From the tender age of eight, Jennifer Colville has known herself to be a visual artist. This identity as a person drawn to the visual is not simply a function of the art she creates but is ultimately the way she thinks about the world and processes information big and small. Striving for a more immersive experience than she was able to find in visual arts alone, Colville pivoted slightly to find herself surrounded by the written word. What began as poetry soon became fiction; the most recent iteration taking the form of her short story collection Elegies for Uncanny Girls. In this society of unlikely protagonists, Colville unexpectedly places the fantastical alongside the ordinary with gentle yet brilliant ease. In the most ordinary moments of angst, Colville brings the reader inside what she calls the “violet intensity” of the minds of pubescent teenagers, bored young mothers, curious coeds, and jealous middle-aged sisters. Colville’s elegies are equal parts human and hopeful, fragile and feminine. They are, in the end, stories that give back agency to women and young girls in the specific areas they need it most.
The Rumpus: This collection came together over the course of twenty years. How have you as a writer, as well as the work you create, changed in that time?
Jennifer Colville: I’ve had many productive interruptions in my writing career—interruptions that have informed my process and style in surprisingly good ways. I wrote the earliest story in the book, “Caroline,” in what should have been the long leisurely third year of my MFA program. Instead, I was hit by a car in a wintery downtown intersection of Syracuse and taken unconscious to the emergency room. I was fine! But I’d lost some of my memory and started to struggle with anxiety, feeling that I had smaller and smaller windows in which I could function without the anxiety. Writing then became a way of managing the anxiety—when I was writing, my constricting windows of time expanded; sometimes I couldn’t see the window’s borders at all. I started writing in these supersaturated, imagistic moments. Formalist writers call them “crots.” Inside these moments, time and narrative disappear. It was my first foray into writing in fragments and then collaging a structure together. The Aristotelian narrative, where time plays such a crucial role, and with which I’d always struggled, well, during that period, I was able to throw it out the window.
Other fruitful interruptions include a tragicomic period of trying to become the worlds most beloved adjunct instructor. I did this by teaching up to five classes a semester in different institutions. This drained my creative energy but taught me how to edit. I was teaching my students to be critical thinkers, and learning from them as I taught. I also started to realize how much a hadn’t read. I started to discover pockets of literary history I wanted to delve into. In other words, I discovered my inner geek. I went back to school for a PhD at the university of Utah (a great hub for experimental prose writing). Here, again, it was the restriction on my time, (the program was intense) that got me writing. And it was here that my writing grew in richness, started picking up the echoes of everything I was reading. Other productive interruptions where falling in love and getting married, moving to San Francisco, and the big whammy of childbirth. I’ve gone through it twice and survived to tell the tales! Raising children is for me the most joyful and frustrating interruption of all. But it wasn’t until I had kids that I learned how to finish many of my stories. After the kids, I started to see a thread that could pull what I’d been writing into a cohesive collection.
Rumpus: Say more about the thread that pulls these stories together.
Colville: The stories are about girls navigating the mine field of American femininity. The girls range in age from four to forty. And I hope it’s that scope that gives the book it’s final kick. In my twenties, I was writing about mother and daughter relationships through the daughters’ points of view. These daughters typically configured their mothers as enemies while the real culprit was, and is, our larger patriarchal culture. My hope is that the collection shows a sort of coming full circle—the daughters grow up, have their own children and realize it’s their mothers, (not their fathers, teachers, or other authority figures) to whom they owe the greatest debt, to whom they are bound.
There is a fabulist thread throughout the book that took me by surprise. Odd things happen: a woman’s wrists split, another woman can blend in the wallpaper, as a tactical move. When I discovered this thread, I teased it out by adding a story that’s full-blown fabulism, “The Big Little Lady,” about a woman whose body shrinks and expands against her will. But rather than defining the collection these elements are meant to be read as moments of heightened reality, as expressionistic gestures that reveal a character’s interior world.
Rumpus: Do you generally see the fantastical in life? Or is that something that surprises you in your work precisely because it’s not part of your every day, and is what emerges when you sit down to create?
Colville: I do feel that “real life” is in large part fantasy. I think that if you look at any object for too long it becomes strange, especially if, like my characters, you’re in [a] restricted situation and grasping to find meaning. I’m thinking of the protagonist in the Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” how she starts to see her own plight reflected in the strangled heads of flowers in the wallpaper’s design. There is another story I love, William Gass’s “The Order of Insects” in which a bored housewife begins to see the dried-up husks of insects as mini sarcophagi. If the mind is not allowed growth or freedom, it starts to invent.
I should also say that I love the visual. When I was eight I decided I’d be a visual artist, then I was going to be a poet. So, I think the fantastic elements spring from the way I think visually and poetically. I’m interested in what an image can say about a characters’ inner world and how images can be used to structure a piece lyrically, picking up or accumulating connotations as the story progresses. It took me a while to fully understand how traditional narrative works.
Rumpus: Why did you structure these stories as elegies? It is a word that carries such a strong connotation.
Colville: That relates to the lyrical elements of the book, and to the small transformative losses the characters experience. The story that’s most obviously an elegy is “Caroline.” I use a lyrical form, and I hope the story captures those moments of childhood friendship when your sense of self is so closely aligned with your friend’s, when you go to great lengths to match: to wear the same outfits, buy the same lip-gloss, etc. And you do this because it’s safer to experiment with the “self” if you’re doing it with someone else, within the parameters of someone else’s identity. The loss in “Caroline” comes when puberty hits, and one friend’s body becomes very obviously different than the other’s. Different characters start to notice (the adversarial brother, the delighted mother, the inappropriate father). They call out the body in different ways. They objectify. The story rests on a moment in which other people’s perceptions threaten the powerful way in which the girls see themselves, and at least for the moment, splits them apart.
Rumpus: How do these stories explore the space that comes after that?
Colville: I wanted the girls to be empowered, to be able to take back some of the agency that gets blocked. The story “Details,” is about the girl who is seduced by her professor, but who is also, as far as she is concerned, seducing him. I like characters who are both naïve and knowing. Both immersed within their experiences and able to cast a critical eye on them. This character has naively bought into the narrative of a love story, and half thinks she will become a writer through her professor. At the same time, she realizes, ‘Oh, this is also a story I can write about!’ From that vantage point, even as she goes through with the seduction, she discovers, and reveals the professor, catching and claiming the details that reveal what is really going on. At the end, she’s gained power as a writer.
Rumpus: Can you tell us more about how you moved from visual art to the written word?
Colville: The move to writing came from a desire for a more immersive form. I love the immersive experience of reading a longer piece, the way you disappear into it. You can look at art and it can be an intense experience in the moment. You can walk away and have it color the way you see the outside world. But for me, reading a story is a total immersion. Maybe it’s just about duration, but within the duration of a story, I feel as if I’m really inside someone else’s head. There’s a kind of violet intensity to it. Especially if the story ends up being about human struggle, loss or sadness, and the cathartic moment (as so many stories are). I should also say that my move toward the short story wasn’t a progression in the sense of moving toward a higher form. In fact, sometimes I think I want to reform the short story, to make it more lovely and meditative and open. I know that, in learning the form, I wanted to learn how to integrate the highly visual way I think, my love of language, lyric and moment into this structure that depends so much on economy, and creates these intensely powerful endings. I’m still struggling with the integration of all this. But I’d rather have a story that includes all my loves—the weird image, the lyric moment, and is perhaps a little uneven, a little lumpy. I’d rather have this than a perfectly streamlined, Hemingway-esque sort of construction. I’m okay with texture in a story. I love writers who are hard to define. I like a little mess.
Rumpus: Is that circular movement what ultimately led to the creation of Prompt Press?
Colville: Yes, I went back to visual art when I started Prompt Press. I couldn’t leave it behind. With Prompt, the idea was to create a venue in which writers can respond to working visual artists. I’m interested in the ways that contemplating visual art can open writers to new possibilities of form. To this end, we at Prompt find emerging, or sometimes very established visual artists willing to send us bodies of new work. We post the work in an online gallery and put out a call for creative writing responses. Our first prompt, from the artist Wendy Kawabata, was a series of drawings made with tiny, lineated punctures in paper. The punctures are so finely rendered you think they are traditional line drawings until you look closer. The writers who responded to this piece took inspiration from the process of puncturing. Some of the pieces they created picked up on the rhythm of the puncturing or used the act of puncturing as a metaphor. I wrote a response that ended up in “Elegies” about a woman who is made up of tiny perforations and therefore blends into whatever background she stands against. She is the ultimate wallflower, but she also carries a gun.
Rumpus: The stories in this collection have a remarkable way of slowing time down in order to capture the very ordinary moments that are part of the process of becoming a new person. Anyone can make spectacle but not everyone can find the ordinary moments you might otherwise miss and then go on to craft such memorable and significant stories.
Colville: Thanks. I wanted them to be ordinary. We tend to think literature is important if it captures bigger events—war or obvious political conflicts—or is panoramic in scope. But really, I feel that, for women, there can be so much struggle at the level of the moment, in small exchanges with others. I think that for my characters, I’m trying to spotlight a kind of constant dissonance between the way the world sees them (as nymphets, airheads, spinsters, bitches, etc.) and the way they see themselves. My characters have an uncanny ability to see how they are being seen, and to think, ‘Okay, do I lean into this role, or do I rebel?’ There’s a constant negotiation of identity.
Author photograph © Sarah Nebel.