Rita Bullwinkel’s Belly Up (out May 8 from A Strange Object) has earned high praise from Jeff VanderMeer, Lorrie Moore, and Deb Olin Unferth, among many others. The stories in this debut immerse you in the fragility and neediness of your human body. I had the great luck of meeting Rita in college; the first time I saw her—as I recall it—she was standing at the center of a cramped dorm room telling a captivating story to a group of fellow freshman. Rita‘s humor, eye for odd detail, and ear for language shine in Belly Up. Her deep capacity for empathy, which makes her a brilliant conversationalist and most–generous friend, is on full display as she channels the voices of teenage girls, middle–aged men, widows, the dying, and the dead.
In a series of emails, Rita and I discussed Belly Up, early childhood injuries, heretical religious texts, and strange dying wishes.
Rebekah Bergman: In many stories, we see the rituals people develop in the wake of death and the physical reality of what death does to the body. I know you have an academic background in religious studies. Can you talk a little about that? How do you draw from religious texts in your writing, and where else do you draw from?
Rita Bullwinkel: When I was twenty-two I did have a near-miss at becoming a religious studies academic. I seriously considered, and was encouraged by professors, to continue my undergraduate religious studies research and pursue a PhD. I was researching 4th century heretical Christian and Jewish texts that championed ideas of prayer through sex; god as inherently hermaphroditic, or genderless; and the notion that in the story of Adam and Eve it is the snake that is the true god, because it is the snake that leads Eve to knowledge, and it is knowledge that is divine, not stupidity. There is one text that I made the mistake of falling in love with for its beauty. This text is called Thunder, Perfect Mind. It is structured like a riddle. It presents dualities of what god might be, or isn’t, or what god might contain. I found myself memorizing it, and I confessed this my thesis advisor, who was concerned. Beauty has no place in the academic study of religion, which has fought for a near century to become un-cleaved from the misty grips of the church.
These religious texts that I studied do, at times, appear in my writing. Sometimes I am not able to recognize that they have appeared until I reread a story I have written for the fourth or fifth time. Perhaps most obviously, I stole bits of the Gnostic story of Norea for some of the stories that Ainsley and Mary tell each other in “Arms Overhead.”
I’m not sure where else I draw from. It’s so hard to tell, isn’t it? The soup of my unconscious, and how things get in there, and then appear in my writing, has never been clear to me.
Bergman: Each of your titles works beautifully and in its own way. “Phylum,” for instance, is a clinical, cold word for what becomes a very intimate, human story. When, during your writing process, do you come up with a title? How did you decide on Belly Up as the title for the book?
Bullwinkel: I find I come to titles differently with different stories. Some stories are born out of titles and some stories live title-less until they are finished. “Decor” did not have a title until very late. “Harp” had its title from the very beginning.
“Belly Up” was the title of a story I wrote that I chose not to include in the collection. It was a story about how, when a family member dies, you have to sit at the morgue and flip through a binder of caskets that are all very expensive and pick one out for the dead to live in, and also how, at a funeral, you have to worry about feeding all the people who are still alive. It was a wonky-shaped, ugly story that I decided I didn’t like. But I did like the title, so I kept it. My friend, the Swedish painter Linnéa Gad, had my favorite thing to say about the title. When I told her the title was Belly Up she said that it’s like when a dog rolls on its back. It gives itself up to you, and lets you pet the most vulnerable part of its body, its soft, susceptible stomach. In that moment, you could hurt the dog if you wanted to. But dogs are almost always right about who wants to hurt them and who doesn’t.
And, I couldn’t talk about titles without acknowledging that you, Rebekah Bergman, gifted me the title for “Mouth Full of Fish.” I have no idea what it was called before you read it, and pulled that beautiful title out of sky. I think we are both very sensitive to titles because of the time we’ve spent working for NOON and working with Diane Williams. Diane is a truly brilliant title-ist.
Bergman: What are some titles that particularly speak to you?
Bullwinkel: I like titles that imply movement. I also like titles that sound good in the mouth, if you know what I mean. All of the below titles do both of these things.
You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman
It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender–Hearted Nature by Diane Williams
Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
Fish in Exile by Vi Khi Nao
My Private Property by Mary Ruefle
Pee on Water by Rachel B. Glaser
The Bend, The Lip, The Kid by Jaimy Gordon
The Father Costume by Ben Marcus
The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink
Bergman: Belly Up features several works of what might be called “flash,” and I’m curious how you see the shorter pieces and longer works playing off one another. Do you see a distinction between a work of flash and a longer work?
Bullwinkel: I think, ultimately, a story is beautiful, or it is not beautiful. It is either meaningful, or it is not meaningful. Length has almost no bearing on whether or not these things are true. I do think that the experience of reading a short work of fiction alongside a much longer work of fiction elicits a unique and delightful reading experience where a reader has the chance to take a breath of air in a short narrative, and have some white space between stories, before going back under water into the head of a writer for a very long time. This structure manufactures pacing in a way that delights me. From the beginning I knew that I wanted Belly Up to emulate this form and contain both long and very short pieces.
Bergman: Many widows populate the worlds of Belly Up. To speak, in particular, to “What I Would Be If I Wasn’t What I Am,” where did Franny’s interior voice come from?
Bullwinkel: Franny bears some biographic similarities with my grandmother, Ann Bullwinkel, to whom Belly Up claims, on its dedication page, that it is partly circling.
But I feel Franny is, in many ways, just me. As you know, although I’m not married, I’ve been loving the same person for a very long time now. I think most of Franny’s voice came from imagining what I would feel if my partner died, and puzzling through the strangeness of being coupled with someone for so long. It’s a strange thing, to share a life with someone, isn’t it? We’re so fundamentally alone in so many ways. In my lived experience, coupling has been about love but also just about just witnessing the other person’s life and holding that witnessing all together in one mind. Without a doubt, my long-time lover knows me better than anyone on the planet. And I find that so incredibly strange because we are so completely different. People remark on our different-ness frequently. I think Franny finds loving someone strange in the same ways that I do, and that that is where her voice found its energy.
Bergman: We see many widows also in “Burn.” In that story, food becomes very closely connected to grief. It sounds like “Belly Up”—the story—also examined that connection. How do you see the link between consumption and death?
Bullwinkel: We require so much and, in the end, there is so very little left of us.
Bergman: Yes, let’s talk about bodies. Your writing reminds me of the strangeness of having one. The ways a body can atrophy and be ruined are largely irreversible in your stories. In “Black Tongue,” I was surprised to find out that the narrator’s injured tongue heals. Why, in this story, does the injury heal? What can a body recover from? What can’t it?
Bullwinkel: I think it is remarkable what our bodies can recover from, though I have little understanding of what one can recover from and what one cannot.
I have a very vivid memory of having my head split open as a child. I was five, and a friend’s older brother hit me with a golf club because I refused to share a ball. I remember being outside and seeing the club coming for my face and then waking up and being totally alone. I was sticky and covered in blood. I got up and went in to the house where there was a large mirror across from the front door and I saw myself then with my head split open and thought, this is it. My body looks so completely and totally broken and split open. All this stuff from my inside is gushing to the outside so that the boundary where my body starts and ends is no longer clear.
But then, miraculously, I was stitched up and healed, and I have a scar on my face, yes, but there is really very little of that violent act that anyone can still see.
I think, also, as a former athlete, I was conditioned to separate from my body from a young age. One cannot push oneself to swim six miles a day if one stays in their body. One must hover above the body to do such a thing. It’s the only effective way to keep one’s body moving.
Bergman: Do you think that learning to dissociate from yourself in that way has served your writing?
Bullwinkel: I do think there is a connection between my past as a competitive athlete and my writing, though it’s not clear to me what exactly that connection might be. I think both acts require obsessive behavior and the recognition that the acts themselves will most likely result in failure.
Bergman: What, if anything, do you think can move beyond or between bodies? Can pain and trauma? I’m thinking again of your many widows, also of the pain and trauma in “Mouth Full of Fish” and “Decor.”
Bullwinkel: I often think about how people are bonded by the trauma they have experienced together, and how trauma can, often, hold two people together closer than they otherwise would be. I think this is the primary bond that binds families. A group of people loves the same person (their mother) and then the mother dies and the group of people (the siblings), despite their many differences and the fact that their souls were randomly chosen for their bodies, feel much closer, because they are experiencing grief together, and have a shared memory of loving a person and then watching that person (the mother) die.
Bergman: A last question related to death and consumption: I recently learned that a friend’s aunt has requested that when she (the aunt) dies, she (my friend) drink some of her ashes mixed in a liquid (I assume water, but maybe wine). Upon hearing this, I had a very strong sense that I’d read about this exact situation in one of your stories. But I don’t think I have. Have I?
Bullwinkel: This is not something I have ever written about, but I would love if someone did this with my dead body. If I die, Rebekah, will you please drink my ashes? Mix them with wine and throw a very big dinner party? And then, maybe, make everybody dance so I could be dancing inside everyone’s body at exactly the same time?
Bergman: Yes, and then you will have a story about this after all.
Rita Bullwinkel is the author of the story collection Belly Up (forthcoming from A Strange Object on May 8th, 2018). Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s,Tin House, Conjunctions, BOMB, Vice, NOON, and Guernica. She is a recipient of grants and fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Brown University, Vanderbilt University, Hawthornden Castle, and The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. Both her fiction and her translation have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. She lives in San Francisco. Read more about her at ritabullwinkel.com.
Rebekah Bergman’s fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Cosmonaut’s Avenue, Hobart, Joyland, Passages North, The Nashville Review, Necessary Fiction and Conium Review, among other journals and magazines. She holds a BA in literary arts from Brown University and an MFA in Fiction from The New School. She lives in Brooklyn and is at work on a novel.