that your own obsession with Britney made it into the story but talk to me about it. Tell me also, how you came to include this classic pop culture icon in your work?
I. Love. Britney. Spears. I mean this with utter seriousness. That’s so funny about your brother: he had to choose one or the other. You couldn’t love both of them in that manufactured reality of the 1990s. It was pop star war. Pick a side.
Britney Spears is sort of a fairy tale unto herself to me: the most American fairy tale of all. A beautiful, white, blond girl who gets everything you could possibly imagine one would want at a young age and is still unhappy. She is, from all accounts, somewhat of a flat character in her own narrative. From a young age, she was pushed into various roles and marketed as an object: a thing to desire, a thing to pity, a thing to curse at, a thing to make you feel better about yourself. When she had that breakdown and shaved her head and attacked the car with an umbrella, it felt like we were seeing some sort of internalized reaction to having no control over your own life boil over, or a human being coming into consciousness. This is, of course, conjecture, because any celebrity is not human to their audience (not even me, who loves her so), not really, and we project onto them because their role is to give their audience a moment of catharsis.
So true and so dark this idea of the celebrity not being human! Something I’ve brought up earlier is the fact that the collection too is dark and portrays a full gamut of taboo relations and perhaps because of that it is also entertaining; the language kept purposefully simple although there is lyricism in the language of some of the stories, as anyone who reads “Bloody Mary” would agree, and I was interested in your take on the role language plays in making such troubled narratives accessible. Did you make a decision to use language in a particular way?
I do. It is very important to me to use accessible language because I don’t want to limit my audience. I don’t think there is anything wrong with using lyrical or dense language, but it isn’t my style for the most part. It is, also, really the only way I can think of to encounter horrible, taboo subjects: how much do you really want to wax poetic about incest, bestiality, rape and mutilation? Beautiful language would cover up the terror of it, and when we are encountered with horror, all pretty words are lost: language is lost in its entirety, actually. How do you express grief and pain, in the moment that it happens, except in the guttural? Reflection and beautiful language comes later to heal, but in the moment, there are no words.
There are two short-shorts in the collection, one—“Postpartum” (published proudly in The Southeast Review as “Pricked”)—close to the beginning and the second—“Mermaid”—close to the end, and in both of them women are torn apart/torn down either physically or metaphorically. In the latter, specifically, I wondered whether the story was symptomatic of a specific kind of feminist ideology where the death and dominance over a man is the only way for women to survive and perhaps prosper. I get that “Mermaid,” is a revenge tale but I was curious about the type of feminist ideology it speaks to.
I don’t think that killing men is necessarily the way women are going to prosper, though metaphorically you do have to tear down plenty of institutions that are dominated by men of a certain sort: sexism, racism, classism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, etc. My own take on feminism is summed up by a line from Angela Carter’s work on De Sade: “A free woman in an unfree society will be a monster.” Society has yet to find liberation.
Part of the work that feminists have to do is break down old stories that form our ideologies about our bodies, our minds, and our destinies. To do so, we’re pushing against not only the folks in power, but the ideals we grew up loving and later learned were manufactured and false. In “Postpartum”, I’m revisiting Sleeping Beauty, which is 100% a story of a romanticized rape. There is an Italian version that actually is pretty similar to what I wrote, where she does not wake up with a kiss and gives birth while still under the spell, but she marries the man who raped her and they live happily ever after. Even in versions where he only forces himself on her with his lips, it’s heavily romanticized and taught to be an ideal about how relationships between men and women are acted out. These narratives becomes sacred and a part of our cultural and personal identities – when we question them, rewrite them, or expose their underbelly, that’s a kind of psychic violence we’re performing: tearing apart the old stories that we have always cherished and making us question why we act the way we always have. It is dangerous to do so, because even though everyone suspects there is a man behind the curtain, it’s not the man we get mad at when we see he is there – we get mad at the hand that pulled the curtain back.
For “Mermaid”, that’s a different sort of exploration. The narrative voices – mermaid sisters to the famous one – are murdering the man their sister loves. We hurt the ones we love, even if we believe we are acting in their self interest. It’s a choice you have to make, and I don’t think it’s ever going to be clear one or not cause pain. There isn’t a good, perfect way to perform feminism, though there are certainly a lot of bad ways to do so.
I’m curious whether you write in other genres, perhaps realist fiction or romances or westerns (why not?) and if not how did you come to find your métier? And why are you primarily attracted to fairy tales (the form of which is so antiquated) or narrative that has elements of the marvellous or magical realism?
“Eden” actually started out as a dare from one of my MFA cohorts to write a realist story, and it is the only piece in the collection without a hint of the magical – though it’s certainly weird. I write non-fiction from time to time, but I mostly feel grounded in speculative.
I like writing fairy tales because I hate them, and I think it is important to critique it. Fairy tales are beloved because they are tied to a cultural identity, and they also reinforce how the world – presumably – works: the prince will marry the “true” princess, the wolf will be defeated by a cunning girl (though in too many version, it’s the woodsman who pops in at the third act who saves granny and little red) and the boy who works hard enough will be given rewards equal to his talents. However, fairy tales are also so flat and abstract that anyone can tune into their power and rewrite them for their own ends. The Nazi’s had a book of fairy tales which glorified antisemitism (moreso than the Grimms tales, which were plenty antisemitic already). The NRA came out with their own versions where they inserted a gun into Little Red Riding Hood, effectively making the hero of her story a firearm – which, considering how many people shoot wildly at what they are afraid of, is irresponsible at best. I recently found a line of skin lightening cremes that were branded Snow White. I’m drawn to these stories because they are malleable, and that malleability makes them extremely dangerous. They are familiar and simple enough where people latch on to them, possibly as a reminder of childhood, or because they have little justices played out and everything wraps up neat and tidy at the end. But if you change the ideology to fit your own and brand it with a cultural icon – then your ideology had better be in the service of dis-empowered people – not the people in charge, not the naked emperor, and not the foot at your throat.
So I’m aware that you are one of those writers who isn’t working in academia or is part of the publishing world in order to support herself and perhaps has one of those real world jobs that has helped so many writers survive and I wondered how do you balance work with your writing? Also, what are you working on right now?
I did try adjuncting for awhile, and here is my subsequent rant: It was not for me. I did it part-time while I was finishing my degree (I had moved away from my program to join my husband at his PhD during my comprehensive exam year) as well as a slew of other temporary gigs to stay afloat. When I finished my program, I went into adjuncting full-time. It was a miserable experience. While I expect to be exploited at any job I work because that is the nature of capitalism, I do not expect to be so flagrantly so. Working 60 hours minimum a week (and that was a week where there was no grading) for barely enough to cover my rent did not seem worth the mental and physical work, nor do I believe that academia was going to reward me at any point for toiling for scraps. That is, perhaps, the most fairy tale of all fairy tales. So I quit and now work full-time for a start-up out of California. While there is something unromantic about a 9-5, it pays well and once my hours are done, I don’t have to think about it. I have time to write at night and the weekends. Jobs are not something I see as personally fulfilling: they are the thing I perform to give myself time, space, and nourishment to perform what I actually want to do.
I’m currently working on a novel. It is not terribly different in theme from this collection: basically, a young girl in a fantastical setting sets out on a journey to save the world, but by the end she is going to have to make the choice of whether it is worth saving or not. There are elements of fairy tales in it, because I have a love-hate, vaguely co-dependent relationship with the genre.
Misha Rai is the first-ever PhD in Fiction to be awarded the Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellowship in Women’s Studies for her novel-in-progress, Blood We Did Not Spill. She is also a 2016-2017 Edward H. and Mary C. Kingsbury Fellow at Florida State University and has been the recipient of the 2015 George M. Harper Award. Her prose has appeared in Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sonora Review and The Missouri Review blog. Misha Rai was born in Sonepat, Haryana and brought up in India. She currently serves as Fiction Editor for The Southeast Review and as Associate Reviews Editor for Pleiades.