blackbirdonline journalSpring 2022  Vol. 21  No. 1
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A Correspondence with Gwen E. Kirby
Conducted April 22, 2022

On April 22, 2022, author Gwen E. Kirby participated in an email correspondence with Blackbird associate editor James Fowler to discuss her recently published collection of short stories, Shit Cassandra Saw (Penguin Books, 2022). Kirby is a past contributor to Blackbird, and one of the pieces in the collection, “The Best and Only Whore of Cwm Hyfryd,” appeared in the Spring 2019 issue. The interview discusses the themes in the overall collection as they relate to craft of forms, to feminism, to mythology, and to other issues of interest.


James Fowler: When I read the first short story in the collection, “Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at That Point Fuck Them Anyway,” it seems like through Cassandra’s prophecies she is both comforted, or at least amused, by the progress of history in some regard, and obviously frustrated about the same things happening and the work there is still left to do. Is there anything specific you envisioned for not only women readers, but all gender identities to come away with after reading this collection?

Gwen E. Kirby: I love that you ask what women and all gender identities might take away from the book! I am frustrated, though of course not surprised, by the frequent suggestion that because the stories are mostly about women, the book is mostly for women. I’ve certainly read many, many books by men and about men, and no one was like, wow, reading about men, you are really stretching yourself! So, I really hope people of all gender identities pick up this book and that, first and foremost, it entertains them and makes them laugh. I hope readers feel moments of recognition, that they see themselves in a character or emotion or situation and perhaps the moment feels new to them again. I also hope that the book shows a wide range of women’s emotions, particularly messy emotions. The women in this book have affairs, have breakdowns, get angry, and act selfishly, and they are still worthy and complicated people. I want this book to be a part of the many books that push back against the idea of the “unlikable” female protagonist, where the world unlikable is used as a shorthand, I think, for too much. Too angry. Too messy. Too big for the space they are supposed to occupy. Maybe a reader may come away feeling a little more empowered to take up space. That would be an amazing outcome.

JF: Exploring the aftermath of a school shooting through a team ready to play an important softball game was such an excellent and unexpected perspective to read in the story “Mt. Adams at Mar Vista.” How did you conceive of approaching this subject considering the ongoing polarized discussion of gun violence, and was this difficult to initially approach as a subject?

GEK: This story was actually inspired by my own experience in high school. My JV softball team played a game against a school where there had been a shooting. This was in maybe 2000, so school shootings were (horrifically) just beginning to become more common. Certainly, there had never been one anywhere near me before. I remember feeling such a mixture of emotions on the way to that game: sadness and compassion, of course, but also voyeurism, fascination with the idea of violence and grief, and genuine confusion about what it meant to play a sport against people who had suffered a recent tragedy. Were we there to win? What did it even mean to win in a situation like that? In the story, I tried to bring all of those emotions forward and give them to different members of the team, creating a choral response to being adjacent to tragedy. And I feel like so much of life involves processing this sort of secondhand grief and horror while simultaneously going about daily life: trying to win a game, get a promotion, score a second date. I’m not sure I would know how to write about a school shooting head on and more than that, I don’t know that I want to narrate that violence directly on the page. It’s not the sort of writer I am, and I am in awe of those writers who successfully tackle these things directly. Coming at this sort of tragedy from the side is what allows me to think about it and write about it.

JF: The hybridity of forms in the collection is so fresh and carefully considered, specifically utilizing well-known found forms like Yelp reviews and WikiHow articles. How did you manage to balance these well-known forms and translate them to the structured craft elements of fiction?

GEK: I love using found forms in my writing, and in these two instances especially (“Jerry’s Crab Shack: One Star” and “How to Retile Your Bathroom in 6 Easy Steps!”) the form gives shape and pacing to what are essentially low-plot musings on marriages. In “Jerry’s Crab Shack,” a man’s review of a crab shack becomes a review of his wife and his marriage, which was inspired in part by how personal people are sometimes in their reviews online. I can’t believe the details you learn about strangers when you are trying to find out if a particular BBQ place is any good! As you read through the sections of the review (location, decor, food), you know you are building to the moment when the night is going to go wrong, and that anticipation leaves space for digression. I feel like I’m exposing the fact that I wrote two similar stories here (I swear, they are different in a lot of important ways!), but “How to Retile . . .” works in much the same fashion. A woman decides to rip out her bathroom tile when her husband leaves her, and much of the story is digressions about their marriage, her children, and how she feels about her marriage ending in this way. The stages of the WikiHow article create a feeling of momentum and organization, which she needs even more than the reader. They also help reset each section with the concrete action of actually retiling, which was such a joyfully violent expression of her anger. I think that previous point—that she needs these steps for herself—is maybe why these found forms work. Both stories’ protagonists are holding onto these forms for dear life. They don’t want to look head-on at their problems. They want to throw themselves into these projects that deflect and divert and offer a concrete goal when, in fact, everything feels thrown into doubt. Because they need these forms, they feel organic to the story, rather than imposed by an author who just wanted to ramble about in their heads.

JF: Inner strength and emotional maturity feel like such important themes to this collection especially when considered in discussion with fear and womanhood in our society. If you had the gift of prophecy like Cassandra, what would you withhold from the gatekeepers of our society? What things would you hope to see in these prophecies?

GEK: Let me say first that I am so glad I don’t have the gift of prophecy! Unless the gift was limited only to what lottery ticket to buy, I cannot imagine a worse fate than knowing the future. I don’t think there is anything I would withhold from the gatekeepers of society because, honestly, much like with Cassandra, it is hard to imagine them listening. When I imagine knowing the future, the thing I think about the most is how much pain and suffering you would have to conceal, because the worst thing you could do with your gift, I think, would be to destroy the hope of something better to come. So, if I got to see prophecies, I would hope to see obvious things like a serious response to global warming and a reckoning with racial and gender inequality. But if you are talking about just things I’d love to see for me personally, the Padres winning the World Series for the first time ever! Spaceships! A woman president (depressingly in the category with spaceships at the moment)! A comfortable home for me and my loved ones! My future herd of devoted corgis (now I’m being silly)! If I had the chance to see the future, I would choose not to. I’d much rather keep moving forward day by day and making the best of it, hoping for, as Cassandra does in my story, better things to come.  

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