Kidnapping. Fanaticism. Corruption. Interspecies trafficking.
These are only a handful of things that describe Elect H. Mouse State Judge, Nelly Reifler’s recently-published novel about a politician who, on the eve of his election, falls prey to a religious cult that abducts his two young daughters. Rather than approaching the police, H. Mouse, who lives in fear of his shady past, seeks out a pair of private eyes to pursue the case, bring his innocent children home, and set things back to normal.
In case you’re thinking this is your standard noir by way of Raymond Chandler, Elect H. Mouse State Judge is anything but: the titular hero, it turns out, lives up to his namesake and is an actual mouse; the cult is comprised of members of the Sunshine Family (think: demented Cabbage Patch dolls from the 1970s); and the private eyes are none other than Barbie and Ken, who, in Reifler’s sordid world, fuck like rabbits, while Skipper watches, consumed by kid sister melancholy. Oh, and G.I. Joe makes an appearance that is both repulsive and hilarious.
The strangeness that marks Elect H. Mouse State Judge is at once comforting and familiar. It also peppers Reifler’s first book, a collection of stories called See Through, as well as the other short fiction she has written, including work in McSweeney’s, Black Book, Post Road, BOMB, Lucky Peach, and The Milan Review. In each of her tales, the bizarre mingles with the emotional; Reifler’s stories are unique, visceral experiences, full of raw feeling, sly humor, and characters that are not always human.
I’ve known Reifler for almost a decade now—we met in 2005, when I was her student at Sarah Lawrence College—and we recently got together in upstate New York, where she now lives. Attempting to beat the July heat, we sat under a giant umbrella on the back patio of a café, and talked about weird writing exercises, the bodies of characters, and, of course, revisiting one’s childhood.
The Rumpus: Tell me about where the idea for Elect H. Mouse State Judge came from.
Nelly Reifler: I sat down one day to write, completely for my own record, this recurring story that I used to tell with the dolls in my dollhouse world when I was probably eight or nine years old. And I thought that it was maybe going to be just ten pages that I was going to jot down. And I just couldn’t stop writing.
But the basic story really is, quite literally, what would always happen in my dollhouse: there was a family of toy mice—those little gray mice made out of rabbit fur, with the little red, plastic bead eyes. Does this sound familiar? And they have these long tails, and you can make little outfits for them. So there was a house full of these mice, and then there was the Sunshine Family, which were Mattel dolls that came out in 1975, and they were really creepy-looking. So they were always the kidnappers. They had a van…
Rumpus: They had a literal van?
Reifler: Yeah, they did. They were Mattel’s…not hippies—they didn’t look like hippies. To me, they looked like—and it says something about my childhood, that I was aware of people like this—back-to-the-land, born-again, commune cult people. That was the way they functioned in the world of my dolls. They had these round, brainwashed-looking eyes, and the mother had a long, calico pinafore and long, frizzy blonde back-to-the-land-ish hair. Then I had Barbies. So the Mouse family always had to go to the Barbies to rescue the kidnapped children.
Rumpus: Did Barbie and Ken function as secret spies/private eyes, like they do in H. Mouse?
Reifler: As I wrote it, I did start to impose my grown-up understanding on the game that I played as a child. When I was a kid, Barbie and Ken were just these sex-crazed sex machines. I have no idea what they were doing rescuing the mice—it’s probably just that there weren’t any other dolls to do it. The job came down to Barbie and Ken. But as when I was writing it as a grown-up, I was thinking more about detective vigilante conventions that I probably had picked up on as a child in the ‘70s. I was thinking about ‘70s movies and TV shows. Kojak was filmed across the street from where I went to grammar school; you’d be coming out at the end of the school day and Telly Savalas would be running around.
For me, the book is also a kind of fictional memoir of observing the ‘70s as a child. The background noise when I was a kid included a lot of kidnapping and brainwashing: I remember seeing Charlie Manson and Patty Hearst on the evening news. You know how when you’re a kid, you think you can just be hypnotized by an evil magician or something? I remember being afraid (but also maybe excited) when I was little—believing that I might be kidnapped and brainwashed by a cult or political group. I was like eight years old and scared I’d be forced to murder someone or hijack a plane to Cuba!
I also remember how, by the time I was conscious of such things, the sexual revolution had become mainstream and commercialized. You’d be in the backseat of a car and catch a glimpse of a drive-in that was playing Deep Throat, or you’d hear about friends’ parents swinging together. Sexual innuendo was everywhere, in a way that would seem corny in our jaded times. Also, I remember that I was camping with a friend outside in a little pup tent one summer night, and my father brought us in to watch Nixon’s resignation. I think it was the beginning of the contemporary era of the corrupt politician, really—although maybe H. Mouse’s moral and ethical failures are more like ones we’ve seen in recent years. I had two beautiful older cousins, Margot and Susie, and their father, my great-uncle Harry, was a judge. The games I played with my dolls were not autobiographical; I had these terrifically unusual artist parents who were sort of late Beatniks and nowhere near the mainstream. With my mice and Mattel dolls, I fantasized, in my childlike way, about having a more normal life. But normal during times in which normal was very weird.
So that’s where the idea came from. I sat down to write this simple story that I thought was just about my dolls, and it became more complicated as I recalled my childhood. It was so much fun, and I just couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to leave the world I was writing in. And coincidentally, at the same time, my mother—who had not touched her apartment for twenty-five years—suddenly had to move within the same artists’ housing building where she lives, and where I grew up. I was helping my mother move while I was writing the story, so I began sorting through all of my old dolls and toys and clothes…in this incredibly emotionally fraught atmosphere. It was hard for my mother to move—it was exhausting for both of us—so everything kind of came together in a way that made me really able to both go back to that world and reflect on it as a grown-up.
Rumpus: How was that experience of rediscovering your toys? Because whenever I go back to my parents’ house, and I see my stuffed animals, which I’ve kept, there’s always this visceral thing that happens. I just remember all this stuff from my childhood, and it takes me back in this very particular way, where I then find myself in an emotionally paused state. So I’m curious how that felt for you, as an adult.
Reifler: It was probably the first time I was really able to handle it. Maybe that’s one of the things that kept me writing; I think writing made it possible for me to look at that stuff. It had remained in the room that was my room when I was a child, and if I visited my mother and went in there, I’d see my dolls and toys and get a kind of creepy-crawly feeling. Like I couldn’t face them. Almost like when you see an old friend…and it’s a friendship that was passionate and it ended, and it didn’t end for any bad reason, you just kind of grew apart and you always felt a little guilty? That’s how I felt about my toys. That’s exactly the feeling I used to get, but I had to face it helping my mother move.
Rumpus: I can’t remember if I’ve ever asked you this, but I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you came to writing.
Reifler: It’s something I’ve always done. My father’s a writer—a great writer—and my parents both read to me. I grew up with writing, and I wrote with my dad. When I was a little kid, my dad smoked a lot of pot, which had its downsides, but an upside was that he really enjoyed writing things with me.
Rumpus: Would he just sit down with you?
Reifler: We would play these kinds of games. He had a typewriter, and he’d leave it set up in the middle of the room with a piece of paper in it, and whenever either of us would walk by, we’d type a word. I remember writing a play with him, where each of us would type a line of dialogue.
My mother’s a dancer, and my parents were always incredibly encouraging of my imagination and were never upset about anything that might come out. Being artists themselves, I think they really understood that if I wrote a story when I was eight, about something scary, they knew that it didn’t mean that I was scared, or that I was scared of them, or even that I was trying to tell them something. They always kind of understood the process of creation.
I did a lot of different things. I never really decided to be a writer. The closest I came to deciding I wanted to be a writer was when I was just too lazy to deal with the prerequisites for graduate school for psychology, and then I decided to apply to MFA programs. But I applied to programs naïvely, thinking it would mean I could have a career in teaching, not knowing that you sort of have to publish books to get a real teaching job. So I wasn’t even really thinking about being a “writer.”
Honestly, I’m a bit of a slacker at heart, and I’ve fallen into a lot of what’s happened to me, so I’ve kind of become a writer. And sometimes I miss the other things that I did, like acting and science, and I try to apply the part of me that did those things to my writing. I play around with the scientific part of my brain in writing. And I feel that writing and acting are really closely connected. You have acting experience—
Rumpus: I do.
Reifler: I wonder if you feel like that, too.
Rumpus: Yeah. I was thinking about the idea of getting into the head of a character, and I think that’s something you do really well in H. Mouse and also in your collection, See Through. With each story in your collection—and then the stories you’ve written outside of your collection, as well; specifically “The Railway Nurse,” which appears in an issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly and remains my favorite short story of yours that I’ve both read and had the pleasure of hearing aloud—I feel like we’re so in-the-moment with these characters, that we’re in their heads. We’re just so close to all of their dilemmas and instances of heartbreak and pain and joy. I think that if you act, it becomes…I don’t want to say easier, but you just know how to get into that mindset of playing different people. And you hear all the different voices, too, because that’s where your roots are: playing these different characters.
Reifler: Thank you. I feel like a lot of it comes down to the physical. When I’m writing, I think a lot more—or maybe I mean I imagine a lot more, because I don’t “think” very much when I’m writing—but I imagine a lot more what it feels like to be in the body—in the physical existence of a character. (I don’t even want to say “body,” because I feel like some of my characters don’t exactly have bodies.) When I’m thinking about a character, that’s where I write from. And I have done a lot of weird writing exercises while working on various pieces, like limping around the house, or having people blindfold me and throw me in the trunk of a car.
Rumpus: Did you do any weird exercises when you were writing H. Mouse?
Reifler: Not that I can remember. Going back to the story of how I wrote it, it just occurred to me I should mention something else: at the time that I was writing H. Mouse, these friends of mine who live in Vermont, the poets Lacy Schutz and Ian Bickford, were having these quarterly gatherings, where a bunch of people would get together and share their work. When I started writing, I didn’t think of it as something that I was going to show anyone. And then, one of these gatherings was approaching—they called them the Working Weekends— and I just decided I would read some of H. Mouse aloud. And everyone was so encouraging, I kept going.
After that first Working Weekend, I sort of started writing the book for this one small group of people. And for some reason, Lacy always put my name at the very end of the day’s schedule, so I was really writing for a small, incredibly drunken, tired group of people. So in a way, that wasn’t a weird bodily exercise, but it was a writing toward a specific audience, which was a bunch of people that knew me or were getting to know me through my book. A great thing about having the book out in the world is that I’ve been feeling as if now everybody knows how weird my mind is, and I don’t even have to pretend anymore.
I don’t know that I did [exercises] so much with H. Mouse because my dolls…I guess they must have felt so alive to me. I didn’t really have to strain to get into them. It came easily. It was as if they had been living inside me all of those years.
Rumpus: I don’t know if that ever goes away. It’s like I was saying: when you see these things you had as a child, it just takes you back to this place. You start swimming in your memories. Like even now, I can recall, I had a lot of Barbies, and I did a lot of stuff with them. And I just remember, there was this one Barbie I had—I wanted her to be punk—
Reifler: I had a punk Barbie, too.
Rumpus: I cut off all her hair and I colored it with nail polish, because it would create sparkle but it would also dye it.
Reifler: I think it really says something about the enduring qualities of punk rock that we are twenty years apart in age and both had punk Barbie dolls.
Rumpus: Going back to the bodies of characters: I remember something you once told me—and this is something I’ve carried with me for the eight years that we’ve now known each other—but I remember when I was your student, we were going over a story I wrote, and you were like, “You know, this is good, but I think what it needs are more sensory details. You need to feel as the character. All of these characters have bodies, so what are they doing with their bodies?” That is something that especially comes out in your writing. For instance, a character will scratch his or her arm, and you know exactly what’s going on, psychologically, because of that one detail.
Reifler: I think we forget we have bodies, so then we forget that our characters have bodies. I mean, we go through the day without really noticing what’s happening with our bodies, unless it’s something like a hunger pang, or needing to go to the bathroom, or a neck crick. And we don’t notice all these subtle things are happening all the time. We are in a constant state of a physical, electric existence. If you think about things that you don’t notice, like the way your tongue feels in your mouth, or how much you blink, or the waistband of your pants—these are things that we don’t let ourselves notice, but they’re really weird.
Rumpus: I recently re-read See Through, and I feel like H. Mouse is very different, but something that resonated for me, that was similar, was this idea of identity and maintaining a sense of control. A lot of your characters in See Through, and also in stories written outside of that collection, find themselves in situations that force them to look at themselves in a grounding manner, or force them into these predicaments where they are constantly trying to figure out how much agency and autonomy they have.
Reifler: It’s funny, because the stories in See Through are from a long time ago, and it’s not like I don’t remember writing them, but it’s hard for me to remember my purposes for them. I feel like you write the story without knowing your purpose, and then you think about it later, and then you forget what you figured out.
In H. Mouse, I wanted my characters to slowly become aware that they didn’t have control over what they were doing, and I meant that in a couple different ways, which is, they’re dolls, so of course there’s someone putting them in these situations. That someone being me. Especially in the last third of the book, a few of the characters—Barbie and Skipper and H. Mouse—all kind of come to the conclusion that they aren’t in charge the way that they thought they were. And when H. Mouse thinks about when he did something ugly in his past—I won’t reveal what it is—he remembers feeling as if he were being moved around by a hand that he couldn’t see. I kind of wanted to make a little metaphysical joke, because they are dolls and they are being moved around by a child’s hands, in a way. But also, I think a lot of us feel like that sometimes. When we are kind of out of control with emotion or physical urges, we feel like we must be subject to some other force.
Also, in the book, the Sunshine Family cult members believe they are the subjects of a force they call the Power. They are convinced that all beings are just vessels for this Power to flow through. So even though they’re a totally malevolent—and also stupid—cult, they’re actually right, in a way. There is this Power, and they are all just vessels because of me, the writer. Not even the narrator has the power; there’s an author who really is in charge. I’m the Power.
I didn’t really intend this idea to be grandiose—it’s exactly the opposite of how I feel in life—but perhaps precisely because I’m the kind of person that doesn’t feel a whole lot of grandiose power in life, it was a kind of pleasurable little game for me to play: all of the characters are vessels. They’re my vessels.
Rumpus: Tell me what you’re working on now.
Reifler: I’ve just finished a very long essay that is about death and trauma and chance. Its focus is some things that have happened to and around me (that I think you know about), a crazy series of tragic chance events that culminated on September 11th, when I cancelled my ticket on United Flight 93 at the last minute and got on a different plane.
It’s been a terribly challenging project for me. I mean, right now in my fiction it’s an incredible struggle for me to even write about human beings. I seriously will sit down to write about human beings and I’ll end up writing something about rabbits, with a couple of human beings somewhere in the background.
And I really dislike any literature that feels like it’s about being a victim. I feel repelled by characters that I’m supposed to see as victims. It’s just a personal issue that I have, especially with a lot contemporary literature. I’m sure it’s not something that repels everyone. The reason that I’ve struggled to figure out how to write about these strange parts of my life is that I don’t feel like I’m a victim—and even saying that out loud…it feels kind of silly and disgusting to say.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that you say you have trouble writing about human beings, because I’ve been thinking about why personal essay writing—and I guess memoir—is hard for me. And I had a conversation the other day with someone, where I was like, “I think the biggest problem I have is that my memory is so bad.” I remember very specific things, but then there are all these gaping holes in my memory. And when you’re writing about events that happened, and when you’re writing about people who actually exist, you run the risk of not representing them correctly, or representing them in a way that, even if it’s true for you, because your memory is so flawed—
Reifler: But all memory is flawed. Their memories are flawed, too. And for me, also, the scary thing about writing “nonfiction”—and of course it’s not nonfiction; it goes back to that lecture I gave about reality and subjectivity, back when you were a freshman, and I resolved never to give the lecture that way again, because I saw you writing “No such thing as reality” in your notebook during that class—it’s really, really hard to have the huevos to assert your memory as if it’s true.
What helped me with this thirty-something-page crazy essay I just wrote was reminding myself that all people’s points of view are subjective, and everybody’s memory is flawed, and you research what you need to research. I had to look up some airplane times; I had to remind myself that United Flight 93 left from Newark, and that was one of the reasons why I didn’t want to go on it. What I decided to do was to write about the problems that I was having asserting my memory or being clear. And also the problem I was having with confidence and stating things as if they were facts.
I think that if you made yourself do it, you’d find that you remember more narratively than you believe you do—that those details would get filled in. Because what you’re doing is going back into your body, just like with a fictional character, right? So if you were going to write about something that happened to you when you were eleven, you’d get into the body of eleven-year-old Rebecca, and then you’d remember so much; it’s all stored in your body… It’s kind of like fiction in reverse. So when you’re looking at eleven-year-old Rebecca from the outside, you remember one or two tiny, little pinpoints of events. But if you really get into the character of eleven-year-old Rebecca, then you do remember more, because you remember what things tasted like, you remember the smells and the feeling of your clothing on your skin—you remember how you felt in your body, you know?
Rumpus: You grew up in New York, right?
Reifler: I grew up sort of around here, in Clinton Corners. Which is probably forty miles south of here. And the West Village—which is where WestBeth, the low-income artists’ housing building, is.
Rumpus: I’m wondering how all these different places you’ve lived have impacted your writing.
Reifler: The reason I kind of smiled [at that question] was that I know it enters my writing, but I think that my writing has always had a lot more to do with the way that place happens in my dreams. So I feel like the fiction I write unfolds in settings from my dreams, but then I know that those places from my dreams come from something that I’ve experienced when I’m awake.
But I can think of specific things I’ve written that take place in specific places I’ve been. I’m actually kind of insecure about place the way that I am about nonfiction, because if you’re writing about a real place, you kind of have to be faithful to it. I admit that I’m incredibly lazy about research. I could never write a historical novel or anything like that. I had a student last semester who wrote this incredible story about the wives of submariners, and she learned all about submarines and what the wives do, and it was great. And I just couldn’t do that research. I would just make up an alternate universe where submarines worked the way I wanted them to! So with place, I feel like that: if I’m not deeply intimate with a place, I won’t write about it. For instance, I’ve been to Barcelona once, for a week in 1993; I don’t want to write about Barcelona because I’d have to read books, or look at pictures of Barcelona. It would feel forced.
Rumpus: Or you’d have to go back.
Reifler: I’d have to go back, which would suuuck.
Rumpus: And what about where you write? I know, personally, sometimes it’s really hard for me to work in certain spaces.
Reifler: That is definitely true. I always fool myself into thinking that where I am when I’m writing really matters. In my imagination, I need a specific kind of space to write. But the fact is, when I’m writing well, it really doesn’t matter where I am. Elect H. Mouse State Judge I wrote on the subway, I wrote in my office at Sarah Lawrence, I wrote in my mother’s messy apartment, I wrote at any opportunity I had. I have this imaginary idea that I need this perfect, quiet, not-too-fancy but not-too-messy room, but it’s not true.
Images of Nelly Reifler © by Jim Herrington.