The Rumpus Interview with Abigail Ulman

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I am so tired of hearing fiction compared to HBO’s Girls. First of all, it’s a television show—are there seriously no books you can think of to compare it to? Second of all, it seems the publisher might as well paste a huge sticker on it that says, this is for millennials, not their parents! And maybe it’s true. Maybe my mother wouldn’t like Abigail Ulman’s debut story collection Hot Little Hands. Maybe the sex scene that lasts the length of Kanye West’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and involves repeated requests for anal sex or the character who gets so drunk every night she can’t even remember she told her boyfriend she loves him would make my mother squirm or skip ahead. Maybe. Or maybe she would be drawn in by Ulman’s humor (“Amelia couldn’t finish her book, so she decided to have a baby”) or her fast-paced and fluent dialogue, which I can’t help but quote at length:

“I’m just saying, you don’t really want it.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Mom said you don’t.”

“Mom doesn’t know.”

“Mom’s a therapist.”

“Mom’s not my therapist.

“But Mom’s your mom.”

“That’s true,” Amelia said. “She’s your mom, too.”

“I know.”

As much as I love Girls, it makes me angry that this comparison might limit the readership for Ulman’s excellent debut—which is witty and moving and wry and painful and unsettling and self-aware and socially engaged and somehow also very funny. I think we should all be reading it.

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The Rumpus: I want to ask about the title first. It’s both funny and weird and erotic. I couldn’t find it in the book—where did it come from?

Abigail Ulman: As I was writing the collection, I heard someone use that expression: “I can’t wait to get that thing in my hot little hands.” It struck me as being sexy, visceral, and maybe a little uncomfortable. And on its own, I think the phrase has a very contemporary feeling. A publicist at Penguin Australia told me, “It makes me feel uncomfortable, in a good way.” I guess that’s the reaction I was going for!

Rumpus: There are a number of pop culture references in the book—from Kanye to the movie Point Break to Winona Ryder and Beetlejuice. Why include these in a story? What do these references add other than a kind of cultural texture? Did you worry about dating the book?

Ulman: I was trying to centralize the stories in the perspective of young protagonists; pop stars and movie and TV stars just happen to be the Greek gods of their world. It’s the texture of their lives, as you say—these are their talking points and oftentimes their role models. It was about the verisimilitude of the characters. I wasn’t concerned about whether the references dated the book in any way; in fact, I like that they situate the book in a particular place and time. I imagined it as something like [Bret Easton Ellis’s] Less Than Zero.

I also chose the references very carefully. There are certain people in pop culture that really speak to their time, that feel timeless even though they’re very much attached to a certain period. For example, that Kanye album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy [which figures prominently in one story]—at the point in time when that story is set, that really was the album of the year. It was being played from every car window and on dates I went on—it was THE significant album of that time.

And then, of course, I go by who’s significant to me. I’m really fascinated by pop culture—as maybe everyone is—and so I go with someone or something that’s interesting to me, hoping that other people are also responding to the same movie or album, that they’ll find it relatable.

Rumpus: A review of your book in the Atlantic referred to your stories as gleeful spoofs of Lena Dunham and her brand. What do you make of that characterization?

ulman_hotlittlehandsUlman: I didn’t intend for the book to be a gleeful spoof—it took nine years to write it, so most of the stories were written or drafted before Girls started airing. I like that review a lot, though. I love the idea that all these texts are in conversation with each other and can be read in that way.

In one story in the collection [“Plus One”] I was interested in exploring the fact that there are a lot of young women who are becoming successful very young, becoming spokespeople very young. I thought it was interesting to think that for a certain demographic of young women, there might be a pressure to create a brand and become successful or famous as early as possible. I wanted to write about a character who builds her way to a successful platform, and then experiences an ambivalence and emotional paralysis around that.

“Plus One” is also informed by my own ambivalence about choosing to be a writer. There’s so much hard work involved in writing a book—and then in trying to let people know that you published a book!—and not much money. Sometimes I find it a comical and ridiculous thing to be trying to do—especially because it’s a full-time job that usually requires you to have another full-time job running alongside it—so in the book there’s a bit of a running joke about the oddness of choosing this as a pursuit, particularly at this time.

Also, it does often happen that female writers and minority writers get compared to each other. If you’re writing something that’s contemporary and female-centered and sort of colloquial, it probably will get compared to Lena Dunham. I feel fine about that, but it is a reflection of our culture, and something I really admire about Lena Dunham is that she seems aware of this phenomenon and she uses her position to share the work of other female writers and filmmakers. She recently gave my book a shout-out [in her newsletter] and I didn’t know what to do with myself—I didn’t know it was going to happen, and I was super excited. I didn’t sleep for hours!

Rumpus: “Head to Toe” was one of the bleakest stories in the book for me. In it, two sixteen-year-old girls, who are best friends and “popular,” seem to step off the conveyer belt that’s taking them toward a certain kind of stereotypical womanhood—they stop going out, dressing up, or wearing make-up; they read in bed together; they go to horse camp; they revert. And then, after a couple weeks, they just sort of snap back into it all—the hoop earrings and the makeup and the porny, not-that-great, guy-in-charge sex. I guess it left me wondering: is it possible to get off the conveyor belt? To escape the cultural expectations around womanhood?

Ulman: I don’t know. I think the whole book is about those cultural expectations, about characters who are walking into the cultural narrative, sometimes willingly and sometimes unwittingly—for example, the girl in “Chagall’s Wife,” who thinks “this [was] a movie and I was only just now being shown the script”—and some who are trying to escape it or upend it in some way. There’s a lot of playing with these set narratives and expectations in the book for both the characters and for me, the author. In some ways, I think all we can do is play with them.

I wrote “Head to Toe” during a stuck time in my life and the characters themselves are very stuck. I think I wrote it partly to explore whether it is possible to get off what you call “the conveyer belt.” There are these two girls who find themselves in an excruciating position and they don’t articulate why or what’s happening to them, they can’t even express it or talk it over with their parents—

Rumpus: And even their parents want them to return to their old girly selves.

Ulman: Right, cause that’s a kind of health—fitting in with the prevailing culture. And then in “Plus One,” the protagonist finds herself in a similarly excruciating place. So she tries to skip a stage—skip over her career—by getting pregnant and moving onto motherhood. But of course it’s not that simple.

In the book’s last story “Your Charm Won’t Help You Here” [about a young woman who’s deported from the US], the protagonist is forced to move through a set of experiences, to deal with her stuckness. She’s usually very quick-witted, almost smart-assy, and she’s completely forced out of her comfort zone. She has to rely on her own inner resources—and even work out if she has any. If you’re writing about middle class Western girls, there aren’t that many times you find them out of their context—without a phone or friends to quip with. But, in that story, she is. Anytime I tried to insert certain cultural references—like random thoughts about Obama or Oprah, all these weird things—it just didn’t work. I mean, she’s in jail. The mechanisms I had previously built up for her simply didn’t work in that context.

Rumpus: A number of your stories touch on hot-button topics like immigration, abortion, sex trafficking, fabricated accusations of sexual abuse—can you talk about the role of politics and social activism in your writing? Did you set out to write about more politically charged topics, or did it just happen?

Ulman: I’m the youngest of four sisters, and I have three nieces and a really strong mum. My world has been very female-centric forever. It’s a huge part of who I am and I’ve always been really fascinated by anything to do with women and relationships and sex and sexuality. Since those are my interests as a person—the links I constantly click on—they also became my interests as a writer. I think it’s still a political act for women to write frankly about taboo or as you say hot-button topics like the ones you just mentioned. Beyond that, if there’s any activism or politics in my work, it’s that most of the stories are ambiguous; they explore the grey areas. Sometimes people really like that and sometimes people are frustrated by that. And then a lot of readers don’t view the stories as ambiguous at all because they decide for themselves what’s going on.

For example, in a workshop for “Chagall’s Wife”—that was the first story I wrote—a classmate in her seventies really hated the teacher character and wrote in the margins, “Wrong choice, bucko!” and a twenty-one-year-old thought it was, like, the sexiest thing ever. That contrast interested me.

I worked really hard not to have an opinion [on the main question in the stories]. So, for example, in “Same Old Same As,” when people ask me whether the protagonist really was abused… Well, I wanted to leave it open, to have the reader ask, “Is this action, is doing this to another person in that context, is it abuse or is it not abuse?” or “Is it up to the therapist [to define abuse] or is it how the girl herself views it?” Certainly with abuse in real life, it’s clear-cut most of the time. In “Same Old Same As,” though, it’s not and I leave it up to the individual reader to decide.

Rumpus: In many of the stories, very little happens: we’re often seeing either the lead-up to the event or the aftermath, while the actual event—for instance, the sexual abuse in “Same Old Same As” or the sexual encounter in “Chagall’s Wife”—is withheld. I feel like most writers would do the opposite. Why leave it out? What’s gained?

Ulman: I think the decision [to leave it out] is different for every story… But thinking of it as a collection, well, there are two overt sex scenes in there and I didn’t want more. I didn’t want the reader to become inured to it.

In my mind, fiction is one of the most active art forms for the audience or reader. I prefer leaving things to the imagination, respecting and trusting the reader to fill in the gaps. Of course, a lot of these writing decisions actually happen in process. In “Chagall’s Wife,” I thought I was going to write through the next several scenes, but when I got to that last line, I thought, oh, that’s the end of the story.

Rumpus: Can you talk about the role of sex in your writing?

Ulman: I’m drawn toward risky and taboo topics. It’s funny to me that we can’t say whatever we’re thinking or point out the weirdness of a situation or have the subtext be more overt. [Laughing] Since I can’t always talk about [sex] at parties, I guess I wrote a book about it.

But, really, it’s more socially acceptable to do that in fiction—to have people say what people wouldn’t normally say, in life—and it’s easier to do that with younger characters because they can be more naïve and less self-conscious. And also, adolescents are preoccupied with sex. Or, even if they’re not, someone might be ogling or sexualizing them, forcing them to be aware of it.

I was quite nervous about the longer sex scene in the book. I wasn’t sure how that story, “Head to Toe,” would land. The narrative arc—it’s as you said—is A to B to A—and I was worried the sex scene would seem gratuitous. So I thought about taking it out, but the story wouldn’t work without it. That scene really had to be in there. Still, there was anxiety in that beforehand, especially since it’s my first book. I wasn’t sure what the journey would be like post publication, since I’m not a known writer and there wasn’t a context for people to receive it in.

Rumpus: Have you gotten any negative feedback?

Ulman: I have had people say it was shocking or it made them uncomfortable. I had one woman in her fifties say, that’s not the way it is for teen girls, that’s not what their life is like. And that’s fine. I don’t mind. Nobody has said they felt it was gratuitous—at least not to me—and nobody has said that they thought I was a perv—[laughing] at least not in reference to the story.

And then again, I’m sort of ambivalent about this whole thing, I’m like it’s just a book of short stories! It’s not like Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift feuding. I mean, how many people pay attention and who cares? But—then again—it’s my book. This back and forth is always going on in my head.

Rumpus: Well, I just wanted to say I was really glad the long sex scene was in there. I recognized sex I have had in it and the story made me aware of how scripted that sex was, how really focused on male pleasure.

Ulman: It’s another conveyor belt—the script of porn-inspired sex. I feel some sympathy for the male character because he’s on a conveyor belt, too. If he’s interested in her pleasure at all, it’s because that’s in the script, too.

Rumpus: I guess in the story he does say he wants her to come.

Ulman: Yeah, for him.

Rumpus: Can you talk more about that pre-publication fear or nervousness about how the book would be received?

Ulman: I really loved the idea of being “emerging”—that is, an “emerging writer”—which is often a category of grants you can apply for and stuff like that. I was lucky enough to sell this book to a publisher in Australia before it was finished, so then I was a promising writer in an exciting position—I had a book deal! Beyond that, there was something that was ultimately going to be read and liked or not liked and that final part was really scary to me. I liked being in the moment before that. There are a lot of equivalent moments in the book—moments of extended adolescence, of not really knowing when the next part of your life begins.

I got second-book syndrome with my first book. You know, most of the time, with a collection of stories, you would finish it and then try to sell it with the beginning of a novel. From my own observation, it’s usually between the first and second book—the stories and the novel—that the stuckness happens. For instance, with Junot Díaz: Drown was so successful and then it took him eleven years to write Oscar Wao. For a lot of authors, paralysis seems to set in after the first book. Maybe because selling the book makes you lose the sense of play—that feeling of I can do anything and it doesn’t matter if I fail. You feel people are watching you—or at least you know they’re waiting.

I had that with my first book. I sold it and all of a sudden it felt like it did matter if I couldn’t deliver. I felt or imagined the pressure and expectations of other people. I couldn’t write messy drafts anymore or abandon stories. The economy was bad then, too. I knew I had been lucky to sell a book at all—and that was just another reason to make myself feel guilty. I had to wait until I felt like no one cared anymore, like no one was waiting and everyone had forgotten about me and given up hope that the book would ever be done. Then I started writing again.

Rumpus: Do you worry about cynicism in your writing?

Ulman: I don’t know if I worry about it, but I strove to create a balance between all the stories. That’s where voice became really important.

The Claire character [who appears in three stories] can often default to humor and a kind of cool commentary. In structuring the collection, it was important to me to stagger the Claire stories with stories where the voice was more naïve or openhearted or not quite as knowing. The really nice thing about having adolescent protagonists, especially on the more naïve end of the spectrum, was that I could write from a less cynical place. And I hope the humor in the stories also offsets any cynicism. Of course I want the stories to be thought-provoking, but most of all I hope they are entertaining and enjoyable to read, even though they’re dealing with complicated issues.

Rumpus: How did the Claire character emerge?

Ulman: Basically, Claire was a surprise that came along and I couldn’t shake her. I had read ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere and Julie Orringer’s How to Breathe Underwater and Junot Díaz’s Drown. Inspired by those collections, I had conceived of my book as just being about adolescent characters. During my second year of the Stegner Fellowship, though, I woke up one morning and the Claire character—who was in her twenties, living in the Bay Area—just came to me. She was perhaps a way to metabolize some of my experiences and my surroundings. I wrote the first story, but it didn’t feel to me like her narrative was done. A year or so later, the second one came to me. Once I had two Claire stories, I knew I wanted to write a third. That was another reason it was hard for me to finish the book: I had set a task but it was hard to figure out what that third story would be.

Rumpus: In “Your Charm Won’t Help You Here,” Claire—who’s British—gets deported from the US because of an “intention to immigrate.” Can that actually happen?

Ulman: Yes. I got deported from the US because of a perceived “intention to immigrate.” That story is the most autobiographical story in the collection, though I didn’t necessarily react the way the character reacts in that situation. You’d think if something like that was happening to a writer they’d take notes or something, but it didn’t once occur to me [during the experience] that I might write about it.

That story was hard to write because I had to relive the experience and I really didn’t want to relive those corridors and those cells and those fluorescent lights. I know a lot of people who write in that autobiographical mode, but I never do. I mean I have in an essayistic way, but I’d never had the experience in fiction—of having my own experience belong to a character and not to me and therefore having it mean something different for her than for me.

Rumpus: You write so much about adolescent characters, I couldn’t help wondering: what were you like in high school?

Ulman: I was more mature than I am now and took things really, really seriously. I was really idealistic—into peace signs and tie-dye and I became a vegetarian—and I loved to write. When I was fifteen, I read the Best American Short Stories of that year. It might’ve been one of the first story collections I’d ever read and I became obsessed with short fiction—specifically American short fiction. I remember looking at the contributors’ notes at the back and wondering, who are these people? There were lots of mentions of MFA’s and fellowships I’d never heard of. I became interested in studying in the US and learning what that was all about.

To me, Hot Little Hands is about interruptions in the development of a young person’s identity and sexuality. Everybody experiences these interruptions, but in this book, it’s about the way this happens to girls and young women. For example, I had an ongoing prank caller for years when I was a teenager: a young guy would call me up and masturbate on the phone and, as soon as I realized who it was, I’d hang up. Apparently it was happening to a few girls from my school. You’re going along normally in your life, thinking your thoughts and doing your thing, and you get an anonymous prank call from a guy masturbating on the phone—it’s an interruption.

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Author photograph © Kate Berry.


Emma Winsor Wood, deputy interviews editor for The Rumpus, is also the editor of Stone Soup, the magazine for kids by kids. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA and tweets @emmawinsorwood. More from this author →