Issue 35, Final Fringe

An Interview with Stacey Richter

by Lizzie Stark Issue 4 07.08.2006

Stacey Richter is the author of My Date with Satan, a collection of stories. Her work has been widely anthologized and has won many prizes, including the National Magazine Award. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.

As a long-time fan of her collection My Date with Satan, it was thrilling to correspond with Richter about the craft of writing and her ideological outlook.  Our emails have been excerpted below.

Elizabeth Stark: I think that some of your stories, “The Beauty Treatment,” “Twin Study,” and “When to Use,” contain socio-political indictments of materialism and gender roles.  Likewise, your presence in the anthology Naked suggests a political bent.  Do you consider yourself a political writer? Why or why not?

Stacey Richter:  I don’t think of myself as a political writer because I don’t read or think deeply about political issues; they frustrate me and make me sad. But the world I live in affects me, and here in Arizona where I’ve lived for most of my life the landscape has changed more dramatically than probably anywhere else in the U.S. It’s heartbreaking and also fascinating to see my world change like that, and it’s the emotional parts of that experience that end up in my writing. I guess I do feel a mission to document the paving over of the southwest, the way some writers have wanted to document the changes of New York City. I also think that the relentless blading of beautiful desert in order to build miles and miles of identical pink houses is a good metaphor.

As for materialism and gender roles—I do have this terrible feeling that if half the population is completely obsessed with what they look like and how fat they are and what things they can buy to be more beautiful and therefore deserve love, it means that the other half of the population has the opportunity to jump ahead. For instance, I feel like I could have learned a foreign language with the time I’ve spent plucking my eyebrows.

The other day, I was walking by the university and I saw two beautiful 20 year old girls crossing the street and felt envious for a moment.  Then I thought:  Oh wait, they think they’re fat.  They’re walking around thinking about what’s wrong with them.  Maybe they weren’t, but there are plenty of girls who are and it’s a long, slow subtraction of happiness.

ES: Do you consider yourself a feminist?  Why or why not?

SR: Yes, I do consider myself a feminist. I don’t actively go out there and advocate for the women and girls of the world because I’m complacent and lazy, but I’m angry that women are trivialized in American culture, thrown away and exploited in Chinese culture, and erased in some Arab cultures; I’m too terrified to even think about African cultures. I don’t try to push feminism into my work, but I certainly notice that my point of view pops up. First, I’m very interested in writing about women. I used to try to put more male protagonists in my work but I don’t really try anymore, I think I have plenty to say about the ladies. I’ve noticed that I’m really into creating pretty characters. Beauty is a fascinating commodity, a source of power, a weird underminer of the soul, and strangely draining, in my opinion. I have a tendency to write about beautiful girls who end up having more soul or pluck than anyone gives them credit for, including themselves, or else beautiful girls who have lost their purpose and drifted into a life propped up by men. I think beauty is consumed by capitalism in such a natural, complete way that no one notices or comments anymore–which sucks. What a great theme for literature! I don’t understand why there were only two women writers on that disheartening New York Times Best Book of the Last 25 Years list. It seems like women have so much more to write about than men, in certain ways, such personal and political themes conjoined.

ES:  “Rats Eat Cats” and “The Minimalist” are both about experimental art.  What attracted you to this subject?  Do you consider yourself an experimental artist?

SR:  I studied Art History in college and so I’ve been examining ideas about art for a long time. I actually think that humans have a biological urge to make art. I don’t have any scientific evidence for this but I sense it in myself (and I don’t think it’s some baby-producing urge gone haywire).

I don’t really consider myself an experimental artist, though. It’s so fun to jettison conventional ideas of form and narrative that it’s hard to resist, and I love reading experimental-ish stuff, especially short fiction. I love to be surprised, I love funniness. But, finally, I don’t think of myself as an experimental writer because I don’t have anything to add to the evolution of literary forms. I know this because I’m far more interested in storytelling and emotional truths and all that crap. I don’t have any problem with literary form as it is, either.  And a part of me believes that experimenting is a way (at least for me) to avoid working harder as a writer. It’s a lot easier to write a list, say, than to put together a seamless narrative. But I so enjoy reading seamless narratives!

I try to watch myself and not be “experimental” because it’s easier than writing transitions.

ES: How have you developed the great, loose, slangy tone that comes across in many of your stories?

SR:  The slangy tone is just how I think, though I find I’m writing less that way lately. It’s a good thing, I believe, to write in a style that’s close to one’s thinking style. That makes it feel natural and fun and like the work is part of oneself, which is sort of the point.

ES: I noticed that all but two of the stories in My Date with Satan are written from the first person. What calls to you about first person stories, and what have you learned from writing them? Why first person, not third?

SR: I find the first person easy—much easier than 3rd. All sorts of point of view problems are eliminated with 1st person. Also, there’s automatically one character in every scene, which lends a lot of cohesiveness. I’m also interested in consciousness and how people explain themselves to themselves—often falsely—which is something that naturally evolves for me out of the first person. A lot of people are good self-deceptors, and I’m fascinated by that.

Lately, I write more in the 3rd person, because it gives me a chance to write scenes that don’t include the first person character all the time. For novel writing, this helps if I want a bigger canvas. I actually really like to read things in the 3rd person, but I had to teach myself how to do it over a long period of time. It’s getting more natural for me. I think, though, that I’m always going to have more of a knack for 1st person. Again, it has to do with how my thinking/brain works.

ES:  How have you transitioned from writing short stories to novel writing?  Is it simply an extension of short story writing?  Or is it is a paradigmatic shift in the way you think?

SR:  Writing novels is totally different than writing stories. The great thing about short stories is that they’re so short that I don’t need a plan or an outline. I can hold the shape in my head. But novels require structure, and therefore planning and probably an outline at some point. Writing outlines is a terrible experience of desperation and pain. But without one, events don’t happen in the right order, or I kill all the characters off halfway through the book and am left with only furniture.

ES:  How difficult was it for you to break into print?

SR: It was hard. I was a couple of years out of graduate school for writing and discouraged. I remember being really encouraged that I published a poem in a little magazine. That kept me going for a year or so.

ES: If “you can’t become a writer for the big bucks”, why did/do you want to write?  What are the rewards for writing?

SR:  Oh, you know, the same as they are for you. Everyone wants to make something beautiful out of what they think and feel, or at least give it a shot.

ES:  What are your writing habits like?  Do you keep a notebook, and if so, what kind? Do you write every day?  How do you generate ideas for stories?

SR:  I don’t have very consistent writing habits. Theoretically I write everyday. What actually happens is that there’s some balance between sloth, procrastination, and guilt that keeps me writing most days. I’m a finisher of things, though, so eventually things get finished.

I keep a reading notebook and some reading charts where I keep track of what I’ve read, what I think of it, and especially of what I like in books. This has been really great. Just having a list of what I like helps me generate ideas for stories. Realizing how much I like serial killers, dinosaurs, tunnels, short paragraphs, and kittens helps me write stories full of these things.

ES: What writers have influenced you?  What do you like to read?

SR: Writers that have influenced me include Franz Kafka, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, John Cheever, George Saunders, Mary Gaitskill, and Kathy Acker.

I like to make reading programs for myself. A while ago I read Fallen Women. Last summer I read Contemporary Fiction That My Mother’s Friends Kept Recommending to Me. Now I’m reading Giant Men of the Mid-20th Century: Bellow, Roth, Updike, Salinger, and so on. Though I’ve only read Herzog so far.

ES: Did you know that your doppelganger is a priest at the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan?

SR: And my yard cat (who belongs to someone else) is named Lizzie. But for the longest time I thought it was Lindsay.

ES: Thanks so much for typing me!

Lizzie Stark

Lizzie Stark

Editor-in-Chief

Lizzie Stark is a founding editor of Fringe, and the author of Leaving Mundania (Chicago Review Press, 2012), a narrative nonfiction book about the subculture of live-action role-playing, or larp. Her freelance journalism and writing has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, io9, The Daily Beast, and elsewhere. Her next book, Pandora’s DNA: How the breast cancer gene changed everything is due out in 2014.  She blogs at LizzieStark.com.