Our fiction co-editor Patrick Brownson recently had this exchange with Amanda Rodriguez, our Issue #25 featured fiction author. Here’s what she had to say about her love of speculative fiction, her development as a writer, and the inspiration for her story “The Tall House.”
What inspired you to write this piece?
Poet Cathy Smith Bowers was a teacher of mine at Queens University in Charlotte where I got my MFA. In her lovely southern accent, she told us how all our work springs forth from “the abiding image.” That has always stuck with me, and “The Tall House” was born from the abiding image of young girls smearing the pixie dust of butterflies on their eyelids. The story and world grew up around that image of brutal feminine innocence.
What do you hope readers take away from it?
I hope my story will simply make readers think and feel. Like with my favorite pieces of science fiction, I sought to create a world that reveals truths about our own. I hope that, even in this strange world of Tall Houses and Buicks and girls with flower names, readers could see themselves and versions of some of our own customs. I hope that readers recognize those parallels and reflect upon our own culture and the part each of us plays within that culture.
“The Tall House” is largely about interpersonal dynamics within the female gender, yet you chose to tell the story through the lens of a male narrator. Why did you make this choice, and how do you think the narrator’s perspective influences the telling of the story?
It was important to give readers an entrenched view of this world. Unlike the female members of The Tall House, our male narrator isn’t in a process of questioning and trying to force a shift in the culture. This way, the reader empathizes with him to a degree and becomes somewhat complicit. I wanted to show that even good, loving men can be misogynists if they don’t know any other way of being.
There is a certain amount of surrealism present in this story – while the world you’ve created seems mostly similar to ours, there are aspects that break the laws of physics and that establish this as some sort of alternate reality. Why did you decide to give an otherwise realistic portrayal of the world these tinges of the surreal? How did you strike the right balance between realism and fantasy?
I’ve long been a student and writer of speculative fiction. As a Cuban American, the Latin American tradition of magical realism holds a lot of value for me. The practice of cracking open and rewriting reality is a very powerful way to resist, rise up against, and reclaim oppressive narratives. In a way, those elements of the magical or surreal in “The Tall House” lay bare our world, along with its faults and antiquated systems of gender-based power. As far as striking the right balance, I go with my gut on that one. If a piece of magic gives me butterflies in my belly, I want to include it because my own physical reaction signifies that it’s compelling and exciting.
You raised a fair amount of questions concerning the conflict between the feminine and the masculine in “The Tall House”. What compelled you to tackle that? Do you feel like this is a fundamentally political story, at heart, or is it just a human story?
As an intersectional feminist, gender oppression is something I’m always seeking to expose and dissect, but there’s also that famous saying, “The personal is political.” At its heart, this is a coming-of-age story. It’s about the loss inherent in growing up and about how sometimes the loss is greater than the gain of staying in a safe, stable system. It’s about human frailty, breaking faith with sisters, and unhealable wounds.
What are you working on now? What form does it take (short story, novel, essay, etc.) and what is it about?
Right now I’m experimenting with poetry and flash fiction. I have long been fascinated with the deep psychological truths that can be found in fairy tales, so I love reinventing and reimagining them. I’m also learning a lot about space and astronomy. The concepts of that complex science that I manage to understand filter into my work as themes and imagery.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received? Did this advice apply to the construction of this story?
As an undergrad, I was guilty of “adjectivitis.” I was in love with English Renaissance, Romantic, and Victorian era writing with all the long, flowy, dramatic language. I was told to simplify, simplify, simplify. It took years, but once I finally took that advice to heart, I was able to pack my sentences with dense meaning instead of dense words. One of the greatest compliments I received as an MFA candidate was from a mentor of mine, Pinckney Benedict: “You’re an excellent stylist, a master of the stout and serviceable phrase.” His comment was proof to me that I’d come a long way in developing my craft.
I absolutely applied this advice to “The Tall House.” In a short story, each word must be of value and must build the narrative. I tried to weed out any unnecessary descriptions or scenes so that everything was absolutely essential.
Could you describe your writing process, and how you approach revisions and self-editing?
First, I’m struck with my abiding image. I let that marinade until it develops into a scene, a theme, a plot. I do a lot of pre-writing in my head, jotting down notes or lines every so often. When I finally sit down to write, I usually have a relatively full draft developed in my mind that’s ready to be put to paper. I refine language, sequence, and other details as I write that first draft. Grad school taught me A LOT about revision, so I am happy to say that I can be rather brutal in my revisions; I’m not shy about cutting things out or scrapping the first draft if I wrote it in third person and suddenly realized it should be in first person.
I’m trying to get better at beginning to write sooner in the development process and allowing myself to get it all out before I begin to edit and revise. That shift in process is challenging for me, but I suspect it could also be productive and freeing.
What is the first story you remember writing?
This is embarrassing! I wrote a short story about brutalizing my younger brother in response to his constant use of the phrase “you want a piece of me.” In the story, I literally took a piece of him. In my defense, we were both very young. I devoured horror novels as a pre-teen, so my reading definitely influenced my earliest stories.
What writers have been important to your development as a writer?
So many! Jeanette Winterson, Angela Carter, Gabriel García Márquez, Kelly Link, Margaret Atwood, Shakespeare, Julia Alvarez, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, Dashiell Hammett, Ursula K. Le Guin, and so many others. I love some of them for their world-building, their language, or their social themes, and others I love for the mood they create, the dark beauty of their stories, or their bravery as authors.
Because this publication grew out of a writer’s workshop, we always like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?
One of my worst workshop experiences centered on a rape scene that I had written. The scene occurs between a husband and wife, and the abuse was so subtle, pervasive, and insidious that my readers didn’t even recognize it as a rape. I’m sure the scene needed revision, but we’re so used to seeing a certain kind of graphic assault on TV that what I’d written didn’t even register as a violation. I was really disheartened that, in order to convey sexual assault, I might have to be untrue to the traumatic experiences of many people. I put the story on the shelf after that. It’s been a good ten years now, and with the rise of conversations about rape culture, consent, and concepts like gaslighting, I think that scene would have greater dramatic impact now.
What’s your favorite children’s book?
Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always. It’s more of a middle grade book, but it’s deliciously dark and full of magic. As a child of the 80s, I loved the scary, unsanitized stories best, where the fantastical is woven into life itself.
What is your ideal creative weather?
All weather can be ripe for creativity if there is that stillness inside. If my mind can be quiet enough to take in quiet snow, steady rain, riotous blossoms, or the smell of autumn leaves, then all of it can be food for inspiration.