There are eight short stories in Jane V. Blunschi’s second book, Understand Me, Sugar (Yellow Flag Press, 2017), and each of them stands out.
There’s “The Goods,” where a lesbian couple is trying to have a baby; “Edwin Edwards and the Lady from Dallas” about a woman who meets her biological mother for the first time; “Snapdragon” that deals with choices and bisexuality; the cultish “Gulnar Means Rose”; There’s “Sheena,” a short-short that takes place during a drag performance — the title character is a woman performing as a woman; “Porcelain Doves” that force the reader to experience therapy sessions and the quiet implosion of the main character; a yoga dream gone wrong in “To Yoke”; and the surreal “Axilla” that’s pregnant with metaphors.
The title of Blunschi’s first collection of stories is taken from Marvin Gaye’s sexually explicit song, “Let’s Get It On.”
Blunschi spares no details when it comes to describing a process (ie. sperm donor in “The Goods,” adoption arrangement in “Edwin Edwards and the Lady from Dallas,” the mechanics of yoga in “To Yoke”) or a setting (how an AA meeting room is decorated in “Snapdragon”). And yet the details aren’t overwhelming, nor preachy. They’re just there so that the reader can have a better understanding of what a character sees and experiences.
Faglandia sits down with author Jane Blunschi to discuss Understand Me, Sugar (Yellow Flag Press, 2017).
How were the stories arranged? Are we expected to follow a certain thread from one story to the next?
I knew I wanted “The Goods” to go first, mostly because I feel like it’s the story that represents my style the best. I really value humor in fiction, and I am always looking for ways to emphasize a character’s more unlikable tendencies, without making them actually unlikable. The protagonist there, Carrie, is one I’ve worked with quite a bit, and I have given her the funniest lines and let her get into the stickiest jams, historically. She’s really the worst, and I love her so much.
Other than that, things go from the real to the metaphysical, with the guru situation in “Gulnar Means Rose,” and of course, the weirdness of “Axilla,” which I ended with so that people could walk away feeling sort of unsettled and surprised, and maybe thinking about their own insides a little differently.
Tell me about the research? Everything is so vivid and detailed. How did you come up with these details?
Oh gosh, there is a bit of lived experience in most of the fiction pieces I’ve written. I’m reluctant to let my real life creep in too much, because it’s not that interesting to read about, but I know how to write about things like being adopted and dealing with fertility treatments and some of the the other things you mentioned because I’ve had a bit of personal experience with them. I focus on feelings and impressions I remember rather than the real scenarios when I write about something I know well. So, in “Edwin Edwards and the Lady from Dallas,” I thought about a person’s longing to know their roots, and the fantasies that accompany that longing. Same with the sperm bank stuff. I think of “The Goods” as a story about ambivalence around marriage, parenthood, and getting older, more than anything. Most of the details in the stories that characterize a place or time are just the product of a lot of life experience, a lot of watching and listening.
The themes are so diverse. What inspired them? Is there anything from real life that inspired you or became a character (such as running, working in Fayetteville)? Has anyone noticed a character and said, “Hey, that’s me!” or “That’s so-and-so!”
The themes related to physicality and the body are, for the most part, informed by my experiences and interests. Movement has been so crucial to generation and development of ideas for me. I dedicated a great deal of time to running and practicing yoga in my 20s and 30s, and I am into Pilates now. Like most of my characters, I am thinking about (worrying about, obsessing about) my body all the time. It’s a Virgo thing, I think, plus my upbringing, and society, all that. Those things just naturally worked their way into the narrative, I suppose.
Running or hiking or walking is the best way for me to get into the frame of mind to visualize scenes and have conversations with my characters before and during the process of writing a story. I got the idea for “Axilla” one day when I was lying on a mat at the end of a Pilates class with my arms stretched over my head. The class was hard, and I could feel waves of energy coming off my body. I turned my head a little, and all of a sudden I thought, “My armpit is like a seashell, and I can hear the echo of my whole body right now.” When I have woo-woo thoughts like that, I just go with it. It’s usually the path into a story.
What was the writing process like? Are you big on procrastinating or are you a disciplined writer? How long did it take to finish?
I wrote all of these stories while I was getting my MFA, so the whole manuscript took about four years. Deadlines for classes and workshops were effective motivators, to be sure, but some stories took a long time to write, a long, agonizing time. An example of that is “Snapdragon.” Wow. That story bummed me out, but I was completely dedicated to it. I had an idea about writing “Sheena” for a long time, since the beginning of that MFA process, but I wasn’t ready or able to spit it out until the semester before I graduated, so it was hanging out in my brain in a vague way that whole time. I write something every day now, and I find ways to make deadlines for myself, but it’s been proven to me over and over again that stories come out when the time is right.
What was the easiest story to write?
“Edwin Edwards” was pretty quick and satisfying. I am fascinated by adoption and I love to read and write about it. Also, I had been given some turbo-strength cold medicine the day I began working on it, and I know that it helped me focus. “Sheena” was fun to work on once the writing finally began because it’s about New Orleans and gay bars and costumes, subjects I jam out on, big time.
What about the hardest?
“Porcelain Doves” and “Snapdragon,” no doubt. I was drawing on my memories of what it was like to be in my twenties and super struggling all the time for inspiration, and it drained me. Plus, those stories were written when I was experiencing a growth spurt as a writer, finding some footing in terms of voice and style, and beginning to submit things regularly. This growth took so much emotional labor! Lots of fixing and re-writing and so many feeeeeeeliiiiiings.
How important is place/setting for you? In “Sheena,” the main character moves to Fayetteville, Arkansas, and that’s where you live, and other stories seem to be set in the South (like Louisiana and New Orleans). Is this more of a “write what you know” thing or it’s because you want to highlight the places?
I’m originally from Louisiana, and I regard that place as one of the great loves of my life. It is magical, frustrating, and complicated. I was excited to move up to Fayetteville for graduate school, though. I knew it had a reputation for being naturally beautiful, with liberal, smart people, and cheap rents. All those things turned out to be true. Living here has mellowed me out, and it has made me miss Louisiana more than I ever imagined possible. The way that I have gotten some relief from that homesickness has been writing stories set in Louisiana. I know that I needed the distance to make that happen, though.
Is there a reason why “To Yoke” is set in Massachusetts? By the way, this is such an Anti-Hollywood story, in that the hero lets go of a job that doesn’t make her happy, but finds out that the thing that’s supposed to make her happy creates problems for her, then comes back to her first job.
It’s actually not explicitly set anywhere, but I love that Massachusetts came up (the teacher training part, perhaps?) because I wrote it after I’d spent some time in Amherst. Poor Sheila. She ended up really scraping her knees hard.
Are there any stories that didn’t make it to the final cut? Could you tell me a bit about them?
Oh, there is one I could never get right! It’s about a woman who moves to Sedona, AZ from New Orleans and begins to have some surprising spiritual experiences. I think that story is partly an inspiration for “Gulnar Means Rose.” The setting is similar and there is a Bingo-esque character, a man who takes aura photos in a crystal shop. I still want to make that story work out.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing more creative nonfiction these days, more personal things about queer spirituality and body image. It feels livelier than the fiction I’ve been writing. I’m getting those pieces revised and organized into a collection, and then I am planning to return to a novel I began a few years ago. It’s about family stuff – stepmothers and stepdaughters. Not my stepmother, though. Or my stepdaughter.
Is this to protect their privacy or simply because they’re just not what you envision you characters to be?It’s the second option. The family in the novel is much, much more exaggerated in their opinions and ideas about family and into each other’s business than any real people I know.
The characters here are very diverse, although most of them are gay. Would you consider this collection as a gay collection or would you rather think that this is a collection of stories with characters that happen to be gay?
It’s definitely a collection whose characters happen to be gay. This is the life experience I know how to write about with the most confidence, and part of what I’ve focused on in writing in general is uncovering and calling attention to the emotional complexity and ordinary magic in life that is universal.
And, on that note, as a fiction writer, do you think you characters’ sexuality matters to you? For example, in “The Goods,” the couple is gay, and they’re asking for advice from a mother who’s also gay. Do you think changing them into straight characters would ruin the story or just take it to another direction? Or both?
I wouldn’t say that a character’s sexuality matters, but I wonder how “The Goods” would work out if the couple was heterosexual. I’d have to dive into matters regarding masculinity and parentage, and that would be an interesting challenge. There have been so many moments over the last four years when I have worried that I wasn’t including enough male characters and heterosexual characters, and I’d try to write toward that intentionally. In the end, the writing wasn’t very good, and I always drifted back to telling stories the way I wanted in the first place. I think that this will naturally evolve as I continue to write.