What to Read When Straightforward Stories Aren’t Enough


My debut collection, Animal You’ll Surely Become, is a blue-collar fairy tale. A work of poetry and nonfiction, it explores a broken family system, addiction, and sexual trauma. My father is a sexual assault victim of a Catholic priest which resulted in years of addiction and later, homelessness. I am also a victim of sexual assault, and in order to tell the story of my trauma, I wrote a series of fantastical prose poems that explore fairy tale tropes and animal symbology.

While writing my manuscript I flip-flopped between tell-it-straight addiction memoirs and poetry or fiction that employed magical realism. I am a poet and a journalist, so I’ve always lived between these two worlds: stories rooted surely in fact and lyrical tales that send the reader to the moon. Likewise, I’ve always felt that my life and experience existed in the real and unreal, the sober and the intoxicated. Trauma is intoxicating, lifting you out of reality. Trauma is grounding, forcing you to look at life with laser focus.

Animal You’ll Surely Become emulates that duality, and so when seeking inspiration, I read books that live across the spectrum of reality, fantasy, straightforward, and lyrical. For me, prose poetry and reimagined fairy tales told truths about addiction and trauma in ways that, sometimes, straightforward narratives could not. Perhaps the list that follows seems incongruent, but these books were my lifeblood while exploring memories I swore I’d never share with anybody.


Junkette by Sarah Shotland
Sarah Shotland’s Junkette is a lyric, first-person novel about Claire Cunningham, a heroin addict living in New Orleans on the eve of Hurricane Katrina. Shotland expertly navigates the nuances of addiction through Claire, a woman obsessed with list-making, calorie-counting, and the body. Images from this novel are seared into my brain; I eagerly consumed Claire’s life in one sitting. The book travels through a series of vignettes, some steeped in heroin and whiskey, and others with laser focus, characters on fire beneath Shotland’s magnifying glass. Shotland’s structural choices inspired me to break out from the traditional memoir form, and let my memories, however soaked in alcohol, take me where they wanted.


The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Cater taught me that women can be animals, too. The Bloody Chamber is a series of reinvented fairy tales. In its world, Little Red Riding Hood has sexual desire, or is part wolf. Through reading Carter’s book, I learned how to reinvent fairy tales to tell the story of my sexual trauma. This book is my Bible. On a sentence level, Carter is magical; her prose often reads like poetry: “Like the wild beasts, she lives without a future. She inhabits only the present tense, a fugue of the continuous, a world of sensual immediacy as without hope as it is without despair.” I highly recommend this book for those searching to reinvent and subvert tropes in the fairy tale genre.


We Take Me Apart by Molly Gaudry
We Take Me Apart is a verse novella of reconstructed fairy tales. It tells the story of a mother, daughter, and the daughter’s lesbian lover. This book, which exists somewhere between fiction and poetry, examines femininity (as many fairy tales do)—here is the domestic and the household, with dirt floors and characters so close you could kiss them. There’s also blood and gore, the protagonist gouging out her eyes after losing both her mother and lover. Gaudry subverts heterosexual norms often found in fairy tales and doesn’t give her readers the “happily ever after” ending. Her subversion, and her reclamation of the Eurocentric fairy tale genre, is what makes this novella so transcendental and powerful. In its sequel, Desire: A Haunting, the magic continues.


Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
This was the first book I read and thought, I have a family like that. McCourt narrates his memoir from the perspective of his younger self, a perspective that is so essential in presenting the emotional truth of his upbringing. Readers get a sense of what it was like to be that little boy in Ireland—the fear, the hunger, and the sheer joy of it. “The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live,” McCourt writes. The way in which he renders characters with such innocent clarity gave me permission to search for my younger self’s voice. I was drawn to this book at an early age, and I appreciated its courage greatly. McCourt questions the adults around him, and it was one of the first books I read that did such a thing. And while McCourt is honest about his disappointment in his father, he still writes with love.


The Tunnel: Selected Poems of Russell Edson by Russell Edson
Russel Edson’s selected poems was recommended to me in graduate school. I was writing paragraph-long pieces that were neither nonfiction nor poetry. Edson’s story-poems rarely end in the way you’d want or expect them to. The first poem I ever read by Edson was “The Pilot.” The old man with the star in his brain struck me and lodged himself in my psyche. Edson’s poems and characters live inside you and take up residence in your dreams. Edson is also often funny, but the humor is dark and heartbreaking, so discomfort follows the laughter. I wanted to tell short stories about dreams, desire, and haunting—reading Edson’s work taught me that.


The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
Over the course of a year, several people encouraged me to read The Chronology of Water because Yuknavitch’s lyricism and brutal honesty reminded them of what I was trying to do in my own work. I read this book in two nights, underlining nearly every sentence. I wanted to write in the strange way she did, but I also wanted, at times, to tell the reader exactly what was going on. I love Yuknavitch’s metaphors—drowning, swimming, drinking, flooding—but it is also her short, concise, and incredibly honest gut-punches that make this memoir unlike any other. It is gripping, infuriating, and painful. At times, I wanted to throw the book across the room because I understood so deeply how fucked up Yuknavitch had become through parental abuse, spousal abuse, addiction, and I knew the feeling of desperately trying to understand love and learn how to be loved so well. I love Yuknavitch’s writing for its raw honesty. She inspired me to be just a vulnerable in my own work.


The Lost Girls Book of Divination by Letisia Cruz
The Lost Girls Book of Divination is a graphic poetry collection that navigates the four suits of a tarot deck. Cruz meditates on the question, What does it mean to be lost? and includes illustrations that are alluring, yet dark. This book feels like a psychedelic journey down your physical, intellectual, creative, and spiritual paths. The illustrations—some creatures are winged, some made of river water—live on the page next to commanding verse, guiding the reader along. This is a collection for the lost and the dreaming. (And, perhaps, someone halfway through a book manuscript and losing their mind.)


Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison
The first time I read Dorothy Allison, I found myself reading her words out loud. It seemed out of my control. I started to recite the lines from the pages of her memoir while cooking, walking, or driving to work. Two or Three Things I Know for Sure is a raw telling of a complicated childhood. Allison takes risks, pushing metaphor to the sometimes macabre. When one reads Allison, one imagines she is sitting across from you and speaking from her heart. She executes this voice through staccato sentences, exclamations, and direct addresses to the reader:

Children go crazy. Really, even children go crazy… Oh, I could tell you stories that would darken the sky and stop the blood. The stories I could tell no one would believe. I would have to pour blood on the floor to convince anyone every word I say is true.

There is no hiding with Allison. I hoped to push my own writing toward that kind honesty.


Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela
Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe is a memoir about adoption, motherhood, family, and identity. Jakiela is meticulous, often utilizing very specific descriptions and pushing her verbs in unexpected ways. Likewise, her adjectives are gritty and visceral. She is laconic in her expression, writing in direct and elemental sentences. But she is also poetic, weaving a lyrical memoir that is both funny and devastating. I trust a story when it sounds like it could be told to me from across a kitchen table. There’s a musicality to the way my own family communicates, and I looked to Jakiela for how to render that direct yet poetic language in order to resurrect the dialect and magic of my youth.


Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar
Fantasy has been my means of escape since I was a little girl, and I’ve always been drawn to the darker stories. The Academy Award-winning film Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin, was adapted from Alibar’s one-act play Juicy and Delicious, and Zeiltlin and Alibar share writing credits for the film’s screenplay. The play portrays a young boy named Hushpuppy surviving in the bayou with Daddy, a complicated father. Hushpuppy imagines prehistoric beasts coming to uproot him and Daddy from their home. The images from both the play and the film are haunting in their juxtaposition: for example, a small child facing a two-story-tall warthog-like beast. Alibar’s and Zeitlin’s rendering of Hushpuppy showed me that children can very successfully and powerfully be a focal point in a creative work. Their characterization of Hushpuppy inspired me to delve into the mind of a child and reexamine the world through a more imaginative lens.


The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
“In my mind, Dad was perfect, although he did have what Mom called a little bit of a drinking situation,” Jeanette Walls writes in her memoir The Glass Castle. I immediately recognized Walls as one of my kind, not just because of the similarities in our life stories, but also because of the frankness in her portrayals. Throughout the book, Walls emphasizes that her father was more than just a drunk, which is really the crux of it; this is why most children of addicts remain so profoundly affected by the disease. In some ways it would be easier if a parent were all bad, and could be dismissed as abusive or evil, but this isn’t often the case. There’s always the sober version of the parent inside fighting their way out; there’s always the addict lurking somewhere behind the parent’s eyes when they are clean. Both parent and child are always aware and dancing.


Madeleine Is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
This book affected me in ways I can’t really articulate. My dreams changed. My speech patterns changed. Madeleine Is Sleeping is a novel in verse, its story told in a series of prose poems. Madeleine navigates two worlds: the waking world, her life in a provincial French town, and her dream world, a life with a traveling band of gypsies. Some chapters are a sentence long while others take pages. The characters are strange and wonderfully creepy. The reader often cannot discern reality from slumber, which started to happen to me in real life as I was reading this book. This is a book to read more than once, for the plot doesn’t reveal itself easily. You have a sense of what’s going on, but you can’t exactly articulate why or how—much like in a dream.


And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Brittany’s debut collection, Animal You’ll Surely Become, out now from Tolsun Books!  – Ed.

Animal You’ll Surely Become by Brittany Hailer
Animal You’ll Surely Become is a brutal and lyric shape-shifter of a book. It reinvents itself with each chapter, always turning on the reader. This book is an animal who is smart and soft, intuitive and vicious. It is a hybrid-myth of a beast with three faces pointing backwards, forwards, and most importantly: straight ahead, daring its reader, its prey, to blink. Hailer debuts with a lush and dirty book that is as adventurous as it is ambitious, and as I read it, I couldn’t look away.” Sarah Shotland, author of Junkette

Brittany Hailer is a freelance reporter based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She graduated with an MFA from Chatham University where she taught creative writing classes at the Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House as part of Chatham’s Words Without Walls program. Her memoir and poetry collection Animal You'll Surely Become was published in 2018 by Tolsun Books. She is a Justice Reporting Fellow for 2018 John Jay/Langeloth Foundation Fellowship on “Reinventing Solitary Confinement” and teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Visit her website, www.brittanyhailer.com, for more. More from this author →