profiles in linguistics: Katie Farris

Katie Farris


Katie Farris seductively draws us into worlds that disassemble traditional patriarchal hierarchy and exploit archetypes saturated in our linear western culture. Departing from the traditional view that the fairy tale beholds stringent violence that has traditionally exploited the passivity of the feminine in culture, Farris decides to celebrate, as she regards, the “hard-edged, violent, overtly sexual, and oft disturbing tales they’d started off as.”

More than the genre of fairy tales, however, her work portrays the relationship that art has with the Devil – as depicted in her short-story, Devil’s Face. Farris describes this sexy stance as a way for artists to acknowledge and focus fervently “towards faith,” or an opportunity to examine humanity’s flaws within love’s compass. For Farris, as she attests, “the Devil works for me.” Dreamscape, character development and plot are handled with the linguistic specificity and precision of poetry in every line; a voice that breaks open the feminine in every turn.

1.) What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

There is a story about me as a toddler— I ran around, naked except for my diaper with a stack of picture books, hollering “Books! Books! Books!” (That’s still how I spend my Saturday nights, incidentally).

The first book I remember reading was actually a Dick and Jane primer, which I can hardly believe, given it was already the 80’s but then, I went to a parochial school in New Hampshire with some old-fashioned ideas. The second was Jack London’s Call of the Wild. There must have been some in between, but honestly, it’s a big blank in there.

As a kid I read mostly fantasy—at its best (Ursula LeGuin, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, and Madeleine L’Engle), and at its worst (I may be the only person other than my sister who has read all of the “Tek” series by William Shatner. I don’t even think William Shatner has read them all.)

Books provided escape and comfort during difficult times as a child—the families in L’Engle’s books, for example, are always comprised of intelligent, articulate, free-thinking people who relate to each other on such a deeply caring level. I loved being a part of that vicariously. Children don’t have a lot of options for escaping, given their lack of cash, transport, and convincing disguises (leprechaun? Wunderkinder on walkabout?), but books give them that power. I hope to be able to write a young adult novel that does justice to the genre, someday.

My parents were pretty busy keeping my three brothers and me fed, and didn’t have much time for reading, so I didn’t have much direction. So I guess I existed in a space where all books were worthy. Sometimes I wish I could go back. The labels “genre” or “literature” or “good” and “bad” are so oppressive.

I think the first time someone put a book in my hands and said “This is good. You need to read this” was in high school, and the book was Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. I was reading Equus at the same time, and switching back and forth between these two incredibly powerful works, powerful at such different levels (Calvino’s being the imagination, the lyrical, the structural and Shaffer’s being just pure devastating emotion), so excited me. I haven’t ever reread Equus, but I’ve reread Invisible Cities almost every year since then and every year there’s something new. It’s a well that doesn’t run dry. I guess that’s what that well-meaning person meant by “This is good.”

The next book I read that changed me was Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson. I’d always been a very fast reader, but it’s impossible to read Housekeeping quickly. It runs like molasses. It took me six months to finish—that’s the longest any book has ever taken me. I say it taught me to read again. To read, as I was later to find out, as a writer.

Now my two great loves are Southern Gothic and Magical Realism. And here is the all-important list, the majorest stars in my sky: Faulkner, Garcia Marquez, Flannery O’Connor, Welty, McCullers, Byatt, Carter, Borges, and Calvino.

Southern Gothic writers are huge for me, I think in part  because my mother is from the South (from a family that, come to think of it, would fit right into a Southern Gothic novel). It’s a different world, a closer world, a thin place—I remember once reading that England “valued its eccentrics,” and that’s similar to places in the South. Isolation is significant, the feeling of being an almost endangered species.

Magical Realism is a natural love for me—the fantastic and dark subject matter, the isolation similar to Southern Gothic (the identity between these two styles runs deep, and Faulkner was Garcia Marquez’s favorite author), and the influence of oral literature and fairy tale. I should probably end here, lest I write an ode or something.

2.)    Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

Chris Abani and Brian Evenson have both been influential, particularly on my novel. Both experiment with the line between the real and the fantastic, both have an ability to keep looking at difficult subjects, long past most of us would turn away. I’ve been blessed to have them both as fantastic teachers and friends. Not to mention that their work is phenomenal—check out Brian’s Altmann’s Tongue, or Chris’s The Virgin of Flames.

And perhaps most importantly, my husband, Ilya Kaminsky. Our life revolves around writing, reading, and editing—both our own work and each other’s. We have a very different approach to writing—he’s constantly at work, while I tend to do mine in spurts, writing things in my head before I write them down, so they require less editing once they’re on the page. Although we drive each other crazy, we’re also each other’s best readers.

3.)    How has your own work changed over time and why?

In terms of writing, my first love is language, words themselves, strange syntaxes and sounds—it’s always difficult for me to tear myself away from tinkering with linguistic minutia long enough to create stories. On the other hand, my reading has always revolved around plot—by and large, I will take a plot-driven novel over a linguistic meditation, because they’re fun, and provocative, and absorb me completely. The book that combines entertainment with fine language is rare and welcome indeed. 

I have been strong-arming myself in a narrative direction for years because I love stories. Most of the pieces in the “girls” section of boysgirls started off as prose poems that I poked, prodded, edited, and expanded into narrative form. On the other hand, the longest and most traditionally “narrative” story of the bunch, the last story in the “boys” section, “The Invention of Love,” was written in two hours in the ugly basement of the ugly library at Brown University (they call it “The Rock”), and underwent very little editing. I’m a stylist by nature but it’s getting more enjoyable for me to do more layered plotting—I hope the trend continues!

4.)    Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

The way I line-edit has much more in common with poetry than with fiction. Every word must function aurally, narratively, imagistically. I’m extremely conscious of sound—alliteration, assonance, even meter all work their way into my fiction. This is why I prefer working in short forms—in order to maintain the kind of lyric intensity I hope to, it’s very difficult to go much longer. That’s why a novel like Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson is such a marvel to me—such sonic density sustained over 200 pages!

Genre fiction is another important influence, fantasy and romance novels in particular. The “boys” section of boysgirls is loosely based on the structure of a romance novel, as is my first novel, recently completed. The fantasy influence is fairly clear throughout boysgirls. I cannot imagine writing a book without some kind of magic, some sort of flight from reality. I call it “concretizing metaphor.” Why write about a woman whose eyes look like they’re shooting daggers when you can write a story about a woman whose eyes literally shoot daggers?

5.)    What are you plans for the future?

I’m working on getting my next book published—my first novel. The copy for the book might read something like this: “Dolores, a morbidly obese woman, and her physicist husband James participate in an orgiastic cycle of food and sex until one day when Dolores falls ill. Though she soon recovers, her appetites aren’t nearly what they once were, and James sets out to ‘fix’ her, using any means necessary.” It’s a little bit Frankenstein and a little bit Romeo and Juliet.

Other than that, I’m working on several other pieces that I intend to turn into novels—one about a blind birding expert, and one loosely based on my grandmother, about race in Detroit in the 1950’s. Both are fairly straightforward narratives, a shift away from the fragmentation and fantastic elements of my previous work. We’ll see! And other than that, more of the same—teaching and hanging out with my husband and cats.

6.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

I hope you’ll allow me to cheat and talk about the last thirty years, because one of the most important movements I see in women’s writing (and certainly some men’s as well), is the movement to dust off and reinvent the genre of the fairy tale, which people still tend to connect with naïve, folksy, pastoral knowledge rather than the hard-edged, violent, overtly sexual, and oft disturbing tales they’d started off as.

Of course, the fairy tale has always been connected with women to some degree, in the classical sense of “Mother Goose,” but the truth is fairy-tale collectors like the Grimms collected from men and women of all ages and class backgrounds. One of the most famous writers of literary fairy tales was a woman, Madame d’Aulnoy, although, of course, Perrault, Anderson, and the Brothers Grimm are more common household names—in part because of their decisions to ‘clean up’ the more overt sexualized themes (oftentimes they cut the sex and exaggerated the violence), to play up or even create the ‘morals’ or ‘lessons’ within the tales, and overall make them more palatable for everyday consumption.

Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber was released in 1980. I wasn’t yet much of a reader, or a feminist for that matter, but I can imagine how revolutionary it must’ve been. Take a story like “The Company of Wolves,” in which the formerly much-victimized Little Red Riding Hood is a savvy knife-wielding adolescent who takes control of her situation and her sexuality. I’m not a good flyer, but I read the book on a plane from Ireland to the States and I was pissed off when we landed cause I was 10 pages from the end and I had to get out of my seat. It’s one of the most important books in my personal cannon.

I see Carter’s influence on many different authors, but some of the most important writers taking on her mantle in the last thirty or so years are A.S. Byatt (particularly in her short stories) and Margaret Atwood. In terms of more popular fiction, there’s the novels by Gregory Maguire. And my favorite younger writers working in the genre are Aimee Bender and Kate Bernheimer.

I am also a fan of Bernheimer’s literary journal, The Fairy-Tale Review, as well as her anthologies centered on the fairy-tale.

7.) Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

I know I’m leaving out lots of people I’ll be kicking myself for forgetting later, but among the ladies I’m looking to are: Tiphanie Yanique, Marie Darrieussecq (from France), Sarah Shun-Lien Bynam, Aimee Bender, Kate Bernheimer, Sabrina Orah-Marks, and Joanna Howard.

8.) If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

Awesome. But I’m flexible on the definition of awesome.

9.) Can you describe your interest with the Devil and how does this personal attention immerse itself in your work?

How come you never hear about anyone selling his soul to Jesus to become a better guitar player? I guess Jesus isn’t in the market. He accepts them gratis, as a sort of donation (tax-deductible?) or rather a gift.

But the Devil is buying—and moreover, he’s betting. He’s preying (I love the closeness of the words ‘preying’ and ‘praying’) on our most human weaknesses, our vanities and egos to get his souls for free. Then again, he doesn’t always succeed. One of my favorite songs is “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” in which a cocky Devil bets Johnny a golden fiddle on the outcome of a fiddling contest. In the end, Johnny wins, and taunts “Devil just come on back if you ever want to try again/ I done told you once, you son of a bitch/ I’m the best that’s ever been.” It is the danger, of course, that keeps us hanging on, and also the chance, however small, that we get away with our hides, our pride, and perhaps a little more in the bargain.

I grew up in a very religious household, primarily Evangelical. For Evangelists, the Devil is hiding around every corner, constantly working his mojo, trying to draw us into his world. He’s the ultimate seducer.

And the Devil is sexy. He’s smoke rings and martini glasses and snakeskin boots. He’s sleazy or clean-cut: he’s muscle-bound or lithe, he’s whatever gets the job done. Grace Paley once said of one of her characters, “Faith works for me.” The Devil works for me, although he’s (or rather I would say ‘It’s’) often behind the scenes. He’s selfishness, he’s cruelty, he’s fear, he’s anger—at the same time that he’s passion, pride, foolishness—he’s everything that makes a story interesting.

Every artist makes their own deal with the Devil. While I’m not at liberty to discuss the particulars of mine, I will say this: without His existence (and the existence of others like Him, His predecessors and avatars) art would not exist. Whether you’re a practitioner of the most debased and subversive kinds of art (think of the Marquise de Sade, Jean Genet, Bataille… come to think of it, the French have a great history in this regard…), or a high moralist who believes that the duty of the artist is to bring man closer to God (William Blake, etcetera), you’re revolving around the same dichotomy. Even artists who are able to escape the Western particulars of our Lucifer-Satan, having never encountered our particular religion/myths, have their own set of dark figures, however those might be manifest. The artist must allow for a balanced view—to cut out one extreme or another is to devalue both art and life.

For me, moral ambiguity is at the center of art. In my short-short story from boysgirls, “The Devil’s Face,” a girl is trying to please the Devil sexually, and it is only ultimately through a sort of compassion, an empathetic moment, a recognition of someone else’s humanity, that she is able to do so. While people could view the story as perverse or degrading, I prefer to think of it as an honest love story. As all my stories are, ultimately.  They are not romantic by and large, but they at bottom motivated by love. And that, for me, may be the only moral imperative.

10.) Robert Coover describes BOYSGIRLS as “Smart and witty, tantalizingly interesting characters: the boy with one wing, the inventor of invented things, the brief sparkling cameo of the cyclops…something of a little tour de force.” How do you utilize “wit” in your work? Do you find this to be a central tone in BOYSGIRLS in particular or one that you employ frequently?

I think the wit that comes through in my fiction is a wit of language, a turn of phrase that complicates or takes one by surprise. For instance: in the “introduction” section of boysgirls, I wrote: “Come shake victorious with delirium tremens and carpe diem.” This line came as a surprise and a delight to me—the Latin lead to more Latin through some bizarre circuitry in my brain. The little slant rhyme of “delirium” and “diem” was an added bonus. I certainly attempt to employ this as often as I can in my fiction, although it is an unstable thing—the only way to ‘employ’ surprise is to allow yourself to be surprised, write unexpected things, to take the turn you never expect. Learning not to control where I’m going has been one of my personal victories as a writer.

11.) Commenting on BOYSGIRLS, Kate Berheimer states that the book“ is one for the classic fairy-tale shelves, joining Borges/Lispector, Calvino/Carter, Andersen/d’Aulnoy with its spectral powers. Katie Farris’s spare and lyrical language levitates here—she is a haunting and new revelation.”Are you addressing specific archetypal structures through this sense of fairy tales?

My intention for boysgirls, at least in part, was to walk the line between the intimacy of fairy tale and the universality of myth—to create a series of modern myths—something that exists outside of any established mythic system but with the same qualities as traditional myth. So, yes, archetypes are important through the course of the book—the Madwoman, the Priest-like figure of the Inventor of Invented Things, the Boy with One Wing as a type of Holy Fool. The idea of the Freak, too, runs deeply through the book—the freak as holy fool, as jester, as truth-teller.

If there was a way to indicate the title “boysgirls” without privileging one sex over the other, I would have taken it—ultimately I decided to call it “boysgirls” only because it sounded better to me than “girlsboys.” I put the “girls” section first to undermine whatever preference the title may have indicated.

Whatever structure there is, mythic or otherwise, is there in part to question the very idea of structure.

12.) Rikki Ducornet delineates that BOYSGIRLS “reminds us that ‘Times are hard for dreamers,’ only to go on to provide a number of vivid singularities…a storm of unexpected pleasures to be dreamed while awake.” What is your opinion of the relationship between dream states and being awake? How do you explore this tension in your writing?

One of the first things I tell my students is that writing about dreams is cheating. The worst possible ending of a story is to have the protagonist wake up from a dream, because most often it’s the dream that’s important, not the waking. It’s a cop-out, a way for a writer not to have to take responsibility (and credit!) for the strange and unusual things that happen in their story. But it’s hard to be brave in fiction, as it is hard to be brave in life.

On the other hand, there are brilliant books built around dreams, waking, and those bizarre in-between places—for example, Madeleine is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, or Briar Rose by Robert Coover— and these have certainly been influential on me, especially when it comes to the question of the so-called “hynogogic” moments somewhere between dream and waking.

I think the reason the madwoman who narrates boysgirls terms her stories “dreams” is because she cannot accept that they are something more, that they are her reality. The question always through the book, for me, anyway, is whether she’s in control of these figments, or if they exist outside of her. And who is more real, anyway? This bizarre, italicized, disembodied voice, or characters like The Boy With One Wing or the Cyclops? The voice of the madwoman gives the book identity, allows it to be viewed as a unified whole, but hopefully also questions the idea of a narrator at its core—why must we be told a story? Why can’t the story exist without a teller? What control does a storyteller really hold over what is told?