Heather Fowler’s latest novel, Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, is one of the wildest rides I’ve taken reading fiction. It’s absolutely inimitable and multi-layered, as is all of Fowler’s work. I was going to pull out some quotes from different parts of the novel, but the first paragraph sets the stage so perfectly for what is to come:
Thanks for pulling this excerpt, Meg. It’s a funny thing, but it now pleases me enormously that I managed to get the word vagina prominently into the first sentence of my debut novel release. So very telling. This shocks and entertains me every time I read the first paragraph.
Heather, this is a brilliant tale that speaks on many levels of society, the power of money and subterfuge. Beautiful, the kickass, feral protagonist has been initiated from birth into a shelter of lies and money, living within the walls of a property where trees that attract insects aren’t even allowed. The parents create this pathologically insular world to hide not only their horror of birthing something frightening and otherworldly, but try desperately to make sure that Beautiful will never stray beyond their clutches. This anomaly must fit into their frame of existence, must be pacified, so they pay everyone who is a part of Beautiful’s life to praise her beauty and intelligence. What was the inspiration that brought this feral beauty forward? It has so many layers to it. Can you speak about this?
In 2001, I sat at a coffee house with a friend whose ideas about beauty differed from mine. Her view was that society constructed our shared concept of beauty norms, that an individual was perceived through the lens of which aspects made “attractive” a palpable measure. I wrote the original short story as an effort to both entertain her and create an unapologetic female character who could self-define beauty as all her own traits, without needing to see her features mirrored by the others around her, without even believing others when they tried to debunk her self-love. In order to write that reality, I had to create a character we agreed we'd find beautiful via alternate traits: generosity, loyalty, strength, self-love. The original piece was written as a lark that same year, but I published it several years later in 2008, in the journal called A cappella Zoo, never intending it to become a novel. My heart was still deeply tied to the short form then. It was only when I went to a retreat in New Mexico where a prominent author who’d read the story suggested it become a novel that I even began to take the thought seriously. He felt this story made for a natural progression. Now, I’d been tortured by the idea of novel writing for years, and each time that horrifying train of thought came around, I wrote another twenty or thirty stories to generally avoid the idea. My stories are closed circuits, I thought. My lifestyle is not conducive to long periods of time banging out pages on a single work. Recurrently at key moments, out of sheer panic and self-disgust, I even tried to force myself to write novels and forbade myself short stories, knowing I needed a long form vehicle to help me get an agent, but then relatedly stopped writing altogether since my will to write lacked so severely. Rinse, wash, repeat—I ’d go back to writing stories and wait for another cycle of feeling I needed to give novel-writing a try. I dreaded these cycles. Nothing really held my interest about novel-writing other than the “shoulds.”
I must confess I did write one really awful novel I promptly put in the drawer and the starts of several others I couldn't get invested in for various reasons—but when I got the encouragement to use that particular story as something more, because the narrative would be rich with the contrast between how we dream ourselves and what happens when our self-image is shattered, I realized the advising author had said something to me that resonated.
It’s a rich premise, he basically said, one where the reader will be torn between wanting this Beautiful character to remain exactly as she is and wanting her to wake up to reality, so the coming of age idea is integral: What will happen when her illusions are stripped? What will happen in an environment that involves free will and strangers?
I thought these worthwhile questions to pursue, particularly regarding a female protagonist, because I got, and I get, so tired of women characters in literary work wrapping their lives around men’s lives, having their concerns be denigrated to secondary or two-dimensional levels. I guess the question of how Beautiful herself came to be is really best answered by the question I’ve had for years, which is: Why are there so few books with multi-dimensional women who empower themselves? Is this because being female while respected is already a state of “other”? I realized I craved reading a character for whom invisible male privilege was not an influence—a character who had unusual power in her environment and obvious strength from a very young age. So I wrote her. I made her come to be.
But I think the book is rich with layers because so many decisions had to be made about not just what creates a confident woman, but what creates a confident individual in general, such that it had to delve all aspects of a life—family, friends, romantic relationships, class, true bonds, lifestyles, societal expectations, etc.
Beautiful, the feral, takes off to explore and find out what is outside the walls of the world she’s been encased in. I have this mix of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Wonder Woman rocking it together within this girl who has been sheltered to fear nothing, powerful and vulnerable, unable to recognize danger when it stands before her and the parallel universe of her power and beauty that other’s cannot see until they are faced with it and taken down. She questions her beauty asking each person she meets, ‘I’m the most beautiful? Can’t you see it?” Tell me about your thoughts on this.
I think that part is simple for me: I doubt any creature who feels ‘othered’ is ever truly comfortable with the features that create the estrangement. Beautiful’s father has paid friends to reinforce her sense of loveliness, yet none of the paid friends engage her sexually as they daily engage each other. So Beautiful asks everyone she meets inside and outside of the estate about her beauty because she's too smart not to know that something is amiss with her parents' constructed world. Real friendship differs substantially from false friendship, as we all know. Real attraction, too. She seeks real friends, a lover, and the truth. First and foremost, the truth. Isn’t that often the elusive, most beautiful, shining-horned unicorn in the hedge?
Absolutely. And damn that hedge can be thick!
There is also much to say about the gender mix of Beautiful. She is told she has to shave to keep herself from appearing different from other females, adjusting to what society expects and yet nothing stops her from questioning the gender roles as she rocks a road trip into the world outside the walls of her childhood, stealing cars, killing, smacking cops and asking men she meets to have sex, and yet unlike the majority of male outlaws on the road in books and film, she goes out with an open mind and heart in hope to find out where truth exists and in the process help others to do the same. Let me know what your thoughts are on this?
I’ve seen so many women try to liberate themselves with open hearts, trying many things, good and bad, to cause a series of awakenings. Beautiful ignores all advice about shaving until she sees a value in the process—but she doesn’t shave to generally fit in; she shaves to hide her passage, to “pass” just long enough so that she might meet a person far away, from whom she fears the world will bar her access, which is another trope I bring to the narrative: We who want to be left to our devices, to pass, must somehow avoid the censure our difference causes. Something I love about Beautiful is that she thinks with her heart, makes sacrifices with her heart—and along the way she addresses gender, particularly when societal construction of gender creates this horrible gap where “to be female” means to use only one’s body (sexually) or nurturing nature (via mothering and caretaking) as enticement, to accept weak partners, to be weak, to be the lesser sex. Neither she, nor myself, was raised that way.
Agency is primary, respect for a female identity is primary, and whatever Beautiful does is infused with this idea. It’s a utopia, isn’t it, when a text exists where a woman’s will to own her narrative is primary, even when this is causal to some of her darker decisions—perhaps most especially then?
YES! I realized while reading Beautiful Ape Girl Baby that I could not think of another female character in a novel that wasn’t graphic, who had all the characteristics of a male outlaw. It was empowering to read it. Humor palpates through the entire novel. I want to quote a conversation from Mother to Daughter:
“It is possible, but unlikely you had a sister and then ate her,” Ethel Chef said, “because you’re left-handed. Surely some left-handed people may not be carnivorous twin absorbers, but I have recently read an article that states left-handedness is recessive, and some left handed people, born singly, must have somehow absorbed their right-handed fetal twins because twins mirror, which possibly caused the left-handedness, mirroring a right-handed twin, except when only one child is born something may have happened early in the pregnancy to result in the left-handed mirror baby absorbing the weaker, right-handed party when it faltered, so I’m not sure.”
How did the decision to write a humorous novel within a deep framework come about?
During the time I wrote the majority of this book beyond the initial story, I juggled three lawyers. Divorce, bankruptcy, near foreclosure loomed. As my fingers met the keys, my children were losing their happy home. I lost a best friend, a mentor, and a relationship of ten years. Daily, I looked at my children and wondered how I would support them, how my life would be when all I'd known as safe was sundered. So I had to laugh about something, you know? I had to make light because life felt like a closing vise. Humor was the available vent through which I crawled. In a sense, this total desolation was freeing. I didn’t worry if my sense of humor would please others. I needed to feel a degree of pleasure with some project or effort, so this was that project for me. There were tears enough when I wasn't writing. But I think most good comedy is similarly tragic, if you think about what it lays bare. Almost the saddest thing in the world.
I was known for being a dark writer, while sometimes a darkly funny one, yet I could not write as darkly as normal while going through that much authentic pain. It was an instance where my gift, my writing, was called upon once again to perform the miracle of perspective. I wanted to be lifted and held by my work, to allow it to make me laugh and help me transcend that particular now. It did not let me down. Instead it said, "Go for it honey! What do you have to lose? Nothing. There's nothing worth keeping left to lose." I actually wrote this book immediately after People with Holes. If anyone would take issue with my work, there was plenty of already published, racy work in my trajectory they could choose to defile.
I can see this book as a film. You told me that a professional short film to be excerpted in book trailer was filmed. Tell me how that experience was for you to watch.
Amazing. A fest of gratitude. It's a funny thing in life when you're the sort of person who hates to ask anyone for anything—that's me. But lately (all right, perhaps for quite some time now), I've been attracting the most amazing artists and professionals with my written work. This was the case with developing a relationship with the incredibly generous and talented Lauren Rachel Berman. I knew she'd done work in Hollywood, and I knew she had an amazing imagination. I'd met her abroad, and we'd read many passages of each other's work in the UNO MFA program for creative writing, an MFA program which I did well past the regular age of graduate students. Knowing she also had skills with film, when I found myself needing a trailer for this book, I asked if maybe she could make me something simple, something I could use on my website and Facebook Page and Twitter. I wasn't going to be too demanding. I knew what I asked was beneath her talents. But then she read the advance review copy and decided she wanted to film a scene, to put out a casting call, to immediately work on tear sheets and put a film date together. It was mind-blowing to see so many professionals come together and make art with my text. For my upcoming blog book tour, put on by Grab the Lapels, there'll be a whole post about my experience on set, with photo stills, but for now I can just say that to see Marjan Elliott bring Beautiful to life and watch the cop actors perform the scene, Jimmy Jones, III (Vick) and Dumont Darsey (Ed), was completely special and otherworldly, not to mention seeing the work of all the other people affiliated with the shoot—Jared Berman on the camera and acting as Director of Photography, Line Producer Jose Mendoza, Chase Rubin working as stunt driver, Sam Caterisano as 1st Assistant Director and the Field Mixer/Boom Operator—who made it real and unforgettable to watch. As make-up artist Denisse Moran and I stood all day, for nearly 12 hours, maneuvering to both watch the filming and stay out of the cameras' views, I felt spellbound by the performances—but at the end of the day, I just felt amazed at the diligent work of so many people to bring my dream to life—and delighted that my book now had a greater creative community. We're hoping the shoot will yield not just an unusual book trailer but also, fingers crossed, a short independent film for festivals. Lauren’s production company Divergent Delusion Productions will work for its release. She definitely has a level of genius, and it would be great to see that film reach a wider audience. She's also working on making a film version of Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" that will be incredible. Our shared affinity for that poet and poem was definitely part of our early connection.
I cannot wait to see it! I can see why she wanted to jump in and recreate a scene. This is a book that warrants a film. No question! Who or what were your inspirations for this novel?
I've recently heard a reviewer call the main character Beautiful a bibliophile. Thus, I'm not being shy about influences in the book. The text is brazen with whom and about what it supports or calls out. I hope readers will see the book had diverse influences, spanning from Audre Lorde to Dostoyevsky to self-help mantras to Vonnegut. Perhaps a fairy tale or two thrown in on the side. Not to mention, life as inspiration, the dissection of human issues and identities.
I am always amazed by your ability to work many projects at one time! What are you working on now?
I'm excited to say I am working on a new play based on a piece from a story collection I just finished writing entitled Temporary Ghosts: Love Stories. The particular story I’ll bring page to stage is an ensemble cast piece about a ghost community in a graveyard. So, I plan to write a full-length play, full of ghosts. Everyone will see dead people. The scenes are already playing out in my head. I’m imagining the ghosts in the most beautiful golden light.
I'm also still in final edits for the libretto Blood. Hunger. Child, with composer Jon Forshee, which is an opera written in old French poetic forms set during the French Revolution. Also, Kristina Marie Darling and I are collaborating on possibly writing a feminist opera with many strong roles for women this summer.
Then there's my co-written play Cuffed, about two lovers who go for a sex weekend at an air B&B, only to discover the horror of involuntary cuffed intimacy while waiting for a psychopath relative to save them—I view this similarly to a modern mash up of themes, where Sartre's Huis Clos meets Beckett's Waiting for Godot—only with more erotic play, and certainly more contact that pleases women. That one was written with actor and director Jim Winter, and is about to go into cold-reading development and revision rounds.
After these things, or perhaps between them, I want to work on a novel that's a retelling of the Zeus and Leda story—which starts when Zeus comes and rapes her as a swan, and Leda, Queen of Sparta, is impregnated. That one will take a ton of research since it takes place in approximately 1200 BC, during the time of Linear B, and I not only need to create the fictive world, but also engage with the history of early Sparta and the region.
It's possible I'll take and run at finishing a half-written dystopia novel I'm taking a break from called The Suicide Ministries.
We'll see what life allows following that. I would like to do an experimental text about the functions of anatomy and then work on finding homes for my poetry. But submitting always takes a backseat when the fire of creating burns. That fire is incendiary at the moment. Burning down the house.
Like I said, you never cease to blow me away! HOLY SHITE! I love what you have to say about ‘magic realism’ and how it plays into your work. Can you write a bit about this?
Magical realism is a vehicle for change. It's telling it slant. It's an explosion of metaphor and a foil for larger truths. I use it to save or to heal, to explore ideas about intimacy and its rupture. That's how I am interested in appropriating it—I view it as the place where unspeakable emotions find signs and symbols, the pure space of dreams as amplified through art. I’m glad the video you included with this feature speaks to how I feel about using it in relation to women.
Can you write about what you want to accomplish through your work as a writer? The theme I see that weaves through all of your collections and this novel are relationships and how women are treated in the world. Do you agree with this?
Absolutely. I live in my female skin, I write by my female experience, I see the way myself and others can be helped or harmed by gender, and I want my work as a writer to be responsible for creating women as complex as those I know and love, as fascinating, as bold. I want to give that fresh air to readers in the same way that Virginia Woolf was fresh air to me as an undergrad, in the same way that Jeanette Winterson and Angela Carter showed me not just new ways of reading but new ways of seeing the world. Eventually, I want to be another voice, preserved on the page, echoing out into the future, so that someday, some woman or reader will find my work and be so very glad that I existed, so very grateful, as I have felt about all the authors I've found whose work has touched and empowered me, whether male or female.
Who are you reading at this time? And do you read other writers for inspiration while you are working?
I am about to read some creative and scholarly work by a very talented classics scholar. Cannot wait. I am also ready to begin reading James Baldwin: The Cross of Redemption Uncollected Writings. There are many texts that wait patiently on my coffee table about the Aegean Bronze Age, and of course I'm trying to read new playwrights as I come upon them. I don't read other writers for inspiration while I'm working. I read them as a palate cleanser when my work is frustrating or I've hit a wall. I read for entertainment or erudition—the best thing is when a book provides both. This is not to say that I don't sometimes find inspiration when I'm reading really amazing work, because I often do, but it's usually a new project that starts when that happens, not a continuance of work already in progress.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Thank you so much for having me here! This conversation was my pleasure.
You are a single mother with a full-time job and just received an MFA! Huge congratulations! You are a constant inspiration of mine, as you are to so many! I am continuously enamored by the beauties you produce! WOW! Thank you so much, Heather Fowler, for being our featured writer at Connotation Press for May. You rock it!
We add the link here so everyone can pre-order a copy of Beautiful Ape Girl Baby , which will be published in June 2016 by Pink Narcissus Press.