The stories in Sarah Rose Etter’s Tongue Party, the winner of the 2010 Caketrain Chapbook Competition (judged this year by Deb Olin Unferth) are torturous. Slowly, they lead the reader into places of dread, of discomfort, a sensation akin to drowning. And yet, one feels the compulsive urge to finish them in one sitting—only then does it make sense that too much of a bad thing is a good thing. In today’s jmww interview, Sarah Rose Etter talks with Jen Michalski about Tongue Party, how her brain throws up, her rallies against boredom, and her need to have assholes in stories:
Jen Michalski: Let’s start with Tongue Party—I like the way you pace these stories, concentrating on small details and slowing down the narrative while the reader is dying to get to the arc of the story. It’s a torture that actually winds up hurting so good. For instance, we wind up knowing a lot about Cassie’s bathing suit colors in “The Koala Tide” and the weather, Cassie’s designs for her imagined pet koala, ie, that will sleep in the laundry room, while in the back of our minds, we just want to get to the damn koala tide! Koalas! There’s a similar feeling of anticipation, of mounting dread, in “Cake” and “The Husband Feeder.” Is the structure intended, or just how the stories formed themselves to you?
Sarah Rose Etter: I very much like vivid things—weird color combinations, odd pairings of items or words, mismatched things that end up belonging together. I like the colors navy blue and hot pink together, that kind of thing. I guess that’s where the small details come from, the little fixations. I love a good visual. Give me a good visual all day long.
As far as the structure goes, it’s just how the stories came out. Something in my brain wouldn’t let me say the words “koala tide” and then explain it right away. I wanted to build an obsession around the koala tide that would make the ending have a bigger punch. And I think there’s something similar going on in the other stories.
JM: I also love the device of using objects that have enjoyable, harmless connotations to them as weapons, as objects of oppression and also disillusionment—the koala bears in the first story, sweet, beautiful cake in “Cake”—even tongues in “Tongue Party,” which is such a master stroke. There’s a surrealist element to this terrible situations, and the surrealism makes them bearable in some way, at least to the reader. It reminds me almost the way a child may retreat into his or her imagination to escape the brutal reality of their situation. Can you speak more to this, ie, your conscious decision to present these traumas in this way, as opposed to being straightforward?
SRE: Every single day, there’s a constant rally against boredom going on in my chest. There’s a little man in my heart that is flipping out, smashing tables, dumping over trash cans. That usually leads to new pairings of words and images. And hopefully that makes people want to keep reading. That’s where the surrealism comes from.
There’s nothing new, to me, in rehashing our tragedies in a straightforward way. Those stories have been written and written well. I’m not saying everything I do is brand new, but I am starving for new things. I want to claw at the walls most of the time, find new colors, jam an orange into a car tire, that kind of thing. So that’s what comes out on the page.
JM: I noticed there’s sort of a continuum of character or consciousness in the stories—for many, the protagonist is “Cassie.” I feel in some ways it is the same Cassie (despite the contradictory details of the pieces), but perhaps it is more that we are all “Cassie.”
SRE: I like this question, but I’m going to plead the fifth. This one is up to the reader, I think.
JM: During the first read I was on the fence about your naming of the collection Tongue Party. But as I read the second time through, I began to appreciate the choice more. It seems as if we’re accustomed, or allow, a certain element of danger, of violence, or just surprise, in our lives, that it’s an unspoken code of civility, just as Cassie and her father and the men have a gentlemen’s agreement about the tongue party. We never really allow the thought that our line in the sand is just that, that there’s no safety or guarantee in the line we draw, no “safe” word to stop other’s darker urges. The danger is really that we have free will, in a way, and some of us will actually act upon it, despite the harm it will inflict on others. Am I on the right path in thinking this, or was there another reason you decided on Tongue Party?
SRE: Man, I’m terrible at being interviewed about writing. Do you know that? These questions make me feel microscoped, ha-ha. The title of the book came during a fiction workshop in a bar. I was probably all full of gin and spouting off about something and trying to piss off my professor. After that, it became the title of the story, then the title of my thesis. I whittled my thesis down and BOOM. We had a chapbook! And now here it is!
But no, I don’t believe in safety, especially around other people. No matter what measures you take to protect yourself, any person can walk up and punch you in the face, kiss you or rip heartsmash you like a piece of fine china. 90% of the time, I feel like a live nerve walking around in the world. And I guess there’s nothing safe about that. So I’m sure that’s in these stories.
JM: But Tongue Party isn’t just this—there’s so much loss to bear as well. The distraught father in “Chicken Father,” the story “Cures.” I don’t want to delve too much into the personal relationship you have with these stories, but there are clearly themes you explore in this chapbook—consumptive relationships, father–daughter relationships, trust issues, grief—that I hope it was somewhat cathartic for you to produce this body of work?
SRE: The back of my brain is always whirring, calculating things, doing something and then making stories. I try not to look at that part of my brain too closely—I don’t want to ruin the process. Writing these stories was cathartic the way any art is cathartic. These stories are my brain throwing up. But I don’t stand around staring at my own vomit once it’s on the sidewalk. I tend to just puke and leave most of the time.
JM: One last thing I wanted to know more about was your use of the ancillary character, Fred, in “Koala Tide.” At first, I thought he was the gay lover of Cassie’s father, but he’s clearly just an asshole-ish friend. Although symbolically I could buy that Cassie’s information about the unfortunate, brutal realities of the world come from people outside her family (since family is the source of most of our “blindness” about the outside world), I didn’t quite know how Fred came to be on vacation with the the family, since no one liked him.
SRE: A great man once pointed out that there are assholes everywhere. He ended up also being an asshole. But he’s right. Fred has to be there to make something terrible that much worse for Cassie. He has to be there to be brash, to not understand, to offset how disappointed this little girl is. I also just really hated this guy named Fred when I wrote that story. Not sure if that matters. Probably doesn’t.
JM: Most Freds seem to be assholes, right? So, onward and upwards, what’s in store for you?
SRE: Right now, writing more stores. Many of them involving Benjamin Franklin.
Sarah Rose Etter will be reading from Tongue Party this Saturday, May 21st at the 510 Readings in Baltimore.