From Scene II of Barbara Guest’s play, The Lady’s Choice
Christian: You like only myth,
And so you would go riding,
Greensleeves and all
To where love’s hiding.
Antoinette: I like you.
Christian: Lady in the heavy manner
Of kings, you do not please.
Antoinette: Am I not pretty?
Christian: Pretty a dash, but not
To my tasting.
Antoinette: And do I not please?
Christian: You please yourself.
Antoinette: You rock me.
Christian: You rock all foundations.
You are almost an earthquake.
Antoinette: Your name?
Antoinette: Than you’ve some charity.
Christian: Enough to lend.
Antoinette: Spend it on me.
I am obsessed with well-written dialog; I find it to be one of the most intriguing aspects of a story. Here Guest serves us her characters’ attributes with little explanation needed. Antoinette is some version of a privileged debutant, and Christian is some version of a shining nobility who Antoinette thinks she has fallen for without even knowing his name (so it’s also clear Antoinette is severely desperate). Remarkably, these are assumptions Guest leads us to without having to write much at all.
Today I am going to be featuring an interview with two fabulous fiction writers, Selah Saterstom and Elizabeth Frankie Rollins (who I will refer to as Frankie). They both speak about each other’s writing as operating not from what is explicitly written, but instead from what is implied within the writing. For example, from Selah’s 2007 book, The Meat and Spirit Plan (Coffee House Press):
For my response essay I begin with the sentence: There are worse things than enduring sadness. The teacher reads it out loud. I shoot this girl Bitch Lisa a look like: fuck you, I’m deep (pg. 67).
Implication: Narrator- 1, Bitch Lisa- 0.
And this is an excerpt from the beginning of Frankie’s Origin, a novel in installments, where a husband and his pregnant wife are venturing off to settle an island:
Paramon spoke saying, “You look pained. Are you alright?” He rested the oars against his chest, mopped his forehead with his handkerchief, which was soiled with two days’ rowing. His eyes, despite lack of sleep, surprised her with their shine.
“Darling,” she said smiling, pulling herself up a little in the boat, straightening her damp skirts at her feet. “I was only thinking of tea in china cups.”
He blinked and winced.
“No! No reproach, Paramon. I was only making fun of myself. Not complaining. Just trying to make light of my homesickness." (From Chapter One.)
Implication: the woman’s miserable.
We, as readers, are often drawn into characters and scenes by what we can assume about the person, or the situation. It's really psychological; this way other people's stories can become our own. Selah and Frankie know that. They also win the award for Most Creative Dialog this week. (See Frankie’s answer to: What about your career would be most drastically different if you two hadn’t met?) As you will read, these two clearly display a real, and rare bond, a bond that originated not only from encouragement and inspiration, but also from friendship.
Be careful, like Guest’s Christian, they’re easy to fall for.
Sarah Suzor: How did you meet? And how long have you known each other?
Frankie Rollins: We met in a barn. At grad school. Goddard College’s Haybarn. Selah walked in and I saw her across a room of full of people and folding chairs. She had this great big bright aura all around her. Our eyes met and I smiled and waved to her like I knew her, automatically, instinctively. She waved right back. After the readings, we found each other and introduced ourselves. The only thing strange about any of it was the moment when I realized that I did not, in fact, even know her name.
Saterstrom: I’ve known Frankie for 13 years. 13 has always been a lucky number for me.
We met in Vermont at Goddard College where we were both pursuing MFAs in fiction. Frankie was ahead of me in the program, but I had seen her around: she glowed. I mean that she changed the energy of any room she was in and in a visceral way – such a presence – this was a fact, and in my book she was 100% glorious in every way that ever has mattered.
I wanted to know her and feared knowing her because I already loved her and had so much to say that I felt I couldn’t say a thing if ever a chance presented itself. Then one day it did. What I remember about our first exchange is that she made a joke about the Southern Confederacy and marriage, miraculously, at the same time. Frankie has always been an oracle.
I felt an immediate devotion to Frankie and wanted to, always, speak with her of things that mattered: the jankiness that is so much a part of being human… the charnel grounds: guts, valentines, writing.
SS: What about your career would be most drastically different if you two hadn’t met?
FR: I’d be languishing in the backwaters of my mind. I’d be stumbling in the mud, eating crawfish raw, with only a half-formed language at my disposal.
Saterstrom: I suspect everything. All of the conversations between and through the writing, which contribute to the writing (and at times become the writing): the ways such gaps are laced.
It is impossible to imagine the work (thus the career) without this.
SS: Selah, you and Frankie both write fiction. What drew you to her creative work?
Saterstrom: The work itself, my god! It happens on the nervous system and simultaneously in the heart and mind. It has both an immediacy and a sensuously appointed syntactical logic.
SS: Frankie, what’s most appealing about Selah’s creative work?
FR: Selah’s writing creates physical, mental and emotional spaces. Her use of language and absence of language is profound. What is not said, because of what is said, becomes a loudness in the reading heart. She’s a master at understanding the motives of human sorrow and human gladness, the murk between, and she knows how to tell this.
SS: Frankie, what was your reaction to Selah’s success with her debut novel, The Pink Institution?
FR: I had read this in an early bony incarnation (which I still have, somewhere around here), and then hadn’t seen it as it changed and grew. Time passed. The next thing I knew, I held the finished book in my hands and was startled by its precision and perfection. When I read those first broken sentences – the cracker passage, as I think of it – I am always amazed that she knew to do that. Those spaces make room for the stories, the difficult and strange and human stories, in the rest of the pages.
SS: Selah, what’s the best advice you’ve received from Frankie?
Saterstrom: Not to dim my light: not to apologize for existing or for being fierce and messy and real. To risk everything for my biggest life and best work.
SS: Frankie, what’s the best advice you’ve received from Selah?
FR: Belief in the profound “yes.”
SS: Selah, if Frankie were a rockstar, which one would she be?
Saterstrom: Hardly a shocker: Patinayodolltha.
She’s a little bit Patti Smith, Tina Turner, Yoko Ono, Dolly Parton, and Aretha Franklin.
SS: Frankie, if you were a rockstar, which one would you be?
FR: I’m a small-town punk rock singer, known by the teenagers in the town, and loved, loved, loved, by those fierce and growing souls. Also largely unknown. Also fanatic.
SS: You were both born in the south. How does this influence your work?
FR: We know stories. We know how to tell a story. How to pause. How to add dialogue. How to embellish. How to stop just there. We know how to listen.
Saterstrom: Here I think of the etymology of ‘influence’ – from the Latin, into + fluere – “to flow.” Originally the word had a specific astrological association (the flowing-in of an ethereal fluid said to affect human destiny). In other words, the Mississippi River.
I think every region retains its own charmed specificity. That these particular… textures, humidities, creeping rootstocks, rhizomic intelligences… nuance our language is fascinating and very important.
At the same time, regionalism should never ghettoize the artist. I am sometimes asked if I identify as a “Southern [gothic] writer,” and my intuitive/immediate response has always been: okay, but there are a lot of ways I would identify before that way. For example, before I would identify as a Southern writer I would identify as a woman writer: a writer who works from the complex, somatic site of the multi-valent ladybody-spaceship.
So yes, it does influence (…and if my words could bear-through the scent of swamp + magnolia…), but I hope in so much as influence locates me, it also dislocates me, increases bewilderment, and trespasses into other ontological mandala-sites (where I like to – need to – imagine Important World Compassion Summits are always, necessarily happening).
SS: Frankie, if Selah chose a different creative career, which one would she choose?
FR: She would be in the X games. Skateboarding.
SS: Selah, if you had chosen a different creative career, which one would you have chosen?
Saterstrom: Florist, or: Floral Art Installation Artist. I hope, time permitting, to be this, too. I adore flowers and, since childhood (and after ruling out the convent at age 12) meant to be a florist.
SS: Why do you think it’s important to cultivate these “working relationships?”
FR: I know people who write alone, who think they need no community. And that’s what they do. They write alone. They curse the world for not loving them, for not wanting them, for not knowing them. But they never offer themselves. They have somehow missed that writing needs readers and readers need writing, and that writers are readers and readers need writers and writers need to talk about writing and reading and thus we are all in this together and we must nourish one another so that the reading and the writing will go on this way [holding hands forever].
Saterstrom: If you want to be writing 15 years from now, in your darkest hour, that’s why.
SS: Taking it to another level, is there something particularly different about cultivating these working relationships with other women in this industry?
FR: I’m always uncomfortable with gender questions. Honestly, I’m kind of gender blind. I know I shouldn’t be. I know women are less represented in the world, everywhere. And I always have had intimate connections with women writers. And we talk about all the phases of our writing lives. And the living. And the broken parts. And the grassy meadow parts. And what is in the refrigerators. And what mountains we have conquered. And where we have drowned. But I have many male writer friends, too, and we talk about this stuff, too. And I am committed to advocating for their work to be out in the world, too. But yes, maybe they need my advocacy less. But I withhold nothing, if I have something to offer.
Saterstrom: I would refer you to VIDA (and urge you to support VIDA). Copy this into your browser, yes! http://www.vidaweb.org/about-vida/mission.
Also, as Tantra Bensko reminds, “If you Google Experimental Literature, you get Wikipedia’s definition first, which…lists 36 men, and 2 woman….”
After you do all that, here is something to dream of, Bhanu Kapil: “The vibration I feel when I am with other experimental women writers is very strong, and I want to live by this vibration, this joy, even if it’s completely imperceptible to others.”
SS: Selah, if you had to read Frankie’s fortune, what would it be?
Saterstrom: Darling, all things are yours (meanwhile below we know / the visitation is double).
SS: Frankie, if you had to read Selah’s fortune, what would it be?
FR: You are on a great river in a sturdy boat. You have learned the use of the oar. You are unafraid, even though you don’t know this river. You don’t know the blackberry bushes, the angles of banks, the half-trunk of a white tree jutting up. Nonetheless, you are prepared by what has come before. By all that has come before, and there has been much. You are ready for the green lazy swirls and the flurries and the chaotic white capped passages. You are ready for rains to burgeon. You are ready for the thick winter freeze. You are ready for the summer filling of fishes. You are ready for this river. You are ready right now.
a grief scene, and after
They don’t know that she bears it.
She bears it because that’s where it is.
How we have always known.
How many of these
must we endure?
Or a tickle, this was
a popular method.
Rag doll legs, those damn flopping legs
dead now. Dead as hell. Shoes and hat in place
on some forsaken road.
[But we know
this is not how
it is really done.
When it is really done
no spirit across a water moves]
She turns her leg a certain way. It plucks, reminds, chastises.
She continues to say what she was saying.
Under tables she whispers with a second self.
It is true that one must sort through dreadful amounts
of material but when it appears it is accurate
and exciting for everyone.
FIN. Au Fouet. A grief scene.
Those afraid to crack the whip often prove a quick study.
[Huddle under a desk and clutch one’s head
in the event of disaster, all children know this:
there are times I can hardly look at you
because of how much I want you.]
The bruises she’d caused herself, through accident and then neglect.
Pain seconds her.
She limps and this is not as fancy as she had imagined.
What happens in the future?
is the question the fortuneteller hears most.
“Nothing equals you.
Not snakes or poison. “
[Can anybody tell me how to get to 78th & Federal?
I keep trying to get there.
I keep trying but never get there.
I think this is because I might be dead.]
The way the others rush past in the aisles, this simply, this suddenly.
She’s portioned out the pills. She doesn’t like the idea of pills.
But everything existed in a previous time.
Cockroaches running through a discarded bra,
bleeding on a pile of sheets, waiting our turn.
She startles a hawk from the midnight tree and watches it fly away from her.
And after, we were born. And no one who was born that night will ever forget it.
Selah Saterstrom and Frankie Rollins
Here is a link to Frankie’s website.
Here is a link to Selah’s books from Coffee House Press.