I first ran across xTx when I picked up her thin volume of short stories, Normally Special (Tiny Hardcore Press), back in 2011. I instantly became a fan. A mixture of Mary Gaitskill and Kelly Link, she isn’t afraid to write about sex, violence, loss, or desire—no matter how dark it gets, or how real it feels. And that’s what keeps me coming back to her work: the layers of honesty that are stacked on top of the humanity we all exude on a daily basis—when we are naked, when we are filled with rage, when we are cowering in the corner begging for it to stop. There is beauty in between the pain, there is hope glimmering just out of your reach, and there is a sacrifice that was the only decision that could only be made because it came from a place of love, a center that cannot be moved.
We talked over the past couple of weeks about her latest novel, Billie the Bull, a collection of different narratives that revolve around Billie, a giant, and her children; the suffering she must endure; and the brutality of bullfighting, and how that translates to the rest of the world with our judgments, and expectations, and greed. Billie the Bull is a startling unique story—partly because of the way the various voices come together, the ways these stories are told, and partly because of the way the story ends, and then ends again, and then finally ends—never having really ended at all.
In addition to Billie the Bull and the aforementioned Normally Special, there is also the collaboration with P.H. Madore, entitled Nobody Trusts a Black Magician, and various stories scattered across the internet and in print, including Monkeybicycle, Dogzplot, and PANK.
The Rumpus: I know this book started with the story “Shopping” that you wrote for Reynard Seifert at Ha Ha Clever, and the idea of a giant as your prompt. You also mentioned a show on TLC about “little people,” and how they had one “little” child and one “normal”-sized child. Can you elaborate on the genesis of this book, and how it expanded to become Billie the Bull?
xTx: Reynard wanted to do an e-book with me. He liked giants. He liked the story I wrote for him. He suggested maybe the story could be about a giant woman. I sat with that idea for a while. I am always fascinated by mothers, so I started wondering what a story could be about a mother who is also a giant. Then I came across that TLC show and was like, stunned, that a little person could give birth to a set of twins that had one little person twin and one “normal”-sized twin. Kind of blew my mind. I sat with those things, letting them churn until the churning started thickening to cream. Then I started writing Billie.
Rumpus: There are several different voices, or narratives that break up this story. I’m trying to count them, and I think there are five. You have the story that is in italics, almost a journalistic voice; the history of bullfighting, told in a neutral voice, but one that definitely shows how barbaric the sport is, how unfair it is. Then there is, of course, Billie’s story. There is also the story of the Collector and the Finderman. And then there are the dreams—those are technically still Billie, but they’re really a different style, almost prose poetry. And there are a few other random lists scattered throughout. How did these voices bubble to the surface? When did you realize that you wanted to tell this story through so many different lenses?
xTx: Before Billie, I had really only done short, flash pieces. When Reynard asked for at least 8,000 words, I panicked. But I knew it was time to start pushing myself as a writer. To make it less intimidating, I decided to approach the book as a series of flash fictions that all would work together as a whole. That seemed less daunting. I think that’s how I discovered the different ways to tell the story.
The Collector and the Finderman came from a story I had already written but never placed. I came across it when I was still in the “churning” mode, and I realized that these characters could be included in the book. I loved how the Collector’s obsession to possess completely ruled him, and how his lack of caring/empathy for the unique things he found began to be offset by the conscience of his Finderman.
The bullfighting excerpts were a last-minute lightbulb. Towards the end of writing Billie, when I was in review mode, I randomly came across something on the Internet, as one always does, that talked about bullfighting and it clicked with the theme of the book. The more I read about bullfighting, the more I was like, Yes! I decided to take those factual bits and pieces and pepper them throughout the book in the places I thought appropriate.
I was really pleased with the “mix” the different voices gave to the book.
Rumpus: That’s a great idea, trying to fake yourself out on the 8,000-word story by breaking it up into manageable flash fiction. I love the lists—they really take on a whole different point-of-view, giving some perspective to the entire narrative. What is big, what is small? It’s all relative, right? And the way you twist—that is, one of her children is “normal,” he’ll never grow, and that upsets him. He wants the pain of the growing spurts, he wants to be big, a giant. To him, that is what’s normal, what his people do, who they are. Can you talk about that a little bit, where that idea of fitting in, or not fitting in, comes from—the way you play with perception? There are layers and layers of meaning there.
xTx: I don’t enjoy telling regular stories. In this story, I wanted to turn what is considered “normal” on its head a little. Most mothers desire healthy, “normal” children. Most mothers love all of their children unconditionally. With Billie, I wanted a mother to shirk her regular-sized son for her exceptionally-sized son, her “abnormal” son. I wanted her to embrace the son who has her same struggle to the detriment of her other child. I wanted her to prize, in him, what every person in the rest of her world wanted to torture/hate/blame. I wanted her normal child to crave the abnormal just so he could be loved by his mother. In their world, normal was not.
Rumpus: Do you see the Collector and the Finderman as two sides of a coin—action and consequence, greed and remorse, yin and yang? The mythology and archetypes they create really resonate on the page, balancing each other out. The way they both get their just rewards at the end was very satisfying—the Collector, his demise; the Finderman, his grief and guilt.
xTx: I never consciously saw it that way, but I guess so. They do seem to balance each other out. I really wanted the greed, obsession, and disregard of the Collector to be reflected in the turmoil the Finderman began having with what he was being asked to do.
Rumpus: The lists: I love the lists. They really break up the other voices and make the reader slow down and really consider what they are witnessing. I have a saying with my kids, “Mountain or molehill?” And I trot that out whenever they are really upset about something that is, in reality, not that big a deal. Where did those lists come from and what do they accomplish for you as part of this narrative? They’re fascinating to me.
xTx: I guess I just wanted another way to tell the story. I liked the dimension they added. If I could draw, I would maybe add pictures to my books; they add another layer. But I can’t. So, these lists were another way for me to do that. Also, the fact that they were simply lists, they could be read plainly and easily; a sort of literal intermission. They were fun to do.
Rumpus: Did you go through any growing pains as a child, either literally or figuratively?
xTx: As a child the only growing pains I went through were sideways ones. I was a chubby kid up until right before I started high school, when I went on a Dexatrim and one-saltine-cracker-a-day diet and got the weight off. I always swam with a t-shirt over my bathing suit. My grandma would always ask me, “Do you really need to eat that?” I’d overhear my parents whispering about how I’d “thin out” when I hit puberty and got taller. I was a middle child between two brothers who recognized my weak spot and teased me pretty brutally about it. And, to this day, even at the times I was at my thinnest, I was, and am still, “Thunder Thighs.” Thanks, childhood!
Also, I actually grew up among giants. My mom and dad were pretty tall: 5’11” and 6’1”. My brothers are 6’6” and 6’7”. I’m a shrimpy 5’8”. Everyone would ask my older brother (who had hit six feet in sixth grade) why he wasn’t playing basketball. He said because he liked playing football. Most of his adult life he would be asked if he played basketball. A few years ago, we were walking down the street and there was a group of guys walking towards us, and when they got closer, one of them yells, “How tall, brother? How tall?” And he told them and they reacted in a lively manner. I asked him, “Wow, do you get that often?” He said, “From time to time.”
My first long-term boyfriend was 5’1”. I can’t even tell you how much shit we would get from anyone and everyone wherever we went about our height difference. People would just yell stuff or make comments. Point. Laugh. We were teenagers.
I think when you are of any sort of “extreme” size you are suddenly made fair game. Like, the normal parameters of politeness and respect somehow don’t apply to you anymore. And now that I’ve just dredged all of this back up, it makes complete sense why I wrote this book.
Rumpus: Yeah, I was skinny forever. I can remember not trying out for football because I felt like I wasn’t big enough. I wanted to play wide receiver. I met Johnny Knox (Chicago Bears wide receiver, now “retired” due to a brutal hit) a few years ago and thought, Man I’m much bigger than him. And I’m only 6’2” and 230 pounds.
The ending of this book was brutal, but very satisfying. You find yourself rooting for Billie, even when you marvel at her. SPOILERS: so when she has the final finding, the fourth growth, we don’t know what to expect, but anything less than justice would have been a disappointment. But what really makes this resonate is you don’t stop there, you show Finderman getting his bit of suffering as well, “…for once sorry about what he has found.” That adds a layer. And then, just when we think it’s over, that final essay by “little” Billie Marcus. Can you talk about this a little? Were you happy with the ending, did you feel you squeezed every bit out of this story? How did you know when it was done, come full circle? I have to admit, I got a bit teary-eyed.
xTx: From the beginning, I knew it wasn’t going to end well for Billie—most of the things I write don’t end well for my characters! But I didn’t know exactly how it would end until I got there. I am rarely able to plan those types of things out in advance.
After Billie became collected it sealed her fate. I think, for once, she wanted to be the one in control of her body. Her entire life had been spent with her body being at the mercy of herself and others. At the end, she went out on her own terms, and I think maybe, for her, it was sort of a happy ending. Also, in taking final control, she freed her larger son. So, it was also a sacrificing of herself to save her son.
I felt satisfied with the ending. Although, I do sometimes think, now that I have the confidence to write longer stories, that I wish I could go back and “beef up” the rest of the book.
To me, the essay at the end, was a piece of paper floating in the wind of the story that, after the book is finished, the reader reaches up and plucks out of the sky, sits down on whatever is close, and reads it, and maybe weeps.
Rumpus: What can we learn from the tragedy of Billie the Bull?
xTx: We can learn to love large things.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about some of your influences, what authors you read, and the voices that have most affected your writing?
xTx: Ever since I’ve discovered the online lit world, I’ve discovered and devoured some amazing writers: Blake Butler, Ben Loory, Casey Hannan, Robb Todd, Paula Bomer, Alissa Nutting, Roxane Gay, Matt Bell, Brian Allen Carr, Lindsay Hunter, Sarah Rose Etter, Danielle Evans, Amelia Gray, and on and on and on. I guess the granddaddy of writing influences for me is Stephen King. I started reading him at such a young, impressionable age, I can only imagine what darkness he left me wanting for under the warm of my skin. The darkness I keep trying to get outside of me, infecting as many others as I can as he did me.
Rumpus: I was sorry to hear that Mud Luscious Press (and the imprint Nephew, where Billie the Bull was published) is closing up shop. I’ve really enjoyed their work, such as Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby, in addition to Billie the Bull. But there’s some good news about Billie, right?
xTx: I was completely thrilled when Mud Luscious became the guardian-birther of Billie and equally upset when I found out, so soon after Billie came to be, that they were closing. J.A. Tyler couldn’t have been a better editor and I know it’s for the best. I value that man’s writing and the need for his peace of mind.
And, yes! Good news—great news about Billie, actually. She has a new home with Dzanc Books! Both the print and e-book version will be released shortly. I can’t wait for her to be back out in the world!