Rita Bullwinkel | Remember What the Doorman Says
In the occasionally fantastic worlds of writer Rita Bullwinkel, extravagance is the norm. And when extravagance is otherwise absent, shit just gets weird. As an Editor at Large for McSweeney’s and a Pushcart Prize nominee, Bullwinkel’s page cred speaks for itself.
But with her much-anticipated short story collection, Belly Up, out via A Strange Object press this May—stories which lit star Lorrie Moore states “take place in the spaces between ordinary objects and events”—the San Francisco-based writer will likely see her abundant vision of the form reach its largest audience yet. We speak to Bullwinkel about the conventions of fantasy, her new story collection, and eschewing restraint for glorious maximalism.
You’re being featured in The New Fantasy Issue, which explores the convention of fantasy and how this may or might not be influenced by cultural evolution. In one of your stories, “Decor,” you explore a sort of post-contemporary design landscape of hyper-excess and exclusivity. How do you feel aspects of “Decor” speak to a “new” fantasy as it relates to furniture or interior design?
The interior design world is steeped in escapism. The entire industry relies on the notion that otherworldly beauty can be bought and inhabited. What I most admire about interior design, as a form, is its ability to transport one out of this planet into a new world that has its own aesthetic laws.
Unfortunately, very little interior design achieves this extra-planetary effect on its inhabitants. Most people who have enough money to design the interior of a space, or hire someone to design the interior of a space, are after some type of performative conformity and have little aesthetic sensitivity, and, as these high spenders control most of the market, so much of the contemporary furniture that exists is bland and devoid of character or aesthetic life.
The protagonist of “Decor,” Ursula, greatly desires the feeling of being transported by interior design, but is unable to find a way into this feeling, except when she fantasizes about murdering Malcolm Danvers,a convicted rapist, and using his corpse to construct a piece furniture.
I don’t think Ursula is more murderous than anyone else. I think she simply desires the control to shape her own environment, which, in the moment we meet her, she doesn’t possess. Ursula’s fantasies of murder could be synonymous with her desires. I also think that part of what the story is working to do is humanize Ursula’s desire to kill. I tried to make her desire to murder Danvers relatable and sympathetic. However, I am aware that how she wanted to do it is grotesque.
“Black Tongue” converges physical experience with childhood memory and fantasy. How does your process vary when writing about a long-ago period versus something more recent? Or does it?
I never write from life, so when I write I am not thinking of how I am writing about something that happened a long time ago as opposed to something that happened recently. Within the economy of the story, the time that has passed since an event has happened and the point of the telling is like the focus on a viewfinder of a camera.
Every story has a right, most powerful distance, from which the narrator should tell it. The alchemy of that distance is opaque and strange to me. I wish I had a better intuitive sense of what that distance is. In some stories, I get it right the first time. In others, I have to tell the whole story from the wrong distance in order to see that it is the wrong distance.
For instance, I am currently working on a novel about a youth women’s boxing tournament in Reno. I wrote a draft in a distant past tense that I eventually put away and began again in a close present. The fights and the young girl boxers and the light in the shitty gym in which the tournament takes place assumed a much sharper, more urgent and stark focus as soon as I adjusted the telling to a close present. I don’t know exactly why that is.
Do you feel you’ve any bad habits, and if so, what are they?
I am a pile of bad habits. It is difficult to know where to begin.
Where in the collection do you think you practiced the most restraint?
I don’t practice restraint. This collection is baroque, as many times it opts for more instead of less. There is a bit of writing advice that says if you write a story where there is a dead body in the trunk of a car, and your editor is resistant to the dead body being in the trunk of the car (why is it there? how did it get there?), then the narrative solution may not be to get rid of the dead body, but to instead put ten dead bodies in the car, piled up to the roof, nude, strapped together with ribbon and bows and all painted white. I am very much an acolyte of the ten-dead- body philosophy.
What did you fantasize about today?
I fantasized about having a small spray bottle filled with lemon juice that could be strapped to my hip and used to squirt people in the face immediately after they’ve said something wildly inappropriate, such as, “I can’t help what I’m attracted to” or “I’ve had things to overcome, too” or “It’s about your verb not your noun.”
Written by Matthew Bedard
Photographed by Aubrie Pick
Styled by Heather Rosner