Interview by Misha Rai
Katie Cortese’s stories and essays have appeared in such journals as Blackbird, Gulf Coast, Day One, and elsewhere, including the Rose Metal Press anthology Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. She holds a PhD from Florida State University and an MFA from Arizona State University. In addition to serving as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review, she teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, where she lives with her husband, son, and two tiny dogs.
Additionally, Katie is a former editor-in-chief of The Southeast Review!
Misha Rai: Let me begin by saying, I absolutely love the title of your collection, Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories, and the collection itself. Such a title engenders within a reader certain expectations, that this collection is a storehouse of Feminism and the stories are emblematic of the idea of girl power even in the pieces where the girls and women don’t seem to have much agency themselves. Could you elaborate on the different manifestations of girl power that exist within this collection? Why was it important for these girls/women to be portrayed in these many ways?
Katie Cortese: Thanks so much. I’m glad the title resonates with you. I should probably say first that I wasn’t aware I was writing a book about women or feminism from the start. I’ve never been able to start with an idea or a political message and wring a story out of it. The characters have to come first and it’s only after they’ve “cooled off” for me—after I’m able to become the story’s reader—that I can see what the larger implications of a piece might be. This collection started out as individual, unrelated stories, and they were written over an eleven-year period. It wasn’t until I sat down with a list of the titles to see if I had the makings of a book that I realized the great majority featured female narrators across a variety of ages and experiences. Once I saw that pattern, I started thinking about what the pieces had in common besides the gender of the protagonists, and it was then that the story “Girl Power” started to seem like a focal point.
Now that I have some perspective on the stories, I can see the way feminism is one of the book’s subjects, and I can readily admit that not all of the stories present a traditional view of feminism. “Run All Day, Run All Night” comes to mind, in which a college student spends her nights scamming older rich men for free drinks and ends up being propositioned. She doesn’t immediately say no, either, even though I think that particular character would profess to being a feminist if someone asked her point blank. One of the reasons I wanted “Girl Power” in the book’s title is because I think that feminism is often so misunderstood today, especially, unfortunately, by younger women who don’t always recognize the ways their mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers fought desperately to secure the rights we now take for granted (and thank goodness that so many of our freedoms now seem commonplace—voting and owning property, working in any profession we choose, and—unless certain throwback politicians have their way in the next election cycle—making important, personal, and private decisions about our own health, reproductive and otherwise).
Anyway, the media often present feminism as a very narrow movement. Last year an article made the rounds about a Tumblr called “I Don’t Need Feminism Because…” It’s mostly young women holding up signs that say things like, “I don’t need feminism because men matter too,” or “I don’t need feminism because I can fight my own battles,” and much of their reasoning suggests women can’t be stay-at-home moms and feminists at the same time—which is patently false, or that the movement is about bra-burning, refusing to shave, and hating, blaming, and shunning men. While I still don’t follow most of their logic (and find it uninformed and reductive), what became clear to me after reading it was that even if they were rejecting whatever they understood to be feminism, each poster was still claiming and exercising a version of agency. Some of the women in Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories probably wouldn’t identify as feminist—the wife in “Camping Christopher Creek,” for instance, who only begins to examine her own situation after meeting a new sister-in-law who doesn’t modify her behavior to please her husband. When I was putting the book together, I didn’t want to present only one “right” way to be a woman in the contemporary era, because a too-monochronistic view would be just as restricting in its own way as the systemic oppression that still operates today (street harassment, say, or like the woman at the DMV who issued my husband’s license immediately, but would only issue mine after I produced my marriage license, which shows I kept my maiden name). So while some of the women and girls in the collection actively seek empowerment, or at least recognize the ways in which they’re being held back from it, even those who lack agency in the moments where we glimpse them have to come face-to-face with that systemic inequality and make decisions in response to it. Sometimes those decisions take the path of least resistance, but in every case the women have to examine those structures and locate their place within them.
The stories in your collection are placed under the trifecta of either “Maidenhood” or “Motherhood” or “Matronhood.” How did you come to divvy up your stories within this triumvirate?
When I sat down with that list of titles and thought about what held the stories together aside from gender, I looked for other ways to arrange them that would produce a satisfying arc. What I came up with was chronology, and at the time that I started dividing the stories I just put all the kid ones first, then the teens, then the young adults, the newlyweds, parents, married couples, and wrapped up with the “real adults”—middle-aged women. I didn’t come up with the names for the sections, though, until I stumbled on the idea of the Triple Goddess Archetype, which is a concept in Neopaganism that refers to the three phases of a woman’s life. The sections were actually Maiden, Mother, and Crone in an earlier draft of the book, but I didn’t like the connotations of the word “crone,” which didn’t really fit the stories I’d placed in that section.
I mentioned earlier that most of the women who participate in the “I Don’t Need Feminism Because…” meme are young, or appear to be in their pictures. They’re still forming their identities, and there’s still time for a young person to drastically change his or her position on pretty much everything. That’s probably why the lion’s share of the stories in Girl Power feature teenagers or young adults. The experiences they have in the stories are ones that I imagine will change their lives and opinions going forward—for better or worse.
OK, so when did you realize you were writing a collection that spanned whole lives of women?
Well, I started writing these stories in 2004, though I was only writing one or two pieces a year at first, and thought of them as completely separate. I wrote most of them between 2012 and 2014, and that’s the same time period when I built my website and had to list out all the stories there with links. I think that’s when it hit me, sometime around 2013, that almost every piece of flash fiction I’d published focused on the life of an individual woman or girl. I was working on a novel then (which is still in progress), and applying for teaching jobs, so I couldn’t pause to assemble the collection until October or so of 2013, and that’s when I started playing with arrangement. I still don’t think I realized until recently—maybe until I was involved in the editing process that lasted through this past summer—that by starting with the youngest character and working up to one of the oldest, I sort of invoked an everywoman who grows up over the course of the book. Or at least, that’s one way to read the book.
What I find absolutely fascinating (and thrilling) about this collection is that it is genre-bending. You have stories that are straight-up realism, slipstream fiction, reimagined fairytales, horror (I mean, the baby who devours her parents, yikes and yet heartbreaking) to name a few. This book defies genre characterization, which is awesome because more books should do that, and I guess my question is: When did you realize that all these stories had to be part of one collection?
That’s a great question. It seems odd now that I never considered that mix of slipstream and realism might not work in one book, but the truth is I didn’t. The super short story has always seemed an ideal place for experimentation to me, so I end up trying out concepts that probably wouldn’t hold up to the scrutiny that would be applied to a longer story (what if a girl really was so embarrassed that she welcomed being swallowed up by the floor, for instance), and what I almost always discover is that the experiments that work the best are never just stunts or jokes or extended metaphors—they have to have the same emotional trouble bubbling under the surface whether the protagonist is a woman so large her breath can ruffle a boy’s hair at a distance of ten feet, or whether she’s struggling with an all-consuming anger that drives her to destroy her nephew’s favorite stuffed animal. The circumstances of the universes they occupy might be very different, along with the attendant rules of physics, but what I hope all the stories have in common is a protagonist or narrator who’s undergoing a crisis of identity and either sinks beneath the uncertainty or finds a way to weather or even overcome it. In other words, I hope all the central characters have some kind of essential humanity that elicits the reader’s empathy even if we don’t readily recognize every element of the universe they call home, and if so, then that’s what I think unifies the collection despite the variety of shapes and strategies of the stories themselves.
One of the things I noticed within the collection was how you subverted fairy tales and in your reimagining of them almost always the girls/women turned out to have agency and were fine, and yet in the realist stories women seemed to be heading towards doom even if they had chosen that doom for themselves. For instance, the story where the woman realizes that the real win for her will come when she somehow manages to keep the man she has tricked into proposing to her (because she is pregnant) coming back to her in the future, because really he doesn’t want to marry her and would rather be somewhere else. Did you set out to write these stories in this manner? Also, I wondered if you were re-writing these fairy tales in an attempt to show that if only the stories we tell our children were different, the world women inhabit would be different? Or am I reading my own desires into your collection?
What an interesting observation! I never noticed those trends in the stories before, so I wasn’t trying to make any kind of statement about either the fairy tales we tell our children or the ones we tell ourselves about our own lives, but I don’t think you’re wrong either. As a kid, I read a ton, but I also loved Disney movies (and I still have an embarrassingly extensive collection of classic Disney cartoons on VHS), and I never remember questioning them—either that the heroines and heroes might have had other motives than the moviemakers allowed them, or that there was anything wrong with the protagonists always falling in perfect love at the end with a handsome soul mate. I wonder if this is why I took to Shakespeare in college, because his plays have all been neatly delineated by critics into comedies and tragedies, and every comedy ends with at least one marriage. They’re satisfying in their perfect resolutions in the same way of 101 Dalmations or Lady and the Tramp, if you’re not a stickler for realism.
Basically, I grew up loving happy endings even though I also knew that tragedy was possible (I had an infant brother who passed away when I was five, so I knew viscerally how people could go away and not come back). It wasn’t until college when I started reading short stories and other challenging fiction that I started getting suspicious of happy endings and began to write stories that followed people into trouble and heartbreak. I guess the fairy tale stories in Girl Power are, in part, my way of prying those iconic female figures from their neat containers to see if there’s something essentially human about them that the familiar stories missed or got wrong. It doesn’t exactly make sense, but even as I was cultivating my Disney collection, I always had a deep affection for “behind the scenes” stories like Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, which tells the “true” story of Oz’s “Wicked” Witch of the West, and mockumentaries like This is Spinal Tap or Waiting for Guffman that present two versions of the truth at the same time: the world as the characters understand it and the world as the viewer understands it. In fiction, I sometimes try to do the same thing with reader expectations by acknowledging both what might be familiar about a certain character or scenario (like allowing Cinderella to marry her prince), and also peeking “backstage” to subvert those expectations (by, for instance, following Cinderella past her “happy ever after” to uncover a source of unexpected conflict in a way that reminds us how they were virtual strangers on their wedding day).
I don’t know if that really answers your question. Basically, the older I get the more skeptical I’ve become of the easy binaries in the neutered fairy tales I grew up with. Some of the stories in Girl Power are the result of giving myself permission to explore the big, impossible dreams of ordinary people alongside the more familiar and down-to-earth struggles of idealized, Disney-fied heroines.
Robert Olen Butler, who at Florida State University teaches his famed class which can be characterized as a short-short form class, in his praise for your book says, “Katie Cortese is a young writer who has mastered a very modern literary form.” I agree wholeheartedly, and so I am curious about what goes into making a short-short story? My observation, as both a reader and an editor at both the Mid-American Review and The Southeast Review, is that some short-shorts at the end of the piece have something like a twist, for lack of a better word, ending. What is your opinion on the craft that goes into writing a short-short?
One of the wonderful things about flash fiction is there are so many ways to approach it. Some pieces toe the boundary with prose poetry and don’t have even a semblance of a narrative arc, while other pieces use all the techniques of fiction (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution; characters; dialogue; plot; setting; etc.) but compress them. Some flash pieces present pure action without reflection or back story, while others break the cardinal workshop rule and are simply “told” instead of “shown.” My short-short stories tend to include the markers of fiction rather than rely primarily on language or voice or rhythm, but I love to read all the variations of the form.
I see what you mean about flash fiction building up to a sort of twist or reversal at the end, and there’s something to that, but one thing I worry about avoiding in my own work is an end that feels like a punchline. I want the last few sentences of a short to resonate with something else in the piece and I want those lines to take into account some significant change on the part of the main character or the object of his or her attention or just the general situation. The change doesn’t have to be huge or involve tragedy or fireworks or death or falling in love—though any of those things might find fertile ground in flash fiction—but I want to be able to measure the way something in the story has shifted from beginning to end, even if it’s just a few inches to the right or left. Often because of the intense compression of short-short stories, that movement isn’t visible until the final lines.
How long did it take for this collection to come together from drafting the first stories to having it come out now? I noticed that in the acknowledgements you thank the places these stories were published in but also mention that some of these were published in versions that did not make it in the book. Can you talk about one or two stories that were published in a new avatar in the book and why you made the choice of updating or revising those stories?
The first flash piece that I wrote and published was “Swallowed,” and that story resulted from an assignment in a workshop with T.M. McNally in which he asked us to write “an impossible story.” We had a few words that we were supposed to include in the exercise too, and while I won’t say what those are, they’re all in there. That piece was written in 2004, and published in 2007 in NANO Fiction’s second issue. Before NANO Fiction, I didn’t know of any other journal that was especially partial to flash fiction, and now, almost ten years later, there’s such a healthy and vibrant market for them—it’s really amazing. So even though I didn’t know I was writing a collection then, Girl Power has been eleven years in the making.
As far as stories that appear in other forms, “Faking It” started out around 500 words and got pared down for a contest to about 250. I like the longer version better, though, so that’s the one I put in the book even though if you Googled that story the version that’s online is the streamlined one. What I like about the longer version is there’s room for a few flourishes that don’t directly contribute to the conflict, but do speak to the protagonist’s state of mind. For instance, in the long version she notices halfway through a one-night stand that sweat has dotted her comforter in the shapes of organelles, mitochondria and such, which I think shows the way she’s not actually living in the moment. That fits, I think, with her sense of performing for a camera in the story’s final moments. I had to cut that observation in the shorter version and I always felt it changed the piece significantly, though the events and characters stayed fundamentally the same in both versions.
How long does it take for you to write a short-short story ideally? How much revision goes into polishing up a short-short? Do you think because of the short structure of these stories there is added pressure for the language within these pieces to be exceptional? That is something I find to be consistent in short-shorts that are brilliant, as are the stories in your collection.
It might only take somewhere from twenty minutes to two hours to write the first draft of a short-short, but once I start tinkering with the language—especially those crucial last lines—I might not feel it’s ready for submission until several months later. I find it useful to write a bunch of shorts in a short period of time—like one a week for three months—and then spend the following three months editing them and sending them out to journals. This is the way I like to work with longer stories too, but the time frame is extended since it can take me weeks to finish a story draft of around 6,000 or so words.
In a longer story, I’ll spend very little time thinking about the plot during the initial composition, but revision is largely comprised of teasing out the story’s logic and focusing on arrangement, the revelation of information, writing new starting points, and resisting my annoying urge to tie up the endings too completely. In a piece of flash fiction, though, I almost never rearrange the plot or order of events once they are down on paper. My revision process is almost entirely playing with language and then reading the piece out loud. I probably read it out loud a hundred times before I’m satisfied, smoothing “knicks” in the sentences—or places where awkward phrasing or word choice causes me to trip. These pieces are meant to be read out loud, in my mind at least, and while I said earlier that I don’t rely on rhythm to drive flash fiction, I guess that wasn’t entirely true. I need characters first, then some significant challenge that forces them to make decisions—often when there aren’t many good options to choose from—and then I need the rhythm and pace of the story to unfurl seamlessly from the first word to the last. If the story doesn’t sound right to me, I don’t send it out even if I can see that it has other strengths.
What are you currently working on? Are you a writer who works on various projects at one time or do you work entirely on one thing?
I have too many projects going right now, which is probably why they’re all progressing at a glacial pace. I have a finished young adult novel that’s out on submission, and another that’s about three-fourths of the way to a finished first draft. I’m working on a historical novel, too, which I started during my doctoral program. It was in its third incarnation before I realized—just a few weeks ago, actually—that I’d taken the wrong angle on it, so I’ll need to rewrite it from scratch. I’m not too upset about it, though, because I think the new version will be stronger and tell the story better than the pages I already have. I have a short story collection that I’m tinkering with, and I’m also trying to put together a little chapbook of twenty flash pieces called Befores & Afters. A handful of them are in the world now, or will be shortly, but that new book as a whole is still far from done.
That’s really it, besides a few essays here and there. I became a mother this year and that’s proven to be something I like exploring in nonfiction. Actually, motherhood is another reason why I’m not getting much finished these days, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The bulk of my fiction is invented and imagined, but some of it is drawn from life, so I’m trying to remember to live instead of working the days away. My son will only be a baby once and he’s changing so fast. I want to be present for each new discovery he makes about the world.
Misha Rai was born in Sonepat, Haryana and brought up in India. She holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University and is currently pursuing her PhD from Florida State University. Her prose has appeared in Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Missouri Review blog. She has work forthcoming in Sonora Review, where she was a finalist for their 2015 essay prize, and Crab Orchard Review. She is also the recipient of the 2015 George M. Harper Award. She is currently at work on her debut novel.