Bloodlines: An Interview with Tara Stillions Whitehead by Curtis Smith

Tara Stillions Whitehead is a multi-genre writer and filmmaker from Southern California living in Central Pennsylvania. With various international publications, award nominations, and inclusion in the 2020 Wigleaf Top 50, her writing can be found in Fairy Tale Review, The Rupture, cream city review, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. Tara released her hybrid chapbook/concept album Blood Histories in 2021 from Galileo Press and will publish a full-length collection of stories and script hybrids titled The Year of the Monster with Unsolicited Press in September 2022. She is currently a producer with Third Child Productions and Assistant Professor of Film, Video, and Digital Media for Messiah University’s film production program.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Blood Histories. I think the journey from manuscript to publication often makes for an interesting story. How did you come to work with Galileo? It’s such a cool shape and design—were you part of that process? I also really liked how the stories were listed by times—it gave it a kind of mixtape feel. Was that your idea? If so, what were you thinking about when you proposed that to your publisher?

Tara Whitehead: Thank you for the kind words about the book and for taking the time to read it and invite me to answer some questions about it.

Blood Histories came together right after I signed a contract with Unsolicited Press for my full-length collection, due out September 2022. I had these lyrical, hybrid dispatches that didn’t fit in TYOTM but revolved around motherhood, daughterhood, and inherited identity. It’s an ambitious book, and I wasn’t quite sure who would have the resources and attention to bring to it—marketing-wise, emotionally, and regarding design. I came across Galileo Press in April 2020. Free State Review was on my radar, and once I plunged into EIC Barrett Warner’s poetry and some online interviews, I was immediately engaged. I looked at the re-launch of FSR’s press arm Galileo, which has been around since the 70s, and was blown away by their release of Jessica Bonder’s chapbook, Bell and Light. I loved the physical artifact, its dimensions, the discerning sparseness on the page and the hypnotic qualities of her prose. I submitted Blood Histories during Galileo’s open reading period and held my breath for several months, all the while feeling like I would have to justify the book’s destiny (the one I’d already written in my head) to Barrett, whom I’d never interacted with, not until, say…September 2020, when Barrett reached out to me about his love of certain elements of the book, alongside his reservations about being the editor to take it on. Mostly, he wanted to know if I could take suggestions. I told him I could, and we began the editorial work in November, ending in February. Barrett is a brilliant poet and a phenomenal editor. His suggestions were so smart and discerning. He can make suggestions—removals, inquiries, exceptions—while maintaining the writer’s integrity and voice. I have also never worked with an editor so dedicated and hands-on. He sent his first round of hand-written edits by two-day air from South Carolina in December. Of course, due to the election’s entanglement with the USPS, I didn’t get them for two weeks, but when I got them, they were incandescent.

The design of the book originated with Barrett’s comments on the musical references and the lyricism/mixtape quality of the book. In my time between editorial passes, I created two book trailers, one of which was post-card-style and included two photos I’d taken of a woman in the California desert fifteen years ago. Barrett seized on those photos, and in working with Adam Robinson, the cover (front and back) were conceived as, what I am proud to call, my concept album—very reminiscent of the women musicians whose cover art impacted me in the 90s: Bjork, Lauryn Hill, Alanis Morissette, and TLC to name a few. Adam did such a brilliant job with the typography, the layout. I loved the collaboration and how things outside of my control resulted in something I didn’t know I would love so much. It’s like we formed our own band in the creative process.

 CS: You have a background in film and video, correct? I often talk to students about the language of film and how a writer can use the cinematic eye to bring life to their stories. Do you see a link between visual storytelling and what we put on the printed page? How can these two realms help one another?

TW: I received my BA in Cinema-Television Production from University of Southern California and spent a few years working in the industry, mostly as an assistant director. I left California and Hollywood under the duress of myriad external and internal traumas and earned my MFA in fiction writing at San Diego State University. I’d been writing prose since I could hold a pen, eventually graduating to an electric typewriter. I still write generatively by hand, and I think this is in part because I liked the psychovisual representation on the page—how joy slants the letter ‘m’ a specific way or the prismatic effect of the word ‘jacaranda’ written in purple ink. Barrett Warner suggested we scan some handwritten passages into Blood Histories, and that pleased me very much.

I do think my affection for the physical form of a text comes from my love of and experience in the visual medium and cinema and television. In a screenplay or teleplay format, the writer’s job is to convey clear, compelling action or dialogue for multiple third-party interpreters all while using present tense, third-person objective point of view, and other industry standard conventions. The challenge is to be economical and lucid, to use the white space and line breaks (yes, just like poetry!) on the page to effect rhythm and enhance the reading experience…all while executing the tasks of a de facto technical document.

My writing method is similar to an NLE (non-linear editing) system like Premiere Pro or Avid. I write in chunks, batches, all with an overarching sense of length and shape, and I move scenes and passages around until the juxtapositions have the desired thematic/emotional effect. In later stages of editing, I do something similar to the fan test—the quick fanning of script pages that film developers use to “see” how much white space is in the work. I can tell when something needs trimmed, separated, or pulled together. I was very happy with the physical layout of the book. Adam Robinson and Barrett Warner wanted a wider interior margin, as this allows for easier reading and deters the reader from stretching the binding apart.

I don’t want to seem like I am avoiding the question you are really asking me, which is about how the cinema impacts the writing itself. I just wanted to mention the less obvious connections between scriptwriting/editing and assembling prose/a book. In movies and television, interiority is conveyed visually. That’s why screenwriters avoid writing what a character is thinking and instead rely on the actor’s and director’s ability to translate the direction (prose in a script) and dialogue. I try to give the reader the immediate action and image, and I take time to use unlikely descriptions to help vivify/individualize the diegesis. I don’t avoid writing what a character thinks, but I challenge myself to trust the reader’s ability to translate or interpret the action. The right verb and the unlikely adjective or noun can carry exposition or commentary better than placing it directly in front of the reader’s eyes. I think we can borrow a lot from the semiotics and nuances of film. The tension created by the act of interpretation is a cinematic exercise.

CS: You’ve come to Central PA from the West Coast. Has this change in place influenced your work? Do you still envision your stories set on your old home turf—or have elements of this new place made their way into your writing? If so, can you give some examples?

TW: That’s a great question. I had not thought about that much until now. When I first met my husband, I was 24, stuck in Los Angeles, and longing for a life with enough space to collect my thoughts. Three months later, I sold or donated everything that didn’t fit into my ’98 Toyota 4-Runner and moved 2,900 miles to Central PA to be with him. Less than a year later, I was in San Diego, working towards my MFA. Place is a character in my stories, and I try my best to not misrepresent the spaces my stories inhabit. During my MFA, I became aware of my desire to write places I may not have known well enough to write about to the degree of authenticity they required. This was okay. This was growing. Like a lot of writers, longing drives my bus, so I write of places I long to return to. One of those places is the high desert, which comes up several times in Blood Histories, but is most prominent in “The Most Beautiful Shapes No One Has Ever Seen.” The speaker, driven by a story her dying mother tells her about women who go to the desert to “grow”—escape oppression, create communities, “cast shadows”—and, in the more tangible sense, get sober, or “dry out.” In my forthcoming book, geographical isolation is a recurring theme, but now that I think about it, California is a much more prominent locale than anywhere else. Not just in the script hybrids that critique Los Angeles and its toxic fetishizations of celebrity and rape culture, but also in my speculative, climate-crisis story titled “There Are No Secrets in the Constellations,” which is situated near Mariposa in Northern California. I was born in San Francisco and still have family in gold country near the Sonora Pass. We moved to Southern California during a painful part of my life, and nothing was ever the same. When I travel back to Northern California, I’m able to recall the good parts of my childhood. Maybe that is why I situated that story, which takes place after the extinction of all naturally occurring wildlife, there? I don’t know. I have been writing a lot about Carlsbad this last year or two. That’s the small beach town I lived in during high school. I think that is because I’m entering (or already in?) this phase of motherhood where I am looking back on my shenanigans as a teenager with complete horror.

 CS: I felt the pull of the parent–child bond in a number of these pieces. I know parenthood often changes one’s life in unexpected ways—has this been true for you? If so, how has the experience impacted your work?

TW: As the title suggests, Blood Histories tackles issues of identity inheritance and the culturally constructed relationship between self and one’s ancestry. Mother-daughter relationships are often depicted in these polarized ways, most of which come from fairy tales. The mother is either this innocent, idealized martyr killed off at the beginning of the story, or she is an evil, self-obsessed monster who eventually tortures or kills her daughter/step-daughter/ward. In the stories where the mother dies, the daughter rises up to take her mother’s place, physically and metaphorically. She has no unique identity; she is a replacement. Through a series of social, cultural, and political translations, a parent’s identity is often projected onto the child at the societal and individual level. “You two look like twins,” people say of me and my mother. Unbeknownst to them, I have a twin. But he is not my mother.

Becoming a parent has been the single greatest accomplishment of my life. Twice over. I don’t think this needs to be the sentiment of every person who becomes parent, but it is my sacred truth. I never wanted to have kids. Until I did. And what a thing to not know what one needs. I didn’t know I needed to become a mother. I didn’t know I needed the mother-daughter/mother-son relationship more than I needed to publish a book or direct a film.

I needed to see that history does not have to repeat itself. I needed to be challenged.

 CS: The language here is poetic and daring and lovely. Can I assume you like to craft things on the sentence level? When in the process does this focus on language come in? Are your early drafts about getting down ideas and then you return to polish it on the sentence level? Or do you find yourself wrestling with wordings from the moment you put pen to paper?

TW: Thank you for the kind words—that means a lot to me. My process has changed substantially over the last three years or so, and a lot of that has to do with developing more self-awareness about what I want to experience during the generative phases. Life can provide opportunities for this development. Nine years ago, I became a parent. Until this semester, I was contingent faculty stretched thin to pay the bills. Now, I am tenured-track faculty with a full schedule, institutional service, and scholarship expectations. My life is so full—and I am grateful But I don’t have the luxury of whittling a single sentence for five hours.

I will always be a very slow writer. I will always need to generate. But I am no longer glacial. Before kids and academia, I agonized over “perfecting” a single sentence, word by word, before moving on to the next. What a miserable way to write or enjoy writing. I still get wrapped up in being precise and concise, but these efforts come after I’ve generated enough of a story to sense a distinct tone, style, and thematic idea. I give myself a lot of room to write terribly during the generative stage, and I’m always surprised when a gem appears without a whole lot of effort. One of the things I love to do with language is tap the unlikely. This comes easier when I am writing by hand. Much of the language in Blood Histories invokes the sensual. Sound, taste, smell. In “Ornithology for Girls” I convey a conception story/mother’s rape as “the percussion of hollow bones.” In “Self-Portrait for ´Edouard Levé,” I respond to an excerpt from Levé’s Autoportrait with “I do not recognize the scent of a tiger, but I have eaten glass and phencyclidine.” In “Undertow,” I imagined each series of repetitions as sounds cresting a wave, the physical traces of each boy as a granule of tracked sand. To avoid using personal pronouns in “The Body Looks Like a Horizon,” I was intentional with my use of the senses. For Lee, “a kiss tastes like a feather.” A story should(n’t) “soothe like a marble between two fingers.” Sometimes, I come up with awful unlikely metaphors, but great editors can help ensure those don’t slip through.

 CS: A number of pieces utilize interesting forms. Does form come to you early on? Or do you finish a draft and then realize the form that might work better? Do you sometimes find yourself going back and forth, trying different forms and seeing what works best?

 TW: Form comes to me early on. In “Seven Bodies I Didn’t Leave Behind,” I knew I wanted to tell the fatal version of seven near deaths. I knew I wanted to partition them into seven individually titled pieces and use the same refrain to begin each fragment. In “The Most Beautiful Shapes No One Has Ever Seen,” I struggled with the POV. Did I want to use second-person? Third-person? Eventually, I settled on both. Because the story required both. And I alert the reader: “When it’s happening to you, the story shifts into the second-person.”

I’m captivated by form and how it assists in telling a story. Content is what drives the form for me. I can sit down with a pen and task myself with writing a script hybrid or a braided essay, but these are going to be artificial scaffolds without content that warrants their conventions (or anti-conventions). I’m not saying that I don’t play with form and see what happens. I have gone from changing the POV in a work multiple times to fragmenting and reattaching passages. I can tell pretty early on if the form is serving the content in those situations.

 CS: What’s next?

 TW: A lot of exciting things! I’ve organized a panel for AWP titled “Writing for Recovery: Ne Sobriety Narratives,” and I am so excited to work on this along with the amazing writers who have agreed to share their time and energy. I just received workload reallocation for my university position, which will allow me to adapt, fundraise, and produce two short films adapted from my full-length collection, The Year of the Monster, which comes out from Unsolicited Press on September 27, 2022. I also have another chapbook, They More than Burned, which was a finalist in Black Lawrence Press’ 2021 Black River Chapbook Contest and received an honorable mention from The Cupboard Pamphlet in their annual contest. Maybe the right publisher will come along and carry this little piece of my heart? Here’s hoping!

Curtis Smith’s latest book, The Magpie’s Return, was named as one of Kirkus Review’s top Indie releases of 2020 

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