Am I a fattist? Well, occasionally people have read Red Audrey, and come away saying, Yes. She’s a fattist. She hates the fat people. All her characters are beautiful pencils. Rich, beautiful pencils, who say mean things about swamp cows. Jane Elliott is filled with self-loathing. It’s her thing. The novel should have been subtitled: Self-Loathing, A Love Story.
I have two major regrets about Red Audrey. One, it’s overwritten. I can give you cringe-worthy pages. Two, I put two kitchen sinks in because I was worried it would be the only novel I ever wrote. Should I have been more sensitive about body types? Probably.
I wrote Red Audrey at a time when I ate 6 meals a day, and couldn’t hold my weight at 140. Friends, family, and coworkers felt an incessant need to tell me they were worried I had an eating disorder. My boss wanted me to report everything I ate to him daily. Eventually, my husband started fielding these conversations because they were so upsetting. And since childhood, strangers have felt it’s perfectly OK to come up and touch me. I couldn’t write about body image as a whole because I was absorbed with my own. With untangling and deciphering it. I was writing about athletes in their twenties. Granola wild things. I was writing about my experience. And if I’d had more grace and awareness, I couldn’t have told that story about hating myself. Because I hated myself, I wrote a story about love in spite of everything.
She sleeps like a child, with her hand tucked under her face, or her arms thrown overhead. I walked home last night along the main road, watched headlights tear into the dark. It has taken me years to return to this valley. To the familiar trees. To the rushing train.
My dogs were young when I lived here last. And me as well. Young and ill. Maybe I couldn’t remain in this valley and go on telling lies. Dress every morning in a costume. The disappointed bride. I wrote Red Audrey two streets over. Tested dialogue in the park to the south. Dreamed, incessantly, of girls.
Is it home because I have a family this time? Or home because I belong here? I waited until I was sure. That’s the strangest part. I waited for her. For myself. I waited until I was ready.Read More
I’m writing this current manuscript in first person, present tense (I walk). I’ve never written the majority of a novel in present tense before—although the hospital scenes in Red Audrey are in present tense—and for the scholars among you, there’s a dirty tense trick in the last hospital scene.
The weirdest, and most fascinating of my grad school professors railed against present tense as a dangerous fad. He argued that past tense is designed for writing: “Jim biked up the hill. He was biking slowly. He had biked earlier and injured his leg. He had been biking on an injured leg for weeks.” And that readers have learned to recognize shifts in past tense to indicate flashbacks and time shifts. He felt that present tense required distracting tense constructions to indicate time shifts. “I bike up the hill. I am biking slowly. I have biked earlier and injured my leg. I have been biking on an injured leg for weeks.”
Over a page, a chapter, a book, the difference might be more remarkable, but I do think that in present tense, I have to be more conscious about shifting into a past episode so that the reader realizes we’re in the past, and doesn’t read past tense as the present experience of the book out of reader-habit. (Also, I avoid present perfect—“I have biked earlier and injured my leg”—because it’s too jarring, and sounds ugly.)Read More
Did I get sought out because I was a masochist, and they could smell it on me? Or was I the one that sought them? And who do I mean by them?
Last spring, during a free-form discussion of her life and work, Dorothy Allison said it took her a while to learn that the “bottom could run the fuck.” When she said that, I looked around at the rest of the audience, and wondered if that statement kicked them in the belly too. For me, it was a similar revelation to my freshman Lit professor announcing that just because we fantasized about something didn’t necessarily mean that we wanted it to happen.
Maybe you’ve never wondered if you’re depraved, but, god I have. When I turned “Red Audrey and the Roping” in to my fiction workshop, I had to wait a week for the response of my peers. I’d dated several people in the class, and would date more before the end, but there was a palpable shift the night I walked in before our discussion. It was an experience that I’d have again when I was pregnant and my body became a public representation of a private act. The assumption, always, on the part of the reader, has been that I’m writing about myself. That I am Jane.
The most important shift in my thinking about my own sexuality came when I stopped thinking about normal and started thinking about comfort. Am I comfortable with this? Is this OK with me? Or, since sex is power, have I allowed myself to be powerless, or am I being made powerless? How assertive am I?
Where, in short, are my boundaries?
Turns out they’re in different places all the time, and dialogue is the most effective way to make sure they aren’t breached. Is that self-evident? For me, dialogue about boundaries was hard won—sexual boundaries and otherwise. I hope for you, it’s simpler. I hope, you’re one of those people who says, “Of course,” when you’re told that the bottom can run the fuck.
Whatever you test and choose with consenting adults, I want you to live without shame.Read More
When I was nineteen, I began to get it a little: my obsession with vulnerability, and how powerful vulnerability could be. And because I was living in Hawaii with no family, and no supervision, and had money and a fake I.D., I worked my newly discovered power. I hadn’t begun to deal with the shame or the guilt, and I certainly hadn’t started to trace my impulse back into my childhood, or tried to understand its roots or its intensity, I just got laid a lot. Nobody said masochist, and nobody had to. I didn’t even think that word. Not until much later.
Maybe, at times, when I was alone, I might have worried about where my behavior fell on the “normal spectrum.” Did everybody do this? Did everybody need this? But how could I possibly have judged what was normal? I’d been raised by conservative Christians who believed there’d been a Garden of Eden with a scheming snake and a couple of naked suckers. Hell, sometimes I believed it too. I just tried not to dwell on a god who wanted me ignorant, and had a creepy vindictive streak.
In fact, I tried not to consider any of it. The girls, or the boys, the methods, or the bruises, and certainly not the discomfort. I mean, I’d discovered a power hadn’t I? How could I be afraid when I was so powerful?
Just before my twenty-first birthday, I moved back to the mainland, and the grief began. I foreswore women, sex, myself. Some abstentions lasted longer than others. Twenty-three, in a fiction workshop with some deeply talented and intimidating writers, I thought about masochism, and working in the belly of planes at UPS, and the hot Latin professor, and I wrote a short story of bruises and failure and love.
(Let’s call this part one. Clearly I have a lot to say on the subject, and will come to it again. So to speak.)Read More
In college, my roommates and I rented a crazy little house in Kalihi, a suburb of Honolulu, on Oahu. They were all Filipino (except Ina who was Chamorran–though her mother had immigrated to Guam from the Philippines) and taught me to cook lumpia, and roll sushi, and spam musubi (yes, I’m serious) and enjoy shark cake and lomi lomi salmon and pickled onions and any number of exotic dishes. We ate tuna fish mixed with poi, and grilled oysters topped with shoyu and garlic and japalenos. I would fight them for the tako poke and the spicy kim chee. We ate sticky rice with everything.
It’s snowing again today, but that’s not why I miss Hawaii. I miss it most in the summer when I ache for the ocean. For the rough, amnesiac stretch of it. For the beaches, and the volleyball and the dark-skinned women in bikinis. What I miss today is the food. The surprise of sweet and sour. The salty plums and iso peanuts. The pork dumplings and rice cakes and mahi mahi sandwiches. The lure of the fish markets with their bright offerings, laid out behind glass, heads still attached, one dead eye glaring.Read More
1) First, congratulations on a wonderful book. What is your writing process like? Do you work from an outline of ideas or scenes, a roadmap of sorts? Do you let the characters pull you forward through the narrative? (BN)
Thank you. “Red Audrey” started as a short story that I wrote in graduate school. The short story was, in its way, quite complete: four of the five main characters from the book are in the short story, and the Latin and UPS, and the roping and accident are in the short story too. To a certain extent, the short story worked as a guideline for the novel. For the proper writing of the novel, however, I just wrote scenes and put the whole thing together afterward. I would take long hikes and think about place and conversation, and then the characters did all the work once I sat down to write. The characters had their own minds and tones and decided exactly how the novel would play. The writing part was almost improbably easy, the thinking part took years. (JM)
2) Red Audrey and the Roping is full of flashbacks, flash forwards. It is not told in a linear fashion. How did you decide on this style? (BN)
Since I wrote in scenes, I printed all the scenes out, spread them on my bed, and put them together in what seemed like the most accurate timeline. That was the first draft, and it was linear except for the hospital scenes. At that time the novel was divided into three sections: Emily, Nick, and Audrey. My first readers thought that Audrey came into the book much too late. In my first re-write I worked to get Audrey into the hospital scenes, and that single revision altered the form of the novel. That revision allowed me to jump through time at will because all the characters had been introduced from the beginning, and I could make reference to them throughout the narrative rather than allocating them a rigid place in the chronology. The time hops create another layer of tension to the narrative, and they are textually representative of Jane’s nonlinear thinking as a result of the accident. (JM)
3) Describe what this past year has been like, winning the Bywater Prize, getting your book in print. (BN)
This year has been an absolute thrill. I have been little-kid excited through the entire process. I wrote the short story ten years ago, and even after it sprawled into a novel, I wasn’t completely convinced it would ever become a book. Bywater changed all of that for me. (JM)
4) What was the editing process like? Did you enjoy it? (BN)
The editing process was fascinating. I hate punctuation; it’s superfluous so often. We had a lot of fun putting quotes around all the dialogue and adding a million commas. More than anything, my editor, Kelly Smith, made me more mindful of inconsistencies in the text, and overuse of certain words. She also restrained me in those areas where I was playing a bit too hard with the language. The best part of the process was her conviction for the story. (JM)
5) Any advice for aspiring writers? (BN)
Write a blog. I find a blog to be the best exercise for keeping my writing concise and innovative. It is amazing how much exposure a blog will bring for a writer. (JM)
6) What’s next after Red Audrey? (BN)
I have another novel in the works. So far it’s darkish, but I think I may have finally stumbled upon a way to edge the dark with humor. Without humor I don’t think there’s much point to writing. Red Audrey never would have worked without Grey. Once I found Grey, the story became funnier and more human. Otherwise you’re just Thomas Hardy, and no one needs that much grim. (JM)
Bett Norris, born and raised in Alabama a few short miles from the place where Harper Lee did the same, followed in the footsteps of her idol and inspiration by attending the University of Alabama, somehow managing to graduate with a degree in history and a burning desire to write. Real life intruded, but many years later, her first novel, Miss McGhee, a runnerup for the first annual Bywater prize for fiction, was published, a story set in the south during the decades of the civil rights movement.
Norris continues to write using the South as source material and setting. “Almost everybody’s got a story about crazy relatives, mad dogs, good trucks, fishing, deer hunting, drinking, cussing, fighting, football, running around barefoot in the summers, better times in the past, and where the bootleggers live.”
She now lives in Florida with her partner, and gets up every morning at an insanely early hour to write.