The Tragedy of Hope: Talking with Willa C. Richards

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In the opening of Willa C. Richards’s debut novel, The Comfort of Monsters, a family hires a celebrity psychic in a last-ditch effort to find their lost daughter and sister. Dee McBride disappeared nearly three decades earlier at nineteen, and her dying mother longs to put her baby to rest beside her own body. The novel is narrated by Dee’s sister, Peg—the person closest to Dee, and the one who last saw her alive. Peg offers her reflective and fractured lens across braided plot lines: the 1991 youthful misadventures leading up to Dee’s vanishing, and the messy, unending aftermath.

Backgrounding the 1991 material is the creeping and then thunderous horror of Jeffrey Dahmer’s last murder spree in Milwaukee, which absorbs available police resources and public sympathy, such that Peg and her family must scrabble for scraps of attention. Though Peg is certain that Dee’s killer is Dee’s cagey, odious boyfriend, Frank, without swift action from the police, the case goes stale.

Though electric with the urgency of mystery thrillers, The Comfort of Monsters delivers no clean and easy payoffs, instead lingering in the murkiness of memory, taking us forward and back again through the heartbreaking loops Peg can never escape, probing the nuances of sisterly love, the irreparable fissuring of identity, and the ramifications of unanswerable longing to make things right.

Willa C. Richards and I met at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I was enchanted by her short stories, each lush and layered and lingering. We met recently over video to discuss her debut novel, her complex attachment to Milwaukee, intimacy between sisters, and the way institutional forces intersect with violence and power in the personal sphere.

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The Rumpus: What was the original spark for this novel, and how did it evolve as you were working?

Willa C. Richards: The seed for the novel was a project I worked on with my mom. She’s an archeologist who works in historic cemeteries, and she was contacted by a family in Milwaukee who believed their loved one was buried in an area where she’d worked. So, she directed an excavation of this area, for the family, and I volunteered on that project.

That experience sparked the idea for the book, especially by prompting my thinking about cold cases. Beyond the newspaper-level tragedy, I started thinking about how some of these cases become so intractably unsolved, why some seem to sputter and stall, with nothing ever coming to light. One reason this can happen is that small cases can become subsumed by larger cases. What’s the largest criminal investigation in the history of Milwaukee? The Dahmer case. So that’s how that layering began in my mind.

Rumpus: The sisters in the novel, Peg and Dee, have such an intense bond, and it includes a degree of physical intimacy. It’s hard to even say that without connoting a sexual element, which isn’t present; their relationship is not sexual, but an element of sensuality plays into the way Peg looks at her sister. There’s a twinning in their identities that seems to extend to an intertwining of their relationships with their bodies. Will you speak to the way you were thinking about intimacy in a relationship between sisters? 

Richards: I have three sisters, and those relationships informed my identity more than any other relationship I’ve ever had. My sisters were central to my life growing up. My oldest sisters are much older; when I was a young girl, they were already in their teens, so I very much idolized them. But my younger sister and I were so close that I couldn’t ever imagine living a life without her. She was part of the air I breathed.

One of the elements of intimacy that I was interested in exploring is the way that, when you’re a child, physical intimacy can feel so natural and expected. It especially felt that way in my family. I would cuddle with my older sisters, and my younger sister and I slept together. Then, there comes a very painful point in early adolescence, where that stuff starts to become a little sticky. Friction starts to seep in from the outside, with people thinking, Ooh, you’re growing up, you shouldn’t do that stuff anymore, and it becomes internalized. You want to cuddle, but you don’t know if you should, because you’re looking at the relationships around you and seeing that type of intimacy doesn’t live outside of romantic spaces.

I always found this shift indicative of growing up in general, where we start to form identities outside of that safe, familial space. It’s necessary and natural, but there is some sort of loss and pain in the evolution, too. I wanted to convey the desire to keep that level of intimacy, but, like you said, even mentioning physical intimacy in the context of two young women sounds sexual to people. We don’t have a language for physical intimacy that isn’t related to sex, and I wanted to explore that on the page.

Rumpus: I think that intensity is part of what makes the loss of Dee so devastating; we sense that Peg will never be whole again. Peg and Dee’s relationship is unique among the relationships in the family, and I was interested in the way that Peg disappoints her family initially, through how she responds to Dee’s disappearance. To them, her immediate behavior feels out of step with the gravity of the situation, and they feel she’s not performing alarm or grief the way she “should.” How did you decide to portray Peg’s response to the disappearance?

Richards: In earlier drafts, I received some feedback that I was avoiding fully confronting Peg’s emotions—writerly avoidance. I revised for that, but I did retain some of the distance. It takes Peg longer to accept the fact of the situation, and that felt very natural to me, in terms of the way I’ve processed different kinds of loss and grief. For Peg, the weight of acceptance comes a little later, after almost a year has passed. That’s when the emotional fallout hits. I wanted to portray the tragedy of hope. The idea you keep alive, even when you know you shouldn’t: Maybe she’ll be okay. Feeding that kind of hope is a way of keeping oneself from accepting the gravity of a situation.

Rumpus: As you were growing up, did Jeffrey Dahmer and the stories related to him factor in much to your understanding of Milwaukee?

Richards: No, I wouldn’t say so. I had no idea about the deep and contiguous ramifications of this case. I knew pop culture details, but I had no conception of the dynamics of the community, and the police, and the fallout and the context: the fact that the murders were coming off of a massive AIDS crisis in the city. There were a lot of missing, young gay men, and the position the police took toward their disappearances was basically, Yeah, that’s what you’re going to get. I didn’t know any of that until I dug into my novel research; it didn’t inform my feelings toward the city at all when I was younger.

Rumpus: How did you go about accessing what the city felt like during that time?

Richards: In some ways, the fact that I didn’t live through it was helpful, because I went into the research without any position on what people were thinking or feeling at the time. I also went to the research with a hungry eye. I needed to both fill in basic, factual gaps and develop a sense for the mood and feeling, and it was helpful to talk to people about their own memories. In Milwaukee and Wisconsin, everyone has their Dahmer story; it’s kind of this weird, dark folklore, and it goes beyond people saying, “Oh, this is where I was when I found the news.” It seems like everyone knows someone that’s related to the case—”My grandpa is a coroner,” or whatever.

Reading the contemporary reporting was also helpful, of course, especially getting a sense for the balance of coverage across different outlets. The Milwaukee Journal was doing a lot of reporting, and so was the Wisconsin Light, a gay newspaper, but their reporting was very different. Comparing them helped me get a sense for what people across communities were most focused on.

Rumpus: I admired the way the book considers so many complex hierarchies of social value: Dahmer’s victims, who are mostly young men of color. Dee, who is a young white woman but might not live up to the “good girl” image that engenders sympathetic public outcries. Dee’s friend, Eric, a young gay man who is outcast by society and his own family. Then there are white men—Peg and Dee’s boyfriends, the detective on the case, the psychic—who all have more social currency and who are each terrible in their own ways. I’m curious about the way you were thinking about positioning these characters in terms of their power within communities and institutions.

Richards: I was mostly thinking about this through the lens of violence, and the way that different kinds of violence are more legible, more acceptable, depending on the body on which the violence is inflicted. That was my central motivation for trying to wrap up all those different identities as they exist in Milwaukee. I also wanted to explore the way the social value of certain kinds of bodies can change depending on the light they’re shown in. That’s very fascinating to me.

This is one of the reasons the Dahmer material felt like such a good fit for the book. It really does encapsulate many threads of my interests. The ways we tell stories to make ourselves feel better about even violent narratives, about which we really shouldn’t be able to find comfort. The ways that we sometimes respond to these types of violence by asking the wrong kinds of questions, and that only gives us the wrong kinds of answers.

Dee’s plot line expanded out from the question I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation: how do some cases end up ultimately getting the shrug? There are a lot of answers to that question—many of them institutional, social, and political.

Rumpus: You’re orchestrating threads that illuminate so many modes of violence across the public and private spheres.

Richards: I think that’s what’s so awesome about fiction. You can throw it all together. Whereas often, when we do talk about these forms of violence, they seem to exist very much in their own realms. I’m always interested in how forms of violence do occupy different spaces, but here they are also occupying the same space, in another sense, within the bounds of the city.

Rumpus: It was interesting that both Peg and Dee are involved in relationships with men who are drawn to violence. While I felt a difference of degree in the danger each woman was facing, that commonality complicated the reading of Peg.

Richards: Yes. I think it’s complicated to consider what it does for us that we’re seeing both relationships through Peg’s first-person narration. Potentially, we get a very filtered vision of Peg’s boyfriend, Leif.

That’s another one of the central things I’m always interested in: that lack of access to other people’s relationships. Our understanding is only composed of our own perceptions and whatever the person in the relationship tells us.

Rumpus: In the 2019 storyline, one of the most compelling characters is Dana, Peg’s niece. Peg has this love for Dana that seems adjacent to her love for Dee, and then Dana is an interesting character in her own right. She’s sometimes clear-eyed in a way that none of the adults can be, because their perspectives have been warped by tragedy. How were you thinking about the generational legacy of a tragedy like this?

Richards: Because I have such a big family, I’m interested in the way that family narratives can take on a very specific tone, based on what the older generation decides they want the younger generation to hear. Kids are so perceptive, and they pick up on so much more than adults want to believe. So even when stories are told very carefully, in a very curated way, kids want to know more, and to have their own vision and perspective on it. I’ve experienced that in my own family, around losses and events that happened when I was very young. Revisiting them as an adult, I would realize that the truth was different than the way my family said it had gone down. That is part of the role of Dana’s character.

But the other part of it is that I wanted to provide some relief for Peg. I wanted her to have someone in her life that she cared about in a more selfless way again, after losing Dee, and it felt very natural for Dana to offer her that type of relationship.

Rumpus: What were some of the books that you turned to as you were writing this book?

Richards: I read Joy Williams’s State of Grace when I was at a place in my novel where I felt like I was so trapped in structure, feeling like it had to be a certain way. State of Grace helped me realize that a novel structure doesn’t have to be any specific type of way. You can do almost anything. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You helped for that same reason. And, of course, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. It’s so good. I just read it all the time.

Rumpus: Milwaukee is such a potent character in the novel. I know from our past conversations that you grew up in Milwaukee and love the city, and yet there’s so much darkness in the portrayal. How would you describe your relationship with Milwaukee, and how were you thinking about the way you animated it as a character?

Richards: I do love Milwaukee. I was born in the city, but I grew up mostly in the suburbs. First in Wauwatosa and then in Brookfield. Both of my parents were professors at UWM, and so I spent a lot of time on the East Side as a kid and in and around the lakefront. My sisters lived on the East Side and we would often stay with them, too. My oldest sister went to UWM and my second oldest sister went to Mount Mary, which is the college that Dee attends in the novel. I loved the East Side, the lakefront, the campus. But I had a very rosy picture of the city while I was growing up; a picture that was, I think, the result of my position as a sheltered, privileged white young woman.

Once I became an adult, and when I came back to the city after college, and my MFA, I looked around and realized, Oh, wow. This city has a lot of problems. When I was living back in Milwaukee again a few years ago, this time with my now-husband, the writer J.M. Holmes, it was really eye-opening to see the segregation from his point of view. It taught me a lot about my privilege and the rosy view I’d held of the city as I was growing up. I had to learn to re-see the city, as an adult, and that was helpful for the book.

I have been getting some version of this question a lot: “You say you love this city, but then you portray it in this light,” shining a light on murder and racism and police violence and segregation. I mean, that was a hard decision for me, because of the position Milwaukee occupies in the cultural imagination. On the East Coast and the West Coast, people either ignore it or think it’s a terrible city, and it doesn’t get portrayed on the page often.

I was sensitive to that. I wanted to do Milwaukee justice without erasing its complexities. I tried to combat that by adding little Milwaukee shoutouts, these really specific touches and details that readers in Milwaukee could see and say, “Ah.” Kopp’s Custard, Bradford Beach as a central hub for downtown, Walker’s Point—which has really changed a lot—Mount Mary, Marquette, and UWM, all the Milwaukee-specific beer, and the factories, especially Ambrosia. Wolski’s, which is a very famous bar. I was trying to convey a love for the city by speaking to Milwaukeeans and portraying its particularities.

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Photograph of Willa C. Richards by Emma Daryl Richards.


Alex Madison is a Seattle-based writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Harvard Review, Indiana Review, Witness, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter at @alexmmadison and on Instagram at @alex_malia_m. More from this author →