Fiction

From Fangirl to Philosopher: Julia Fine on Exploring Feminist Theory through Fairytales and Fiction

Interview conducted by contributing writer Terry Galvan

Julia Fine is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s MFA program. She lives in Chicago with her husband and their son. Her critically acclaimed debut What Should Be Wild was nominated for a 2018 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel and shortlisted for the 2018 Chicago Review of Books Award for Fiction. Her second novel is forthcoming in 2021.

At Logan Square’s New Wave Coffee, Julia Fine simmered with creative energy as she divulged the “behind the scenes” magic backing her critically acclaimed debut, What Should Be Wild. Over cups of herbal tea, she shared her unapologetic passion for literary theory, feminist philosophy, and The Bachelor, and dispensed sound advice for emerging authors.

It’s been about a year since the publication of your debut What Should Be Wild. How have you felt about the reception, the press, and the whole first year of publication?

I still can’t believe it! The Chicago bookselling and literary community has been really supportive, and the professional reviews have been really positive. I feel very lucky to have the debut year that I’ve had.

It’s also been a bit weird. When you’ve been working on one book for such a long time–I’ve been working on this for six and half years—to be at a point where it’s published and you can’t go back and change anything is disorienting. It took me probably a full year to let go of it post-publication.

It’s been wonderful to meet other writers through social media, or traveling, or being paired together for panels and events. I didn’t study creative writing in college, so before I went to grad school I didn’t really have a writing community. Now I’ve got a nice cohort of people who had books come out my year.

You’ve spoken a lot about the value of writing community. Do you have any words of advice or tips for creating good relationships or fostering community?

It helps to be genuine. At heart I am the ultimate fan-girl, I have been ever since I was a child. I’m somebody who says “I’m obsessed with this, and you have to read it or watch it or do it too!” Since it’s always been a part of my personality, it translates well. You can tell if someone reaches out to you and asks for advice or help and hasn’t done the legwork, hasn’t read your book, or doesn’t know who you are.

It helps to be an authentic fan, to champion other writers’ work, and go to other writers’ events. Even if it’s someone you only tangentially know, go to their event! It means so much to be a body in the room.

I got my MFA at Columbia College Chicago and I had made friends and found mentors there as well. A great thing about Chicago is that’s it’s super easy to reach out to impressive people who live here and build genuine relationships. I’m sure in New York people have genuine relationships, too, but it feels easier here. People in the community are here for you, and they want to help.

That’s my biggest piece of advice. Find work that you’re really into, and let the author know, and let other people know. It’ll genuinely turn into “networking.” If you try too hard to network, people will see through it.

Great advice for us writer folks.

Most writers are just as awkward and weird as you are. If it feels awkward and weird, it’s not you being awkward and weird, it’s just two awkward people that haven’t connected quite yet. That’s something to keep in mind.

You mentioned that you really loved Audrey Niffeneger’s work as a young person, and wound up going to Columbia to work with her as a professor.

Audrey has had a lot of success and is insanely talented in all of these different fields. She’s very cerebral, and it can feel intimidating before you get to know her.

But she’s a very warm, good first reader. She’s not prescriptive at all, she does what you’re supposed to do as a mentor—asks a lot of question in the vein of, “Have you thought about this aspect of things?” Working with her was really lovely.

There are so many weird hoops you jump through in publishing that it was super helpful to have mentors to talk me through the whole process. Other mentors from my MFA program, like Nami Mun and her husband Augustus Rose who teaches at U Chicago, walked me through these things you don’t really think about when you’re working on a manuscript. For example, “Here’s what it means when an agent makes an offer, here’s what you should consider when talking to publishers. And this is what it looks like when you actually get an advance, in terms of taxes and budgeting.” They were key in making it sustainable.

You have your own business team.

Seriously. I got an offer and was like “Nami can I call you?” And she said “of course.”

Most MFAs focus on producing short stories, and typically a writer’s first book out after an MFA is a short story anthology. You were able to build a novel during your MFA and release it soon after. Is Columbia unique in having space for novel work?

No, I was just really stubborn student. When I was given an assignment, I would just write a part of What Should Be Wild that fit with the assignment. Some of my professors thought it was funny, and others were like, “This is not the assignment.” Overall though, people were supportive. They understood that I’m an adult who invested time and money, and this is what I wanted to be doing. They weren’t going to slap me on the wrist.

It sounds like you took advantage of it really well.

Momentum is important. What Should Be Wild turned out to be my thesis. Then I worked on it for five more months, then queried agents.

I thought the book’s setting was interesting. It was like England, but not England necessarily?

In my head it was England, but there’s no actual place in England where it would make sense. There’s no old growth forests left in England—well, there’s one, but it’s a tourist attraction, and it wouldn’t work for Maisie’s isolated upbringing.

The book needed to be modern because of what I was trying to say about modern girlhood. I used British folklore and British history, but set it in a made-up place. It’s a book about fairytales, and in fairytales you never know where you are. You can sometimes vaguely tell if it’s Western Europe or Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia, and in the novel you can vaguely tell it’s England.

Did you study abroad in England?

I did! I studied abroad in London, but we would take day trips to the countryside.

To creepy forests?

There were no creepy forests, but yes to little villages. I read a lot of British Gothic literature, and even before working on this was a big fan of Rebecca and Wuthering Heights. Those were a big inspiration.

The name of the town is in the book is French. Any hidden meaning there?

Well, initially the town was C-O-E-D-S, Coeds Crossing, which means “tree” in Welsh, but everybody was reading it as “co-ed,” so I wound up changing it. “Hearts Crossing” seemed like a fit.

I definitely took liberties with what these places look like and what histories and folklore I was borrowing from. The mythology is based on James Frazer’s “The Golden Bough.” He’s your old-fashioned anthropologist—he doesn’t keep track of where he’s getting information, assumes things, and makes these vast generalizations. I would never call his work “science” or even “social science,” but it’s fascinating from a narrative perspective especially if you’re trying to write a fantasy novel. Maisie’s father, Peter, is loosely based on that 19th-century folklorist-anthropologist persona.

Peter startled me initially. My degree is in anthropology, and I recognized what he was saying from outdated anthropological theory from the 1940s. How much theory or philosophy are you deliberately putting into it versus “pantsing” it?

With structure I’m 100 percent “pantsing” it. Right away with this book I knew I wanted Maisie to be a metaphor for a young girl coming into womanhood; I also knew I was interested in the history of fairy tales as told by women. Even the ones that are credited to the Grimm Brothers or Charles Perrault were initially stories told by women that men wrote down.

When I was working with Audrey, the book was highly theoretical. I was much more interested in metaphor and language for the sake of language, and less so in plot. I don’t think plot is one of the strengths of this book necessarily. Even the way that it ends, if you’re someone super interested in plot, you probably want it to end on more of a bang, like boom. I was much more interested in the Freudian and Jungian self, and merging different thoughts about identity There’s a lot of theory going on there. Hopefully it’s not so cerebral that you can’t also enjoy the book on a purely narrative level. That had been my struggle ever since I started writing—you need to have things happen, you can’t just describe theory.

I was interested specifically in teenage girls’ sexuality and coming of age, and the way that as a society we’ve decided that being a teenage girl is dangerous and bad and “abstinence only” etc. At the same time, we have all these sexy girls in the movies and big boobs in video games and Lolita as a whole genre. It’s not just modern society—throughout history, this is what being a teenage girl or a young woman has meant.

I’m interested in how you take power back from that without having to explicitly choose a side and commit to a role. I read a great book, Marina Warner’s From The Beast to the Blonde, about fairytales and their storytellers. Half the book is about different women storytellers throughout history, and the other half is about common characters and why the same tropes keep re-appearing throughout cultures. She goes all the way back. Her main thesis, which I definitely took inspiration from, is that women have used storytelling as a way to get political power subtly, without being in actual positions of power.

She talks about how storytelling gives you influence. Say, if you had a young girl heading to an arranged marriage, who’s like “I’m scared to go do this,” you as an older woman, say by 20 to 30 years, can say “I’ve done it, here’s the story of ‘The Beauty and The Beast.’ Yeah, you’re going to get married off, and maybe he seems like this monster, but actually he’s a person with feelings and vulnerabilities.” “Little Red Riding Hood” is another one where it’s obviously like, don’t go off with scary men. They’re moralizing stories giving you guidelines, but also letting you break out of the guidelines. Warner talks about the Queen of Sheba storyteller, the mystic, and then the old wives tales or Disney or Angela Carter.

She also has this chapter about the Oracle at Delphi, who’s just this little girl who has been smoking some weird cave vapors. But what she says influences armies. Through story and the presentation of it—with handmaidens and snakes and this creepy cave—her advice becomes a story. Adding the ritual to it means something, and people listen. Whereas, if you were just someone’s random daughter and you said, “you should send your army that way” they’d just laugh at you. The whole book is me trying to explore that combination of ideas.

Were you a philosophy major?

No, English and Psychology. I was always interested in the contrast of the rule-driven and buttoned-up versus the wild. That’s where a lot of tropes came from, and I reflected those fairytale tropes in the Blakely women. Most of their stories started out as, “what would Little Red Riding Hood look like translated to this time period and these constraints?” I was looking at what makes people distill a story into its components, and what can I add to it to make it a fully rounded narrative.

Emma’s story has elements of Little Red Riding Hood. Imogen is the one who’s like the good wife and mother that suddenly wants more, which is a Cinderella play. Maisie tells these stories that she hears, and I’m interested in the way things get lost, like a game of telephone. Who’s telling it, how is it told, how does hearing a story impact you especially when you hear it as a young girl?

I was really interested in the way girls and women conceive of themselves and tell these stories. It goes back to the whole Marina Warner and female storytellers versus male storytellers and what message you get out of each.

I was fascinated by how the male characters in What Should Be Wild shifted between good guy and villain and back. They weren’t so villainized even though some of them were super bad, and Maisie wound up forgiving them all. Did you have thoughts on that?

In terms of the forgiving, I was trying to channel my teenage self. You’re raised in a world where boys’ opinions really matter, and you’re told that men are in charge and they matter. As a teenager so much of my self-worth was dependent upon what other people projected onto me. When someone’s not treating you well, and even horrifically, it can be hard to get past the version of yourself you became when things were like that.

I’m into fiction as an exercise in empathy. You can find a way to make a person feel and behave like a human even when they’re doing terrible things. In this day and age it’s important to tell stories with nuance where you can forgive people who do bad things, and it doesn’t mean you’re any less of a strong person or character.

Rarely do I get to see a female character getting to kill her abuser, and she still feels bad about killing him. That struck me.

I knew that I wanted a wolf character. That’s who Rafe is, charming and suddenly turns on you. The book looks at this vacillation between trusting no one and trusting everyone, and how dangerous it is when you’re not given the tools to make good decisions or make good judgements on people. I’ve heard people say, “I cannot believe she would go with him,” but she’s been locked in a house her whole life. She’s had no chance to learn about people’s motivations, so she just doesn’t know.

It’s like the abortion conversation— are you going to provide people with sex ed and resources to make decisions that don’t lead to this outcome, or are you just going to be pissed off when someone makes a decision after they weren’t given the resources to do anything else?

The germ of the idea for this book came from a case in Texas in 2013, where a woman in Texas was pregnant and braindead. It was a lawsuit about who was in charge of the nonviable fetus. Just the whole idea that women’s bodies are not our own—it’s both because men are in awe of them and scared of them.

I liked how you did that, and that was very clear in the book. Her power over life and death made me immediately thought of the abortion thing because that’s what it is—women’s bodies have power over life and death, and men are scared and want to control them.

It’s the question of, can you help somebody use their power responsibly, or are you going to do everything you can to take it away? It makes me really mad.

I wanted to make it very clear too that in the part with Maisie’s mom almost losing her pregnancy I wasn’t trying to say that cells are people. You could read this as saying life begins at conception and that is not what I’m trying to say. By the time I was in the final edits of this book Trump was already president and the world looked so different, and my vision of the world had been so different. I wanted it to be crystal clear where I stood politically.

You would use figurative language to make a point.

When you write a book and put it out in the world, it’s not yours anymore. It becomes part what you’ve written and part what people project onto it. That can be hard.

You’ve also spoken and taught about “speculative” or “genre” fiction versus “literary” fiction, and how you cross those lines. To me, this is a literary book, that also has magic in it.

That’s exactly where I am too. Part of me wants to say let’s not have any genre definition ever. I think the book has ended up in the hands of some people wanting epic fantasy. While I’m glad to reach that audience, I can totally see how you go into this book and say “this is not what I signed up for.” And I don’t know how you fix that necessarily.

You mentioned in a previous interview that you like any story where the language brings you in.

That’s my definition of literary fiction, when attention is paid to the way things are written. Karen Russell writes speculative and sci-fi, the classic kind where you break it all down as a thought experiment. “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” is amazing and I’m halfway through her new collection, which is too. They’re all role models to me—she and Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, and so on.

The book is nominated for a Bram Stroker Award, which is from the horror community. I never thought that I was writing a horror novel, but when I think about it, I’m like, oh! That is exactly what I wrote, it’s not fantasy, it’s horror.

I laughed when you said you don’t have a plot, because you absolutely have a horror plot.

Genre is so interesting. I thought I was playing with the fairytale genre—trying to talk about the fairytale genre by writing not-quite-a-fairytale. But what I’ve learned since is that genre is all about expectation, so if you’re going to do something that doesn’t cohere then people get really frustrated.

Tana French’s In The Woods—part of her murder mystery series The Dublin Murder Squad—has two plot lines. There are two murders, but only one of them gets solved. Some people hate it, because it didn’t resolve all the mysteries. But the reason I loved it was because it didn’t resolve all the mysteries. It’s just a matter of what are you expecting, and how do you feel when your expectations are not met. I often feel great when my expectations are not met in a book.

I can’t give an interview these days without talking about Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. It’s a book that has three separate parts that cohere at the end, but you’re left wondering, “Did what I think happened actually happen?” I love that, but some people get frustrated..

Tell me about the second novel!

I was still in the final round of edits of What Should Be Wild when my son was born. Between my newborn and the editing, I wound up feeling really lonely.

I literally brought my eight-month-old to coffee to meet up with Crystal Hana Kim. She was Chicago-based but she’s now back in New York where she grew up. (Her book If you Leave Me is about a woman in the aftermath of the Korean War, a refugee from the north who has to make decisions based on her changing world. It’s beautifully written and really good!)

I ended up meeting Crystal for coffee with my baby in tow, picking her brain. Things like that meant I wound up building a writerly community before I even built a community of other moms. I was so worried that having a kid meant that I wouldn’t be able to go down this road professionally, or it would be detrimental somehow, but it ended up working out in a really positive way.

My new project is a postpartum poltergeist story about a woman who has a baby and is either being haunted by the ghost of Margaret Wise-Brown and her lover, or experiencing postpartum psychosis.

Oh, wow.

Again, it’s like, “what am I interested in? Let’s slam it together.” Margaret Wise-Brown was a children’s book author from the 1940s who’s best known for Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny. Her lover’s claim to fame was being married to John Barrymore, and she was a poet and socialite in her day.

The novel came about because I was writing honestly about new motherhood. I had not read anything, or talked to anyone, that prepared me for the vast shift in identity it was to become a mother. You can know theoretically, but it’s tough. I had a fairly easy pregnancy and labor, and had a fairly easy and healthy kid, but it still was really, really hard.

Several really good books about early motherhood have come out since I started working on my book. Meaghan O’Connell’s book, Now We Have Everything, is brutally honest about how difficult it is to be a new mom. She talks about the things that are taboo in society—like how can you be so selfish? But when you’re a new mom, sometimes you’re going to resent the fact that you have to get up at 3 a.m.

My son, who woke up at 5:15 a.m. this morning, has never been a good sleeper. One of the things the doctor suggested to help him fall asleep more easily was to have a routine where you do the same thing every night—you put on music, you take a bath, and you read a book. And my husband thought I was insane, but I was like it’s gotta be the same book so he knows it’s the goodnight book! So we read Goodnight Moon every day and every nap for like eight months. While I read it over and over and over, I realized it never gets old.

I did some reading and found Aimee Bender’s essay on Goodnight Moon, which rocked my world. You remember how the book goes through all the things in the room and you say goodnight to them? But then you say goodnight out the window to things you haven’t been introduced to yet. In the essay, she describes the philosophical and theoretical shift there, I couldn’t get it out of my head.

So I started to read about Margaret Wise-Brown. She’s the most fascinating woman,, and no one knows about her. She was a rabbit hunter and was bisexual and had this 10 year relationship with this domineering older woman. She had a lot of quirks. She had a cabin in Maine with no electricity and furs everywhere and she cut the legs off her chairs because she wanted everyone to be closer to the ground. She died at 42. You read the book and you think someone’s grandma wrote it, but that’s not the case.

So I’m on this crusade to make Margaret Brown known for what she was, instead of it “Oh this woman who wrote this dumb bunny book for babies.” Which it’s not, it’s this work of art, she’s amazing.

For the new novel, I’m combining all these things—and for some reason my publisher bought the book. [laugh]

Did you pitch it?

No, I sold it on a full draft. I definitely pitched it to my agent first asking, “Am I insane?” And she said, “Yes, but do it.”

The book is about modernism in the vein of Gertrude Stein or Virginia Woolf, and the new school of Here-and-Now children’s literature that took writing for children from “once upon a time there was a princess” to “a fire engine is red and goes beep beep.” Of course, it’s also about new parenthood.

The topics are totally different, but it seems like I’ve found my novel-writing process—and it’s mash-ups. I can talk about theory, which I do in What Should Be Wild, and then hopefully explore it through narrative.

 

Chicago’s complex social landscape inspires guest interviewer Terry Galvan’s writing, from the realistic to the fantastic to the downright horrifying. A former anthropologist and Fulbright grantee, Terry spends nights performing at literary events throughout the city, shopping their novel, and nursing their Catholic guilt with a good deal of whiskey. Follow Terry on Twitter @TerryGalvanChi and terrygalvan.com

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