Heather is the author of the story collections Suspended Heart (2009), People with Holes (2012), This Time, While We’re Awake (2013), and Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness (2014). Her People with Holes was named a 2012 finalist for Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction. Her fictive work has been made into fine art in several instances and her collaborative poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging, written with Meg Tuite and Michelle Reale, is the winner of the 2013 TWIN ANTLERS PRIZE FOR COLLABORATIVE POETRY and is due for release in December of 2014. She loves artistic and literary collaborations. Fowler has published stories and poems online and in print in the U.S., England, Australia, and India, and had work appear in such venues as PANK, Night Train, Storyglossia, Surreal South, Feminist Studies, and more, as well as having been nominated for the storySouth Million Writers Award, Sundress Publications Best of the Net, and Pushcart Prizes. She is Poetry Editor at Corium Magazine. She is currently writing a libretto, among other assorted projects. Please visit her website at www.heatherfowler.com
Bonnie ZoBell: Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness is such a great title! How did you come up with it? Were there other contenders for a title before you decided on this one?
Heather Fowler: I got caught up in the idea of nudity in many frames—both physical and psychological. In my work, this is a recurrent fascination, and any nudity is appealing to delve into since it is a precise engagement with what is often veiled. I also love engaging titles. That was the start of the impulse.
At the time I decided on Elegantly Naked, I’d been toying with a book of stories in progress called LOVESHOCK, about counter-culture love and unusual encounters, and another collection tentatively titled Jesus Doesn’t Love You and Neither Do I, about religious faith, lost and found (and sometimes lost again). Often my collections have a theme that the stories selected for inclusion gather around. While LOVESHOCK had pieces that resonated with the fragility of human intimacy and the rupture of devastating emotional dependencies, coupled with coping mechanisms for life’s ennui, when I pulled this mental illness book together with stories about psychological trauma and response, it did not surprise me that vulnerability and nudity still ranked high in terms of having causal relationships to either a break in “normalcy” or a break in an abusive pattern. Elegantly came in due to the complexity of some stories displaying those who suffer from subtle disturbances and/or “pass” for normal until some pivotal moment when their interior fantasies or alternate worldview becomes immediately apparent and different.
Sudden perception is shocking. Retroactive perception is shocking. People are easily lulled by those whose initial outer front seems understandable—and especially those who are intelligent enough to craft an elaborate “normalcy” around their actions—so “elegant.” The frame of mental illness as “sexy” is an amplification of the idea that so often people are drawn to those in manic phases, those with grandiose fantasies, those with leadership sensibilities and power, since these individuals can be perceived as highly desirable, cageless, rebels, game-changers, people who adjust the world to fit their own needs rather than fitting themselves into normative expectations. It’s as though some such individuals have no boundaries, and to be selected as a romantic object by such a wild card person, or born into the family of such a person (and thereby needing to cope with their mood swings), can seem loaded with fate, compelling difference, or tragedy. The whole sex and death continuum is at play—the whole dangerous lure and question: Is this wild one a hero or simply a charismatic person who clings to revolutionary tropes as a means of exploring finite and personal desires for power or adulation?
Living on the pinnacle of sensation—at the height of emotion—is often a situation caused by individuals who lack the ability to control their impulses, and enjoying such interactions can feel fascinating, while not altogether healthy. Some call this sensation “sexy.” Many crave the departure from their standard fare like hot spice in their soup.
The book’s title just struck me as inclusive of lots of thoughts I had on the subject. I actually inserted the title into a fitting story in the collection after deciding upon it. In addition, I checked in with Facebook author page readers about a few alternate titles to get the sense for which they preferred most. They liked Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness.
I think this title resonated with many because, in a sensual realm, even when two parties do not suffer any mental illness diagnosis, people can find the erotic elements of physical exchange parallel to those of deliberate delusion, alternate identities, a boundless space of animalism, role play, a tactile space that lacks logic and sometimes lacks extreme prejudices that appear outside of physical contact—which creates a sense of otherness anyway.
Also, by calling the illness “mine,” there was less pressure on the reader in terms of attaching the idea to their own fears or apprehensions. But people are quite complex, as are manifestations of mental illness, and I think all of us wonder, at times, whether we have crossed the line from an appropriate reaction and into a pathologized space, whether we have experienced our own psychotic breaks in situations of substantial mental/emotional duress, or whether we are simply toeing the line of being human. This idea would exist outside of more serious and continuous distortions of reality, of course. But almost always, sex is the coin of exchange, or the seeking of love, sexual or otherwise. Need. Desire for reciprocity.
I really enjoyed when the publisher, Erin at Queen’s Ferry Press, came up with this book description: “Heather Fowler’s fourth collection of fiction speaks the language of need. Desperate, obsessive, even demented need—both emotional and erotic—is voiced by characters ill or ill-advised…”
Maybe the book really wanted to exploit that issue from its inception—the issue of need validating the uncommon acts, the razor fine line of normalcy either abutted or estranged by desire. What is normal? What is sexy? What is crazy? What is the “right action”—and how does this construction alter on the basis of time, location, and circumstance.
But, about madness, some of the most “normal” people I know, I find diabolically disturbing. Some of the “craziest,” the kindest. I also think that Big Pharm plays a role in wanting all people to think they must medicate their psychological reality these days—with both a lack of total comprehension about what each medication actually does to human physiology (or lack of care that the treatment is imprecise) and with a profit driven motive. That said, there are some people for whom medication is absolutely necessary; I don’t dispute that. Anti-depressants have saved many people I know and love from disappearance into the ether of their suffering.
But perhaps this book is an inquiry into the idea that disturbances and reactions can’t always be quantified and neatly decided—that to diagnose is sometimes to minimalize a more complex series of issues. And to remind readers that unusual thoughts are part of what it means to be an organism with difficult choices and constant exposure to new stressors and encounters their upbringings or past experiences may not have prepared them for.
One doesn’t forget, for example, one’s first close exposure to a sociopath.
BZ: One of the stories I love in the collection, “Losing Married Women,” has such an interesting premise. The former lovers of a gay woman named Star leave her because she has “an absence of true gayness.” She observes for some time a married woman named Katie who lives close enough that when they finally meet, they talk balcony to balcony until they decide to go to the beach together. When they meet up, Katie, in an unhappy marriage with a workaholic husband, virtually throws herself at Star. Both women are sexy in their own ways, yes, and both seem to have some decided emotional disorders in their relationships with others. Love to hear you talk about what these are.
HF: I remember when I wrote this piece I was interested in removing the erotics of desire from a hetero-normative realm, into a space of other. I wanted to explore, with Star, the woman who seduces one married woman after another, how she makes choices to retain her personal freedoms and sense of self, and simultaneously explore the idea of a woman reluctant to subjugate herself to either societal or male will. Star says in the story that she chooses her lesbianism because the romantic motives of women differ for her, in a less dictatorial way, that she has less potential for being violated. So the question then becomes: Does she have an intimacy disorder, or a will for a lack of entrapment that also destines her to solitude that can’t let anyone in? Is her situation a permanent emotional impossibility or is she simply existing in a temporarily voided space, albeit one that the story alludes has consumed most of her adult life, where disappointments gather and thus attempting emotional intimacy is just not desirable?
Further, is there a key person or relationship that would change this entire dynamic?
I think it’s clear from Katie’s reactions to Star and Katie’s awkward attempts to seduce her that Katie simply is not the right lover to unlock Star’s greater potential for changing. Sure, Star gets involved regardless. But how many of us must choose what’s near and convenient, not necessarily what’s ideal? How many of us form lives based on what we can reach and close our portals of availability to those with whom we may have found greater contentment?
When Star sets free a lover, she is also cut loose. The possibility for truly defining love is again renewed.
Conversely, Katie, the unhappy housewife experimenting with lesbianism, is the other side of the freedom coin; ignored, abandoned, ensconced in a marriage that does not require her identity to have its own significant state. She is a woman who has made life choices due to what others would consider to be “positive outcomes,” and yet is rather humiliated by the idea that the American Dream has captured her so thoroughly—because her own needs remain unmet.
Neither woman has what she wants.
In Katie’s case, she uses retail therapy and alternate modes of distraction until Star comes to re-energize her desire for passionate connection—a newly awakened desire that has been a dead, boiled frog in the cooling pan of a desecrated marriage.
But, to sum: Do I want to play their therapist? Katie is depressed, yes, mildly. But her actions in the story do not exhibit her to be ill in any particular way, just unhappy and trying desperately to change her life. The idea that she wants to leave her husband in the end—and go away with Star—is like a fragile bid for long absent freedom, a breaking free from a confinement she felt before someone showed her what authentic passion or romantic love could mean.
The fact that Star does not value her similarly, or idolize her similarly, is neither Katie’s nor Star’s fault. There is often inequity in the passion of lovers, one desire surging high and another waning low. Katie is, in many ways, a tragic character, one I had hope for—one I destroyed.
But I don’t perceive either of these characters to be particularly malignant. Perhaps they are two sides of the same coin—at different stages of the flip. Star sees an absence of those who challenge her, those who can break her walls of chosen isolation, those she can feel legitimately understood by—and, understandably, still wants contact to bridge the gap of her intensive isolation, as well as displaying fits of rage when she knows she has erotically connected to those who do not light her inner fire, somewhat self-punitively, so her exchange with Katie is supposed to be safe for her and for Katie. She meets Katie’s needs and doesn’t expect Katie to change her married life. Katie meets Star’s need for contact and pleasant interaction.
As is often the case, everything falls apart when one person acts outside of the script.
I think any reader of that story can see that while Star may be intimately inaccessible, were this reader exposed to the same mountain of unmet needs the character Katie prepared to dump on Star, that reader, too, may have been tempted to bolt. Both parties are right in their actions, in their own ways.
This is the elegant part of ruptures in intimacies. The trillion shades of gray. The flaws of each party contributing to the outcome—as well as the unmet needs.
BZ: Another story I really admire in the collection is “Ever,” and what I love about it most is the point of view, the way it keeps shifting between first, second, and third person. It’s not gimmicky at all—the point of view furthers the tale. Caroline is being stalked by a former lover and is so frightened she won’t answer the phone let alone the door. She uses binoculars to study her car before she goes out in the morning. The shifting point of view contributes to her seeming to be hiding from her stalker in every aspect of her life. Did you already have this POV idea when you started the story or did it evolve as you wrote it?
HF: Yes. Having had direct experience with being stalked several times in my life, I think I wrote that story with migrating points of view to make a point about how dangerous these things can be, how disorienting, threatening, and deceptive. I also wanted to point out that one person’s perceived paranoia is and CAN BE another person’s actualized survival, and the resultant creation of self-imposed and sometimes strange restrictions on actions (or reliance on hypothetical securities) might be a justified coping mechanism for self-protection, rather than mental illness or an irrational phobia. It is possible to feel crazy but know that projected, imagined harm has real world potential.
Thus, the story freely poses the difficult question: When one is engaged with trying to avoid an obsessed party with a will to harm, how much personal safety is too much? What will help the party at risk?
With this piece, I also wanted to dramatize, for those who have never been stalked, the idea that living in fear creates an altered and traumatized state from which recovery is quite difficult—being terrified 24/7, feeling constantly exhausted, not knowing when to let normal life reconvene, recalling all incidents of oddities that came before and self-shaming that the “red flag indicators” so apparent in retrospect weren’t acted upon or identified quickly enough. Many who’ve been stalked even entertain self-eviscerating thoughts that something inside them must have drawn the abuser or may keep drawing abusive types, making such exchanges with psychotic others part of a lifelong struggle.
In light of these fears and this distorted state, the pursued individual does begin to live in a somewhat disordered mental space, in and out of his/her own head, and the schism of POV, the movement of POV in this piece, is meant to be a sort of attempt to distance and dissociate from the trauma—to bring it close and push it away in order to show a moving target of a life.
HF: I have a friend I once wrote with in a fiction marathon—a very cerebral genius type named Pablo Vision. When I posted on my website (before my agent told me not to post information about works in progress) that I had this collection in progress, he wrote me and asked to read it. The timing of his request was perfect.
I had just been in the process of doing ekphrastic collaboration for this amazing The Better Bombshell project, a three- segment piece called “Treatises on Desire,” where I was blessed to work with photographer Visioluxus’s art. She has a very darkly surreal and beatific aesthetic, as does Pablo. Since the time he and I had worked together, he had moved away from writing and was more heavily connected with doing his own graphic art. I have always enjoyed having fine artists as friends, and the fact that my work had begun to draw more of them to me, creating more angles for art/text connections in lots of unexpected ways, made me suggest to him: “Hey, if you like this book, would you like to make an illustrated collection with me? Let’s make a book baby!”
In the way of all busy and talented people, he immediately said, “No. Don’t have time. Just can’t. All this other stuff to do…” etc., etc. And then he read the book. He suddenly wrote me and said, “This is so elegant. Yes. Let’s do. I’ll shelve all my other projects,” or something similar. The collaboration began.
What was really lovely is that he chose one story at a time to represent, and each time he completed an illustration, he sent me an email about his process and his analytical connection to both the art as a series and the literary work. This was so delightful, I began to look forward to the receipt of email in a way I hadn’t done in years. I said, “I love these emails and how elaborate your thought process was for this work—let’s include an artist’s appendices for the book and sell it as a book object.” I had no idea what we’d do with it or who would buy it. It was a passion project.
And then fate intervened; no sooner had Pablo finished his artwork than Erin McKnight contacted me about my possible interest in reviewing a Queen’s Ferry Press title she thought might be up my alley. She had been the first editor of my debut collection Suspended Heart a few years previous, an experience we both remembered fondly, and a fun conversation ensued where she basically said I might keep Queen’s Ferry in mind if I had a collection I wanted to submit, and I replied—well, I do have a really strange collection about mental illness that has been illustrated by a graphic artist out from the UK and has an artist’s appendices attached. It’s called…”
“I’ll take a look,” she said—and soon thereafter we had a publisher.
BZ: You’ve been very successful in publishing so many books and you’re so young. How do you manage to be so prolific when you are a single mom, work full time, an editor, and you’re going to school?
HF: Thank you. I don’t feel young. I feel old as the hills. While I know people often attribute me with a prolific nature, and I can sometimes acknowledge/resemble that—most of the time I feel that writing is not a measured thing for me, just a living, breathing extension of what I love to do, my passion and my release. And I spent many years writing into silence—not trying very hard to publish, disappointed by the glass ceilings of both location-based possibility and socio-economic reality, trying more so to sustain my will to engage as an artist with my work than to make some big splash or profit. I preferred the world of wildly fabricating to the depressing work of “attempting to get published.” I still do.
Only now, I feel I will be reaching a new level of visibility soon and perhaps my helmet will finally make a crack in the atmosphere of privilege and let me in. That’s heartening. Still, my time spent writing for pure love and creative joy will help me here. People may call me prolific but what they really witness now is a flux of release from the labor of decades spent working silently and slowly in isolation—not some kind of wunderkind storm. I have difficult years, too, times when the desired writing comes to an almost complete halt.
Right now, during single parenthood, during this current degree program, during a very busy time at my day job, I must admit that I am barely able to write as often or freely as I once did, which is frustrating, so I often feel estranged from the concept of being “prolific” and that required duty really requires a painful absence, in many instances, from one of my few reliable vents, the generation of new work.
That said, I’m doing what I can. And I am excited that this last degree is so close to done, so I can finally begin work on projects that have languished in planning stages for years.
BZ: What are you working on now?
HF: I am in the primary aria writing stages for penning an opera libretto, believe it or not. I’ll be working with talented composer Jon Forshee and creating an opera in verse that is based on the story “Blood, Hunger, Child” in Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness. This will be an exciting fusion of text and music. Jon also currently works to compose a score for four sonnets from my latest finished poetry collection Alexandrines for Lorca, which will be sent out to secure a publisher soon.
After that, I have two novel projects I’d like to work on, a new screenplay, and edits for a few collections of short fiction. I would also love to return to writing for theater—I imagine a few three-act plays will be in the cards these next few years. I’m also interested in writing a book of poems about endangered species. But after that, I really can hardly predict what I’ll do next.
This is one of the many wonders of creating on a long continuum. I’ll write whatever moves me, I suppose. Somehow, I don’t doubt that this new work, too, as Elegantly Naked does, will involve human psychology. That’s my jam. Yes, that—and nudity of some kind. I don’t care which kind; it’s all interesting.
Thanks so much for having me here.
BZ: Thanks for allowing us to peer into your mind at the makings of this lovely book.