A Kind of Cartography: Talking with Elizabeth Geoghegan


On the second page of Elizabeth Geoghegan’s eightball, the speaker gives us a key to clutch onto as we ride through this debut story collection. “My internal compass useless,” she says. It’s a kind of legend for reading these portraits of woman unmoored and traveling alone in the world. There is an ever-present question of orientation—not sexual, but spatial—in these eight stories that take the reader to Rome, Bali, Chicago, Bangkok, Paris, Seattle, Boulder, and New York. Each city features a male counterpart, or counterpoint to the female protagonists. Whether a lover, brother, or ‘spiritual advisor,’ each ‘boy’ serves as an anchor to a particular time and place that we pass through following individual journeys filled with loss, desire, humor, and beauty.

But, of course, there’s more to the picture than that. Geoghegan, an American-born writer who lives and teaches in Rome, invited me round to tea for two at her home in Trastevere—a Roman neighborhood that has, for millennia, housed foreigners and artists alike. As she put a pot on, I looked around her charming apartment—ornamented with talismans and idols from her travels around the globe, Persian carpets, shelves stacked with books—and fixated on a painting by American artist C. Finley: Saint Lucia’s eyes set against a vibrant ultramarine blue background.


The Rumpus: This painting immediately makes me think of the mention of Santa Lucia in the first story, “Tree Boy”—was that a wink to Lucia Berlin?

Elizabeth Geoghegan: Absolutely. I was definitely thinking of Lucia Berlin when I put that detail in as a kind of shout out to her. Santa Lucia is the Patron Saint of Vision. And Lucia had the most incredible blue eyes—they were an intense violet blue, almost all seeing. I wrote “Tree Boy” not long before she died and mailed it to her from Rome. I have her handwritten notes on the draft of it somewhere. She taught me so much. How and where to drop in autobiographical details, like the way it felt as a child to swim my horse out into the lake and being pulled by the tail. It’s the details that give the work authenticity, even if the larger story is entirely made up. I’m still learning from her. Every time I read her work I see something new. While I’m writing, I’ll sometimes remember things she told me. Knowing her, having her voice in my head, is such a gift.

Rumpus: That first story and the title novella bookend the collection with photographer protagonists, which left me thinking a lot about the distinct images created in your writing.

Geoghegan: That’s really why I love Jeannette Montgomery Barron’s photograph on the cover. It perfectly captures that looming sense of impermanence in the stories. Her image of the woman alone and the framing of it—is she waiting for someone? or did somebody just walk away?—really seems to be in dialogue with the whole collection. It’s an honor to have the work of such an exceptional photographer and dear friend on my cover. But not only that; I think her image has been instrumental in people gravitating to the book. That’s exactly what you want from a cover.

Rumpus: I’m also curious about parallels between writing and photography.

Geoghegan: I’ve always been interested in photography as a kind of narrative device for what (or who) is absent, more so than what is captured. Looking at and thinking about images helped me learn to write—teaching me what to omit. I’m not a minimalist anymore, but I still choose to leave a lot out. In a sense, I got interested in writing because I like framing things, like the way stories get framed. We look at an image believing it documents a moment that’s true—or some truth—but it really doesn’t. It’s what leads up to the moment and what happens after the moment, those seconds or minutes that don’t get documented on film that become the story for me. Those missing pieces that somehow tell the actual truth.

The story “eightball” specifically works with this idea of how we frame things. I always think portraits, especially family photos, are entirely constructed. Contrived. Quinn understands this conceptually, that the camera lets her rewrite the story the way she wants to. She believes by ‘framing’ moments, photographically speaking, she’s somehow in control of the narrative. But she’s not.

Rumpus: It’s similar to the way that the “Boys” stories function, right? Tree Boy, Dog Boy, Cricket Boy—which aren’t titled after the main characters. It really got me thinking of them as some kind of instrument that orients the speaker.

Geoghegan: I think of the whole collection as a kind of cartography. Mapping relationships. That’s my thing—the intersection of geography and intimacy. So, it may have begun unconsciously, but you’re right. Every story pretty much has a male character as a fixed point around which the female protagonist revolves. This goes back to something I learned from the letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon—an excellent fiction writer and mentor to O’Connor. After reading an early draft of Wise Blood, she wrote O’Connor with notes. One suggestion was a kind of directive she took from Henry James who said that at the beginning of a story you needed to “plant a stout stake for the action to swirl around.” When I read that something clicked for me and I sat down and wrote the first four pages of “A Roman Story” because I immediately understood what the “stout stake” would be. In this case another boy, a Roman boy.

Rumpus: That story, like the others, is propelled by loss.

Geoghegan: Loss is definitely my theme. In the early stories, it is more black comedy. In the later ones there’s a shift of intensity with the accumulation of losses. What’s lost is more real. Still, for me loss permeates all the stories. “Dog Boy” is the perfect example—stylistically it’s a really playful story. Reading it you might be lulled into thinking it’s the most superficial of the bunch or that there is not so much at stake. That’s not actually true, but what with the shoes and all.

Rumpus: Those shoes!

Geoghegan: Right, right! She’s that girl that everyone’s like, “What the fuck? She slept with the guy because she hated his girlfriend’s shoes?” It may be a winning first line but it doesn’t win [her] girlfriends as a female in the world. But I didn’t even think about that. It didn’t occur to me that my character wouldn’t be lovable. I identified not so much with her transgressions, but with what she’d lost and what she would most certainly lose.

Rumpus: It’s a killer first line. But I am just noticing now that there isn’t that much sex in these stories, really. More build up or lack-there-of—a kind of edging.

Geoghegan: You mean coming close and never quite getting there? It’s been interesting to see how readers view the women in the stories. And the sex. Is it because I’m a woman writer? I’m surprised how many comments there have been about the prolific amount of sex, which makes me laugh. I always feel like nobody’s ever getting laid, to be honest. Or when they do, well—it is almost only memorable in a negative sense.

Rumpus: The sexuality is also totally non-procreative. Throughout there is a resisting of futurity—no babies! I mean, the only people that reproduce are the gay couple. [Laughs] Which I find hilarious.

Geoghegan: An artist friend once told me, “I love your stories, but they’re so heteronormative.” And another friend has written about the “troublesome heterosexuality” in eightball. The truth is, sexuality is complicated and messy. Regardless of gender or preference. Are the boys in my stories props? Maybe. I grew up reading the usual suspects—white male writers like John Cheever, John Updike—stories where women are often portrayed as, well, set decoration, as brilliant as many of their stories are. But why can’t a woman writer do the same thing in reverse? You know, diminish the male character, place him in a role where he’s rarely anything more than a fuck or a disappointment.

Rumpus: At one point, Tree Boy says of a former girlfriend, “Seattle will only ever be about her.” Yet the speaker is telling a story about Seattle which is defined by him and, so, she reiterates and re-genders that line—instantly flipping a script.

Geoghegan: It might seem cynical to say this, but if the male characters operate as fixed points—while you were talking I got this image in my head of a cairn along the mountain path as a marker on a journey—it occurs to me that even though the relationships I write about and the sexual encounters are perhaps fleeting, they can also be read as a kind of cairn for these women alone in the world. They sleep with the guy, in so doing adding their rock to the stack of stones, but then it all crumbles. Or the path continues. They’re always trying to gain purchase, even if momentarily.

Rumpus: This books almost feels like a kind of anti-travel writing—in a completely great way.

Geoghegan: This is not a guidebook for how to travel the world. But if I hadn’t traveled so much, I couldn’t have written these stories. I’d been living in Rome for years and after moving here without a plan—no job, no contacts, no internet, etc., and accidentally starting a life abroad—all of that began to feel kind of mundane to me. Unremarkable. I’d settled in. So I began to seek out that feeling of being an outsider in other corners of the world. When I began traveling on my own, something in my fiction shifted into a different gear. The only way I can truly see a place is by myself. You might have more fun when you go with other people, but you don’t see the same things. You don’t have the time. That downtime when you’re just alone on a bus, not knowing what people are saying around you.

Rumpus: I often think about how being in a foreign country recalls the feeling of being a child—not being able to clearly express in language one’s needs or wants. It’s like revisiting a lack of agency, right?

Geoghegan: I remember feeling exactly that way actually. Perhaps as a result, after moving to Italy, I rediscovered Henry James and Edith Wharton. Right now tales of the innocent abroad and stories set during the Grand Tour seem like the most relevant thing I could be reading. They’re so contemporary. I hadn’t realized it, but most of my life the novels I returned to were written by foreigners who lived abroad about characters in landscapes where they didn’t belong. If I’ve read The Lover once, I’ve read it twenty times. To read Duras is to encounter displacement. Whether her characters are French or Chinese, they still don’t belong in Saigon. Then there’s Paul Bowles. I don’t know why I keep going back to The Sheltering Sky. It’s the most disturbing novel of all time. Beyond a lack of agency, utter exile. Devastating. Another is The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway. Why are these books part of my personal canon, my literary education? Who knows? They seemed to find me. One could argue that they, too, are stories of privileged travelers, but they are also tales of exile, of loss. Despair even.

Rumpus: Do you think Bowles and Hemingway thought much about privilege? I feel like now it’s something a writer must be keenly aware of.

Geoghegan: I doubt they thought about it in the least. But there is surely a certain amount of privilege involved in travel. The time. The resources. Even in writing, which is in and of itself is both a kind of privilege and a journey. For me the story is also a journey. I don’t want to know the ending. I like to figure it out. The difference is the distinction between a holiday and an adventure. I don’t want everything organized and curated. I want it to unfold. Whatever that might bring. It is enough to know the starting point. From there it’s anybody’s guess. And this is how it often is for my characters. They set off wearing a kind of armor—which might also be described as privilege—but eventually it weighs them down and they are forced to take it off. To travel, especially alone, has consequences that tend to strip away creature comforts.

Rumpus: Do you take notes, make sketches?

Geoghegan: I do make a lot of photographs while I’m traveling, but I don’t end up using them very often. Usually it just comes back to me in the writing. I find my way back to the location by trying to describe it. I once spent a summer in Paris, a dreadful summer, wandering the city in the rain, trying to write a book that I couldn’t write, and every time I’d get going, something would come along and stop me. But a few years later I found the notebook with a long description of the flower stalls and peonies and it became the opening paragraph in “Mother’s Day.” Once I had the setting, I could just carry on. Looking back, I think I was writing a kind of love letter to Mrs. Dalloway with that story. My character walks through Paris, not London, obviously, but I love the way Woolf weaves in the element of time with the physical landscape.

Rumpus: Your observations are so specific, especially in “Mother’s Day.” They convey an intimate knowledge of the environment.

Geoghegan: Settings are definitely characters to me. I want the reader to know exactly where she is geographically anyway—what it looks like, what it smells like, what it feels like to be walking in the dark through a rice paddy or amidst the sheer intensity of a city like Bangkok with all those mad wires hanging overhead, the oppressive heat, the smell of tamarind and fish roasting in the streets. Whereas my characters themselves usually feel unmoored in these places, whether a foreign city or their own backyard.

A story should reveal itself through the senses. When I describe a setting, I continue to layer in details scene after scene—using whatever comes to me—I’m actually terrible at taking notes when I travel—but even years later, as I’m writing, I begin to understand all that I had seen and felt in that specific place. Maybe it was the feeling of being observed or the discomfort of feeling othered. Those are sensations that interest me and if my reader registers this feeling of being alien, exiled, ill at ease, or misplaced—great. Then I’m doing my job.

Rumpus: Those feelings definitely come through, as clearly as the settings. They imply a firsthand experience, but I don’t get the sense that these characters are you.

Geoghegan: Right, for sure that is the case, like in “Pura Goa Lawah” If I’m in the story I’m the “Standoffish Writer.” I’m peripheral. I’m not Drishti. That story started out as satire. But I couldn’t skewer her—or really any of them—in the end because I was so attached to the place. And Drishti’s representative of that place. For better or for worse, Bali attracts a certain kind of tourist, but there’s magic underneath all that. There’s a mysticism that transcends the tourist onslaught. It remains a spiritual place, absolutely out of synch with western ideas and the western sense of time. The Balinese call it “jam karat” or rubber time.

Rumpus: Thinking about Mrs. Dalloway and The Sheltering Sky is interesting because eightball has an effect like a novel. You know, not not like a novel.

Geoghegan: I never really intended to be a short story writer, but I hope that my so-called training to be a novelist lends a certain depth to the characters and the worlds that I create. If I could have sold it as a “novel in stories” I would have, you know? Because everybody wants that. And everybody keeps insisting that I write a novel next. But eightball isn’t a novel. The protagonists change. Their ages and circumstances change. They transit decades of experience. From the first story to the last. And like a novelist, I’m interested in certain ideas and perhaps come at those same ideas in different ways.

Rumpus: Yeah, and the way that one might expect a novel to introduce various threads that weave together towards the end—this books does that, but it’s a total surprise coming from a short fiction collection. That feeling of completion. There is a network of symbols in the first seven stories that return in eightball. Like I wasn’t aware that bats and dogs or skiing and cocaine were up in the air, or that I missed them, until they landed again in eightball.

Geoghegan: It has been said to me that reading “eightball” as the last story in the book it seems to operate not so much as a coda, but as an explanation of sorts. That it deepens your understanding of who the women in the world of the other stories are, and how they might have gotten there. Maybe coming out of a dysfunctional family or responding to loss or grief or whatever. I don’t know because I didn’t intend for that story to clarify the others. For me there are seven stories and then there’s eightball. It’s both the most made-up and the most autobiographical—if that makes any sense. The settings, the places, those are absolutely real. The events themselves, less so. But you picked up on this in another way, and I really like that you see it in terms of symbols that populated the earlier stories and get reiterated in “eightball.” Those obsessions I always come back to. Photography. Music. Addiction. Loss.

Rumpus: The collection ends with an event that the main character Quinn can’t capture in a picture. It’s a feeling that one can maybe only get close to through writing. The entire time I was reading eightball, I was reminded of a number of songs. Toward the end, the repeated line at the end of “Tony Randall” by Bikini Kill kept cycling through my head: some things can’t be photographed.

Geoghegan: They really can’t. That’s so perfect. Music helps me access a time and place. I heard The Pretenders’ “Tattooed Love Boys” the other day and thought, this could be an anthem for my book. I’d made a playlist while working on the stories, but I’d forgotten about that song, so went back and added it. Definitely those early badass women musicians—Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Joan Jett, Siouxie Sioux, et al—absolutely informed my aesthetic. I can just hear “Space Monkey” playing in my sister’s bedroom right now. Music has always been important to me. It definitely informs my style, which plays with cadence, with rhythm. Stories sometimes come to me like songs. I usually hear it first, at least the first line, like a refrain or a melody, then start putting it down.


Photograph of Elizabeth Geohegan by Rick Guidotti.

Jahan Khajavi is a poet from Fresno, California who is currently an MFA student at the University of Notre Dame and the host of Suddenly Every Wednesday—a radio program that began as a weekly reading series at a gay cocktail bar in Rome. Find Jahan on Twitter @jahankhajavi. More from this author →