INTERVIEW WITH REBECCA CURTIS
BY LISA SWANSTROM
One of this past year's pleasures was discovering the work of Rebecca Curtis. It all started when I opened my June 2005 issue of Harper's and read "Summer, with Twins" -- a stunning sucker-punch of a story that made me laugh and weep all at once -- and continued with an RJ-Curtis-fiction fest that led me to excellent pieces by this same author in McSweeney's, The New Yorker, and The Gettysberg Review, among others. Each piece, filled as it was with dark, deadpan humor balanced against fragile, luminous moments of self-awareness and insight, confirmed over and over that Rebecca Curtis is a writer to celebrate.
It is an even greater pleasure, now, to welcome Rebecca to Sunspinner.
Tell us a little about yourself, RJ Curtis. Where are you from? Where are you now?
I grew up in central New Hampshire, which is a very pretty, quiet place. It was a great place to grow up -- near a large lake, and also near some mountains, so easy access to outdoor sports, etc. I think at the time I didn't appreciate the natural beauty, and was bored by the homogeneity, and the tiny size of the town.
Now I live in Brooklyn. It's a great, fun place to live. I like that there are so many other writers (I've heard other writers complain about this, but I think they're half joking; it's nice to have a community). I live near Prospect Park, which makes living in a city seem less so; it's a very large park, so once you get in it, you feel ensconced in nature, or whatnot. There's a four mile loop within the park that makes a great walk-you get to pass a mini-lake, the Botanical Gardens, and Zoo -- it's pretty nice.
One thing I love about your work is the way your characters act and react within their “eccentric” work environments (especially in “Summer, with Twins,” “Hungry Self,” The Alpine Slide”). Was the idea to set these stories in work places a deliberate choice on your part?
I like setting stories at work, when possible, because work adds an element of pressure that can be helpful to fiction -- it adds conflict, potentially, and just the pressure of, well, work. Everyone knows that work can be humiliating, stressful, scary; there's the danger of being fired; of screwing up; the allure of secretly screwing up; the desire to please the boss or move up in the ranks; the desperate need to earn money to pay the bills. Maybe work is not itself the story, but as a backdrop it can highlight, or provide a surface for, the central issue of the story to take place. Also, a central issue in isolation can subsume the story and then the story may feel overly pointed or transparent to a reader. Say, hypothetically, you want to write a story about a mother and daughter who have an emotionally skewed relationship. If you feature the mother and daughter sitting at home all day, talking about their emotionally skewed relationship, the reader 1) quickly gets bored 2) starts to become very aware that the writer is trying to teach them something about mother/daughter relationships. Then the reader reacts against this and says, "Screw you. I don't want to learn about emotionally skewed relationships. I want a story." I guess I think stories need a skeleton to hang their emotional stuff (flesh, ugh) on; lots of different things can provide this skeleton, such as a trip the characters take, a mission they have to accomplish, a mystery they have to solve, a problem (a mundane one, like, as in As I Lay Dying, the problem of how to get mom's body from point A to point B). Work is just a good skeleton because it has so much humiliation built in. And pressure. If you screw up, you're done. If you don't get the check, you're done.
In many of your stories -- but in “Hungry Self” in particular -- you beautifully capture the vulnerability and pain that comes with the transitional time between late adolescence and early adulthood. It's such a complicated and emotionally-laden time to write about -- but also so important! Do you feel particularly drawn to writing about this time of life?
I didn't consciously choose this age. Or even gender. It's just that having been a young woman recently, that's the age/gender I can write about most easily, because it's familiar. So I guess that choice is just cowardice, or laziness.
Your short story “The Wolf at the Door” offers a really interesting moment when the menacing eponymous Wolf at the Door changes briefly into a man: “…tall and thin, his face muscular, but not overly so.” Do you typically include elements of the fantastic in your fiction?
Actually, I do write quite a few weird or fantastical stories, between writing longer more traditional ones. I guess I hope it keeps me loosened up. Plus, it's very fun. You know, you can go wild and crazy, and have anything happen. A lot of the writers I admire, like Julio Cortázar, for example, write fantastical fiction that feels more real than the 'realistic' fiction I also like -- he has a great story, “Bestiary,” in Blow-Up and Other Stories, for example, about a family that keeps a tiger in one room of their very large house, and the family must always be careful to just make sure they know which room the tiger is in, and stay out of that room. I love Kafka; also Blindness, by Jose Saramago, (this won the Nobel for him, I think) is a great novel about a country which experiences a plague of blindness. We begin with the first victim, and see him go blind, and then one by the one the people who happen to have been near him or in contact with him also go blind; and this original cast of victims becomes a family we follow through the horror that ensues. It's wild. Also involves a scary, well-meaning government.
Is the short story your preferred form?
I began as a poet. Got a Masters in English w/ concentration in creative writing (poetry) at NYU from 96-98. Then I started writing very short stories, and moved up to short stories. I do plan/hope to write a novel-also plays. I love plays.
We've had the pleasure of reading several of your short stories in some of the most respected and popular journals in this country (e.g. The New Yorker; Harper's). How does it feel to know that your work is potentially reaching a half a million to a million people at a time?
Flattering, and scary.
We frequently read that the odds of getting an acceptance letter from the likes of The New Yorker these days are dishearteningly slim. Do you have any advice for breaking into these fiercely competitive markets?
I think you have to not be thinking about audience, and publication so much. You have to be having fun, saying "fuck it" and writing what you feel like. This is easier said than done, of course, because most writers do hope to be published, have readers, etc. So it's a mind bend, really. But the best stuff I've done is the stuff I didn't really intend to be anything 'important'. John Gardner, I think, in the Art of Fiction, or something, has a suggestion to write nonsense, or top-of-the-head stuff, in a journal for twenty minutes every day. This was the best suggestion I ever got. It's like how athletes need to stretch, or musicians to practice scales, maybe. The writer is just writing whatever comes to their head, a list of things they're angry about, a dream they had, a ridiculous poem, for twenty minutes without stopping, and without the expectation that anything 'worthwhile' will come out of it, and nothing usually does; but this process helps the writer immensely, or at least it helps me. It frees me up.
How does working with a nationally-distributed magazine such as Harper's differ from working with smaller literary presses? Is the editorial process the same -- from initial submission to publication -- for the most part, or are there substantial differences?
The New Yorker and Harper's are really fabulous, because they have these brilliant fiction editors that are so helpful with stories, and can take a mediocre story and make it into something better. I feel so lucky to have experienced their editorial process, because each time I learned a lot about writing, and had my story greatly improved. They pay careful attention to every detail, from word choice (eliminating accidental or careless word reps) to logical consistency and, especially, clarity. So many times, after going over a story for so long myself, I can no longer see what is clear or unclear. They clean up awkward bits, and point out the places where an extra beat, or an image might be needed; and are also great with trimming unnecessary stuff. And they're so smart about it; not imposing their own ideas on the story, but respecting what the story wants to do, and helping it do it a little more forcefully.
The Journals I've been in have also been great that way, the ones that did edits; most don't, really, I've found. I think they're just too busy; not a large staff, and not a paid staff; it's a labor of love. But I've never really met an editor I didn't like; I mean that all my stories have really improved from the edits they've gotten. The journal edits are just lighter. I guess I just like getting edits--to me its like getting a massage, or a facial or manicure--I can't afford to just go out and get it, but if a story gets placed, it's like Congrats! Your story just won a massage, facial and manicure! This sounds girly. Maybe a better analogy is personal trainer. What story, when trying to get buff, couldn't use a personal trainer?
What are some of your artistic influences?
Kafka, Isaac Babel, Chekhov, I love Marquez' stories, though (I'm stupid for admitting this) his novels kinda wind me. I just read Bel Ami by Maupassant; that's a great social satire, plus just great read; I love that it turns on its head the classic "middle-class women sells herself out, using sex to suck up to rich society and thus corrupting herself" novel. I mean, you have that in Madame Bovary, for example, and in so many other novels; this is the male version. And it's hilarious. Also just read The People of Paper by Salvadore Plascencia; that's a great fantastical first novel & love story. I love my teacher, George Saunders' stories; Murakami's stories, weird & fantastical; anything by Gary Shteyngart or Jamaica Kincaid, both wicked & funny; enjoyed David Bezmozgis' collection, Natasha. Been reading N+1, this hilarious and brilliant political and cultural literary magazine.
What music have you been listening to lately?
Music -- I have bad taste -- listen to whatever's on the radio. If you live in Brooklyn -- I listen to Z100, and "La Calle," a Spanish pop station. Anything that makes me dance around the living room.
Do you have any “writing rituals” to which you adhere -- or are you freewheeling and flexible with your writing habits?
I'd like to have rituals but right now am all over the place because of other obligations. Generally it's a lot of coffee and nicotine gum. (I quit smoking). Oh, I also try to go jogging (previously mentioned park loop) once a day. For some reason I write better when I'm jogging regularly. I think there's some study that found running spurs the right side of the brain. Also, as an ex-smoker, if I don't run, I go nuts.
What was one breakthrough moment that you have had as a writer?
I think the thing with the writing journal, the 20 minutes a day, might have been the break through. I also just learned a lot while getting an MFA at Syracuse University, and in particular while taking classes from George Saunders, Robert O'Connor, and Diane Williams. All brilliant writers and teachers. I was really lucky to be there and to have a chance to learn from them. Also anytime I read a good story it feels like a break though. Even if it's not. It just makes me want to write when I read something good -- I get very excited and inspired and happy.
How do you juggle writing with having to pay the bills?
I'm an assistant professor of English at the University of Kansas. It's a great job, and supports my writing. Meaning, the teaching is inspiring, and the job is deliberately constructed to give me time to write, because that is part of the official expectation. My colleagues are great, very friendly, and the department is wonderful. Also the students at the University of Kansas are a pleasure--very friendly and hardworking. A lot of them are putting themselves through school, and maybe as a result they really value being there.
Does teaching creative writing complement your own creative work?
Do you have any upcoming stories that we should be on the lookout for?
I'm finishing up a collection of short stories. Which has taken a long time, it feels like. I have a story coming out in McSweeney's issue 17. And one in the next issue of NOON.
Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
Not really. Hang in there?
Rebecca Curtis earned an MFA from Syracuse University and an MA in English from NYU. Her work has been widely published in a variety of magazines and literary journals across the nation. She is currently an assistant professor at the University of Kansas. She lives in Brooklyn.
FEATURED WORK AND LINKS
“Someone like Sue.” Forthcoming in Noon, Winter 2005.
“Solicitation.” The Better of McSweeney's 1-10. Penguin Books, 2005.
"Twenty Grand." The New Yorker, Dec. 2005.
“The Sno-Cone Cart.” Forthcoming: McSweeney's, Late Fall 2005.
“To the Interstate.” Conjunctions No. 44 (Spring 2005): 210-216.
“The Dictator was very Pleased,” and “The Government Eggs.” Open City No. 20 (Spring 2005): 143-144.
“Monsters.” Crowd V. 4 No. 2 (Summer 2004): 9-15.
“Blue.” Radical Society: Review of Culture & Politics V. 30 No. 384 (Fall 2003): 63-67.
“Is that You, Helen?” Radical Society: Review of Culture & Politics V. 30 No. 1 (Spring 2003): 61-63.
“Mary & Jenny,” “The Dolphin & The Porpoise,” and “What Doctor?” Reinventingtheworld.com (Spring 2003).
“Jerk Bears,” “President,” and “Whirl.” Both No. 2 (Fall 2002): 98-101; 112; 134-139.
“The Inclination.” Noon No. 3 (Spring 2001): 68-69.
“Ones & Sixes.” The Beloit Fiction Journal V. 14 (Spring 2001): 257.
“Knick, Knack, Paddywhack.” Fence V. 4 No. 1 (Summer 2001): 76-84.
"Alpine Slide." The New Yorker 18 Oct. 2004: 124-146.
"Summer, with Twins." Harper's Magazine, June 2005: 75-80.
“The Wolf at the Door.” Story Quarterly No. 40 (Fall 2004): 88-94.
"Big Bear, California." Harpers Magazine, July 2002: 82-87.
"Hungry Self." What Are You Looking At? Ed. Jonna Jarrell and Ira Kukrungruang. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Books, 2003. 154-167.
"Nurse." The Gettysburg Review Winter 2000: 646-648.