Rebecca Bernard’s debut story collection, Our Sister Who Will Not Die, won the 2021 Non/Fiction prize from The Journal and was published by Ohio State’s Mad Creek Books in August 2022. I recently talked to her about the collection, about writing about characters who have behaved badly or are struggling not to behave badly, writing about taboo subjects, and more.
Michelle Ross: First, congratulations, Rebecca! Our Sister Who Will Not Die is such a great collection! Many of the stories in Our Sister Who Will Not Die probe the lives of people who have behaved badly and/or who are struggling not to behave badly. In “First Date,” for example, an ex-convict grapples with the challenges of finding love after release from a prison sentence for murder. When is the right time to reveal his past to a prospective partner without either scaring her away or betraying her trust? Then there’s Harold in “Harold, Protector of the Children,” who is sexually attracted to young girls but resists and tries to redirect that attraction onto a more suitable candidate. What can you tell us about the process of putting this book together? What draws you to writing about these particular characters, these kinds of struggles?
Rebecca Bernard: Thank you, Michelle! I wrote these stories over the first two years of coursework for my PhD at the University of North Texas. I’d just finished two years of adjuncting at community colleges, including a year teaching comp and creative writing at a men’s prison in Kentucky, and so in many ways that experience came to consciously shape the thematic direction of the stories. The dehumanizing effects of incarceration, and the way we handle ideas of crime and criminality were forefront in my mind, so I wanted to write characters and narratives that explored the humanity common to all of us, despite our worst acts or behaviors. The stories aren’t based on specific individuals, rather I found myself drawn to understanding and making explicable why and how these brutal things can happen to regular people. Engendering empathy was at the heart of my endeavor in many ways. I think if we want a healthier, kinder, safer world we need to understand one another and especially root causes. Harold is a good example here. This was the second story I wrote, and it was largely inspired by an episode of This American Life about a young man who realized at an early age he was attracted to children and was doing everything in his power not to act. Also, many of the men I taught (though I don’t know their specific stories) were incarcerated for sexual crimes. These are acts which obviously cause great ongoing pain to individuals and society, but because of the disgust they raise (albeit warranted), there often aren’t many (or any) ways for people with these desires to seek preventive treatment. In my view, we’d be an altogether safer and less violent society if we faced the reality that these behaviors exist and provided access to resources on the prevention side. In general, with crime and violence, I think we’d be better off focusing on root causes and prevention, whether that’s mental health or alleviating/ending poverty, but as a society we tend to put money on the back end with extremely high rates of incarceration, which I think the majority of people have come to see is a major blight to this country.
MR: Yes, yes, and yes. I agree so much with all of this. Also: Whoa! You wrote these stories in two years?! As in drafted, revised, and finished them? This makes me want to know more about your writing process. Do you work on one story at a time and finish it before moving on to the next or do you work on multiple stories at once?
RB: Well, I should clarify that they were drafted over the two years, not necessarily polished/finished. And they were for workshop, so I had that handy deadline for completion readymade. With stories, I tend to draft them one at a time, though that’s often concurrent to a novel project (and/or flash projects). And once the piece is drafted, revision ebbs and flows. I am someone who tends to submit things before they’re ready, so I often end up using the rejection metric as a sign that a piece needs work. I also was lucky to get some great notes from editors (both on acceptances and rejections) that helped the pieces along. And I’m also increasingly of the camp that feels a story is rarely ‘finished’—it’s often just as good as it needs to be to find a home. With the stories in this collection, given their sometimes difficult subject matter, I’ve also come to think they might function more effectively together than individually.
MR: What concerns, if any, did you have in writing about taboo subjects such as pedophilia and incest?
RB: This is a great question especially given my earlier response and the potential for trauma these subjects can trigger for individuals. My concern, first and foremost, is that the reader doesn’t think I’m saying these things are okay or permissible because they’re not. Hurting your partner physically or taking a life or sexual violence are never justified, and it’s not my intention to excuse or forgive these actions. My aim is to shine a light on the complexity of how and why these things happen, so we can turn individuals from monsters to humans to allow for the change that might come through empathy. The biggest danger for me is the possibility for a reader to misinterpret my aims, or that I might inadvertently hurt someone who’s coming at these experiences from a different perspective. I guess, to me, it’s important to be mindful of how I treat the subject matter so that the reader never feels I am making excuses or asking forgiveness for these characters and their actions.
MR: Nick White likens Our Sister Who Will Not Die to Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World. I think Mary Gaitskill in particular came to mind for me reading your stories. What do you think of these comparisons? What writers have been some of the biggest influences on your own writing?
RB: Nick White is so kind! To be compared to Mary Gaitskill is a huge honor, as she’s been probably the biggest influence on my writing in multiple ways. For one, I’ve long admired her ability to write difficult characters, like Stew from “Tiny, Smiling Daddy,” how we both understand him and feel for him, despite the brutality of his actions. Also, she writes great sentences, and is an excellent model for writing interiority. I’ll be honest and say I haven’t read much by Ottessa Moshfegh, though I understand the comparison given her focus on less than desirable characters. From what I have read, I think our subjects are similar, though in her work I find a fascination with the grotesque, and maybe less focus on that hope/empathy front.
In terms of other writers, early on I read everything I could find by Don DeLillo, and I continue to think he’s got some of the best sentences and scene endings out there. Nabokov’s Lolita was a big model for these stories, in many ways. Julio Cortázar was another early inspiration—I still think about Hopscotch regularly. Jane Smiley’s novella The Age of Grief and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer are other formative influences. I just reread Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and I think I must have internalized it and forgotten because I see it in these stories a great deal. Another recent favorite is Rachel Kushner, especially The Mars Room. I could go on and on, as I imagine most of us could.
MR: Don DeLillo is a particular favorite of mine, too.
One of my favorite stories in your collection is the last one, “Gardening.” This story probes the marriage between a man and woman with such honesty and depth. It’s gorgeously written, and it strikes that perfect balance of sad and funny. I’m thinking of lines like “We were in love, and although on occasion he believed himself smarter than me, and though sometimes my orgasm was neglected, I had the strong belief that this was as good as it gets. I do not think I was wrong.” When upon her cheating husband’s suggestion, she considers sleeping with a man she works with at the library, a significantly younger man, she says of this twenty-year-old, “I am not sure he understands that I’m a person.” “First Date” is another one of my favorites, and I think I love it largely for the same reason—how the story balances sad and funny, which to me seems to have so much to do with the honesty of the writing. Do you agree? Would you talk about the relationship between humor and truth in your writing?
RB: Another great question! To be funny in writing is probably the hardest thing, for me at least, so I think when it happens it’s usually not by force of will, but pleasant accident. And yes, I totally love that idea of humor coming through along with the honesty. Because maybe when we’re upfront with the sadnesses of life, we’re also open to the humor/absurdity of life. I mean, I am someone who often feels compelled to wonder aloud at how strange it is to be a person. Look at us with our thoughts and hands, our capacity for goodness and cruelty. We’re the best and worst animals at the same time. And when we stop to think about things, even the saddest things, we have to laugh at the wonder, otherwise how do we keep going, perhaps? Our ability to laugh seems as instrumental to our species as our ability to grieve and to feel and to love. It’s something I’d like to work on more in my fiction. My new novel project aims for this combination of whimsy and grief.
MR: I was going to ask you what you’re working on next. I’d love to hear about the novel, if you’re open to talking about it. And if there’s anything else you’re working on that you’re open to talking about, please do!
RB: Thanks, Michelle, and thanks for taking the time for this interview and the chance to think more deeply about the stories. I have a couple current projects in various stages of drafting/revision. The novel I mentioned, which is in the drafting phase, focuses around a medley of things, but specifically the process of working through grief via art, and my favorite question, which is what it means to be a person, to have a life. Then I have a novel in the revision phase about intergenerational violence, more directly in line with these stories, I’d say. And I’m slowly working on a new linked collection examining lives lived in a cul-de-sac (I just placed the first story from the collection in Ninth Letter (very excited!)). But otherwise, I’m always just looking for time to write, to make some progress daily, however small.
Rebecca Bernard’s debut collection of stories, Our Sister Who Will Not Die, won the 2021 Non/Fiction prize from The Journal and was published by Ohio State’s Mad Creek Books in August 2022. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Southwest Review, Wigleaf, Witness, and elsewhere. Her work received notable mention in the Best American Short Stories of 2018. She is an Assistant Professor in the English department at Angelo State University. She serves as a Fiction Editor for The Boiler.
Michelle Ross is the author of three story collections: There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award; Shapeshifting, winner of the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Fiction Award (2021); and They Kept Running, winner of the 2021 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (2022). Her work is included in Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, the Wigleaf Top 50, and the Norton anthology, Flash Fiction America. It received special mention in the 2023 Pushcart Prize anthology. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review.