The Rumpus Book Club chats with Ayşe Papatya Bucak about her debut collection, The Trojan War Museum: And Other Stories (W. W. Norton & Company, August 2019), drawing on fairy tales and mythology for inspiration, writing from the third position of being both American and Turkish, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Jeannie Vanasco, Leigh Camacho Rourks, Paul Lisicky, Samantha Irby, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club chat was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Thank you for joining us for tonight’s chat with Ayşe Papatya Bucak about her debut story collection, THE TROJAN WAR MUSEUM: AND OTHER STORIES!
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Should I try to act natural, like I didn’t log in several hours ago, just in case, and then check every fifteen minutes to make I still could, just in case? Hi!
Eva Woods: Hi! I’m really excited to talk about these stories!
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Hi, Eva! Happy to talk about the stories!
Marisa: How’s the weather down there in South Florida?
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Just starting to get that eerie sense that something is coming. Little bit more ocean smell than usual. More silence from the animal world. My town is under a hurricane warning (possible hurricane conditions within forty-eight hours) but just south of us is a tropical storm warning, so hopefully by morning we’ll be out of the “cone”… do other people know about the cone?
Eva Woods: I lived in Florida as a kid, so I do, but wow it’s such a scary weird-sky time; I’m so sorry you’re in it. I work with a guy named Dorian who is super offended this is being associated with him lol.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Right now we are on the fine line between over-stimulation and tedium… waiting waiting waiting. Dorian is a slow one! (The storm, not the coworker)! But I’ve done this a bunch, so I’m pretty okay with it.
Eva Woods: Good luck!
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Appreciated. My mom is using all of her mental powers to put me in a bubble so hopefully this will help South Florida out.
Marisa: Can you talk a bit about how this collection came together? In the acknowledgements you mention it took ten years. Were these stories written over that period of time, or was it lots of editing, or both?
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: It was mostly writing time. I seemed to average one story a year—though whether that was the nature of these stories, which took quite a bit of research and by the end were getting quite long and layered, or if it’s just me, I don’t know. I signed with my agent in spring of 2017, and she had me write one more story for the book, and then she sold it in spring of 2018 and it published this August. So while that wasn’t really editing time, it was publishing time. Now that I think about it that seems like a long time to wait to publish, but actually it happened pretty fast.
The first two stories of the collection were just stories I wrote because a novel had done me in… but then after that I knew I was writing stories for a collection. And I had tenure, so I could take my time, and for whatever reason going slowly seemed to be working better than drafting fast ever did for me.
Eva Woods: What was the research process like for you? Did you research your family specifically and Turkish history generally, or did one inform you more than the other?
Marisa: I’m also super interested in how much research you did! Many stories contain real-life people turned into characters. I wondered how true to life you stayed in those instances, too.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Not my family, no. At least not for the stories—though I have an essay that hopefully will come out before long that is family stories. I just am not an autobiographical fiction writer. Most of the time, I had a story idea that then dictated what research needed to happen. So for example I knew I wanted to write about the chess-playing automaton, so I started by researching that, then I got into reading Turkish folk tales and legends as I created the character of the automaton. And then it was set in Philadelphia during a certain time period so I got into researching that.
Eva Woods: That sounds SO FUN and also really challenging.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: With the real-life figures I often didn’t know much about them. So I would start out thinking I would use their “real” stories a lot, but then, sometimes because I can’t read/speak Turkish, I ended up finding very little. I probably found out the most about the wrestler known as the Turk and I stuck to his actual matches (or the legends about his actual matches) very closely. But his personality I had to invent because there is no record (in English) of him ever telling his own story.
I had fun. I had no idea I liked research and then I realized it’s just another case of being a perpetual student. I love being a perpetual student.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: I think because I find it weird to write about myself or my family (in fiction anyway) I liked learning about Turkishness, and thus to some extent my dad, by learning the things he learned in school, etc. In certain ways I felt closer to him because I had more shared knowledge with him after doing this research. Though he always knew America well and we shared that knowledge, too.
Eva Woods: I have two questions about the titular story: Why Apollo and why the Trojan war and also do you think Apollo looks like Harry Styles from One Direction? (I do!)
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Haha. I think Apollo as a teen idol feels right. So the Trojan War was because I had this idea that I was going to write a book of stories about Troy (which is a part of Turkey I have never visited but have a lot of curiosity about), and I tend to start with a lot of structure—so I was going to do stories that each represented an archaeological layer of Troy. But then I realized I could do in one story what I had thought to do in ten. And then I realized I didn’t want to write whole stories about the town; I was really only interested in the gods and myth (just like most people). I wrote a couple of sentences that were pretty mysterious to me (that later became the description of the eighth Trojan War Museum (I think eighth), and I didn’t know what they were but I liked the voice of them. And then I had the idea to write about a museum… and I was literally in a history museum during the AWP DC conference when the title “The Trojan War Museum” popped into my head.
Marisa: Your stories read almost like fables, or myths, or fairy tales. What draws you to this kind of storytelling? (Which I love.)
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: I have always been drawn to the voice of fairy tales and myths. I actually was never all that into the actual plot lines of say, Snow White and such, but I liked the accoutrements. The woods. The storyteller voice. The play with language. And so I think I started rewriting tales because I wanted to use that voice. Then the more I read the more I got into the tales themselves.
I also got very into the whole American magic realism that Aimee Bender and Kelly Link and other people were doing… so I was influenced by their use of fairy tales, too.
Eva Woods: That is so interesting to me! Especially the part about realizing one story could do the work of ten. How would you characterize that work?
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: How would I characterize the work that the story is doing?
Eva Woods: Right, like what was it that made you realize you could get to the core of the story in just this one?
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: I will say I had no reason to believe that I had ten stories worth of things to say about Troy. I just liked the tidiness of the idea, I think.
Eva Woods: It was one of my favorite stories. I like the feeling of looking behind the myth to see what it was like for the mythologized. I think sometimes fairy tales never get through to that layer, and it’s really wonderful and transporting.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: I guess I didn’t really know it could do the work. With that story in particular I wandered the woods quite awhile before I knew what I was up to. I had the idea to treat setting as a character in that I would use one setting that changed over time and the museum became that setting. But I had the title—“The Trojan War Museum”—and that pretty much dictated that the story needed to have three layers: the Iliad, the experience of war, and the memorialization of war. So I read the Iliad a bunch of times, I watched a lot of documentaries on soldiers, and I read a bunch on graves and memorials and such. The story got built out of a lot of small pieces.
Marisa: How did you decide to order the stories? I really loved the opening and closing stories/the beats you begin and end on, and wondered how long they’d been the frame?
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Actually the decision to put “Gathering of Desire” at the end came very late. My agent and I went back and forth a few times on the order. She wanted a more contemporary story at the end, but I didn’t have that many contemporary stories. And originally “The History of Girls” was more toward the middle. But that was the first story I wrote for the book so it had been out a while and I knew firsthand that it was my most reader-friendly story, so I suggested we put it first—as a kind of warm greeting, everybody welcome kind of story. But then I wanted “The Trojan War Museum” to be last as it’s my personal fave (Julie was not so keen on that idea). Then I realized on albums—when we used to listen to those—I often liked the sixth song best… so I put “The Trojan War Museum” sixth. And at that point, it felt like “Gathering of Desire” could work as anchor, and in fact more people would notice the story (which is maybe my second favorite) if it was at the end.
Eva Woods: Thinking of it like an album is great.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: To go back to the fairy tale/legend thread…. I only just realized that one of the things I liked most about writing these stories was I could use the voice of tales but write stories that were longer than a lot of tales. I wasn’t conscious of that, but I think that was part of the pleasure for me. But also I was influenced some by The Arabian Nights, and its story-in-story structure. So I was always conscious of trying to have multiple layers to every story.
Eva Woods: You definitely accomplished that!
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: I once listened to an AWP podcast on ordering story collections and one of the most helpful bits of advice I pulled from that was don’t put stories with similar endings too close to each other. And I definitely had some stories with similar endings, so I tried to separate them a little, so they acted as echoes as opposed to feeling like repeats.
Eva Woods: That advice is great motivation to stop killing all my characters when I don’t know how to end stories!
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Oh, I killed so many characters to end stories! Plot is hard! Endings are hard!
Eva Woods: I’m really interested in how you approach writing women and girls. I really loved how sometimes the characters’ femaleness felt incidental to them (which is how I feel like I experience it) and sometimes, like in “The History of Girls,” it’s at the center of the story and who the characters are. Can you tell us a little about how you incorporate gender in your work?
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: That’s interesting… I think maybe I notice being female the most when I am in a group of women or girls. But it often does feel somewhat incidental to me. The girls from “The History of Girls” essentially were modeled on the slumber parties I went to a kid and how we’d all talk at night when the lights were out. That grew out of the fact that, without thinking about it, I wrote a story where the characters couldn’t move physically—but once I realized they were basically girls talking at night, the story became an homage to my closest female friends from when I was a kid.
But as to incorporating gender in my work, I guess I’m not super-conscious about it. I was aware of writing male characters—especially a wrestler—and maybe the fact that many of them were real (the Ottoman diplomat, the sponge diver, the chess player) made it easier? Also one of my early readers is male so he does help me out. A lot of the stories I love best are girls’ coming-of-age stories, so I think it was inevitable that I’d cover that demographic quite a bit.
Eva Woods: The hotel manager with the jinns is who I was thinking of having what felt more like an incidental femaleness, and I really liked that. I also have two jinns on my shoulders being annoying lol.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Ah yes, in “Good Fortune” I set out to write a story about being a woman without children, and I feel like that is in her character quite a bit, but it didn’t dominate as much as I thought.
Eva Woods: Women existing as not mothers or daughters or wives is so important! And I think it should feel as casual and natural as it did, because why not?
Marisa: How does your work teaching come into play with your writing? You mentioned in the acknowledgements (I love acknowledgements sections) that Florida Atlantic University has been a very inspiring place.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: So yes, teaching has helped me. I mean there are times when commenting on student work feels so endless, but teaching craft has made me so much more conscious of things I’d like to do as a writer. I feel like the cool thing to do is to deny that—to say craft is meaningless, that writing comes from the heavens or from opening your veins, but I love craft. The first person plural in “The History of Girls” was a PoV I chose as an exercise, just to try it… I’m not sure why it’s somehow less artistic to use technique and craft. (I am maybe a little defensive about this.)
Also, being around literary scholars who have read everything and can put my work into a context (or more than one context) has been very helpful. I would never have thought of myself as writing mixed-race (or mixed ethnicity) narratives if one of my colleagues hadn’t basically point it out to me, for example.
FAU is not perfect, but my colleagues are super smart and we have what I think is a very healthy relationship between scholars and writers. When my MFA students complain about having to take lit classes, I run down my list of all the way my literature colleagues have helped me with my writing by recommending texts, by pointing out patterns I wasn’t aware of, by again putting my work into context. Lit scholars often see the big picture of fiction better than the writers do, I think.
Eva Woods: For me, short stories are perfect for taking some risks with structure and style exactly because you don’t have to read a whole book in second person or whatever it is. When you have less space, you have to think around the space. If that makes any sense at all.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Yes! That is one thing I loved about writing a collection. And as I wrote the later stories I made some conscious decisions to try not to repeat what the other stories were doing. I had to ban myself from writing more lists, for example. And the last couple of stories I wrote were more realist, more centered on character and on place. Because I had started to feel I was doing too many magic tricks, etc.
Eva Woods: How do you feel your work fits into the current mixed-ethnicity/race writing culture? Are there any authors who write from that perspective that you love to read?
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: I really like Mat Johnson but I probably wouldn’t compare my work to his. I think for writers who are African-American and white, that particular combination is probably loaded up with complications that my position is not. What was helpful to me was to realize that I didn’t have to choose whether or not I was writing an American story or a Turkish story but rather that I could write all stories from the third position of being both.
It was also helpful to hear other mixed writers and also second-generation writers talk about the feelings of doubt they have when they write about the culture that they are a little bit removed from. I have had, and continue to have, reservations about putting myself across as too Turkish, because I grew up so American, and with my American side of the family. But that seems to be a pretty common feeling—to think you can’t claim a part of your identity because you aren’t “enough”—Turkish enough, whatever. Anyway… one interesting thing is the book so far seems to identify me as more Turkish than American, which is maybe a little comical to me.
Eva Woods: I’ve heard Alex Chee say the same exact thing about being in a third position!
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Yes, the third position is something that I learned about via my colleague who does mixed-race studies…
Marisa: How does it feel to have the book out in the world now, in readers’ hands, after ten years spent working on it?
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: It doesn’t feel that different, at least not yet. It’s nice that it’s out there. It’s meant a lot to talk to individuals (like you guys!) who have read it. But mostly I feel the same pressures of regular life…
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: I guess I should say it is gratifying that the ten years feel worth it…
Eva Woods: Before we run out of time, there’s one line from “The Trojan War Museum” that stuck out to me a lot as a former soldier: “Soldier: I’ve never felt more significant than when I was in combat, but really I’ve never been more insignificant.” Can you tell me what inspired that thought? It immediately felt recognizable to me, but I don’t think I ever said that combination of things out loud: this is how you prove you matter and how you absolutely cease to matter.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: I don’t know exactly, but I read a lot of soldier memoirs, watched all the documentaries, absorbed a lot of voices from real soldiers, and it most likely came out of that. With a lot of the soldier lines I essentially was doing composite dialogues. In the way that people will say a character is a composite of people I know… I was paraphrasing a lot of things soldiers seemed to be saying over and over again. So I suspect I put together two different voices… one soldier saying they felt significant and another saying they felt insignificant.
Eva Woods: It really hit home beautifully.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Thank you for saying that. It’s also possible that it was my own editorializing voice thinking about how soldiers can be treated as numbers, etc.
Marisa: I always like to end by asking what you are reading now that you are loving. Any new or forthcoming books you’re especially excited about?
Eva Woods: Also, any other media you’re into! I love the TV and music recommendations I get from these chats so much.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: I really loved Good Talk by Mira Jacob and Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. I was just comfort-watching Friday Night Lights for like the ninety-ninth time. Recently I got into a very strange show on Netflix, Flowers. It was odd and at times raunchy but then unbearably touching in the end.
Marisa: Great recommendations! I love Friday Night Lights, and am due for a re-watch.
Eva Woods: I’ve still never seen it, which is tragic.
Eva Woods: Any work coming up you want to tell us about real quick? I’d love to keep an eye out for what’s next.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: I have a photo essay I modeled on Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family that I’m hoping will be out soon. And BOMB is publishing “The Dead” in their September issue. Otherwise, just plugging away at some new things. The irony of battling to publish stories for so many years is now that I have nothing new, journals I really want to be in are asking me for work… so I need to write more!
Marisa: Can’t wait to read! And thank you so much for joining us tonight! I loved this collection.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Eva, you should go watch the pilot episode of Friday Night Lights immediately. Immediately.
Eva Woods: I’m on it! Thank you so much for your time! I really loved these stories.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Thank you both! This was really great! Good night!
Photograph of Ayşe Papatya Bucak by Daniel Lautelade.