It’s been a few years since the Women’s March, and since then many seemingly invulnerable men were finally held accountable for their crimes. There seemed to be some power in pussy hats, some angry electric current that was going to explode into action, vindication, justice. And yet it’s 2022 and Bill Cosby walks free, and Brett Kavanaugh sits on the Supreme Court. Lasting change seems tantalizingly close, and still light years away. And meanwhile women are left to walk the streets and go to work and live online and off without succumbing to fury and despair—and the miracle is that we do! We thrive and laugh and create and love and celebrate one another, just as we always have.
Shit Cassandra Saw is the debut short story collection from Gwen E. Kirby, and her characters often live in exactly this space; women must live in a hostile world and either adapt or fight. With stories high on wit and insight and just the right amount of rage, Kirby’s characters also have the heart and the endurance to keep going, no matter what, resulting in a collection that is a balm to our endless national crises.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Kirby about stubbornness, our mutual love of Anne Shirley, and delicious, delicious anger.
The Rumpus: It’s a bold move putting the word shit right in the title. Can you tell me how you chose the story, “Shit Cassandra Saw” as the title of the collection? Was that always your intended title? Did you get any pushback from your publisher?
Gwen Kirby: I was so surprised that no one pushed back about the title! I was all braced for Stuff Cassandra Saw and instead no one batted an eye, which I credit to my wonderful editor Margaux Weisman, who I think knew what this book was from the jump. And I mean, if you really hate the word shit, you probably won’t be thrilled when you read the rest of the first story’s title, so it’s good that it does what it says on the tin!
As for choosing “Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at that Point Fuck Them Anyway” as the first in the collection, it was almost like the story chose itself. “Shit Cassandra Saw . . .” was the first thing I wrote after the 2016 election, a bit of a blood letting, and it was published soon after in SmokeLong Quarterly, in early 2017. I’d honestly never had people respond to a story the way they did to that one. I mean, it’s a short story! You’re pretty lucky if you get fifty bucks and a retweet. After that, I tried to trust myself a bit more as a writer and to let myself play, particularly with historical fiction. I began writing a series of flash pieces about women from history and eventually realized that they were the spine of my book. I wanted them to appear in chronological order, which put Cassandra first, exactly where she should be.
Rumpus: “You’re pretty lucky if you get fifty bucks and a retweet.” Wow. A truer thing has never been said about the contemporary short fiction market.
You mentioned your series of flash pieces about women from history. You feature Cassandra in the title story, you write about Boudicca, the British queen who fought the invading Romans, you have a story about the first woman hanged for witchcraft, and then throughout the collection you hop around historical periods and locations through to the end of the nineteenth century. Do you have a favorite historical time period? And how do you find that history enriches your storytelling?
Kirby: My favorite historical time period is Britain in the 1700s and 1800s (unusual, I know!), because so many of my formative texts come from then. At thirteen I got my hands on Jane Eyre and devoured it. It was as if Marilla Cuthbert had cruelly sent Anne Shirley right back to the orphanage and then Anne had gone on the most incredible, Romantic (capital R) adventure. (I trolled the Penguin Classics shelves for little r romance with mixed results. Tess of the D’Urbervilles did not play out the way I was hoping.) And, as with Anne, I felt like Jane, and Charlotte behind her, were speaking directly to me, not across centuries but mouth to ear, her breath still warm. To think of it as “history” was almost to miss the point; these were girls and women I loved and knew.
This is all to say that growing up I read a ton of historical fiction and fiction from history. I didn’t make much of a distinction between the two, or between contemporary literary fiction and science fiction and fantasy, either. I was always after the story, always falling in love. When I began writing, it felt natural that my stories would be similarly eclectic and because I’ve spent so much of my imaginative life in the past, it didn’t feel “like a foreign country” to me. It felt like simply another setting for the basic, unchanging dramas that play out in our lives. It’s setting that requires more research, absolutely, but my (perhaps over) familiarity with Jane, et al., has meant that when I write historical fiction, I get the most excited about that conversation—that whisper or shout or best, laugh—between me and the character.
Rumpus: The notion of “mouth to ear” storytelling, as you put it, really resonates. As someone who also grew up devouring all things Anne Shirley, she was a very real part of my life, as much, or perhaps more so, than my actual friends because I had access to her interior mind.
Your stories in this collection vary a lot in form and length. “Jerry’s Crab Shack: One Star” is in the form of a Yelp Review. “How to Retile Your Bathroom in 6 Easy Steps!” is an instructional list. Does the form and shape of a story announce itself to you at its conception, or do you work through different iterations during drafting?
Kirby: The form for “How to Retile Your Bathroom in 6 Easy Steps!” came to me early. I knew I wanted to write a story about a woman doing some furious remodeling; I liked the idea of an intense physical dismantling mirroring a personal crisis. But I also didn’t know anything about retiling a bathroom, so off to WikiHow I went. As I read, I realized that, of course, my character would be going on the same journey I was. She didn’t know anything about retiling a bathroom either! “How to” stories are so much fun to write because the second person is full of commands—you do this, do that—and I thought that seemed perfect for this woman who has been doing everything she “should” do, and things have fallen apart anyway.
For “Jerry’s Crab Shack,” I was literally just trying to figure out where to get some crab. I was reading a bunch of Yelp reviews and enjoying how personal people are willing to be on a public forum. As I started writing Greg’s story, it was important to me that he be up late at night and getting progressively drunker, turning this public act into a private one, almost a diary entry. I imagine him waking up in the morning and deleting this confession, deleting his whole Yelp profile.
So yes, form usually comes first for me. I knew “Shit Cassandra Saw . . .” was going to be a list story, because the title came to me first. With “Friday Night,” I decided I wanted to write a flash piece that was only one sentence, just to see what that might generate. Choosing my form early gives me room to play around, to stretch limits, to take risks while feeling like I’m in a safety net. Sometimes those forms turn out not to be elastic enough and I scrap them, or the story within the form is too dull to actually test its limits. But I love the guideposts form can provide, especially early in a draft.
Rumpus: Your stories are deliciously, wickedly angry. And I say, wicked, only because it is still transgressive for women to get angry, to express their fury. At the end of “A Few Normal Things That Happen a Lot” two scientists have invented a sort of armor for women to wear to protect themselves from men. And though the armor works, though a man passing the women in their armor nods and gives them a wide berth, you finish the story by saying the women nonetheless wish they could be softer versions of themselves, which feels very true. There is a palpable sadness about the fact that, rather than demanding men behave better towards women on the street, women must arm themselves.
How does anger inform your art? And how do you stop yourself from getting consumed by all the many, many things there are in this world to get angry about?
Kirby: My art has gotten angrier as it has become more honest, because I have no idea how to write honestly about being a woman without writing about anger. I began writing “A Few Normal Things That Happen a Lot” the day of the Kavanaugh hearings, when I felt absolutely incandescent with rage, and even then, what started as a fantasy just for me, of fangs and invulnerability, turned into a story about wanting to take a walk in the evening without being scared. That’s the regret and sadness that sits at the end of the story, the size of their achievement against the extent of their scars. All that said, I don’t go into most stories thinking, what a great chance to be angry! I just try to be truthful about my character’s experiences and when those experiences elicit anger, I try not to censor myself. Why should I?
I am so happy you find the anger delicious! For me, anger and humor are intimately entwined in my work and in my life. I’ve always used humor as a coping mechanism. If something shitty happens to me and I tell someone else about it, I try to make that person laugh, make myself laugh, and then I feel almost like I have control over the shitty thing. I’m in power, not the thing that hurt me. And I don’t worry about being consumed by anger—I am a bone-deep optimist for the most part—but I worry a lot about becoming numb, especially lately. As long as I’m angry, I’m awake to what’s happening around me. I’m reacting, creating, trying to laugh, doing something. It’s the days when I read the news and feel nothing that I worry I am losing parts of myself.
Rumpus: I noticed that sports come up a bit in this collection: softball in “Mt. Adams at Mar Vista” and soccer in “Here Preached His Last.” Are you an athlete or former athlete? If yes, what’s your sport, and are there any lessons you’ve carried from that to your writing?
Kirby: Former athlete feels like a bit of a stretch, but yes! I played softball, soccer, and field hockey in high school and did the whole travel sports thing, games every weekend, etc., as a kid. My favorite of those three sports was field hockey, and I do really miss playing, particularly the joys of being on a team. One thing I think that carries over from my sports days into my writing now is knowing how to take a lot of losses, and a few bruises, without letting it get to you too much. I was on some terrible soccer teams (we had one season with zero wins!) and, well, you just kept on playing. I was submitting stories to journals for years before I made much of a dent and that learned stubbornness was a help.
These days, I run a lot (one of the few things I’ve found that genuinely reduces my anxiety) and it’s very similar to writing. When I’ve been running regularly and writing regularly, it tends to go well. When I haven’t been running or writing in a while, then I’m bent over heaving for breath and wondering why I ever thought I knew how to write a sentence.
Rumpus: “Learned stubbornness” is such a great way of putting it. I’ve always imagined dealing with rejection as a writer as a struggle between optimism and pessimism, or believing in the value of your work despite all evidence to the contrary, but stubbornness sort of skirts that dichotomy and just gets back to work.
A lot of your stories center around communities of women and interdependence among women, and the importance of the connection, even when it isn’t necessarily healthy. Was this something you thought about as you worked on the collection?
Kirby: Stubbornness is crucial. As is, at least for me, focusing on how to do what I do better, rather than going down the rabbit hole of whether my work has big-V value. Obviously you really, really hope it does, but it’s outside your control. You can choose to keep working and you can choose to read authors whose Value brings you joy and brings you back to your own work.
As for relationships between women, yes, that was definitely something I thought about! My friendships with other women are an essential part of my life and I feel very, very fortunate to have close friends that I can say anything to, no matter how embarrassing or potentially shameful. That said, it was important to me in the book not to idealize female friendship, or mothers and daughters and sisters. That would be flattening how complex those relationships are and, even more important, flattening women! There are a number of characters in the book who I think might fall under the “unlikable” heroine category (a category I dislike) because they cheat or fuck or lie, but, well, men have gotten to cheat and fuck and lie their way across literature because those things make up part of the human experience and we call them “flawed” and “interesting.” I really wanted to write flawed, interesting women who go through life loving other flawed, interesting women.
Rumpus: Speaking of flattened women, we have to speak about “Midwestern Girl is Tired of Appearing in Your Short Stories.” Can you tell me how that story came about? Was it inspired by one particularly egregious short story, or by a lifetime of reading stories with women who exist solely to further the emotional development of men?
Kirby: That story has its origins at AWP! I was at an off-site event and a man was reading a story in which this one character had no name, she was just “the Midwestern girl.” And I thought, gosh, what an awesome superhero name! Midwestern Girl to the rescue! At the same time, I was reading the slush pile for a literary magazine and was struck by the number of nameless women who showed up, said something or did something to help the male protagonist (with some possible gratuitous breast description thrown in), and then disappeared again, having served their only purpose. It wasn’t that I hadn’t encountered that before in literature (obviously) but the nature of slush reading is that you read a lot of stories back to back to back and patterns, when they emerge, slap you in the face.
“Midwestern Girl,” superheroine, stayed with me and I started writing little vignettes for her, a bit in the style of those magazine submissions, except in all of these interactions, we’re in her point of view. As the story goes on, she becomes more and more self-aware, until she takes over the narrative and makes it her own story. I hope in the story that we see the challenges her male author is facing as well—he has his own rich story, and in fact by the end of writing it I felt fond of him—it is just that it won’t be told at the expense of Midwestern Girl anymore. She won’t be there to be his crutch or his assistant, because she’s off to see the world for herself.
Rumpus: In “Marcy Breaks Up With Herself,” you have a great line: “There is something about ugliness that demands more ugliness.” Can you say a little about that?
Kirby: That line is about our destructive impulses, sort of for good or for ill. In that particular story, her urge toward “ugliness” is literally destructive (she gets rid of a lot of her possessions, eventually destroys her clothes, etc.) but it is also liberating in the sense that she stops telling herself the cheerful lies that have almost been a mantra the whole story: “I’ll be a different person, I’ll be a different person.” But she won’t. She’s stuck as herself and that is the place she begins from at the end of the story. A lot of my characters have a similar urge, to sort of blow up their lives, particularly in “Here Preached His Last,” to make such a mess that it becomes literally impossible for them to live the lie that they are happy or content anymore.
Rumpus: Who are some of your favorite short story writers? With whom do you see your work in conversation?
Kirby: There are so many wonderful short story writers working today that there are twenty I won’t list for every one I do! Of course I’ve been influenced by some of the biggest names (Kelly Link, George Saunders, Lauren Groff, Alice Munro, to name only a few) and I was gob smacked this past year by The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deeshaw Philyaw and The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans.
As for who I feel like I’m in conversation with, different collections I’ve read over the past six or seven years have spoken to different aspects of writing. Various Antidotes by Joanna Scott and Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett are collections that focus on historical fiction and particularly on women in history. They lit a fire in me and I am at the very beginning of exploring what those women do so beautifully. I read Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alyssa Nutting and it made me want to borrow her fearlessness and her sharpness and gave me some permission to write more bluntly about sex. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber was a master class in feminist retellings of foundational tales. Kevin Wilson and Katherine Heiny’s stories are teaching me how to write stories that are full of hope and wring profound emotion from “normal” or “small” things, as if anything is really small. Venita Blackburn’s two collections are both masterclasses in writing flash fiction and showcase how much can be done in a short, short story. She does more with an ending than anyone out there.
I’m going to think of ten more books the moment I step away from this, but it’s enough to say that short fiction is an incredible place at the moment.
Author photo by Summer Greer