In conversation with Kallie Falandays
Kallie Falandays sat down with Tatiana Ryckman, author of Twenty-Something (ELJ publications, 2014). Ryckman’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming from Tin House, Boiler Journal, Everyday Genius, and Carrier Pigeon. She is the assistant editor at sunnyoutside press. Her website is tatianaryckman.com. In this interview, she talks about growing up, settling down, and getting to work.
Kallie Falandays: Your collection starts with this line: “Do you have a mask? she asked.” In many of these poems, the speakers seem uneasy, and there’s a type of frenetic energy that seems to run through the veins in this collection. Can you talk a little bit about what this writing process was like for you?
Tatiana Ryckman: That first line opening the collection is something of a happy accident—at least, I had not initially realized the extent to which many of the protagonists throughout the book are sampling identities. A quintessential twenty-something experience, I guess. In How Should a Person Be, from the fictional-her perspective, Sheila Heti writes that the distinctive characteristics of her friends are so well suited they are to the people they belong to. She wonders how those same characteristics would look on her. Perhaps this mirrors my own process, in that, every time I come to a new story it feels like a putting-on of characters, of their anxieties and neurosis, and hopefully also humor and humanity and the idiosyncrasies that lend meaning to the experiences shared with the reader.
KF: In your piece “Location, Location, Location,” you write, “And the girl in blonde pigtails is a woman in a sweater, sitting on a root, and the boy in overalls is a man in short sleeves, sitting on a root, and they don’t touch anymore, but they do get older; they have been so many places.” Were there any particular places or spaces that influenced this collection?
TR: That story in particular was very strongly influenced by a thrift store painting that hung in the living room of my friend’s house in Lincoln, Nebraska while we were in college. But because I tend to write line by line, without a plot or arch or even really a direction in mind, most of my stories tend to be influenced by places that have carved out their own spaces in my brain so that I can continue to dwell in them. Dorothy Allison writes that place is not just location, but mood and tone. Fear, for example, is a very real room. That interpretation of place is more in line with my ideas about the places in this collection, which are emotional or psychological rather than physical. That said, “Tales From Ukraine” is, not surprisingly, influenced by my time in Ukraine, and the title story, “Boys’ Club” and “Getting to Know You” are my limited vision of Portland; “Twenty-Something”, is the way I remember Austin six or seven years ago. Everyone I knew was between lives and just stopping in to the city, and it bred a particular brand of reckless discontentment. Probably nothing’s changed, except the people who chose to stay are now settling in to some sort of real existence, so the day-to-day things don’t look so much like an existential crisis.
Who am I kidding? We’re all just doing something until we can’t stand it and must do something else.
KF: In a lot of your poems, women seem to morph, change, and give up piece of themselves for (or because of) the men they love. What do you hope for the women in these stories?
TR: That is such a very different interpretation from my own impression of these stories, or poems if you like, that I’m filled with an embarrassing sort of stupid excitement. It’s gratifying to know everyone is having their own individual experience with the book, even to the extent that it sometimes slips outside genre.
I tend to think the women are morphing and changing, but that rather than giving parts of themselves up for the men they love, they are breaking parts off themselves off against men, period. And I’m not sure a single one of these women is in love. It’s almost as if they are all in not-love, or unlove. To me, they are chiseling away at who they are to see who they will become. A natural selection of the heart.
I suppose this is the autobiographical element running through the book. I have always wanted to have the power the men around me enjoy—whether that’s getting away with a crass sense of humor, or simply being listened to when speaking—and power in relationship to men is what these women are consistently negotiating. In both romantic and professional relationships. I guess my hope for these women is the same hope I have for myself, or had at the time I was putting the collection together, and that is to give fewer shits about what people think.
KF: Is this, at least partly, what’s behind the title story, “Twenty-Something”? You write of the protagonist, Clarice, “She thinks this must be what it’s like to be a man, the solid fearless wearing of one’s own skin, and she grows into the feeling.”
TR: This line is a good example of what might be my totally misguided assumptions about what it’s like to be a man. Such as, not being afraid to walk to the grocery story alone at night, or not losing track of the number of jobs in which you’ve been sexually harassed. I didn’t fully realize at first how steeped this collection is in those frustrations. But by the end of both “Twenty-Something” and “Boys’ Club”, negotiating gender and boundaries is very much at the forefront. After reading the book, my sister consoled me that it didn’t seem too man-hatey, but implied that the stories suggest men lead easier lives because they have penises. She quickly sent another message after this one that said, on second thought, it just seems like you want a dick. Freud said something about this. Hatshepsut wore a beard. I don’t feel unique.
KF: In “Twenty-Something”, you write that Clarice feels “divided between the person she’s known herself to be and the person she’s wary of becoming.” That seems like a great line to explain what growing up is like. What was growing up like for you?
TR: I assume I am still growing up. I will be very disappointed if I ever find, really definitively, that I have stopped. There is something uniquely comforting about looking back at how stupid I was ten years ago, or one year ago, or five minutes ago, and feeling superior to that former self. Already I wonder in what ways I’m embarrassing myself at this very moment. A friend of mine, when I asked him if he thinks he’ll still like his tattoo in thirty years, said he didn’t plan on it. That it would be a shame not to have changed in all that time. Calvino alludes to this in “A Sign in Space,” when Qfwfq, after making the first ever sign, spends the next millennium waiting for his orbit through space to take him back to this sign, of which he is first childishly proud, and then totally embarrassed by its amateurishness. I guess this is less about my growing up and more about growing up as a thing that happens, both in life with age and in art with practice.
KF: Your flashes, “Fellatio” in particular, have a strange way of expressing perfectly what it’s like to hide and to be hidden. What it is about hiding that interests you most?
TR: From moment to moment most of us are living two lives, one internal and one external, and it seems that the gift of writing is not to strip away our artifice, but to see it for what it is.
In CA Conrad’s Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon, Conrad instructs the reader to curl her toes each time she does something against her nature. Each time she lies—even if that lie is to be pleasant when she is not feeling pleasant—she must curl her toes. I love the way this makes the daily hiding we all do manifest physically in the body, forcing us to acknowledge the ways we are constantly compromising the integrity of our selves. The Smiths say it this way: “Why do I smile / at people who I’d much rather / kick in the eye?” This is not to say I condone rudeness, but I do want to know when I am hiding, especially from myself.
KF: Tell us about your future projects. What are you currently working on? Where can we read more of your work?
TR: I’ve spent the last few months editing and running an artist residency and co-hosting a podcast, Written in Small Spaces, so it feels as though I’ve not been writing. But I do keep coming back to this… thing… which is something like a novella/linked poetry collection/I have no idea. I’m also working on a few collaborative projects with visual artists. It has been amazing to see my words materialize in images, or to respond to images and look for ways to create additional meaning through text. One of those projects is a collection of short stories exploring the insecurities of your local deli section. It’s called Chance Meatings, illustrated by Clayton Kalman, and will be in the next issue of Heavy Feather Review. Also, LK James and I are in the process of rewriting and illustrating a narrative tarot deck. I’ve never written anything that feels so much like a novel. And LK’s illustrations (and patience with me…) are both impressive. I’m excited to see where it goes.
Updates usually show up on tatianaryckman.com.