Sarah Rose Etter is the author of The Book of X, which is out now on Two Dollar Radio. Her work has appeared in The Cut, Electric Literature, Guernica, New York Tyrant, Black Warrior Review, The Collagist, and more.
We recently discussed her debut novel where women are born with knotted abdomens, men work the meat quarry for food, and the balance between visions and real life encounters are paper thin.
The Rumpus: Cassie is shown little kindness in your novel The Book of X and as she ages she becomes clothed—or fleshed—in the memories and incidents that make up her life. This feels very true. Rather than grand transformations, most humans simply hoard suffering, addiction, happiness, love, hate, and grief with fluidity and inconsistency rather than something firm and/or certain. Talk to me about your experience constructing Cassie’s story and how you came to understand her emotional landscape?
Sarah Rose Etter: It wasn’t an easy to book to write, for most of the reasons you bring up here. It went so much darker than I was anticipating, and it wasn’t easy to go into her world and write it. But I did think it was a true way to portray someone who was born differently from everyone else and I did think it told the truth of that specific story. It’s sad to think of this level of loneliness and hurt existing within a character, but it is even sadder to realize and admit that this level of loneliness and hurt exist within other people. Cassie, as a character, does have these horse-blinders on. She can only see the world as it’s been revealed to her, she can’t see outside of herself or her condition. I did believe her to be depressed and hopeless, and I let her be that instead of trying to change her into some kind of inspiration story. All of that said, though, I do think she is redeemed at the end of the story when her suffering is transformed by light.
Rumpus: I was drawn into Cassie’s seemingly normal forays into friendship and love in spite of her abdominal aberration: “After dinner, I cut the flat-stomached women out of my mother’s magazines” and “Each day at school, I stare at bodies, memorizing their limbs, their smooth lines.” At times, I even forgot I was spending time with a girl who must navigate the world as a “sighting,” especially in moments Cassie learns that her desires of the world are always tied to her knotted stomach. Maintaining this connection to the banality of coming-of-age stories while engaging with the surreal must’ve been a particular balancing act for you as a writer.
Etter: I’ve always been drawn to the surreal and always been careful with balancing it with simple prose and real life. It’s a hard note to hit, right? If we create an entirely new world and then write about it with flowery prose and over-the-top scenes, it’s easy to dismiss it as horrific or too much. With this book, I was really hoping to find humanity within the surreal as a way of keeping the reader with me—ultimately, Cassie is just a young girl trying to understand her body and the world around her who grows up to get a job and tries to fall in love. So yes, hopefully, the book is surreal but also universal.
Rumpus: Patriarchy conditions men to be awful and entitled especially when interacting with women’s bodies and Cassie experiences the brunt of unlikable men. I am thinking specifically of Cassie’s devastating interactions with Jarred, but few men are kind in this novel. What saddens me is how many times in real life a friend has shared stories similar to Cassie’s first time.
Etter: It didn’t feel difficult to balance, exactly; it felt like if I created a surreal framework, and then let real life shine through, it would be effective. It was very hard to write certain scenes—the ending scene in Part I with Jarred devastated me for quite a few days. There are a few scenes like that in the book, scenes where I knew they had to happen, but I almost didn’t want to write them, or I wished the book wasn’t coming to me in the way that it was. The dynamic between Cassie and Jarred, though, feels very familiar to me too.
Rumpus: Not all men in this novel are terrible, however. The father is kind to Cassie. He sees her beyond the knot, as he once saw Cassie’s mother; he likes her boldness and seems to sense the challenges she faces much more than her mother who presses on Cassie beauty-maintenance and weight loss. I understood her grief when he dies. Would you talk about this relationship and how the father fit into Cassie’s short life that is so full of heartbreak and menace.
Etter: Cassie’s father is the one person, besides her later lover, that never brings up her body or treats her differently because of it. He allows her to work in the Meat Quarry, and he empowers her to try new things. He makes her laugh. He is probably the healthiest male relationship in her life, and her connection to the idea of what love might look like. When he dies, however, she experiences a complete unraveling, which I think is an accurate portrayal of the loss of a parent. But it is more than a parent dying for her, it’s her archetype of the best relationship she’s ever had with a man. And there are total parallels between his death and the death of her relationship. Cassie is a tragic character, but her father offers some relief, and when he dies, the heartbreak and menace you mention are what ends up swallowing her whole.
Rumpus: I really like Cassie as a person. I relate to how her confidence and desire to understand the world ping-pongs moment by moment and sometimes within one sentence. By the end of The Book of X, Cassie felt like my friend—a friend I can do little for besides listen.
Etter: Thanks for hearing Cassie, and for hearing me. I know it’s a strange, wild book, but readers like you make me happy to have written it, and glad it has found its way into the world.
Photograph of Sarah Rose Etter by Natalie Graf. Book cover design by Paw Grabowski.