Dangerous Women: A Conversation with Jen Fawkes
Jen Fawkes’s debut collection, Mannequin and Wife, is a paean to the dark wonders of the imagination. All twenty-two stories are to some degree speculative, and several borrow from other traditions, including folktales and detective stories. A dizzying array of lengths, subjects, tones, time periods, settings, and points of view appears in the book. Many of these stories reverse or play with stereotypical ideas of women, or focus on, as Fawkes calls them, “dangerous women.”
Fawkes, who lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, has published stories in One Story, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, Best Small Fictions, and elsewhere. Her second collection, Tales the Devil Told Me, winner of the 2020 Press 53 fiction prize, is due out next May.
Rachel Swearingen: The first story in Mannequin and Wife, “Sometimes, They Kill Each Other” is such a curious tale. How did the story come about, and what made you choose to tell it in the first-person plural point of view? Why did you choose it to open the collection?
Jen Fawkes: “Sometimes, They Kill Each Other” is the first successful story I managed to write. I started with the idea of the dueling businessmen, and I tried situating POV in one businessman, then another, then a boss, then a secretary. I was embarking on my sixth or seventh from-scratch rewrite when the opening line—“We’re worried about Misty”—came to me in a flash. I then wrote the current version, told from the POV of the office steno pool, in one sitting. I had, of course, been dealing with the situation unconsciously (my unconscious is a far better writer than I), but finding the POV unlocked all the rest.
As for the story’s positioning in the book, I hope the “we” ushers in the reader while giving them a preview of what’s to come: Stories that take risks and defy expectations. Stories that highlight the difficulty and joy of connection. Stories that ask questions that concern us all. Stories about dangerous women.
RS: “Come Back, Rita” begins as a sort of homage to hardboiled detective stories, but also invokes Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson. What was your drafting process like for this story?
JF: When I wrote “Come Back, Rita,” I was studying different iterations of Frankenstein for a critical paper. I decided to try my hand at a story that would initially read like fairly straight-ahead noir, but would then shift into a commentary on the making of monsters. The idea that I will make unexpected shifts while writing is always a conscious one, but because I do not outline, how and when those shifts occur is necessarily organic, arising from the piece itself. The central idea in “Come Back, Rita”—that family, friends, coworkers “shape” us—pushes against the notion that we each have an “authentic” self of our own making. This may be my work in a nutshell: the pushing aside of veils, the revelation of things we already know but have been unable, or unwilling, to recognize.
RS: The women in Mannequin and Wife are often based on classic stereotypes of women from earlier eras of literature, but then reversed in surprising ways. Tell us your thoughts on writing women characters.
JF: For a long time, I strove to write “genderless” fiction. The notion that women write one way and men write another upset me. It still does, but I’ve also been forced to admit that even if we wish to occupy a “neutral” space, we cannot. We are not neutral animals. We make no neutral spaces. And when I look at my work now, I see that I was always grappling with womanhood. Early on, I think I shied away from focusing on female characters because we’re so damned complicated. Apologies to any dudes reading this, but men are just easier to figure out. It takes a lot of patience to write women.
I began to see things differently when I shifted my focus from the immutability of the female position—that of second-class citizen—to the potential advantages of such positioning. When direct action is unavailable, one has two choices: do nothing, or learn to operate indirectly. I can now see the sort of indirection employed by women (and other marginalized peoples) as a specific sort of power. A glorious, fascinating, awe-inspiring, terrifying, world-shaking power. My novel-in-progress, A Young Lady’s Guide to World Domination, explores these ideas.
We are not neutral animals. We make no neutral spaces.
RS: You don’t shy away from dark, violent, or sexual scenes and descriptions in these stories. At times I was affected quite viscerally, especially in “Victoria,” a story about a disturbed taxidermist and a queen mole rat. Have you always had an interest in these kinds of stories?
The short answer is yes. I’ve always been a fan of the odd, the eerie, the macabre. As a girl I owned a recording of Vincent Price reading Edgar Allan Poe stories. But more specifically: I think my initial urge to delve into our darkness resulted from my desire to push back against traditionally “feminine” subjects. Our most-loved narratives force us to confront the idea that beauty and brutality are not mutually exclusive, but it only occurred to me recently that the place where many such narratives intersect is at the female human body. Perhaps female storytellers are, in fact, quite uniquely qualified to plumb the depths of the psyche, as well as the soul. This is less about revenge or “flipping the script” than it is about a re-centering of desire and/or purpose, or a re-imagining of POV.
I think the reading public’s fascination with writers like Shirley Jackson, Miranda July, and Carmen Maria Machado stems at least in part from this. We aren’t shocked to see women mining the darkness. We’re thrilled by it.
RS: I see the influence of so many earlier periods of literature here. Could you describe your reading life?
JF: My mother was an insatiable reader, and in order to get me to shut up, she often gave me wildly inappropriate reading material. This is how I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Chronicles of a Death Foretold, and A Spy in the House of Love before I was ten. I read Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales cover to cover, and for a time dragged that large book everywhere. I had wonderful English teachers and literature professors. I can fall deeply into any well-written book, but what I really love is work that surprises me. I don’t want my suspicions confirmed so much as I want the top of my head blown off. Though I appreciate quiet work, I just love narrative propulsion. I’m currently reading The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks, You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South, and Let Me Out Here, by Emily Pease. I recently read The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams and The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter.
RS: “Rebirth of the Big Top” has one of my favorite lines: “Making love to the Elephant Girl was like going to bed with a belt sander.” Tell me a bit about its origins.
JF: “Rebirth of the Big Top” has an interesting origin story! The Southern Review put out a call for “Americana” stories. This was not long after I’d completed my MFA, and I was floundering a bit. I wrote “Rebirth” as an homage to the US of A. Carnival sideshows, road trips, drive-in movies—what could be more American? The story did not make the cut at TSR, but a couple of years later, it did end up nearly winning The Iowa Review fiction prize, being published by TIR, and being nominated for a Pushcart. So I call that a win. But I’ve never tried writing to a theme since.
Regarding old movies: I’m something of a movie maniac. I adore many international films and directors, but I love the particularly American strains of cinematic storytelling: detective stories, police procedurals, westerns, science fiction, melodrama.
RS: I’m stunned by the number of perspectives and subjects you entertain. I sense that you write by ear, hearing your characters or narrators. What tends to trigger new stories for you?
JF: It varies. “Well-built Men, 18 to 30, Who Would Like to Be Eaten by Me,” for instance, is the title of an actual online personal ad placed by a middle-aged German cannibal in the year 2000. A young Berliner answered the ad and was later discovered in pieces inside the cannibal’s freezer. As soon as I learned of these circumstances, I knew I would (at least attempt to) write a short piece using the ad’s text as a title. In general, I am far more likely to be triggered by a situation or character(s) than an image.
“Writing by ear” is probably a good way to describe my process, though I don’t consciously hear voices. Perhaps a workable analog is that of channeling—if I open myself up properly, I become a conduit thought which my characters can speak. Apologies; normally I’m not this metaphysical.
RS: On your website, you mention that you’ve been a waitress, a tax preparer, a bartender, a museum interpreter, a cleaning woman, and a college professor. How much does that previous life experience come into your stories?
JF: My fiction is definitely influenced by my working life. I got my first job at fifteen, and throughout my twenties, I generally held three jobs at once. This was a matter of financial necessity, but it also provided me with a mixture of discipline and flexibility that aids me greatly today, as a fiction writer. My wide-ranging work life introduced me to an array of lifestyles, attitudes, and beliefs. It probably also influenced the variety and movement I crave in what I read, as well as what I write.
Growing up, I worked (in a volunteer capacity) at a children’s theatre, so the theatrical aspects of “Call Me Dixon” were indeed influenced by personal experience. Actors—those who pretend to be other people for a living—fascinate me endlessly. I’m also fairly obsessed with the performative aspects of our daily lives.
RS: Speaking of past experiences, could you tell us a little about your upbringing and what led you to begin writing?
JF: My parents split when I was four. My mother raised me and my sister single-handedly, and we moved every couple of years, chasing various dreams and notions, living always on the cusp of financial ruin. My sister Anna—my best friend and constant companion—died at eighteen (I was sixteen). This destroyed my mother, whose dream was to be a writer. She wrote and published stories in True Romance magazine when I was a child, and she wrote at least one full-length novel (Savage Destiny). In my earliest memories of her, she is always reading. On her bed, at the table, on the couch, on the floor. My mother introduced me to literature, and to the notion of “being a writer,” but I didn’t start writing until I was thirty. I wrote in isolation for a couple of years, took community writing classes, got an MFA, and then a PhD, and that brings us up to the present.
RS: Now that you have finished two story collections, what have you learned that wished you had known before you started?
JF: My second story collection, Tales the Devil Told Me, was my MFA thesis project. It’s a planned, thematically linked book in which each piece re-imagines a familiar story, centering on its “villain” rather than its hero. I wrote that book in two years, and it hasn’t changed much in a decade. The stories in Mannequin and Wife, on the other hand, were written over an eleven-year period. Some during my MFA, some after, some during my PhD, some since. Having a theme in mind can be helpful; it enabled me to produce a pretty solid book over a fairly brief period, within the confines of my MFA.
Some advice for story writers: ignore the concept of “audience” for as long as possible. We all need a time, early on, when we write for ourselves alone.
Ignore the concept of “audience” for as long as possible. We all need a time, early on, when we write for ourselves alone.
RS: You have a second collection coming out next year with Press 53. Do you consider yourself prolific? What is your writing routine like?
JF: If what you mean by prolific is that I’ve written thousands of pages the world will never see, then I am indeed quite prolific! At thirty, I put a proverbial gun to my own head and gave myself over to writing fiction entirely (to the detriment of those around me, my personal life, you name it). I have no children, and I did not marry until last December, when I was forty-five. For a long time, my daily routine went something like this: rise at 5 or 6 a.m., write until you want to scream, go for a run/bike ride/workout, come home, shower, eat, write until you want to scream, watch a movie, go to bed. Today, I’m lucky to get two hours of writing time, and I miss it (though it still makes me scream).
RS: What’s on the horizon for you? Will you continue to write short stories?
JF: I love writing short stories. I wish I were writing one right now! But as every fictioneer is told repeatedly, if one wants to publish books, one must write novels. Because I don’t “draft” in a traditional sense (my stories are written start to finish with very little revision), I’m still working out how to grapple with a really long-form narrative, one I cannot hold in my head all at once. I’ve written six (or seven) novels that will never see the light of day (yikes, I know). But I think I recently found a likely approach—separating strands and working on them individually, rather than doggedly moving from start to finish like a dray horse or a Roomba.
Right now I’m overhauling a novel (mentioned above). It’s a work of speculative historical feminist fiction (I hope that’s a thing), set partly in Nashville in 1863, and partly in ancient Greece. If all goes to plan, I hope to knock some socks off with this book. Or at least lift an eyebrow or two.
Jen Fawkes is the author of Mannequin and Wife: Stories (LSU Press, Sept. 2020), and the forthcoming Tales the Devil Told Me (Press 53, May 2021), winner of the 2020 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in One Story, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, Best Short Fiction, and other venues. She is the winner of numerous prizes, including the 2019 Pinch Award in Fiction and the 2019 John Gardner Memorial Fiction Prize from Harpur Palate. She lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, with her husband and several imaginary friends.
Rachel Swearingen is the author of How to Walk on Water and Other Stories (New American Press, 2020). Her work has appeared in VICE, The Missouri Review, Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of several awards, including the 2018 New American Press Fiction Prize and a 2012 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. She lives in Chicago and teaches at the School of the Art Institute.