Midwestern Gothic staffer Kristina Perkins talked with author A. A. Balaskovits about her book Magic for Unlucky Girls, why fairy tales are the most dangerous stories, female monsters, and more.
Kristina Perkins: What is your connection to the Midwest?
A. A. Balaskovits: I was born and raised in the Chicagoland area (often, I say Chicago, but people from the actual city are quick to correct me). From there, I went to undergrad in Iowa, did my master’s in Ohio and my Ph.D. in Missouri. I live in the South now, but I miss the Midwest dearly. People are very enthusiastically polite in grocery stores down here. I miss shopping without expressing how my day is going every aisle.
KP: How does your relationship to the Midwest impact your writing?
AAB: I’ve come to understand more about the Midwest having lived outside of it. Down here in the South, everyone is polite, everyone waves at everyone else, and small talk is an art form. There’s a bit of that in the Midwest as well, in certain parts, but the Midwest is, to me, a land of people whose lives are defined by their work. They toil and, historically, have had jobs that saw down your bones through continuous and difficult labor. We’re polite, but we’re a realistic folk, and there’s a dark humor—a gallows humor perhaps—that is as unpredictable as the weather. I think that sensibility has been a major impact on my writing. A lot of my work is pretty dark, but it’s tongue-in-cheek as well.
KP: In your recent debut collection, Magic for Unlucky Girls, your stories span time and space, jumping from modern suburbias to ancient castles to American farmlands. How does your understanding of place—and, with it, your senses of belonging, familiarity, and adventure—influence these settings?
AAB: I have a very at-odds take with setting. A lot of other writers I admire use it to a great and often astonishing degree, but I tend to use it as “this is right for this story.” For the stories that do take place in a fairy tale world, that ever-so-wonderful once-upon-an-unspecified-time (but it’s totally in the past) I wanted to specifically comment on that genre, that kind of story. For the ones that take place in our farmlands or in suburbia, those stories comment on how the stories from our past still resonate within our communities today. We’ve never really escaped from them. If we think about fairy tales, they were told orally at first, written down, and then constantly rewritten to fit the expectations and mores of the time and place they were being retold. So, on one hand, I’m nodding to the past and its influence on me, but I’m also centering these stories in our world today because they reach out from the past and hold tight to our necks.
KP: Magic for Unlucky Girls plays beyond the limits of fairy tale, twisting, distorting, and breathing fresh air into the genre. What draws you to fairy tale, as a genre? What do you see as the purpose of the genre? How does your work contribute to, complicate, or alter this purpose?
AAB: The purpose of fairy tales is two-fold: They’re entertainment, but like all forms of entertainment, they teach a lesson. There is a heavy moralistic imperative to them. Unlike other stories, fairy tales are very decisive: Things are good or they are evil, and complexity is often hard to come by. They create a very one-dimensional world, and considering what an incredible influence they have held onto our cultural mindset, and continue to have, I think they are the most dangerous stories ever told. For the most part, my work in this collection has been to expose how dangerous they are, as well as twist them so they have more—and perhaps this is a strange word for it—realistic consequences. The men aren’t always gallant heroes or evil incarnate, and women are not passive princesses or clever girls waiting to be rescued. We’re all somewhere in between, but once you add magic to it, all hell breaks loose.
KP: Breaking from the genre’s tradition of one-dimensional heroes and archetypal villains, the female characters in Magic for Unlucky Girls are remarkable in their complexity: They are equal parts strong and malicious, independent and violent. In a previous interview, you note that this collection was driven, in part, by a desire to “explore women as monsters.” What inspired this desire? What do you seek to accomplish by embracing this side—the monstrous, the vindictive, the viscous—of your female characters?
AAB: We don’t really get to be monstrous, not really, in our daily lives. It’s unforgivable, for a woman, to break from archetypal roles, be it mother, daughter, lover, wife, etc. Go to any comment section of an article about a woman who broke the social bonds of their role and you’ll see how understanding we are about it. There is a precedent, of course, for the woman monster: Baba Yaga, Charybdis, Medusa, Lilith, the rusalki, mermaids, the Harionago, the stepmother. They’re often one-note and, a lot of times, are there to be defeated in a man’s more interesting and complex adventure. So I wanted to explore what it would be like to dive into the mindset of a female monster. That kind of monster is, certainly, a woman who simply does not act in their established role, or who is honest and reactive to their emotions, or who desires something they cannot have but tries anyway, or is furious with an injustice done to them or their loved ones. So an unrestrained human being. When I was growing up, I really longed for that kind of woman-protagonist. Someone who fucked up, was hurtful to others even if they did not mean to be, or in some ways exposed, through their own story, how messed up the world is. Monsters, in fiction, are reflections of our anxieties, and Magic for Unlucky Girls is a pretty anxious collection.
KP: As an editor for Cartridge Lit, you publish fiction, poetry, and nonfiction inspired by video games. How would you describe the relationship between writing and gaming? How has this position changed how you read and write—if at all?
AAB: It has! I play a lot of video games and love the medium. There’s a lot going on in games: One, you’re roleplaying, even if it’s not a traditional roleplaying game. Even if you’re stuck in the body of a squat, jumpy plumber, you do still grow to care about what happens to him and feel genuine frustration when he falls down yet another pit. Have you ever seen those animations of Sonic drowning in the water levels? Heartbreaking. So on one level, you’re connecting with the character, the actions you perform on the controller dictate their actions (and the thrust of the story) and, whether you play the game to the end or not changes how everything resolves. It’s made me think about the way that stories can be crafted. With a story or a novel, the author has complete control over what happens, but in a game, a lot of what happens will change depending on who is playing, their choices and their skill. Playing games has certainly made me consider the audience with a much more open mind: There’s what I want, but I have to write with a the reader in mind, and their imaginations could—and should—go anywhere.
KP: Who do you write for?
AAB: That’s a really interesting question. I think, honestly, that I am writing for a younger version of myself. I’m writing stories I would have liked to have read as a child. I did read a lot of dark, violent work—what we all consider Classic Western Lit—but I always felt the women in those stories were often relegated to side roles, prizes to be won by the male protagonist, or did not have a very vibrant inner life, and they certainly were rarely the types to have grand, epic adventures (though I did eventually come across those novels—they just weren’t in the Norton anthologies).
KP: What is the best piece of writing-related advice you’ve ever received?
AAB: To be okay with getting rejected and to always expect it. And, ninety percent of the time, that’s been accurate for me. So my expectations are pretty damn low, so it’s always a thrill when something works out. That, and, while I don’t think it’s ever been voiced but mostly been implied—get involved in a community, whether it’s writers or whoever they are for you. You’re going to need the support.
KP: What’s next for you?
AAB: I just finished a chapbook of short fairy tales—all under (or close to) 1,000 words—that essentially didn’t make it into Magic For Unlucky Girls. I’m trying to make that as perfect as possible, because I think these kind of stories still need rewriting. Additionally, I’m currently writing a novel that seems to get worked on in a great rush and then ignored for weeks at a time. The novel is going to be one of those grand, magical adventures that I would have liked to have gone on when I was a little girl, but with the sensibilities I have as an adult. So, you know, kind of dark, very violent, lots of fun.
A.A. Balaskovits is the author of Magic for Unlucky Girls (Santa Fe Writers Project 2017). Her fiction and essays appear or will appear in Indiana Review, The Madison Review, The Southeast Review, Gargoyle, Apex Magazine, Shimmer and numerous other magazines and anthologies. Her short fiction was named one of Wigleaf’s top 50 fictions in 2017. She was awarded the New Writers Award from Sequestrum in 2015 and won the grand prize for the 2015 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards series.