Jen Fawkes on ‘Mannequin and Wife’ and Acknowledging the Power of the Margins

Jen Fawkes’ debut story collection, Mannequin and Wife, is a plunge into imaginative tales that are at once strange and joyful, devastating and humorous, eerie and brilliant. She navigates easily away from the ordinary and into alternate realities, mixing and blending with ease and precision. Whether it is the virgin fourth grade teacher that also writes erotic novelettes and is the world’s strongest woman or a taxidermied naked mole rat named Queen Victoria, the characters and the expertly crafted stories surrounding them will stay with you long after the next full moon.

I recently emailed Jen some questions and talked about how she describes her work, monsters, the supernatural, and the balance between the sacred and profane. 

This is your debut collection of short stories. Putting aside the accolades it has already seen and will receive, can you tell us how you would describe your stories to readers?

Absolutely! The stories in Mannequin and Wife are:

a. Speculative, darkly comic, genre-bending feminist propaganda.

b. Small machines that mine darkness for signs of light.

c. Open secrets.

d. All of the above.

Please tell us a bit about the use of the supernatural/monstrous in your writing. The stories seem to give a physicality to the dark side of human nature while also holding it up to the light for examination.

My work does tend to employ uncanny elements. Some may call it Fabulism, some may call it Magical Realism. I embrace these descriptors; however, I believe that drawing a distinction between my work and “realism” creates a false dichotomy. Anything made by a human consciousness is, by definition, not “real.” Every writer world-builds, whether their world looks like the world outside your window or not. All writing requires the same skill — the creation of an atmosphere that seems tangible, as though it exists somewhere and can be entered, inhabited, experienced. What I’m trying to say is that Madame Bovary and The Handmaid’s Tale are actually the same book. Not really, but they are far more alike than different, far more alike than one may at first glance assume.

As a child, I wanted desperately to witness some sort of magic. My belief that this was possible kept me going. But to date, I’ve never seen a ghost. Never heard voices. Never witnessed a single thing I could not explain. This circumstance fills me, quite frankly, with sorrow. Because in my view, hope resides in the unknown. The more we think we understand, the smaller our world grows, the faster time races forward. It is wonder that keeps us going, wonder than enables us to survive. And I definitely feel that uncanny elements inject wonder, and therefore hope, into the worlds I construct.

Your work addresses the roles of women in our culture by highlighting things like misogyny, objectification, abortion, and motherhood. I particularly love Beatrice Fleck and want to be her. How do you think fiction helps shed light on social issues? 

Fiction can shed light on social issues, but that’s not its primary function. Writing fiction is more about learning than teaching. The problem with directly addressing a specific “issue” in fiction is that you’ll be required to start from an entrenched position, and good fiction can’t be written from such a position. To write fiction well, you must open yourself to all possibilities. Make yourself malleable. Fanaticism, dogmatism, and certainty are the enemies of creativity. Fiction is meant to reveal, not reinforce. So yes, fiction definitely can, and often does, shed light on social issues, but this tends to be a fortuitous side effect rather than a purposeful move, and to arise organically rather than being imposed by an author.

Let’s talk about monsters. For me, your writing addresses the shadow side in all of us. Like Katherine Dunn’s 1989 novel Geek Love, your stories force us to revisit our notions of what is “normal.” Along with surrealism and violence, there is unfailing tenderness (I’m thinking in particular of “Rebirth,” “Insight,” “Breach,” and “Options Counseling”). What effect do you think this juxtaposition of seemingly opposite elements has on a reader?

If you think about it, no concept could exist without its opposite. We could not conceive of light unless we knew darkness. Life would mean nothing if none of us died. Artists have been using juxtaposition to demonstrate this circumstance since forever. So the tenderness, brightness, joy that resides in my work is not there in addition to the violence or the horror or the darkness — it is part of it. Violence and tenderness, darkness and brightness, sorrow and joy are inexplicably intertwined and couldn’t exist without one another. I think The Facts of Life theme song sums it up pretty nicely: “You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have the facts of life, the facts of life.”

But seriously, a dizzying number of our most beloved narratives juxtapose beauty and brutality, which is often embodied in one or more “monsters” — King Kong and Satan, Nurse Ratched and Edward Scissorhands, Ursula the Sea Witch and the inhabitants of Omelas. Though we’ve been reminded again and again that the “monsters” we fear are, in fact, us (or at least parts of us) this bears repeating, if only to discourage othering. Because people are the same everywhere. We are each capable of anything. Recognizing this cold fact may not make it easier to deal with, but it may prevent us from doing unnecessary harm to others. 

Is there any intention here to upend conventional ideas, whether in terms of familiar stories or modes of thought?

I am of two minds about convention: I love it and I hate it. As consumers, we crave experiences that are familiar and at the same time brand-new. An impossibly tall order! But art — all art — is automatically pushing back against convention. Art answers the questions posed by the art that proceeded it, and so on and so on cyclically.

Also: I believe that women are uniquely situated to grapple with the monstrous. As characters (and let’s face it, as real-life beings) we’ve historically been relegated to the role of damsel (in distress). There’s a hero, there’s a monster, and there’s us. But what if the hero is also the monster? What if the damsel is also the hero? Or the monster? I’m so thrilled that today, female authors are increasingly addressing the dark and disturbing, the grotesque and the violent. Laura van den Berg, Roxane Gay, Karen Russell, Sarah Rose Etter, Amber Sparks, Kellie Wells, Kelly Link, Lucy Corin, Sarah Anne Strickley, Clare Beams, Anne Valente, Bess Winter, Aimee Bender, Branda Peynado, and Carman Maria Machado (just to name a few) are mining the darkness in marvelous ways. These authors aren’t “flipping the script” so much as acknowledging the power of the margins. We already know the person standing in the spotlight; let’s take a look at the people in the wings. The people who make everything possible.

Can you speak to the craft of the short story? Take us inside your mind (maybe just a peek) and speak to who or what inspires you and where you go with that inspiration? And from there how you hone that story line with craft into a finished piece? 

My stories begin with a situation or a character(s), almost never an image. I do not know if this is inborn or has to do with experience. “Iphigenia in Baltimore,” for instance, started with the idea of a virgin who writes pornography. Circumstances of my own life, and things I was reading and/or viewing crept in — she should be a teacher of young children, she should be trying (and failing) to have an affair with an older man. I do not outline, so my stories grow organically. Anything might send them in a new direction. I do believe that nailing down POV early is needed; so much stems from POV. But for me, and as difficult as this has been to accept, there is no formula, there is no shortcut. There is plenty of screaming and sobbing and bleeding. My stories have been described as fever dreams, and I think that’s an apt characterization. They do tend to possess me until I write them out of my system. 

Most of your stories are set in the South. Would you identify yourself as a Southern writer? What does that mean, anyway?

I’ve never had a strong sense of identity. Whether this is a personal failing or can be attributed to the itinerant nature of my life remains to be seen (or not). Growing up in the South, I never fit in, but when I fled the region, I found that I didn’t fit in anywhere. I’ve now spent more of my life in the South than not in the South, and I do love so much about it — its oppressive heat, its placid pacing. So yes, I am a Southern Writer. People are shaped by other people, but also by settings, circumstances, chance meetings, and though my personal beliefs often do not align with the beliefs of (some of) my fellow Southerners, I’ve now been inhaling and absorbing the American South for so long that I am most assuredly part of it, and it is most assuredly part of me. 

As for what regionalism really means, in my estimation, not much. I’ve lived in many places, and what I’ve found is that every place inhabited by people is the same as every other place inhabited by people. We’re all doing the same things: loving, arguing, talking about food and traffic and pets, grieving, dying.

Who are your favorite writers and what effect have they had on your writing life?

To quote Dr. Willard B. Gatewood Jr.: I am a bird in this world in that my reading tastes range far and wide. Among my favorite writers are Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Herman Melville, Toni Morrison, Philip K. Dick, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Muriel Spark, Vladimir Nabokov, Italo Calvino, William Shakespeare, and Virginia Woolf. I gravitate toward work that is odd, self-conscious, tragicomic, challenging, and surprising, and reading the work of these writers (and so many others) has taught me everything, namely: how to begin to think about writing the kind of work I love to read. 

Your book is coming out during a pandemic. What lessons have you learned about the publishing process that are particular to this strange time?

This is my first book, so I don’t have much to compare the launch process to. From other authors, I’ve gleaned that the loss of face-to-face interaction may be the biggest hit book promotion is currently taking. Though we write our books in isolation, events like readings, signings, literary conferences and festivals are the life-blood of book promotion. Booksellers and literary organizations are stepping up big-time right now, in terms of moving events online, but even so, this is a rocky time in the world of book promotion.

Has the pandemic altered your writing habits or impacted your process?

I’ve spent much of my life in the self-imposed isolation of the writer, so I’m no doubt less impacted by the pandemic than many. But there is one way in which quarantine is wreaking havoc on my writing process: I often go to coffee shops to write, especially when working on a long project. At the moment, in addition to promoting Mannequin and Wife and editing my next book Tales the Devil Told Me, I am desperately trying to revise a novel and am beyond sick of staring at these four walls.

You have another book coming out in May of 2021. Tell us about it.

My next book, Tales the Devil Told Me, is a thematically linked story collection in which each tale re-centers a familiar story around its “villain.” The pieces work in various ways — some imagine a new portion of a villain’s life, some remove the villain from their original environment and plunk them down elsewhere (the story “As You Can Imagine, This Makes Dating Difficult,” for instance, is told from the POV of a plastic surgeon who dates Medusa). This book won the 2020 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, will be published in May of 2021, and should be available for pre-order a few months prior. Tales the Devil Told Me was my MFA thesis project, so I wrote the book over a two-year period, and aside from re-ordering the stories, it hasn’t changed terribly in the ten years (yikes) that have passed since I finished it. 

How are you promoting Mannequin and Wife, and what can I share with readers about where to find you and the book?

Thanks for asking! On Wednesday September 2 at 6:00 p.m. CST (7:00 p.m. EST), Wordsworth Books and Co. will host a virtual launch for Mannequin and Wife, in which I will chat with the fabulous Kevin Brockmeier. Then on September 10, I’ll participate in a multi-writer virtual reading for Readings on the Pike. On Saturday October 17, I’ll appear on a virtual panel with fiction writer Jeffrey Condran at the Six Bridges Book Festival, sponsored by the Central Arkansas Library System. And on Sunday, October 18, the stellar Malaprops Bookstore will host a virtual event in which I will chat with North Carolina author A.K. Benninghofen about Mannequin and Wife

I can be found on Twitter at @fawkesontherun, Instagram at @ladyjfawkes, and FB at @jenfawkesauthor, and on my website, jenfawkes.com.

I currently have a piece titled “What to Read When You Suspect That Time Is Not a Line” up at The Rumpus, and on Monday August 31, The Rumpus will run an excerpt from Mannequin and Wife. And on Sept. 25, Lit Hub will run another excerpt from the book.

FICTION
Mannequin and Wife
By Jen Fawkes
LSU Press
Published September 2, 2020