Interview by Elsie Ohem
TCJWW: In F IN, I enjoyed the space as well as the efforts you made in condensing thought and emotion onto the printed words that we read in your collection while, at the same time, composing anticipation, anxiety, and tension within the white space. What thoughts ran through your mind as you decided to white out one word instead of another?
Guess: F IN was composed in frustration. I’d written a novella, Willful Machine, that was slated for publication in England. But as I worked with the copy editor it became clear that we had really different visions for the book. The publisher agreed with the copy editor’s vision, not mine, and so I had to make a choice: change the book entirely, down to the syntax of almost every sentence; or withdraw the manuscript. They seemed relieved when I decided to withdraw it. It was a situation where I don’t know why they accepted the book, because they weren’t invested in it. The copy editor’s suggestions were really harsh, aimed at creating a different book from the skeleton of my original story.
Beyond that, I had my own doubts about Willful Machine—not with my sentences, but with my tone. I’d tried to write a murder mystery that subverted the tropes of the genre, but I was worried that I’d simply replicated them. It was a political problem, not strictly aesthetic. So after I withdrew the book and paid the publisher back their advance (the first and only advance I’ve ever received), I was really depressed. I kept questioning my judgement. Was the book terrible? Was it brilliant—so brilliant that the copyeditor didn’t understand what I was doing? What was I doing? Was I an idiot? Would I ever write again? etc.
I remember sitting on my futon staring at the manuscript, feeling defeated. I decided it was unpublishable, and that I was done with it, but instead of throwing it away in my computer’s little trash icon, I whited it out. I didn’t set out to do an erasure, I was just depressed and angry. I whited the whole thing out, then moved my cursor so I could see a few words at a time.
Suddenly my mood shifted and I got absorbed in pulling words and phrases to the surface, out of the white pool. I didn’t care about plot or character, just wanted to rescue the prettiest words, the most interesting phrases before I threw away the manuscript. But pretty quickly they began telling their own story, a story that followed the original manuscript, but also strayed.
TCJWW: In your introduction, you mentioned your passion for tension, relating to the tension of a ballerina pausing, and then snapping to attention. Throughout F IN, I found that you created a similar feel of pause and attention. Aspiring writers (such as myself) find that relationship between pause and attention to be quite difficult to masterfully achieve. Do you have any advice for writers who want to utilize tension in their own works?
Guess: I think it’s useful to start by studying another art form. Ballet was my first art, my first love, and I learned so much from working directly with music. It’s also useful to develop radical honesty with yourself as an artist—learn to be true to yourself. I think most of us know when we’ve got it right and when we only wish we did. Pacing and tempo involve cutting things, paring things down. You have to be okay with losing some of your words. Trust that they will return in new guises — ghosts!
TCJWW: You say that F IN started as a ghost story but then morphed into what we read today. Yet in a sense, it still holds true to its roots. The story that we read is full of moments of dialogue, emotion, and exposition that uniquely constructs an analogy of loss—either a loss of time, virginity, innocence, childhood—leading towards one’s loss of self. The white space that we read still holds the ghosts of what once was printed in black. And, for all we know, the words themselves can still be there, just painted with white ink that makes the printer believe the words are a blank space. If we had the ability to reveal the words in white, what would we have read?
Guess: This is a very intuitive question; thanks! I think the ghost in Willful Machine is autobiography. If I’m being honest, part of what made the original novella difficult to map out was that I was working (as I have in several books) with a story I don’t know how to stop telling: the story of what might have happened to me. I think maybe I’m done telling that story now, in new work, and I’m glad. But in Willful Machine you have two young sisters, twins, and one of them is in an abusive relationship with a much older man, a pedophile. And she dares to speak out against him, and he kills her. Her sister puts the pieces of the story together and sets out to kill him in revenge. I wanted to create doubt about whether there really were two sisters, or if in fact it was just one girl, and maybe she was a ghost, or maybe she wasn’t dead at all. I think that theme of duality—one girl lives, the other girl dies—comes from choices I had to make, and my guilt about choosing to stay silent, but my pride in having survived trauma, in being alive, in making it this far. It’s also representative of the gap in the title—that pause in my life, in anyone’s life when they experience trauma, and their life switches paths, and there’s no going back to feeling safe.
TCJWW: I noticed that F IN has a gap in the title—an element or letter that is missing. What is left behind is something incomplete. However, when read as a whole, F IN is the same spelling as FIN, which can refer to an “end” or a “completion.” What ultimate end would you have liked readers to gain from reading F IN?
Guess: This made me laugh, because at AWP someone referred to the title as Effing, which is so great! I was thinking fin, meaning end, and the fin of a shark cutting through water, and my stubborn heroine—gap in her teeth and gaps in her story.But it’s also simply an erasure of Willful Machine.
TCJWW: “The dead come back; it’s just a matter of naming” truly stuck with me. I meditated more than once on what this could mean, especially its placement on the page. I personally feel that this statement condenses what F IN does, especially with tension and memory. I finally came to a realization that I can accept about this statement: that the thoughts and emotions I felt while reading F IN are, somehow, the echoes of the dead. And that these echoes are the “naming.” So, in a sense, the dead have come back because I have brought them back. This gives me (and other readers) much agency in your story’s creation. What power do you give words and naming when writing? Are there any final thoughts you can give us about that stanza in particular?
Guess: Thanks for picking up on a really important line. I’m a rational person, not sentimental or superstitious. But I believe in ghosts, and I think the dead are with us in complicated ways, scientific and mystical. The line also refers to the agency I want my readers to feel. I want reading to bring something back, memories unique to each reader.