The Planet Will Survive Us: A Conversation with Liz Breazeale
Liz Breazeale is the kind of writer who pours herself a glass of wine for her Rumpus interview and then plugs the bottle with a wine stopper shaped like a velociraptor. She’s the kind of writer who diligently revised her MFA thesis for three years before winning the 2018 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction during her first and only round of contest submissions. And she’s the kind of writer who isn’t afraid to confront the dark, the deadly, and the disastrous—in the natural world as well as in the human psyche.
The stories in Breazeale’s debut story collection, Extinction Events, are an exercise in annihilation: The world’s islands begin disappearing one by one. A mother and daughter bake ashcake at the foot of an active volcano. A woman suspects she’s been abducted by aliens. A paleontologist investigates her father’s theories of dinosaur extinction. A man’s memory flames out in a supernova. A daughter searches for her mother in lost cities the world over. In these stories and more, Breazeale writes with lush, inventive prose that mines the horrors her characters face.
I first encountered Breazeale’s work—including early drafts of some of these very stories—at the workshop table in Bowling Green State University’s MFA program. We met as cohort members but graduated as close friends, and it’s been a pleasure to watch her work darken and deepen over the years. Extinction Events was published by University of Nebraska Press in September, with stories in the collection first appearing in Pleiades, Passages North, Sycamore Review, Booth, Flyway, Nashville Review, and elsewhere.
Breazeale and I recently discussed her book, her writing process, nontraditional story structure, the allure of extinction, humanity’s longstanding fascination with aliens, feminist body horror, and much more.
The Rumpus: Let’s begin at the end by addressing the concept of extinction, which serves as the heart of this collection. Why do you find extinction so compelling?
Liz Breazeale: We’re in of the midst of the sixth extinction. The planet has gone through five major mass extinction events where eighty to ninety percent of life was completely wiped out, gone. And one day, sooner or later (depending on how we deal with climate change), the same will happen to us. Human beings will be gone, which is very dark. But I do find it reassuring that, even though we won’t be here, the planet will be. The planet will survive us.
Rumpus: Your collection’s title story, “Extinction Events Proposed by My Father,” features dinosaurs and their downfall, while other stories are centered on plagues, earthquakes, volcanoes, disappearing islands, and more. How do science and the natural world influence your fiction?
Breazeale: I desperately, desperately wanted to be a paleontologist when I was a kid. I think all kids go through a phase where they love dinosaurs, but I was obsessed. I learned all the names, and I’d correct my teachers—I was a nightmare. After that, I was fascinated with mummies and archeology.
There’s definitely a desire to be able to say, “See, six-year-old Liz, you didn’t discover any dinosaurs, but you wrote about them.” A desire to prove to my child self that even though I didn’t become a paleontologist, it’s okay.
Rumpus: So why didn’t you become a paleontologist?
Breazeale: I remember having a concrete moment in fourth or fifth grade when it became clear to me that paleontologists had to do a lot of math. When you’re growing up as a girl in the Bible Belt, that kind of career doesn’t occur to you as a real option. My parents would have supported it—they were supportive almost to a fault when I was growing up—but society as a whole in southwest Missouri was conservative. When a little girl gives up on a huge dream because she doesn’t think she’s good at math or science, there’s not exactly a huge push of people saying, “Yes, you can.” That’s why I think STEM programs specifically focusing on girls and women are so important.
Rumpus: That brings me to the feminist themes in this collection. In addition to richly drawn female characters, there’s also undeniable rage in some of these stories as women push back against the limitations they face based on their gender. How do you see feminism and gender roles working in your book?
Breazeale: Whether or not we want to admit it, I think we’ve all been trained to default to the white male perspective in our writing. So I made it a point to write many of these stories from a woman’s perspective, because I feel the stories we tell are so important.
I want my female characters to be complicated, and I want them to be flawed, and I want them to just be human beings. I think so often in fiction, women are a trope or a type. I really just wanted to write full, complete human beings who are difficult, and who make terrible choices some of the time, and they don’t always do the right thing. Why aren’t there more female characters like this? I want the women I write about to be allowed to be angry.
Rumpus: At separate moments in this collection, male characters tell women, “Don’t get emotional,” “Just paying you a compliment,” and my personal favorite, “Not all men.” How did you approach writing your male characters, and what challenges did you face in doing so?
Breazeale: All of those things have been said to me by men, and I’m sure they’ve been said to you, too. I think we have this idea—well, men, largely, might have this idea—that there are good men and bad men. Like, “I’m a good guy because I voted for Hillary Clinton and I couldn’t possibly be doing anything wrong in my life; there couldn’t possibly be any way I could improve.”
I think my male characters are reflective of the men who exist in real life. We all contain multitudes, to use a cliché, and two things can be true at once. Someone can be a devoted father and a rapist. For me, it was important to show that the men in my stories are human beings. I wanted to capture that the men who do and say shitty, damaging, traumatic things live among us. They’re fathers, husbands, or partners, and they’re not wearing vests that say, “I’m a sexual assaulter.”
Rumpus: It’s hard not to think about real-world problems when reading these stories. In addition to everyday sexism, natural disasters play a huge role in this collection, and climate change also factors in. What role do you think anxiety plays in your fiction?
Breazeale: There’s a lot to be anxious about these days, to put it mildly. I also don’t want to write a character who’s comfortable. I always want to put my characters in a state of tension, where they’re forced to confront things that are deeply uncomfortable or scary and then make a choice that is agonizing. Whether the issue being confronted is the annihilation of the entire planet, island by island (“Un-Discovered Islands”), or the fact that your mother never wanted you (“Experiencers”), that kind of internal tension is an important place for fiction to live in.
Rumpus: I’m glad you brought up “Experiencers,” your alien story. Can you share a bit about your love of aliens and also discuss your thoughts on genre? Your collection includes some sci-fi elements, but it’s incredibly literary.
Breazeale: Aliens fascinate me. The mythology surrounding aliens goes back thousands of years. Humans have long had this fascination with stars because we don’t know what’s out there. Cultures that were continents apart had stories about people coming from the stars. The fact that we still want to collectively keep that belief going is so, so interesting to me.
The X-Files was one of my all-time favorite TV shows—once you ignore the fact of David Duchovny and you focus on Dana Scully. I love science fiction, but more for TV and movies than books. But if you write in a compelling way, you can write about anything. The things that science fiction writers gravitate toward—aliens, outer space, time travel, black holes—are genre elements that can be used to write about humanity in interesting, creative ways.
Honestly, at the end of the day, we write things we want to read. And at the end of the day, I want to read an amazing literary story about aliens.
Rumpus: Your prose is lyrical and evocative. How do you approach language at the line level when writing?
Breazeale: I’ve always gravitated toward books with beautiful prose. The first time I read One Hundred Years of Solitude it blew my mind. I couldn’t believe you can really do this—you can make up syntax and compound words and basically make up how you want a language to be spoken. I thought that was so stunning.
The way in which a story is written is so important to me. I try to change the voice or style to match what the story needs to be told effectively. The best way for me to write something that I’m excited about is to keep doing really interesting, weird stuff with language. I love taking risks in that way.
Rumpus: Many of the stories in Extinction Events make use of creative structures. “Experiencers” partially takes the form of a questionnaire for those who believe they’ve encountered aliens, “Survival in the Plague Years” is organized around six diseases, and “Devil’s Tooth Museum” is structured using museum exhibit descriptions. What attracts you to nontraditional story structure, and how do you decide what form a story will take?
Breazeale: There’s so much that can be done with the shape of words on a page. How it physically looks on a page is important, and there’s so much to be done within blank space. But I don’t think every story needs a nontraditional structure. I have tried and failed many times to put things into weird, wonky, original structures that did not work out.
“The Disaster Preparedness Guidebook” started as just dialogue between a husband and wife going up the side of a dormant volcano. Then I got into the weeds researching the plans that municipalities write for disaster preparedness and evacuations. I thought, “Why not structure this like a literal disaster preparedness plan?” And let me tell you, it was not good. So I don’t think every story needs a nontraditional structure. You might try it and if it works, great, and if not, then know when to fold them and put it in a traditional story structure. I think it’s all about experimentation and trying new things and taking a risk. Because if you’re not taking a risk in some form in your writing, then what even is the point?
Rumpus: It’s clear that research is something you take seriously. Extinction Events includes stories focusing on paleontology, cartography, the science of erosion, ancient lost cities, and so much more. How do you approach the research process?
Breazeale: I did a lot of weird research for “Experiencers,” about people believing they were abducted by aliens. But “Survival in the Plague Years” might be the most heavily researched story in the collection. We’ve dealt with a lot of diseases throughout history. I learned yellow fever was running rampant at a time of American imperialism in Central America and in Cuba. It was spread by mosquitos, but it was the turn of the century, when people still thought that disease was spread by miasma, bad air. I read about experiments where men trapped mosquitos against their skin and contracted yellow fever. They kept journals while it was happening.
Overall, I research pretty exhaustively. Once I know what the story’s about and where I’m going with it, I know I have to convincingly portray an expert in ten or fifteen pages, so I need to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of this topic, whatever it might be. I’m constantly reading, and when something interests me, I immediately grasp onto it and want to know everything. I take a deep dive and check out anything I can from the library, I google, I will do anything to learn more.
Rumpus: We met in Bowling Green State University’s MFA program, where you submitted an earlier draft of Extinction Events as your thesis. You achieved publication relatively quickly after the MFA, and I think many writers would love to replicate that kind of success. Can you tell us how your collection changed from that thesis draft to the final, published book?
Breazeale: I was looking at my thesis just recently, and it was wild. It really was a rough draft. I think when you’re in grad school, you’re like, “Oh shit, I have a thesis, I better shove everything in here.” Once I left the MFA, I really grew into the craft of writing, into the voice I wanted to project, and into being comfortable with who I am as a person and as a writer.
I took a few months off after the MFA. Not from writing, but from that story collection. I felt like it had legs, that it could go the distance and was something I really believed in, so I wanted to stick with it. Later, just living with the collection and working on it every day gave me the opportunity to hone the idea of it, which had been nebulous in the MFA.
I wound up taking out a lot of stories. Then I’d look at places where I thought there were gaps and write something to fit in those gaps. I also matured into being able to write stories that were more honest to who I am as a person and as a writer. What I mostly did after the MFA was let myself live within that collection and the idea of extinction. I wrote better things. I took out stories I wrote in the MFA that weren’t bad, but I’d gotten better.
Rumpus: You placed each of the eleven stories in Extinction Events in literary magazines prior to the book release. What’s your process for submitting to literary journals?
Breazeale: For my personal approach—and everyone’s is different, just as everyone’s approach to revision is different—I’ll submit each story to ten or fifteen journals. Once I’ve gotten rejections from most of them—when, not if—I’ll double back and reevaluate. I’ll read the story, clean up anything that I feel could be better, consider any personalized feedback I got from journals, and interrogate myself about what I might revise. Then I’ll submit to another round of journals.
I think it’s a fine line to walk between knowing yourself and your work and being arrogant. Especially when you’re a young writer, you have to learn to navigate that line. You have to learn what hills to die on and what hills you will walk down.
Rumpus: How does it feel to publish your first book?
Breazeale: It’s pretty surreal. For as long as I could remember, I have been obsessed with books. I idolized them when I was a child. Books were like a religion for me. I’ve always written, but publishing a book was a dream since before I had the vocabulary to say what a dream was.
I can’t say enough good things about my publisher, the University of Nebraska Press. They’re professionals and so good about what they do. I’m lucky. They’re fantastic. But it’s hard releasing a book. I think we as a literary community aren’t super great at laying out the practicalities of publishing, and I want to be better in the future about those practicalities.
Photograph of Liz Breazeale by Stephanie Michelle Photography.