Corinne Manning is the author of a brand-new short story collection We Had No Rules, forthcoming from Arsenal Pulp Press on May 12. She lives, writes, and teaches in Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in Bomb, The Brooklyn Rail, Lit Hub, Vol 1 Brooklyn, Drunken Boat, The Oxford American, The Nervous Breakdown, and Arts & Letters, and she has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony (2015, 2017), 4 Culture, Artist Trust, Jack Straw Media Gallery, The Banff Centre, Mineral School, and The Hub City Writer’s Project.
I caught up with Corinne recently over email and we discussed queerness, complicity, cluelessness, and defamiliarization.
The Rumpus: The first story in your collection centers around two sisters whose family supposedly “had no rules.” However, after the older sister comes out to her parents and is rejected, they find out that there are more unspoken rules than they ever knew. This idea of rules—hazy, unspoken but nonetheless rigid rules and upfront, out loud but changeable rules—is a major theme throughout your collection. Can you talk about this theme and what it means for your work? Was there a certain point in your writing when you noticed that this was a theme and decided to title the manuscript accordingly?
Corinne Manning: The theme happened initially by accident. I was witnessing different relationships around me end at a time when I was about to make a commitment to my partner. People are often in conflict or hurt each other because they aren’t actually communicating their needs and boundaries, or don’t know how to make a request, or don’t know how to handle a yes, no, or maybe. We are all so traumatized and then somehow have to interact with each other and trust that the other person isn’t out to get us. We flatten ourselves and each other—which is actually really bad writing. I didn’t know any of that back then—I just felt like the relationships around me (and my relationships) ended for no reason so I started pursuing the question of: what is going wrong? I realized that my characters just weren’t talking to each other, were building whole relationships on assumptions, and were causing so much pain because it is so easy to default to systems of oppression. I realized how we can write someone off by deeming their life less valuable than our own. These are the kind of rules we fall back on.
“Professor M” was the third story I wrote in this series and I was playing with John Updike structure and story style and I thought: what if I switch out the typical Updike middle-class white character for this middle-class white queer professor? That level of defamiliarization opened up this whole window to me in human behavior; the complicity and cluelessness within were even more apparent. There were these rules these characters were following that flattened them. The more realistic I had someone act, the more rigid or clueless they were, the more they flattened themselves. Honestly, it just kept coming up. In desperate attempts for characters to make the utopic world happen they try setting rules for themselves and each other. But the problem is that the system is set up, or their childhood has set them up, or this violent country has set them up, to keep failing. As the narrator says in “The Wallaby”: “These systems are just waiting for us and if we aren’t careful we become complicit.”
Rumpus: All of the stories in We Had No Rules are written in first person. Do you write exclusively in first person? I ask this partially because I’m curious about people’s affinities for different points of view. I once took a class with Tom Spanbauer and he said he “didn’t believe in third person.” I love Spanbauer’s writing and his class but I thought that was a funny perspective to have. He said he thought third person wasn’t honest or vulnerable enough.
Manning: Oh, that’s so interesting! I think third person can be vulnerable as long as the writer is vulnerable and willing to be brutally honest. I think we have a tendency to think that our own private experience is omniscient—it’s so easy to discount and often too painful to account for other people’s experience of a similar event. And this tendency blends into our writing no matter what perspective we write from. For this reason I think storytelling is dangerous: it can be a vehicle for lies and violence and as a storyteller I’m very aware of how fiction can be inauthentic even when it’s a tool for survival. One of the ways I survived my experience of incest as a child was to obsessively tell myself the story of everything I did in my day. I filtered everything through my perspective, through my omniscience, and the desire for everything I experienced to be normal and not horrifying. But you can see how this would really mess me up as an adult when I realize: Oh wait, that wasn’t care, that was abuse. Wait, am I abusing people? Wait, what is care?
So when I write, it’s like I have to fully let the character and the world come forward; I have to be honest even if the honest stuff really is painful and sucks. People are racist and violent; families call abuse love.
Before I wrote these stories (we are talking almost ten years ago now), I used to write exclusively in third person. But I had a turning point when I wrote the first story in the collection, “Gay Tale.” “Oh fuck it. I’m writing lesbian fiction,” the narrator says. That was as much for me as for the narrator who stepped forward. Now when I write I work almost exclusively in first person because I can ask the questions: what is the occasion that this story is being told? What did the character learn through experiencing the story they are about to tell and what are they going to discover through the telling of it? I love getting to show a character’s tainted omniscience. I love the connection that comes from a first-person character getting to be in conversation with an invisible reader.
Rumpus: Characters from one story end up narrating another story in this collection, and background information from one piece illuminates another. Can you talk about your process as it relates to this?
Manning: Oh, Mesha, there are so many more stories that aren’t even in this collection of these same characters. Professor M only appears in one story in the collection but I was so obsessed with that hunky academic I think I wrote three other stories from their PoV, but they didn’t make the cut. Organically, I just started finding that I would be writing in a voice and it would clearly be a side character from a previous story and so I would just follow that lead. The most successful occurrences (and the ones that made it into the collection) were in situations where I wasn’t forcing a character to appear. I was relieved when the siblings in “We Had No Rules” came back in “The Wallaby.” I needed to learn more from them about how queerness connected them and how they still misunderstood each other.
Rumpus: All of the characters in We Had No Rules, even minor characters like the daughter of a narrator, are gay or queer. Did you plan this specifically or did it just happen that way?
Manning: I’ve never had a book happen to me the way We Had No Rules did. All the stories came to be after I received feedback that a novel I was working on with queer characters would isolate mainstream readers and be put on the LGBTQ genre shelf. I had an awakening: I was trying to write a mainstream novel and had been censoring how I truly wanted to write—and I failed anyway. I realized I was holding myself back and it didn’t matter because I was still too gay. I had no idea what it meant to write authentically, until this one day when I typed the sentence “Oh, fuck it—I’m writing lesbian fiction.” And the first draft of “Gay Tale” came to be, start to finish.
Then I wrote “Chewbacca & Clyde,” a story about infidelity, and then “Professor M,” a story about an almost-infidelity between a professor and student. I always gave myself the constraint that I had to write from the first sentence to the last in one sitting and I had to write what embarrassed me/scared me/made me laugh the most. I had starved my writing from my queerness and I just wanted to flood myself with all these new friends and really look at all these fears I had and not care whether the sex scenes turned someone off. If it made me wet, I wrote it. If it made me cringe, I wrote it. And that just happened to mean that everyone was queer. I wrote my way out of my homophobia. In a way, I’m eager for people to read the book and discover all that homophobia still clouding up their insides and start to burn it off. The hottest shelf is the LGBTQ genre shelf.
Rumpus: Can you talk about your experience of publishing this book? How did you find working with Arsenal Pulp Press?
Manning: I feel like Arsenal Pulp found me licking my wounds in a bush and wrapped me in a blanket and brought me home. I started trying to publish this book in 2015—first reaching out to agents and then to small presses. Girl, the things agents said to me. Direct quote: “Short stories are already a hard sell and gay short stories? (Selling gay anything…! Gah! Sometimes this life is so tough!)”
I’m not going to even get into things that literary journals said to me about these stories. The idea of publishing with Arsenal Pulp Press was a dream of mine. Then my friend Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore was published there and after Sketchtasy came out she put in a good word to Brian Lam and he invited me to submit my collection. When he said he wanted to publish it I sat down and cried, said yes, then put on Khia’s “My Neck My Back.”
Rumpus: When I met you at MacDowell you were editing The James Franco Review. Can you talk a little bit about that project and what it means for you as a short story writer?
Manning: I think I’m still recovering from that project. I started it in 2014 after reading David Orr’s review of James Franco’s poetry collection in which he stated that James Franco was no better than any other mediocre poet out of an MFA program that was struggling to get the attention of the no-one’s heard of it micro press with two staff members. However, he got published on Graywolf because he is James Franco. I had already been thinking about the ways the publishing system is built to keep BIPOC, queer/trans, and disabled writers at the margins. So when I read that review I had the idea to create a project called The James Franco Review and then to totally reimagine the publishing process because the only way to actually create more room for diversity in literature is to totally transform it: different methods of submission and publication, for new people to be in positions of power, and for those who were still in power to actually admit their implicit bias.
The project went viral before we even started accepting submissions. Editors changed every two months, there were no slush pile readers, and we had blind submissions which is a tool only as effective as its user. Over the course of those two years I had amazing conversations with authors and editors about what it would actually mean to change things and what was possible in journals that already existed. It was exciting and exhausting. In two years we put out eight general issues, two themed issues, hosted twenty-four editors, and published one hundred and fifteen emerging writers, some of whom are now household names. As a prose writer I think, if nothing else, I found community and possibility and critique and stopped putting anyone—including agents and editors—on a pedestal.
Rumpus: The epigraph to We Had No Rules is a Cherríe Moraga quote: “It is this queer I run from. A pain that turns us to quiet surrender. No, surrender is too active a term. There was no fight. Resignation.” Can you talk about this quote and what it means for you and this book?
Manning: Cherríe Moraga’s work has played a large role in how I make sense of my queer identity and how I write about it. Though my cultural identity is different from her Chicanx identity (my family is Italian and this played a huge part in my upbringing) I was continually affected by the way she wrote about assimilation and class. In the essay/poem, “It Is You My Sister Who Must Be Protected,” she is talking about her father who is white and how his whiteness plays out in his inability to fully love, his inability to truly feel. A moment that haunts me in that essay is when he pulls over the car to cry but his sobs have a hollow and empty sound, like he doesn’t know how to touch something real and deep enough to cry and the closest he can get is to touch the sound of it. The resignation she speaks about in that quote is what I feel all of us, especially those socialized white in America do—our inability to react to injustice unless it’s a complete state of emergency, and even then there’s not much fight, and especially in our unwillingness to connect and love and be curious. I have caught myself quitting before I’ve even begun. This quote is a reminder to me of the way I intend to live my life, and it’s a testament to the characters in this book who want to be curious so badly, but so often give up because they can.
Photograph of Corinne Manning by Itzel Santiago Pastrana.