Thursday Apr 18

NatalieEaton Natalie Eaton holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco. She was born in Los Angeles and lives in Northern California. She is at work on a novel and a short story collection.

Natalie Eaton interview with Karen Stefano

“When We Were Girls” delivers a voice that never falters. Seeing the world through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Agnes Altura, I am intrigued. Immediately I fear for this young woman. She is someone I want desperately to know as she delivers so many insights to her wandering, untethered life:

“Oh don’t be fooled, even in this sterile lighting he’s glorious, my desert snake, slung low in the metal chair next to me, rummaging through outdated magazines, a tight fist strangling his keys.”

“It’s not like there’s lots of other decent people breathing this air.”

“I’ll realize how lucky I am because the same girl who rescues the panties will hold my hand the entire time. Her plain eyes hypnotic, like the dark beneath the lake, keep me down on the table.”

“Jenna told me I should keep my eyes open, that I’ll want to see how they do it, since it’s my first. Pay attention. The doctor with his white on, poking around inside me like he’s not quite sure what it is he’s supposed to find.”


Natalie, thank you so much for sharing your work with Connotation Press. We are truly proud to feature you in this months issue. And because we like you so much, we are going to zoom right in and get up close and personal.

Thank you, Im honored.

This piece youve shared with us is stunning. It stands on its own, but I understand it is part of a novel in progress. Tell us about that novel. What was the inspiration for that book?

My novel in progress is also titled When We Were Girls. It follows Agnes Altura, a precocious fourteen-year-old living on a houseboat in Lake Mead, Nevada with her strange and financially strapped family in the mid 1980s. From the onset, we find Agnes pregnant, but her best friend Jenna convinces her to have an abortion in order to hold onto her older boyfriend. But once the baby is gone, the boyfriend is as well, leaving Agnes feeling enraged, empty, and more alone than ever. Shes convinced her stern father would drown her given the chance, and she cant turn to her formidable, tricks-turning mother, Ximena, because shes too busy seeking the approval of her domineering husband.

As Agness loneliness deepens, she focuses on Ruby, a five-year-old living nearby and whose mother has gone missing. Propelled by her obsession with the young girl, Agnes, with her best friend in tow, attempts to navigate a world of abduction, madness, and ultimately, murder.

Im not sure what number revision Im on, but Im getting close.

As for the inspiration, a few years ago, I lived at the base of a narrow trailhead on a steep ridge near the Pacific ocean. Every day, my dog and I marched up and down the grade in the afternoon heat. There were no trees but always a wind, and the sun was heavy on our backs. Thats when Agness voice first came to me. Her cadence was insistent, and she was eager to push everything else in my head out of her way. Her world was hot and angry like the trail, like the sun. I couldnt not write her.

Sounds like Im going to have to read that novel. It sounds fantastic. So tell me: what were YOU like as a teenager?

Being a teenager felt like playing Truth or Dare, and always having to pick Dare. Truth was unnerving, or worse, dull. I didnt think I had the right to ask the harder questions.

I did a lot of theater.

Teenagers often feel misunderstood. Do you ever feel misunderstood? And I dont mean as a writer, I mean as a person.

I recently had dinner with an old childhood friend and her husband. We hadnt seen each other in over ten years. She confided to me over mountains of steaming pasta that back in high school Id been a bad influence on her. Really? (I didnt know whether to kick her under the table or give her a hugshe was so cute!) This friend, Ill call her Sally, was a pretty buttoned up teenagerpracticed piano diligently, kept her room tidy, was home before curfew, didnt say too many awful things to her brothershe was a good person. But so was I. She recalled some of the more teenagery-things I convinced her to do: Toilet paper our neighbors house, squirt ketchup on the walls of a diner, ditch church to look for God in the field, key a few cars. (Okay, that last one was pretty bad.)

I found myself laughingWe didnt know any better. Our brains werent fully formed, I replied. But there was a new crease in her forehead.

In college, Sally was car jacked. Her assailant tied her hands together and made her curl up in a ball in her own backseat. He drove her around LA for over four hours that night, before depositing her on the side of some freeway. She was terrified, but physically unharmed.

As the waitress hauled our plates away, Sallys voice flattened. She told me that karma had caught up with her, and shed paid for all those things wed done so long ago. I glanced at her husband, he was staring at his hands.

--Youre kidding, Sal. It doesnt work like that.

--No, she said. Thats exactly how karma works.

Holy S*?t. Ummmm.It kind of devastates me that this is what Sally believes……

When did you write your first story, and what was it about?

I read a lot of science fiction in grade school. I was taken by the expansive landscapes, the seemingly bizarre characters, everything felt inflated. Far better than the Nancy Drew stuff my mom would hand me. So in fifth grade, I bought a Composition book and wrote my first epic sci-fi story. However thick that notebook was, thats how long my story needed to be. The protagonist was a female warrior who slaughtered her love interest because it was the only way she could save her planet. Talk about high stakes. There were pages and pages of gratuitous descriptions of clouds and the climax featured an intergalactic battle. I brought it to my homeroom teacher for extra credit. I was a bit nervous that shed keep it forever.

When she handed it back to me, there were giant, red slashes through entire chapters, and millions of questions marks, in and out of the margins. My first editor! I got a B-.

Where do your ideas for stories come from?

While in college, I worked in a little brown house, surrounded by a tall brown gate, a mile or so from the university. It was a shelter for abused women and children, and every Monday evening, a female literature professor and I led a creative writing group for anyone interested. We gifted the women lovely flowered journals and ballpoint pens, and sat around a sticky wooden table with mismatched chairs. The women plopped their babies down under the table at our feet, while the older kids played on the stairs, or did laps around the room. (Calling them women seems flippant, they were girls really, most looked no different, or older than me. I was twenty.)

The sessions were chaotic, noisy and quiet at the same time. A girl wailed because she missed her boyfriend, the same boyfriend who, weeks prior, smacked her on the back of her head with the butt of his gun; another participant was asked to leave the room when she became verbally hostile while her own toddler, covered in scabs, clung to her knee.

I dont remember what anyone wrote. What I remember were the oral narratives, stories that were so mean and sharp and still sopping wet with newness that the ridiculous paper notebooks Id handed out couldnt possibly hold them. Afterwards, we shared a tin of stale cookies, and Id look at their exhausted, beautiful faces, and hope that after we left, the girls would take their sweet babies and their terrible stories, climb the creaky stairs to the only bedroom, and as they settled in, just maybe, they would feel something akin to relief.

But after we left, on more than one bad night, a girl would pick up her baby and together, they would skip the stairs, walk out the front door, unlatch the tall brown gate, and return to the mean, sharp, butt-of-a-gun life that had delivered them there.

I dont know that Ill ever understand it. So I make up stories to try.

Do you ever get stuck when writing? What strategies do you employ to get un-stuck?

Yes! Sometimes Ill over-stay my welcome in a scene because Im not sure where the exit door is. Ive a general sense of where Id like things to go, A exits the room, travels to B, then lands on C, but I havent given the characters agency to complete their tasks, then everyone ends up sitting around and eyeballing each other. So I anoint them with lengthy backstories, the stranger and more particular the better. This makes the tension rise and eventually a door appears. If Ive supplied them with enough specifics, everyone should have good reason to sprint through it. Of course the majority of that stuff gets cut, but now Ive got it in my pocket for later. Other times writing only dialogue is a miracle cure because it uncovers a characters motivation I didnt know existed. Permitting the characters to use their voices gets me out of my own head, gives my poor brain a reprieve.  

Who do you look up to?

Anyone who can keep their butt in the chair. I heard Aimee Bender say she ties a string around her wrist, then around the arm of her chair, and doesnt allow herself to get up until she completes a scene. But what does she do when she runs out of potato chips?

Other people I look up to: J. M. Coetzee, Flannery OConnor, Amy Hempel, Mary Robison, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Junot Diaz, Laura Van Den Berg, Jim Shepard, George Saunders, Ramona Ausubel.

Tell us what you
re reading right now.

I just finished The First Bad Man, Miranda Julys debut novel and Im having trouble assimilating back into life. Others: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, a thoughtful, well paced literary thriller, Diane Cooks debut short story collection, Man Vs. Nature, Charles Baxters collection, Theres Something I Want You To Do, and Cant And Wont by Lydia Davis.

What are your aspirations as a writer?

Its funny, people often remark how cheery I am compared to my work. I dont mean to seek out the dark, but I am most interested in getting to the thing that no one wants you to see. Poets are so adept at this. But I feel like Ive got to be more charming. I imagine reaching down inside a character, plucking out the small hard thing and bringing it into the light. Its usually round because it wants to be plucked. The skin thin and taut like an unripe peach.

See, I say, wiping it on my shirt. Its not as bad as you thought.

Maybe one, or both of us smile. Then we bypass the amiable conversation, and get down to work. Talk about the truth.

Natalie, thank you so much for sharing your work with Connotation Press! Cant wait to read that novel!


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