You mentioned that your short story “The Metal Bowl” was partly
inspired by the work of the Austrian artist Friedl Kubelka. How so?
My husband bought me a book of Kubelka’s work about six years ago and I
fell in love with it—so much so that I named a character in my first
novel Kubelko Bondy, after her. (At one time, Friedl’s last name was
Kubelka-Bondy.) I did this without asking her, but I eventually tracked
her down and reached out. She was very kind, formidable, and sharp, and
I felt we had a bit of kinship. So I pushed my luck and asked her to
engage in a series of quasi-conceptual Skype interviews. She agreed and
was incredibly generous and open with me. About a year later, she asked
if I would write a story that could serve as the introduction to her new
book of photographs. My usual answer would be “Are you insane?! Do you
have any idea how hard it is to write a good short story?” But I very
much wanted to give Friedl whatever she wanted.
I’d started this story a few years ago, thinking that it would be easy
and I would get the satisfaction of finishing something quickly amid
many long, slow projects. It wasn’t easy at all, and, after many drafts,
I put it away until Friedl asked me for something. Still, despite
feeling that I owed her (big-time), I couldn’t bring myself to
write/finish the story until she offered to give me a photograph in
exchange. I chose one of my favorites: a nude woman standing, facing the
wall, as her husband and child, comfortably seated at the breakfast
table, look calmly and curiously at her naked butt. I wrote the opening
scene of the story with the photo on my desk, finally submitting to the
possibility that this idea might be interesting: a woman, living with a
man and their child, who has both wild and boring thoughts.
The narrator of the story appeared in a porn video when she was
twenty-two and needed money. Since then, she has been interested in sex
only when watching the video or imagining other people watching it. Do
you think the experience was damaging for her? Or did it fuel something
positive in her life?
I think the assumption is always that these experiences are regrettable
and traumatizing. But I never write from a stance like that—there isn’t
some pure, undamaged human type that I think we should all try to
be. I’m always interested to hear how a woman conceives of herself as a
sexual person, because there is really no map for this, only a series of
contradictory and shaming warnings. So whatever any of us comes up with
is going to be wholly unique and perhaps a little monstrous—like a
creature that has survived multiple attacks yet still walks, still
desires. It sounds too extreme and valiant when I spell it out. In the
story, you can tell that this is just ordinary stuff.
On one hand, your character has a huge amount of agency—she married a
man she loves and had a child, she has built a career and is a
self-described workaholic. On the other, she’s somehow frozen at that
particular moment in time, seventeen years ago, and can’t break free of
it. Why this contradiction?
I think this is how life is. It’s not a linear march through time; you
revolve around the same old things as you age and acquire experiences.
You might spin around something for decades and then suddenly see it in
a slightly new way; I think this woman does. That doesn’t allow her to
break free of the event but it lets her invite it in more formally—into
her life as it is now, into her marriage.
She feels so in love with her husband that she wishes she’d met him the
day she was born, and yet, in her mind, they’re at a distance from each
other, trying to tunnel toward some kind of meeting point. Why is there
that gulf between them?
Each couple’s version of intimacy is so fascinating to me. A friend will
tell me about her marriage, and I’ll think, Yikes, they have horrible
communication! They’re going to get divorced! And then I’ll hear about
them at another time and think, Wow, they love each other so much! They
have sex on the bathroom floor! I’ve come to see that it’s all true, and
true of my marriage, too. These wild contradictions are the unique heart
of each couple.
You were concerned that people would read the story as
autobiographical, which it isn’t. Do you often get confused with the
characters you portray, onscreen or on paper? Why do you think that is?
Women writers are often conflated with their narrators—as if we can’t
consciously construct fictional worlds from the ground up and can only
write diary entries. So I think this would be happening anyway, but,
from all reports, the fact that I appeared in my first two feature films
compounds the problem. I generally don’t worry about this too much,
because it seems so obvious to me that the details of my stories and
movies don’t line up with the details of my life. But “The Metal Bowl”
doesn’t have those details. I say that this character works, but I don’t
say if she’s a potato farmer or a therapist or whatever. So she could be
a writer/filmmaker/artist—we don’t know. Plus, the thought of a married
woman writing a story about a marriage gives me a kind of
queasy, embarrassed feeling. What a clichéd waste of time! And therein
lies the challenge: this shame. I’m now remembering that I proudly wrote
a story about a married couple when I was in my twenties—back then, that
was like writing about a potato farmer.
What is it that most draws you into a story, whether you’re writing or
reading it? What do you think a short story should be or do? Do you have
any models—favorite short stories you think everyone should read?
I’m often drawn in by a description of a woman thinking something
familiar that’s never been articulated before, as in Diane Cook’s
“Somebody’s Baby” or Nina Berberova’s “The Tattered Cloak.” Or by a
bracing frankness, never mind if it’s familiar, as in Jamaica Kincaid’s
story “Girl.” I return to Alice Munro a lot because of her agility with
time. She’ll whoosh you to another part of a life in a way that leaves
you gasping, as in “My Mother’s Dream.” Or, sometimes, I just like a
very linear plot, the kind that makes you wonder what will happen next,
like that Frank O’Connor story about a man having an affair and his
sex-loving, unflappable wife.
I suppose that I think a short story should be a little startling, have
some kind of revelation in it. A novel can be more like a life, profound
even if it doesn’t amount to anything; the ride itself is meaningful.
Your first novel, “The First Bad Man,” was
published a couple of years ago. Are you working on another?
This week, I have a large-scale artwork opening in London, commissioned
by Artangel. I’m also getting ready to make my next feature film, which
I began writing after “The First Bad Man.” When I’m done with the movie,
I get to write another novel.