Jessica Treat is the author of Not a Chance: Fictions from FC2. This interview was conducted by Jacklyn Attaway upon the publication of Not A Chance in 2000.
Let me say first of all that I don’t really believe it’s the author’s job to explain these things … The answers ought to be in the work itself. I really believe that. And readers/students of the work can come up with things that the author may have intended but not have been fully conscious of while writing. That said, I’ll try my best to answer these very specific (!) questions … That Marc eats ants, baby aspirin, cardamom, a rose — suggest something of an oral fixation. Children often put things in their mouth without thinking; it’s a way of knowing the world more intimately. That he continues to do so suggests a child-like aspect to himself, as well as a hunger or need that has gone unsatisfied …
The form of “Ants” is very interesting. You arrange it in nine numbered sections, the first and the last dealing with Marc’s childhood and the narrator’s relationship with Marc and the middle sections with Marc’s previous relationships. By the end of section nine, I got a full-circle sense that, as Caroline turns over to look at Marc after noticing the ants, she is waiting to hear him say, “I used to eat ants.” Then we’re back at the beginning with Caroline: “My boyfriend used to eat ants.” I got the sense of Marc’s cycle of relationships being tragically continuous. Was this your intention?
Tragically continuous … no, I don’t think so. That this relationship with Caroline comes full circle in the story, yes. But Marc is still young. One would hope he’d be able to grow, face himself, eventually accept his homosexuality beyond the time described in the story.
Have you ever eaten ants?
No! Never! (unless I accidentally ingested one at some point …)
I noticed that your stories depict American females in exotic settings: St. Germain and Mexico City (“Ants”), Mexico (“Not A Chance” and “Nicaraguan Birds”), and the Yucatan (small section in “The Summer of Zubeyde”). Do you enjoy traveling, and did you place the American female in these settings to create a mood of disorientation and “otherworldliness?” Also, do you use the setting as a foil for the American female characters?
I don’t so much enjoy traveling as I do living outside the US … I was born in Canada, and have lived in Spain, Mexico City, and Paris. As a child I moved around a lot (Vermont, New York State, Connecticut, Massachusetts); my father kept changing jobs. I continued this pattern as a young adult (it seemed the best way to solve problems: just move!) and transferred twice during my college years. On the other hand, I felt very settled for the four years I lived in Mexico City following college, and though less so, for the five after that when I lived in Brooklyn. As for my characters: well, those environments described are ones that I know, and the stories also express the sort of alienation and rootlessness many, particularly young, Americans feel.
Almost all of your narrators and/or characters are driven by obsession, particularly the narrator of “Honda.” Do you think that people in general are driven by different types and degrees of obsession? Or does it just make for an interesting character study?
Are people in general driven by obsession? I don’t know. I just know that my characters are: driven by fantasy, the pull of their imagination, fear and desire. I’ve been told my characters suffer from OCD, depression, schizophrenia; that they teeter on the verge of mental illness. Nowadays there is a name for everything. They seem quite normal to me, if a little too swayed by the strength of their inner, as opposed to outer, lives …
Speaking of obsession, the narrators/characters of some of your stories (particularly “His Sweater,” “Radio Disturbance,” and “Honda”) become so consumed by their obsessions, the boundary lines between reality and dreams begin to blur so much so that we, as readers, want to believe even the most fantastic thoughts of the narrators/characters. For those subscribing to the school of “consider the source,” in writing each story, is it your goal to focus on the perception of the narrator and how she alters the story’s reality?
The story is the narrator’s. The world described is hers (with the exception of “Ants,” where the world described by the narrator belongs to Marc, her lover). You didn’t mention the title story, “Not a Chance.” Ultimately, the story is the unnamed narrator’s, because how can she really ever know exactly what happened to her lost friend? There is no other reality (though there may well be the suggestion of one) but that told by the narrator. Did the narrator actually go into her therapist’s home in “Radio Disturbance”? Or did she just dream/imagine that she did? I’ll let the reader be the judge. And I won’t be disappointed in his or her judgment.
As I was reading your book, I found a couple of narrators from different stories to have similar voices, especially the narrators of “Walking” and “His Sweater” and somewhat the narrators of “Dead End” and “Honda.” Are there any reoccurring narrators of your stories? If not, is there a similar mood/mindset of some of your narrators?
I consider the narrator of “His Sweater” a young cousin, or a younger self, of Melanie in “Honda.” She is younger, more naive, less bitter and worldly, but surely just as alienated and cut off from the bonds of community. “Honda” originally started as three separate short-shorts, and “Walking” was one of them. I was encouraged by my writer-reader friends to keep going with these stories, that perhaps they were all of the same narrator. Ultimately, “Walking” did not seem to belong. Such was the genesis of “Honda,” which grew to twelve “mini-chapters.” I did not consider the young woman of “Dead End” to be the same narrator; she’s young, a city-dweller, and more involved in the world. She’s just very, very angry.
In the story “Radio Disturbance” the narrator is delusional about her relationship with her therapist. She feels that her therapist exists to validate her life and can’t imagine her therapist having a life (husband and children) outside of her office. Is this a comment on the validity of therapy in today’s society?
I consider therapy to be valid. That said, there are so many therapists in practice, and so few really good ones. It’s a very strange relationship: that of therapist and analysand. The patient is incredibly vulnerable, while the therapist is conferred such power … The relationship, in the wrong hands, has the capacity to do enormous damage: when boundaries are not respected; when a patient is encouraged to believe her fantasies (“recovered memories”), etc. The relationship interests me enormously, because it is so very strange. I don’t think it is explored enough in fiction.
In “The Summer of Zubeyde,” is Zubeyde’s father the man that the narrator witnesses the death of?
Absolutely not. Her father is somewhere in Yemen: either dead or lost to her. She most likely never knew him. Her mother might have even been raped. Hence, the shame.
Moving back to your form, “Dead End” is arranged as a threat letter. I found this story to be the most experimental, as far as form, of your collection. Where did you get the inspiration to try this approach?
Originally the story was written as a letter interspersed with narration. In a writer’s group I was in briefly at the time, I was encouraged to drop the narration. I did, and it seemed to work better. Though it still took me a long time to get the “proper sting” in. I love the form of the letter as story. Barthelme has a great one: “The Sandman”; Benjamin Weissman: “Dear Dead Person”; the Catalan writer Quim Monzo: “The Letter.” But I was introduced to these after I’d written my story. It’s a wonderful form for desire and revenge. I had written the same story earlier as a short-short. It came out in my first book, A Robber in the House, and I got my first ever fan-mail as a result of it. Here it is in its entirety:
She imagined shooting him. One shot through the back of his head, right beneath his bald spot. Blood spattered on the carpet, formed a sticky mass, round and red. Or she’d send a bullet through the mail. He’d open the white envelope to find a single bullet nestled in the empty pocket. The one meant for his head. Or she’d leave message on his machine: the sound of a gun going off. He’d come home to his one-room apartment, see the blinking red light, switch on the machine before he turned on the lights. And then he’d hear it: a gunshot ripping though the dark of the apartment. The bullet meant for his head. She felt sure he’d get the message.
The title of your book and one of your stories is “Not A Chance.” I found that not only does the narrator’s friend of “Not A Chance” not have a chance (she lets so many issues, even though she is made uncomfortable by them, slide too easily: the fly on the potatoes, her books that her lover attempts to secretly sell, and her overall relationship with her lover), but almost all of the other characters in the collection also don’t have a chance. They are trapped by their secrets and obsessions, stifling their emotional growth. Is this why you chose the this title for your collection?
Yes. It was the title I’d originally wanted, but a friend, a poet and magazine editor, told me it was much too negative; the collection would never get accepted with that title. So I had my agent shopping it around, as I later did on my own, with a different (tamer) title. And it wasn’t getting taken. So I went to redo things about it: rearrange the order of the stories, take some out, put others in. A new writer-friend who agreed to look at it for me suggested the title, Not a Chance. Of course I knew he was right, since it was what I’d first wanted. FC2 took it with that title, and then had me make a few further changes. All for the good.
Who are the writers that influence you most?
Do you mean influenced (in the past)? Because I’m not sure how much we are influenced once our “writer self” is formed. I think the writers we read as children, and are read to us, are under appreciated as seminal influences. Some of these for me were: Roald Dahl, Rumer Godden, Joan Aiken. As a young adult (when one is still impressionable): Kakfa, Celine, Duras, Dino Buzzati, Anais Nin, Proust. Current favorites: Kazuo Ishiguro, Kenzaburo Oe, J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Harvor, Brian Evenson, Rikki Ducornet.
What are you reading right now?
I’m just starting a book by Josh Russell: Yellow Jack. I recently finished Peter Cameron’s novels: The City of Your Final Destination and Andorra. I loved them — yes, I fell in love with these two novels.
To some extent, are the narrators of your stories extensions/representations of yourself?
Here’s how it works (for me). My characters often begin with some small aspect or quirk of my personality. It is then magnified 100- or 300-fold. Then comes the question: what would it be like to be out in the world if one were like that?
How do you feel about being published through FC2?
It’s been wonderful — in every aspect. From the careful editing of my book, to the proofreading, book design, reviews garnered, book signings and parties … everyone has been such a pleasure to work with. R. M. Berry, Brenda Mills, and Tara Reeser deserve special mention.
What is your best advice for aspiring experimental fiction writers?
Keep writing. Believe in what you do. Don’t give in to market pressures. We need new forms and cross-pollination in writing and the arts.
Can you name some FC2 writers that you enjoy reading?
Sure. But I have to be honest: there are a number I still haven’t read. Ones whose work I have read and enjoyed are: Cris Mazza, Brian Evenson, Jon Baumbach, Peter Spielberg, Susan Sternberg, Lidia Yuknavitch, Kate Bernheimer.
Other than Not A Chance, I’ve heard you’ve written a book called A Robber in the House. Are you working on another book right now?
Well, yes — actually two. But one will be finished long before the other … The first is a collection of short-short stories (a follow-up I guess to A Robber in the House) while the second is a triptych of novellas. As the very short form comes more naturally to me, involves less sweat and agony, the first will be done long before the second.