nelly reifler was born in Poughkeepsie, NY and split her childhood between Europe, Manhattan, and rural New York State. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and teaches there now. She previously taught at the Pratt Institute. Her debut novel, Elect H. Mouse State Judge, was released in August 2013 and her short fiction can be found in publications such as McSweeney’s, Post Road, Lucky Peach, jubilat, Failbetter, The Barcelona Review, among others. In the spring of 2014, she will join the faculty of Western Michigan University as a visiting writer.
Front Porch: Many of the stories in your collection See Through, and much of your new novel Elect H. Mouse State Judge, tackle dark and profoundly grown-up events—kidnapping, religious fanaticism, divorce, family dissolution—through the perspective of children. What draws you to using a child-voice?
Nelly Reifler: I have been drawn to writing about children, their inner lives and their interactions with the world, because there’s less static between them and their thoughts and feelings: they feel what they feel, and they’ll say what they think. It’s heartbreaking when children become complicated by the awareness that the whole world doesn’t operate this way, and I think that’s the moment that I was looking at in some of those See Through stories. I say it’s heartbreaking, but of course it’s also a necessary and inevitable part of growing up.
I’m not sure I’ve used a child’s voice or childlike voice all that often in my short stories, though. I’ve certainly tried to find narrators who can transfer—maybe even translate—the inner lives of my characters who are children. Sometimes these narrators might be the child, now grownup and looking back; sometimes they’re empathic, third person narrators. On the other hand, I did intend the voice of Elect H. Mouse State Judge’s narrator to sound like a child imitating a grownup. And then—I hope!—it gradually changes into a voice that really is more adult, or at least that has adult perspective.
I have a new collection of stories here on my computer, and as I consider your question, I’m noticing that none of them are about children the same way that my old stories were. Many of the stories in See Through were written when I was in my twenties—newly an adult. I still remember the moment when I was around thirty or thirty-two, and I noticed that when I’d see a parent walking down the street with a child, I no longer identified with the child. Instead, it was the parent with whom I felt connected.
FP: Bodies and sexuality, particularly the sort which might be considered “deviant” or “immoral,” seem to be central to your work. In H. Mouse, several scenes between Barbie and Ken caused me to feel like a voyeur. The stories in See Through contain prostitution, pedophilia, promiscuity and the reactions to it within rape culture, adultery, and one protagonist feeling like he was born in the wrong body. Why do you feel the physical realities of bodies play such a strong role in your writing?
NR: The physical realities of bodies are with all of us all the time; we are our bodies. It’s impossible for me to write about a character without taking their physical being into strong consideration. The truth about what’s happening with a person (or squirrel or sentient doll) may be found in the body. Our brains, nervous systems, and sexual desires are all parts of our bodies.
I’m not sure if this awareness of my characters’ bodies is totally interlocked with the themes you’re talking about here—sexuality that might be considered “deviant” or “immoral.” I think that rather than my trying to actively push those things to the forefront while I’m writing a story, what happens is they sometimes pop into view, and I know it would be dishonest for me to avoid them.
But certainly, growing up in the far West Village a couple blocks south of the meat markets, pre-AIDS, meant that sexuality, desire, and sex itself—outside of the model of standard heterosexual coupledom—were in front of me all the time. Male prostitutes in lingerie walked up and down the street outside of the building where I lived with my mother, and many of the major, gay sex clubs were within a few blocks of my home. The heartbreaking and terrifying experience of seeing so many neighbors and grownup friends waste away and die prematurely, and of seeing a whole neighborhood get altered by a virus, is in my work as much as the sex, though.
Then, when I was in my twenties, I had several friends who worked in what is called the sex industry during a time that it was considered kind of cool and empowering. I observed how the work changed them, and it troubled me. I mean, all jobs alter us when we’ve been doing them for a while; teaching for a dozen years has affected my personality. It was just a kind of gut sense—from the changes in how they talked and moved, to how they regarded their bodies—that these girls I knew were not being empowered in the long run. I didn’t judge them (or their clients) at all; it was just a process that I was curious about digging into in stories.
But I don’t know about the rape culture; I really believe that one must have empathy and compassion for all of one’s characters, even the ones who do bad things, maybe especially the morally complex or misguided ones. I was just rereading Sam Ligon’s collection Drift and Swerve, so it’s on my mind right now—and this is something that is always there in those stories: the author’s love and respect for all of his characters, even while they’re lying to each other, betraying each other. Strangling and stabbing and even raping people. It’s complicated, is what I mean. The most punishing aspects of our culture involve people who are capable of love, who do love.
FP: As research for a story involving abduction, you once had your friends tie you up, blindfold you, lock you in the trunk of their car, and drive around for an afternoon. I’m very interested to hear more about your research methods. Do you feel that fiction involving fantastic or fabulist elements has a greater duty to creating an atmosphere of realism?
NR: I don’t distinguish between fiction that involves what might be labeled fabulist or fantastic elements and that which people perceive as realistic. The art and literature that we consider realistic simply presents constructed worlds that we, collectively, have become accustomed to seeing represented. Think about what our daily lives involve right now and what it would look like to see them accurately represented in fiction. It’s just not possible: all narrative—nonfiction, too, of course—is a kind of metaphor. And things like getting blindfolded and thrown in trunks of cars happen to real people every day, all over the world.
Every story creates its own contained world. I don’t know if fiction has any duties, but I know that to work, a story’s world has to be convincing, and that readers must feel that the author is utterly confident in that world.
Because my characters’ bodily experiences tend to drive my stories, I often wind up doing things that resemble acting research more than traditional literary research. I spend a lot of time living as if I’m in my characters’ bodies. I might limp, scuttle, pant, hop. Sometimes I lie on the floor and just imagine I’m made in some other form.
FP: You are a parent to a small child and a teacher in addition to being a writer. How do you balance the workload? Tell us a bit about your writing process.
NR: For the first year of my son’s life, commissioned pieces were the only thing that kept me writing. Even then, I didn’t write much. And I didn’t really care; I was a bit of a physical wreck, it was a long, hard, broke year, and sleep and nourishment were all that really mattered to me. How do I balance the workload now? I am lucky enough to have a great mate who’s also a writer—Jonathan Dixon—and who understands that I need to write, that it’s my work. We’re both teaching part time. And we have good childcare and five incredibly supportive, energetic parents who are also doting grandparents. Four of the five are artists, so they understand, too—and they all help out in different ways. These days, actually, having a kid has made me more focused. There’s very little time for procrastination and bullshit doubts.