In her newest collection, Strange Folk You’ll Never Meet, A.A. Balaskovits explores the darkness of fairy tales, weird people from history, and the oddity of being alive in a world that disagrees. Cutting prose brings these strange characters to life while exploring what it means to be a woman, a mother, a human garbage disposal in long meditations and snippets.
A.A. Balaskovits is the author of Magic for Unlucky Girls, which won the Santa Fe Writers Project’s grand prize. Her work has been featured in Best Small Fictions, Wigleaf Top 50, Indiana Review, and many other places. She works as a teacher and a writing tutor and lives with three destructive cats. Find her at aabalaskovits.com or on Twitter at @aabalaskovits.
I recently messaged with Balaskovits about why the belief in happily ever after persists, video games, and the narrative danger of milestones.
The Rumpus: I feel like there are three stages of discovery when it comes to fairy tales and folklore. You start with the kid friendly versions in storybooks, you watch the Disney movies, and then you discover that the original stories are grotesque and weird. There’s a fourth stage, for the diehards—getting into various reimaginings of these stories—and then there’s what you’ve done in your new collection, Strange Folk You’ll Never Meet, which is to become the storyteller. How did you come to this place in your life as a writer? How have these stories shaped your growth as an artist?
A.A. Balaskovits: That really is the fairy tale trajectory, isn’t it? My parents had these hard-bound copies of fairy tales meant for children. The violence was glossed over or spoken so matter-of-fact. Then there was Disney and all the glam and music and tie-in products. I hated these stories, possibly due to my inability to sing, which I think really cuts into one’s enjoyment of Belle going on and on about the shitty life of the working class around her.
I first tried rewriting Little Red Riding Hood and found I really enjoyed writing in the restraints of the form. Everyone knows Red is going to encounter a wolf, someone is probably going to get eaten, and she’ll triumph because of her own ingenuity or because a man shows up in the third act with a big ax. There are expectations which really allow you to play around with not only how these stories are told, but the message as well.
Rumpus: The expectations of form are fascinating. I study and write about professional wrestling, and what’s interesting is the structure you just laid out—encounter, struggle, loss, and eventual triumph—is essentially the same, has been the same for over a hundred years, but continues to be relevant. Is that part of the challenge for you? To take something people think they know, like Belle and the Beast, shine a new, sometimes grotesque light on it, and explore the shadows cast as a result?
Balaskovits: I’ve never made that connection between wrestling and fairy tales, but it’s there, isn’t it?
It is part of the challenge and the joy of working in this form. I’m hyper-aware that changing these texts—so ingrained in the cultural consciousness—implicitly changes the message. People have preconceived notions of how the story should play out, so any change is surprising and, perhaps, a violence to one’s idea of how things should be. There’s a lot of nostalgia, the dangerous kind, at play here. Beauty and the Beast is this grand tale of love beating all sorts of real-world and magical odds, but it’s come under scrutiny because it might be about falling in love with your abuser. Some people react poorly to this interpretation. It ruins the nostalgia of watching Belle pop down for a dance with her new yellow dress and up-do. Who doesn’t want the dress and blowout? Even if the man you’re dressing up for is technically holding you captive. Details.
I like looking at what I interpret as the inherent violence of these stories and playing around. I think they’re all pretty grotesque, not just because they’re violent. The messages written down by the Grimms or made up by Andersen give me pause more than the plot point of forcing your kinda-bitchy stepsister into wearing heated iron shoes at your wedding. A lot of these tales, and their Disney revisions, are about upholding the status quo, whether that is religion, the monarchy or, in the case of Beauty and the Beast, the misunderstood grumpy billionaire who is a nice guy at heart. Everything ties up so neatly in the end. You don’t have to think about it too much.
Rumpus: The first story in your new collection, “The Tale of a Hungry Beauty,” features a beast who gives a ruby as a rebuke to a Belle who, upon seeing it, measures its value not in beauty, but in the amount of flour it can purchase for her village, which is starving. Her own father has to eat his fingers to stay alive.
The reader might be tempted to look at the story’s conclusion, where the girl sinks her thumbs into the beast’s eyes until he’s dead, coins and food and other riches spilling from his body, as the macabre element, but to me it’s the futility of life in the village. Instead of mucking about with the jewels and the “normal” food, they eat the beast’s heart, literally eating the rich. There’s a timelessness to that theme as well, but to get to it in the versions of these tales that live in the popular consciousness, you often have to identify with the villains. Is that the attraction in staying with the heroine/hero of the fairy tale? Exploring a different kind of power that’s not merely rising to the upper classes?
Balaskovits: Absolutely. I have been suspect of how these stories frame individual class mobility because of some intrinsic goodness on the part of the protagonist. We’re not all born that clever or beautiful or blessed to do some grand deed and marry into the ruling class. It’s the classic American fairy tale of dreams and bootstraps. It’s a dangerous narrative. This is, of course, a very superficial reading of these stories, but I’d argue these stories are designed to be told superficially to us.
In my version, her father ate his thumb to stay alive, and the “romantic hero” offers Belle an onion. How much do peasants need to eat, anyway? The townspeople eat the rich only after they’ve been eating their own bodies, which I suppose some people might consider macabre, but I believe is metaphorically honest. Power, though, is a tricky thing. I shy away from stories where everything works out well in the end because those are less realistic than any story containing gnomes or flying battleships. Power appears to be something of a limited resource, and something has to be lost along the way up the ladder. Loss, or a change. Belle feeds her town at the end of my story, but now everyone’s a cannibal. Whether that’s a necessary violence is up for debate, but when wealth is hoarded inside the body of one person while everyone else is starving around them, well. I might be a pessimist.
Rumpus: It’s hard to tell who’s a pessimist and who’s a realist anymore, but that is something I’m curious about when it comes to your writing. Even at its most comical, your fiction is often very bleak. Are you a pessimist? In a literary sense, I mean. Are you more comfortable operating in the dark? And, if so, is there a danger to that comfort? A risk or worry of maybe getting boxed into a corner?
I’ve asked primarily about your fairy tales thus far, and as such I think I’ve accidentally played into that kind of stereotyping! Rather than apologize, I want to turn back to the questions I’ve already asked: is that, in part, a consequence of how women in literature are assigned their class, like in a roleplaying game, based on their first book? Is that something you’re working with? Against?
Balaskovits: I suspect I might be a pessimist, but it depends on who I’m standing next to. I’m happy operating in the dark and writing about gross things because I don’t think they’re disturbing. You write—codify—piss or defection in a story, and people are grossed out, but ideally it’s a process we all go through at least once a week.
I worried about genre more with Magic for Unlucky Girls. How I classified it is different from how people who put it on bookshelves, digital or otherwise, or how readers interpreted it. The cover of Magic for Unlucky Girls depicts a rape scene from “The Goblin Market,” but I’ve been asked if it’s YA based on that image. It’s been labeled fabulist, horror, weird, and none of those seem to match.
Genre labels seem useful for booksellers and academics, but I don’t think about them. I think the most “horror” novel I’ve read is The Collector by John Fowles, but I don’t think it’s getting shelved next to Clive Barker anytime soon. You’re right, though, that these are limiting because of preconceptions of genre. Do we play into those for effect or adamantly resist, also for effect? I’ve been a fan of your work for forever and I think the sheer breadth and diversity of it naturally resists the totality of classification, but you’re right. It hounds anyway.
Rumpus: To a certain point, I go along with it. Writing about wrestling is my job now, but I’d be sad if that ever obfuscated the other work I’ve done, or if surprise were the reaction to my doing something different when really the impulse, writing as a means of exploration, is the same.
In addition to your writing, you’re also an editor—specifically of Cartridge Lit, an online magazine of work based on video games. That interest in gaming may be surprising to someone who only knows you by your writing, but it’s part of what makes you unclassifiable. Whether or not it means breaking out of the preconceptions of the genre is one thing (Mario has to rescue a princess), but I am curious as to how much of an influence gaming has on your writing.
Balaskovits: Gaming has had an influence on how I think about writing. Whenever I doubt that readers will go along with me on a journey where I insert something particularly absurd—the bears in “The Mad Monk’s Weeping Daughter,” for instance—I remember that I’m almost conditioned, by video games, to accept it. There’s a puzzle in The Longest Journey that famously, and nonsensically, makes you attract a seagull to puncture an inflatable duck to move forward, without really hinting why or how you should do this.
It’s funny you mention Mario rescuing a princess. Bowser tends to abduct a member of the royal family in (almost) every game, and each time Mario sets out to save the gal and bring peace at last—until the next game. I’ve been using the idea of being forced to save the world again and again and again, knowing it’s a futile exercise towards “happily ever after,” as a thought-experiment in the novel I’m plodding away at. Some video games are like fairy tales, too. They keep getting retold, so their traumas continue to play out.
Rumpus: I’m glad you brought up “The Mad Monk’s Weeping Daughter,” as that’s one of my favorite stories in the collection. Maria Rasputin was just as fascinating as her father, and the slice of her life in this story, where she reenacts the death of her father every night for the circus, happened. There is a lot of distance between “this is a thing that happened” and an emotionally resonant piece of fiction, though. How did you draw that out?
Balaskovits: She is really fascinating! I was reading about the Russian Revolution and somehow landed down the rabbit hole of reading everything I could about Rasputin. I didn’t even know he had children. Much like her father, Maria had a strange life. My story starts out with a snippet from a newspaper where they interviewed her, remarking on her tears as she’s talking about dancing to the reenactment of the murder of her father as though it were the weather and not codifying her trauma even farther. Such casual cruelty. It’s remarkable.
I leaned into the “magical” quality of her tears, which may or may not be able to bewitch a crowd in a kind of hypnotic, shared empathy, as my focus. There’s bears running around and jealous, past their prime ingenues and a creepy dude impersonating her father, but even at the heart of a circus, literal and metaphorical, the human element is why we go to gawk. The strongman can lift enormous weights and the contortionist can tie themselves into a pretzel, but we’re still marveling at what we are capable of doing and wishing our bodies could do as well. We want to share in it, even if just through our eyes. So, why would people go to look at her trauma? What’s the appeal?
Rumpus: Hypnosis is pretty important to the Rasputin mystique, and tears do have a hypnotic quality to them. Even now, we’re attracted to actresses who cry. I have no idea if you intended it this way, but the circus’s continuing addition of elements to an act that is already popular because of its simplicity feels like a very real acknowledgment of how entertainment was changing at the time. The new choreography that doesn’t work, the bears that distract from the show—there’s a sense that the very world of this story is about to collapse.
Which is also true of Maria Rasputin. She’s a woman trapped by a traumatic event from her childhood, but she’s also a woman who exists at a societal tipping point. Freedom for her, in your story, feels like freedom from her father’s death. But without that, who is she? In history, we have an answer, but this story ends at the moment of seismic shift for her. It asks me to imagine what’s next. Not to bring my line of inquiry back to fairy tales, but there’s no sense of “happily ever after” in your stories—regardless of who lives or who dies and how well, the worlds you conjure grind on beyond the final word. How do you know when you’ve reached that point?
Balaskovits: I don’t believe in happily ever after. The world chugs on even if the story ends. I have a hangup about works where magic comes in and saves the day without a price being paid, so even though I have a lot of magic in my stories, I try to ground them in the limitations of what we can experience. Something familiar. Even stories that end with the hero triumphing—they have to go on living. Most of the time, “happily ever after” refers to a marriage, as though that’s a crowning achievement of happiness, but anyone who has been married or been in any kind of long-term relationship knows it’s not peachy-pie every moment.
I know I’ve found the end to a tale when I’ve dropped enough hints where a reader can suss out how the story will continue on but I can leave it open-ended enough where they can imbue its continuation with their own beliefs and biases. Characters in stories are pretty static, after all, but a reader is vibrant and dynamic.
Rumpus: The idea of a happily ever after extends much farther than the stories we tell. Weddings, coming out stories, transition milestones—to some extent they’re treated as a kind of walking off into the sunset. The events of one’s life lead to a kind of catharsis, and that’s The End. Knowing that’s not the case, what do you think is the impulse for this belief in the fairy tale ending?
Balaskovits: We tend to retroactively look back on our memories and histories as a grand, simplified narrative. We have these fragmented pieces to puzzle back into an orderly picture, but the details tend to get lost along the way, similar to a fairy tale. What Red Riding Hood ate for breakfast that morning is gone, mere conjecture. My own memory functions similarly—I don’t even remember much of my own wedding day!
People want to be happy. Those milestones function as a kind of almost-impossible quest to get to happiness. It makes hardship bearable because, at the end, you won. You did the sanctioned or transgressive cultural act, or you’re working, so hard, towards it. You imbued your own story with a natural denouement. It gives us hope where we may not otherwise have had any, and once they are done, they act as a summation when we tell our own stories. A major plot point. A certified document. But they are, as Auden wrote and I am willfully misreading, never enough, not for a life.
Photograph of A.A. Balaskovits by Angela Wood.