Midwestern Gothic staffer Ariel Everitt talked with author Julia Fine about her book What Should Be Wild, books that inspire her, self-empowerment, & more.
Ariel Everitt: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Julia Fine: I’ve been in Chicago for over eight years now. Before I moved here, I was living in Iowa—I went to Grinnell College for my undergraduate degree. When I first got to Iowa I thought I’d maybe last a year before moving back East (I grew up outside of Washington, DC) but twelve years later here I am!
AE: Your new novel, What Should Be Wild, focuses on Maisie Cothay, an adolescent with the ability to raise the dead or fall the living by mere touch, and the Blakely women of her ancestry, as they all struggle with mysterious changes. Perhaps the key setting of this novel is a mystical wood beyond known space and time—where the Blakely women reside. You’ve said the novel takes place within a fictionalized England. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose a fictionalized England as the cradle for your story, and what influenced this setting?
JF: I always had a firm sense of setting for the Blakely estate and the village, but for a long time was reluctant to commit to an actual country of origin for Maisie. I worried about portraying a place accurately and doing justice to its traditions and culture, since I knew I was superimposing so much of my own creation. At the same time, I had been reading a lot of William Blake, whose ideas about division of self and the wild feminine were a huge inspiration. His writing is about England, but he gives his England its own Blakeian mythology. This felt like a nice way in—I could further emulate Blake and use the history of a real place and real situations women have been in over the centuries but make it my own. The history I pull from is British history—the Roman invasion of Britain, even the extinction of regional wolves—but the folk traditions and mythology I draw on come from all over Europe.
AE: How did living in the bustling city of Chicago impact WSBW, which is set (for the most part) in an isolated rural area?
JF: I was lucky to be the Writer in Residence at the Union League Club of Chicago while I was working on this book—I got to work in their gorgeous library, which influenced the library at Urizon. Funny enough, I wrote a lot of the rural and historical stuff (including Alys in 600 AD) while living right downtown and looking out at the city. I did use music and art and, of course, reading to get into the right mindset. It definitely helps that I had art museums and live music and even green space right outside my door.
AE: In What Should Be Wild, Maisie gets most of her knowledge about the world from books—specifically, her father’s extensive library. How important were books to your own development? Which would you say influenced you the most?
JF: I’ve always been an avid reader. Many of my best childhood memories are of bookstores and libraries, and the books I read as a child definitely influenced What Should Be Wild, notably The Secret Garden, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and, of course, the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. Angela Carter is a huge influence on me as a writer—I’m inspired by how difficult it is to characterize her work, and how deeply she dives into discomfort. Her fairy tale retellings in The Bloody Chamber are true masterpieces. Shirley Jackson is another inspiration, as is Doris Lessing. Basically, I’m drawn to women writers who challenge their readers and have—to quote Shirley Jackson herself— an “if you don’t like my peaches, don’t shake my tree” attitude about their work. Right now Daisy Johnson, Carmen Maria Machado, Lidia Yuknavitch, Rita Bullwinkel and so many more are writing fiction in this amazing, no-holds-barred female space.
I also read a lot of non-fiction for What Should Be Wild: Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde, Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, The Golden Bough by James Frazer, The White Goddess by Robert Graves.
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren is probably the book I’ve reread the most in my life. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is a close second, followed, of course, by Harry Potter.
AE: Later in the novel, Maisie’s self-doubt in the face of (spoiler) being held captive perfectly expresses many of the insecurities young women can feel in the face of discrimination in a society that may hold them, too, captive in a similar way. What advice would you give a young woman who might be taught to blame herself for the bad that falls upon her?
JF: Because it’s 2018 and the #MeToo movement is now so visible, some people think that the societal structures that have long made women feel ashamed or responsible are breaking down. But no matter how you were raised or how consciously you consider yourself a feminist, you’re standing in the shadow of thousands of years of sexism and patriarchal control. I think when we know ourselves as liberated but still experience these subconscious feelings of inferiority or personal failing, we have a tendency to think deep down that it must be our fault. We’re faced with this crisis of self-understanding, where we want to be fully empowered but still have this history weighing down on us. Recognizing that these mixed feelings are okay is step one—even changing your own mindset takes time, and if you hate yourself for subscribing to ideas that have been passed down through society for centuries, you get stuck in a different kind of prison. My advice, is to be kind to yourself, read up on feminism and women’s roles throughout history, don’t be afraid to change your mind or reevaluate your previous assumptions, and recognize that everything you’re taught is just someone’s story about of the world. Stories are powerful, but none of them are objectively true. You can always write your own.
AE: You have said that each of the Blakely women stand in for a particular archetype of a woman’s role in traditional fairy tales. Do you have any advice about making whole characters, even when they are symbols? What strategies do you use to bring life to your characters?
JF: My strategy was not to consciously write any of the women as one particular archetype. I read up on the female fairy tale tropes—the witch, the naughty child, the old maid, the siren—but when it came time to write the Blakely women I started with time period rather than character traits. What would a typical woman’s life look like in 1815 or 1400 or 690 AD? What would she want, and what would she be denied? Once I’d done some research and had a sense of these women’s daily lives, I could start to weave in some of the fairy tale tropes. It definitely helped that many fairy tale characters can be read as commentary on situations and stereotypes actual women experienced. For a few of the women (notably Imogen and Emma), I had already written Maisie’s fable versions of their stories. I knew the basic structure of what their arcs would look like, and I got to flesh out these folktales with real historical details and full characters, which was a lot of fun.
Growing up, my first love was theatre, and though I was never a great actress, I did learn a lot from my high school acting class—namely that you can’t understand characters without tackling what specific things they want out of each scene and interaction. I try to be as empathetic as possible, which I hope helps readers find their empathy as well.
AE: Did you aim to reclaim these stereotypes of women’s roles in traditional tales, or to dismantle them?
JF: In a way I was trying to do both. A lot of the stereotypical female roles come from actual women’s lived experiences, and appear in stories that were originally told by women. They got distorted or appropriated by men—the Grimm Brothers, Walt Disney, etc.—but at heart were tools women used to pass down knowledge or make social commentary. What I really wanted was to bring nuance to these traditionally black and white archetypes. I’m interested in the cultural moments that led to the creation of these stereotypes, and how they still manifest today.
AE: You have described the chapters encapsulating the Blakely women as vignettes. What would you say is the power of the vignette in the novel form, and how was this different from writing your other chapters?
JF: In What Should Be Wild, the vignettes gave me a way into some of the themes I couldn’t tackle head on with Maisie. She’s very sheltered and the first person point of view is already limiting—I knew I needed to add in a different POV if I wanted to tell this full story. While writing this book and researching fairy tales I became extremely interested in the way stories shape our worldviews—how we choose which aspects of an event to include or exclude, the ultimate goal of the teller, the impact throwaway details can have on the listener. Maisie hears stories about the women who’ve gone missing in the forest, and I wanted to look at what actual events might have inspired the fables. Vignettes allowed me to jump straight to the moment of greatest drama, and ensured that the pacing of Maisie’s story wouldn’t suffer from too long an interruption.
I love a good vignette in a novel—often they feel like a challenge: you’re shaken out of the comfort of the chronological plot and dropped back in with a different perspective. A vignette can end up superimposing itself over the rest of the book, and when you read through the lens of this quick snippet or image, the novel becomes much more dimensional.
For me, the biggest difference in writing the vignettes versus writing Maisie was chronology—most of Maisie’s story (with the exception of the final scene) I wrote in chronological order, while the forest chapters were written more irregularly. In a way, the Blakely backstories were easier to write because I had the constraint of covering their entire lives in just a few pages—I was forced to be more economical and deliberate.
AE: Your prose is deeply confident. How did you come to develop and trust your writing voice, and what advice might you offer to writers who are feeling uncertain in the way they sound on the page?
JF: I actually think uncertainty is a good sign! I’d say that the best work has an element of vulnerability to it that can make a writer feel insecure no matter how gorgeous the prose sounds. I always tell my students to lean into what scares them about their own writing, and this can turn into a sort of exposure therapy for the fear of your own voice. You’re never going to please everyone, but if you can find what makes you tick, it’s likely that will resonate with someone. Stretching the muscle also helps—an exercise where you try to write the same few lines of your own work as if you were Virginia Woolf, or anyone else with a very distinctive style can help open your eyes to what a sentence can do, and how form and syntax will inform your project.
I’ve also honed my self-editing ability over the years; I tend to overwrite and lean a bit too far into alliteration and rhythm, sometimes to the detriment of everything else. Understanding this about myself has helped me develop a more careful eye. It also helps to have one or two great readers and editors whose opinions you totally trust—I’m at a point now where I can read over a draft and already pinpoint and fix certain elements that I know my editor or agent would jump on immediately.
AE: You have mentioned previously that you abandoned a previous novel to write What Should Be Wild, because you were more interested in and inspired to write it. How does inspiration play into your writing on a daily basis? As a writer, do you think it is important to write even when you are feeling uninspired?
JF: I’m actually not one of those people who writes every day, though I do sometimes feel guilty about that and think maybe I should have more self-discipline. I have a lot of trouble focusing if I’m not inspired or excited about a project, but once I’m in the zone my thoughts are never far from the work. A recent quote I read from Margaret Wise Brown (the author of Goodnight Moon) has helped me feel a bit better about my process: I’m paraphrasing, but she says that there are times of creativity and times of receptivity. It’s alright to spend some time away from the writing because, in some way, there is work being done. I should note, though, that this was in a letter she wrote to a friend complaining about her own inability to get anything down on the page…
AE: What’s next for you?
JF: Right now I’m working on my second novel, which is—surprise surprise—also shaping up to be a genre mash-up about inherited trauma and women’s bodies, with the added bonus of some history of modernist children’s literature. It’s a poltergeist story that takes place immediately following the birth of a couple’s first child, and may end up involving a museum. But it’s early stages yet, so don’t hold me to any of this!
Julia Fine teaches writing at DePaul University and is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s MFA program. She is the author of the debut novel What Should Be Wild (Harper, May 2018). She lives in Chicago with her husband and their son. For more on Julia and her work, visit: https://www.julia-fine.com/