Jen Fawkes Dixie Knight

If I had to venture a guess as to what sort of reader might enjoy Arkansas native Jen Fawkes’ debut short story collection, “Mannequin and Wife,” I’d bet on someone who had “Black Mirror” in their Netflix history, or maybe some marathon viewings of “The Twilight Zone.” Fawkes’ discrete little worlds are inhabited by contortionists and detectives and anthropomorphous animals, all brought into sharp focus with all the crispness and economy that the short story medium demands of an author. Like those two TV series, too, Fawkes’ work jumps genres and moods like a radio tuner, and toys cleverly with the balance between “real world” mundanity and surreal departures into horror, comedy and magic. We talked with Fawkes ahead of her appearance at Central Arkansas Library System’s Six Bridges Book Festival, where she joins fellow fiction writer Jeffrey Condan in a Zoom talk at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17.

One thing you do really beautifully in this book is to superimpose these fantastic or sometimes magical situations on top of otherwise mundane-seeming lives of characters. Pretty much right away in the book, for example, in “Sometimes They Kill Each Other,” we’re met with this corporate world that bears all these little hallmarks of familiarity, but with some grim protocols. How do you decide, in a story, what parts of the “real” world to keep, and what parts will be a departure, where things are gonna get weird?

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I’ve always been a fan of work that does that very thing, that presents a world that is almost-but-not-quite our world. Our world with a pretty significant twist. I grew up on Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, “The Twilight Zone.” These kinds of things formed me. With those kinds of stories, one of the dangers is taking it too far. All writing is looking for this optimal balance between the familiar and the alien. And as audience members, this is also what we crave — something that comforts us in a way, but that completely turns the familiar on its head. Surprise is the most important part. If a piece of work doesn’t surprise me, I’m not gonna keep reading. … But I also love lots of quiet domestic fiction, and I try to strike a balance. I probably cross the line for a lot of readers out there (like, for instance, my family, who politely say nice things), but I like to think my writing isn’t ever weird for the sake of being weird.  

The particular story you’re talking about — “Sometimes They Kill Each Other” — it started because I was researching dueling, and thinking about the fact that we settled even petty disputes this way. For hundreds of years, mankind, someone would kill someone over something small! And it came to me, this was when I was working on my MFA, it just came to me: Businessmen. What if you had this totally normal sort of business environment and they duel to the death over any kind of insult? … I had no idea what the story would eventually be, whether it would be about communities and women, and how we make them and how we separate ourselves and join ourselves and whether we can know anybody, and all the things the story ended up being about. 

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You also have this sense of playfulness and surprise about giving us clues as to who our narrator is “I was sitting on a toadstool when a businessman landed in the grass beside me,” or with the formal salutation in “Dear Delores Dale.” It’s like the short story presents this challenge, where you have to figure out how to establish the POV swiftly and cleverly. Is this part of why you like this medium? Do you think you’d get bored if you were confined to “live” in one of these particular worlds for a longer narrative, like a novel?

Yeah! The answer is, of course, yes and no. I’ve been writing for 16 years; I started really late in life. Most of the writers that I know were really feeling and thinking about it when they were, like, 18, and I was quite a bit older. But writing is the one thing I’ve found that I love. It’s the reason I’m still on the planet; it’s that important to me. I was a voracious reader growing up, and my mother desperately wanted to be a writer, and she scared me and I didn’t try my hand at it myself until I was 30. But I do love the challenges that short stories present, and I’ve established a lot of ways to deal with the challenges of the short story form. 

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But the novel! If you write fiction, what you’re told from the time you begin is that there’s only one way as a writer of fiction to “make it,” and that is to write a novel. Stories are not saleable. The short story is going the way of the poem, and [short story writers] are not encouraged. Stories were big in the middle of the 20th century, but near the end of the 20th century, the short story as an art form began to, quote, die. But it’s not because people stopped doing it. I believe it has to do with this shift in our attention span, and in our willingness to give time to texts that are not easy, where you’re not spoonfed.

I have two short story collections [“Mannequin and Wife” and “Tales the Devil Told Me”], and I love the short story form, and would keep writing short stories forever if I could, but I’ve been grappling for years with how I, the writer that I am, can write a novel. I can hold a really long story — a 35- or 40-page short story — in my head at one time, but I cannot hold an entire novel. A novel is just too long. And I have to admit that there is a fear for me and for other writers I talk to, that a novel will become boring to the writer. For me, I don’t ever want to have any kind of lull. Keeping the sentences tight and snappy and crisp — you move the reader along that way — and it’s challenging to fill 400 pages with those sorts of sentences. 

You open this book with two quotes one from 10th century writer Sei Shonagon about the way we learn to hate a man who takes no care when leaving the house, and another from Francis Bacon: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” They seemed so incongruous to me at first glance, but you sort of learn to trust their relevance pretty quickly. What made you decide to include them? I mean, are they a sort of warning for the reader, like, “Hey, this is what you’re getting into”?

They are, for sure. A lot of people just ignore those epigraphs, but I love them and I’ve always been interested in the epigraph, how you choose to pave the way into a piece of work. And “warning” is a fair way to characterize the epigraph in general. For this particular book, most of the stories are stories I wrote over an 11- or 12-year period, and they weren’t written, necessarily, to go together. But when I started to compile the book, I saw more and more the ways in which they fit together. Writers, we tend to have these things we revisit over and over and can’t get away from. … The Francis Bacon quote was a no-brainer. I’d had it in reserve for many years, and knew I wanted to use that. That quote is just my beating heart. Beauty that’s just beautiful isn’t surprisingly beautiful. Something strange, something different, something unique is needed for beauty to really stick with me. … [With] the Shonagon quote, I was teaching a creative nonfiction workshop and looking for works for that, and I came across “Hateful Things,” which is a section of her “Pillow Book,” and I knew it was the other part of the epigraph for my book. From where I stand, my work, even though it’s strange and does unusual things, it’s at heart about being a human being. It’s about the darkness, the loneliness and the humor of being alive. The messiness of being of a human being who is inextricably attached to other human beings, whether we like it or not. The two quotes are about strangeness and mundanity. Beauty and humor. Seemingly opposite concepts that in fact are linked quite tightly together if you think about them in the right way.

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One theme that resurges in this book again and again is work, and your characters’ relationship to it, and I noticed that your bio suggests you’ve had a pretty wide range of experiences when it comes to work: that you’ve been “a waitress, a tax preparer, a bartender, a museum interpreter, a cleaning woman and a college professor.” Is there some of your work life in these stories?

Yes. My working life is absolutely represented in these stories, and in every story. I’ve done a good bit of office work, and worked for many years in the restaurant service industry. I don’t write about that directly; everyone working in that industry says, “Oh, I’m gonna write the book about restaurant work.” And something about it is too contained, too claustrophobic … . But restaurant work trains you in doublespeak. It trains you in how to be deceptive, how to be kind while being cruel, how to put someone down and compliment them in the same breath. And about being a chameleon, fitting to other people’s needs. That duality, the ability to be able to say two or three things at the same time, is a great boon to a writer of fiction, I think. Also, working in a restaurant confronted me with people from different walks of life, with different opinions. Conservative people, liberal people. People who hate you, people who want to have sex with you. And you learn to deal with 15 personalities at once and accommodate them all. It’s a very freaky lifestyle to be living. Restaurant work exemplifies how complicated human nature is, and human relationships. And it trained me to be able to see from many different points of view. For me, all good writing comes from a place of questioning. We’re not trying to teach anybody anything. Writing creatively is not about teaching, it is about learning, and writing from any sort of entrenched position sort of ruins the work. 

… Most everyone I know who’s a writer is someone who’s spent most of their life listening and observing other people. If you’re someone who’s always front and center, you’re probably not going to become a writer. I’m someone who literally didn’t speak for the first 15 years of my life. All I did was watch other people and listen to what they said. I feel like I stored up observations and when I started writing at 30, I had such a backlog of material that I had unknowingly been stuffing inside me that I just wrote and wrote and wrote. 

When you say that you didn’t speak for 15 years of your life, do you mean that you were timid, or do you mean it more literally? 

I mean it sort of both ways. I was sort of a non-entity. No one noticed me when I was in a room. It’s funny; I moved away when I went to college at 18 and didn’t return for 23 years, when I moved back to Little Rock because of my mother’s declining health; she has Alzheimer’s. When I see people, particularly my parents’ friends growing up, they say, “I can’t believe you’re the same person.” I had an older sister who was a real force of nature, a force to be reckoned with, and we hung out with other people who did theater, people who liked to be in the spotlight, and I just kind of hung around. I never spoke in classes at all until I was working on my doctorate. Sometimes at the master’s level they would make me talk. I can fake it pretty well, but public speaking is very difficult for me. … According to family lore, I did not speak until I could speak in full sentences as a toddler. My mother’s a pretty good talespinner, so whether or not that’s true, it’s a good story. And I think it’s a fairly decent analog for my emergence as a writer that I waited to open my mouth until I was absolutely sure. 

Another thing I love about the book is that it really gets right up close to characters’ bodies, and the weirdness and messiness of having a body. And often, your characters’ bodies are unusual or sideshow-level-extraordinary (e.g. Beatrice Fleck, Collapsible Connie, Elephant Girl). I’m curious whether you think of this as a sort of signature like, something you consciously home in on. 

No one’s ever asked me that! And it’s not something I have consciously done, but it’s absolutely true. I think it may be because my own body is still an absolute mystery to me, to this day, even more so the older I’ve gotten. The body is one of the two things we all have in common. We’re walking around encased in this meat suitcase thing, and we know so little about it. We know even less about our consciousness, or whatever the hell is animating our bodies. I’m just fascinated. And in literature, and text in general, we tend to only focus on the body one way as the site of sexuality. And sexuality’s huge, don’t get me wrong. But there’s much more to the body that we usually don’t get into. 

I have an older sister who passed away when she was 18 and I was 16. She was morbidly obese, and she died of complications from pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is very dangerous; if the function of the pancreas gets blocked, you have a very short period of time to unblock it, or the pancreas begins to digest itself. And when that happens, there’s almost no way to save someone. It usually happens to people who are older, who are heavy drinkers. But my sister, she was so ashamed of her body that she wouldn’t go to the doctor. She wouldn’t let anyone see her, even my mother and I, after a point. And her fear, because she wouldn’t let anyone look at her, we didn’t know what was happening to her until it was too late to save her. [Pauses.] Sorry  

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Not at all. I’m sorry you lost her, and lost her that way. 

I don’t know if you have siblings, but your siblings, they’re your only real compatriots in this world. I’m always jealous of people who have adult siblings in their lives. Her relationship with her body had a huge impact on me. And of course, there’s my relationship with my body, as a woman. How little we know, even if we want to know. My sister wouldn’t let anyone know, but even if we want to know about our own bodies, we don’t know. It’s one of the deep mysteries of being alive. I’m endlessly drawn to and fascinated by the unknowable. Our bodies and how they work can be known to an extent, but not fully. We’re answer-seeking beings who live in a world without answers.

Yeah, and for me, it’s not even like a communal answer would be good enough. Like, “Oh, science will eventually find this out about the body.” It’s more that I seek out those answers now. I’m a finite being with an expiration date, and I want to know before I go. 

Yeah, and I think as we’ve moved into the modern era, the sense of us as part of a larger collective is weakening and has been, steadily. Technology is separating us from any kind of collective in a way that can only turn our focus more inward. It’s really hard for modern humans to understand how important we are to each other. Everything that’s happening in our political world, they’re all examples of this. I don’t know if I ever see that righting itself, because technology isn’t going to go backwards; it’s only going to go forward. We are less full of large big-picture questions and we’re all full of smaller, more selfish questions.

Yeah. And we’re so freewheeling with creating technology, but not as diligent about creating intentional boundaries for how we want to use it. We just create it, and legislate and regulate later on. 

Yeah. I’m someone who’s kind of put my head in the sand; I’m a Luddite, I’m not a big technology person. But it’s the world we live in. And you can either hide from it, or find some way through it. 

Get Jen Fawkes’ “Mannequin and Wife” here, and register for her conversation at the Six Bridges Book Festival here.