Brain Soup and Making Things: A Conversation with Rita Bullwinkel
Rita Bullwinkel’s stories, which appear in her debut collection Belly Up (A Strange Object, May 2018), are that device an optometrist uses that shoots air into your eye. They’re potent and necessary, sparse enough that the strange moments clip you unexpectedly, and such a pleasure to read. It’s one of the strongest contemporary short story collections you’ll encounter this year.
Bullwinkel’s writing has been published in BuzzFeed, Tin House, and VICE. Both her fiction and her translation have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes.
Recently, we spoke through email about how Bullwinkel chose writing over religious studies, the foolishness of writing, and what went into the making of Belly Up.
The Rumpus: What struck me as I read Belly Up was the remarkable fluidity of this collection, in terms of realist and fantastical elements in the stories.
Was there anything that surprised you when you began putting these stories in the same space?
Rita Bullwinkel: When I was an undergraduate, I wrote this one hundred and fifty page academic thesis for the religious studies department titled, “The Hermetic Nous: Perspectives on Second- to Fourth-Century Conceptions of Mind.” It tried to explain, or define, all the ways that this heretical group of Christians that lived in Egypt understood the mind to reside in the body. Some of them thought it was an octopus that sat in the center of your chest and reached out a tendril when one decided they wanted to activate a part of their body and pick up a spoon. As in, one’s mind is a octopus in one’s chest, and one decides one wants to pick up a spoon, so one’s mind-octopus deploys a tentacle out from your chest, into your arm, and allows you, animates your arm with some insane octopus tentacle divine energy, to pick up the spoon and do with it what you like.
In this mind-octopus conception of thinking there is obviously no knowledge, or account of the brain, which I like. Some of these other heretical Christians just thought our minds are made out of soup. Like, there’s this really powerful liquid-god-soup called pnuema and there’s this place where all the primordial soup, like a sea of it, lives, and the sea of soup, that’s god actually, but anyway, we have a little god-soup in each of us and that god-soup is our mind, and when we die our little portion of god-soup will, like, evaporate, or something, and go back to the sea.
Anyway, I reread Belly Up recently and was like, wow, this book is basically just “The Hermetic Nous Part 2.” I’m not sure whether or not that is depressing, as in, maybe I have no original ideas ever, and I’m just this rote repeating trap loop of a thinker, or, that is just the way living a life unfolds. You read a thing that changes you. You write a thing that changes you. And then it’s in your soup, and it’s just what you are.
Rumpus: I love the idea of each of us having a little bit of god-soup. And I think you’re being humble here. I don’t think it’s depressing that Belly Up reads as a continuation of what you were thinking while writing “The Hermetic Nous.” I find it enormously satisfying reading through old journals and sketchbooks to see that I’m turning certain ideas over and over.
Can you talk about your overall vision for this project?
Bullwinkel: I think other writers are better than me at having visions. I feel like I have little, abstract desires, that manifest themselves in different ways, but that the vision of a book, or the ability to see it in-whole, to meet it and ask it what it’s wearing, and why it chose to wear the outfit that it did, that comes very late for me. And then, there is a shifting. I suppose a vision sounds so grand and smart and purposeful. I don’t know if it’s something of which I’m totally capable.
Something that I did know about Belly Up, however, from the very beginning, is that I wanted the collection to contain stories that had radically different lengths. I love reading brief and long stories together. They make me feel like I get to breathe above water in between living in longer, more immersive experiences of the imagination.
Other collections that do this that I love, that have brief and long narratives together, structured in contrast to one another, are Lucy Corin’s One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses, Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago, George Saunders’s Tenth of December, and Ben Marcus’s Leaving the Sea.
Rumpus: There’s sometimes a pressure that comes with beginning a longer project that feels unnatural. This is how I feel about having an overall vision for a story, or a collection, anyway. That it can feel unnatural, and can, for me anyway, cause a departure from truer tendencies or the little, abstract desires.
Anyway, how do you begin a story? I’ve heard Ottessa Moshfegh say she often starts with a mysterious sound, like a radio wave in the ether. Some kind of spirit who came to her, who inhabited her.
Bullwinkel: Starting a new project for me is like a glass that is being filled with water that, when it begins to overflow, means I need to begin something new, and what is around me at that moment of overflowing becomes the new thing I am making.
I have this theory that there are people who need to make things, and there are people who don’t. If you’re a person that has to make things to feel like you’re a person, then, when you are not making things, you feel really terrible, like, you’re not even human, really, and your body is just floating through space, wasting time until you die. It is difficult to feel this way because basically every force in the world does not want you to make a thing. The world, with its evil capital and shame, wants you to consume, not to make. So, anyway, there just gets a point, where, if I haven’t made something for a while, I begin to feel out of control. Like water is spilling everywhere and all my thoughts are the floor, falling away from me, and that I am falling away from me. And so I begin there.
Rumpus: And how do you move, say, from the first, raw draft to the next? How long does it take you to write a first draft, and how much remains as you move on?
Bullwinkel: I find each story, or project, requires a different amount of editing. Some stories have many drafts. Some only have one. I am not shy about starting again on something if something is not working. The novel I am working on, for instance, I have written twice before. In both cases I found it easier to start over than to pillage from the draft’s broken predecessors.
Rumpus: How has the experience of writing your novel been? Where have you mostly been working on it?
Bullwinkel: The novel is about a youth women’s boxing tournament in Reno. I mostly work on it sitting in bed, either very early in the morning or very late at night, here in my home in San Francisco.
While working on the novel I have felt very conscious of the fact that a novel requires so much from a reader. It seems like such a big ask to me, to ask a reader to spend so much time with me, in my head, with my girl fighters.
Sometimes I feel that I only want the most difficult things. And this is not because I like doing or requesting difficult things of people. I think this is just bad luck. Why aren’t we painters? There is much less blood in painting.
Rumpus: It would be awesome to be a painter! And to trade paintings like story drafts! Painting has always seemed like such a noble profession.
Which short story collections are you reading this spring?
Bullwinkel: There are so many magnificent collections coming out this year. The ones I am most looking forward to reading include: Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Notes from the Fog by Ben Marcus, A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley, Hybrid Creatures by Matthew Baker, and Back Talk by Danielle Lazarin.
Rumpus: Do you mainly read short stories, or do you do other sorts of reading?
Bullwinkel: I do all sorts of reading. I’m currently reading everything Maggie Nelson has written, in chronological order, and read Jane: A Murder yesterday. That book is incredible. I know it’s nonfiction, but it’s also a perfect novel.
Rumpus: What do you think of the idea of writing about your wound, as Gordon Lish phrases it? His advice to writers has been to “take your wound as your identity, turn it into your instrument, your cudgel.” Joy Williams, on the other hand, seems to scoff at the idea of a writer’s wound. In an essay called “Uncanny Singing That Comes from Certain Husks,” she writes:
It’s become fashionable these days to say that the writer writes because he is not whole, he has a wound, he writes to heal it, but who cares if the writer is not whole, of course the writer is not whole, or even particularly well. There is something unwholesome and destructive about the entire writing process. Writers are like eremites or anchorites — natural-born eremites or anchorites — who seem puzzled as to why they went up the pole or into the cave in the first place.
Bullwinkel: I think I feel more like Joy, in this sense, if the question is, who do you relate more to on this wound matter—Williams or Lish? I often find myself in holes or up poles and feel very puzzled as to how I got there. I agree with Lish in the sense that writing can be about looking very deeply at one’s own faults or the harm that has been done to you. Writing, and art making in general, I think, is about not looking away at the uncomfortable or horrific parts of the world, but about looking at those parts of the world more closely, and with a deep sense of emotional honesty.
Rumpus: In an interview we did three years ago, you described your writing as, “A perilous attempt to swim the English Channel. An elective surgery in which the doctor may have accidentally left the scalpel inside the patient.”
Has this changed?
Bullwinkel: I suppose I still feel that writing is very difficult and that only insane, foolish, or deeply compulsive people try to do it. Surely many writers, and many people who have tried to swim the English Channel, feel this way? I often feel like how I imagine the people who swim the English Channel feel when they are three quarters of the way through their swim, accompanied by row boats, and slathered in fat, and being seal-fed little power goop packets by sailors standing above them in boats, squirting power goop into their open lips.
Rumpus: How would you describe your writing in Belly Up, as compared to your novel?
Bullwinkel: I think that they are both pulling blood from the same vein.