2013 Contest: An Interview with Fiction Winner Mari Christmas
Mari Christmas is pursuing an MFA at the University of Notre Dame. Her fiction has appeared in The Canary Press and Paragraphiti.
Interview by JAKE KINSTLER
Black Warrior Review: While explaining his reasoning for choosing your story as our fiction contest winner, Brain Evenson said “‘Baby’ manages to mesh the otherworldly with the day-to-day in a way that feels at once natural and uncanny.” I couldn’t agree more, so let’s start there: where did this chillingly pedestrian afterlife come from?
Mari Christmas: When I wrote the story I had no intention of writing a story about the afterlife — I was taking a fantastic Lit. course called Monstrous Mothers at the University of Notre Dame with Abby Palko and we were looking at some maternal theory at the beginning of the semester — I believe it was Sara Ruddick’s “Maternal Thinking.” It got me thinking about maternal practice in general. Ruddick said something along the lines that maternal practice is a response to the demands of preservation, growth, and social acceptability — and that at many times these demands work against each other/the environment. So I started thinking, What would happen if a child is no longer alive, or their interests are not growing, or social acceptability goes out the window? Because what would it mean to mother then? In the story, perhaps the sister is the one who brings this baby into the world, but the narrator is the one that brings it into the afterlife — so this doubling of mothers was necessary, and to complicate this idea, these two worlds had to be as close as possible. So I wrote about what I knew, and I was living in South Bend, and I was walking my dog all over and somewhere along the way this afterlife happened. Honestly, I was just very lucky.
BWR: Your writing evokes a sense of place-as-antagonist, whether it’s the indifferent desolation of “Baby” or the relentless drilling of “Houdini.” Does this carry over to your other writing as well? And how does this spatial anxiety relate to the characters’ struggles?
MC: Full disclosure! The drilling in Houdini again was another instance of being at the right place at the right time because our street really was being torn up. I was working on Houdini and just as I arrived at the scene where Houdini emerges from inside the girlfriend’s blouse, the floor just started shaking. It was this total surreal moment because it immediately felt necessary to the story. So the narrator’s street got torn up in that moment as well. I feel that the environments in both stories helped them become fully formed, so it’s quite ironic that they are presented as antagonistic. I owe so much to them.
BWR: Both “Baby” and “Houdini” reject realism for a different sort of genre (New Fabulism or Slipstream or whatever the cool kids are calling it these days.) What are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, and what are some events or influences that steered you toward it?
MC: I started writing science-fiction in high school and was a philosophy major in college so I love working with all possible worlds. When I come up with an idea or a feeling or a person, I try to make them as open to as many possibilities and just go with whatever intuitively feels strongest. I love allegorical stories — I think Etgar Keret continues to be a huge influence on me, he lets feeling take over and these feelings impose themselves on the story-world in such incredible and layered ways. I’m usually devastated after I read one of his stories. He pulls your heart out. I love Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, and Mary Ruefle but I also love William Gass and Carson McCullers — because even if story-worlds are strange or surreal, the feelings always come across as incredibly realistic. That’s a clear consistency. I mean, I’ve experienced all of the feelings I write about and when I write I let them take over the story-world if they need to. That’s about it. That’s why some of my strongest influences tend to be novelists that write fleshy, successful characters. I have a few stories where nothing totally surreal happens, and that feels right to me too.
BWR: How did you become a writer and what do you hope to accomplish by being one?
MC: I started writing when I realized the writers I was reading were having fun. Seriously Tom Robbins? I mean, who can read him without imagining that he clearly loves and enjoys what he is doing? I wanted to experience that. It seemed like a life worth experiencing, even temporarily. Luckily I had a lot of support along the way, especially in the MFA, so that made the process of sucking more bearable. It’s always nice to go through that collectively, to fall on your face in front of everyone and realize there are worse things that can happen. It’s freeing, it’s good to be vulnerable. I hope I am able to keep doing this, however flawed my process or my piece, and with time learn how to best support writing in others and myself — to continue engaging in a kind and supportive community, that would be a legitimate life.
BWR: Who are some contemporary writers you admire?
MC: George Saunders, Lucy Corin, Lydia Davis, Mary Ruefle, Steve Tomasula, Etgar Keret, Laird Hunt, Karen Russell, Anne Lammot, Herman Melville…
BWR: Finally, I have to ask: Is there a story behind your name? (Feel free to ignore this one if you’d like, I just couldn’t not ask!)
MC: I’m really lucky to have gotten my name. It’s like walking around with a dog or a baby, something that most people can’t help but smile at — and the ones that don’t? Well you should stay away from them. You know what camp you’re in.
That said, it was a total accident, literally lost in translation. My parents didn’t realize until it was a little too late. We have no idea where Christmas came from — maybe Ellis Island? As for my first name, my mom is Japanese and when she was pregnant with me in China, she decided to give me a name that had significance in both languages — the Chinese characters come from the Great Wall, and in Japanese these characters mean ten-thousand villages, and in English, well, you know…