Ruth Joffre in conversation with Diana Xin
January 2020 · In-person & digital exchange
Ruth Joffre was born and raised in Northern Virginia. She graduated with honors from Cornell University and earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her short fiction, essays, and criticism have appeared in a wide range of journals, including Electric Literature, Kenyon Review, and The Offing.
Night Beast (Black Cat/Grove) is Joffre’s first collection. The eleven stories within chart the territory of our dreams and desires—the places we invent, the people we pretend to be, and the people who we profess to love. Kevin Wilson writes, “So many of the characters in Ruth Joffre’s stories are, literally and figuratively, sleepwalking through ‘some dark and frightful dream that our minds had conjured,’ and it’s a testament to Joffre’s meticulous and abundant talent that she can guide the reader through these constrained and inhospitable spaces.”
In lush, dreamy language, Joffre excavates the fears and anxieties that dominate our subconscious as we navigate the machinations of power and privilege, untangling our own passions and defenses. “Finishing the collection was like waking from a night of disquieting and luminous dreams,” Anna Noyes writes.
The stories in Night Beast are bookended by titles that evoke the night. Was this a conscious decision to steep readers into a time of day and a certain kind of subconscious setting?
For sure. It’s so much of what this project is about. I think it stems from the fact that I’ve always had a lot of trouble sleeping. I’ve had bouts of insomnia and times where I’ve slept too much when I’ve been depressed, so there’s always this attention towards whether or not I’m fully awake, or aware, or having nightmares. There’s not as much boundary between my waking life and dream life or subconscious. They bleed into each other.
I’m also very prone to nightmares, which has informed the kind of literature and art I’m drawn to and has, in a way, shaped my entire worldview. It’s cultivated this focus on the subterranean. I say “subterranean” instead of “subconscious” because of the things we actively try to bury, things that impact us even though we don’t want to admit or acknowledge them. This creeps into everything I write. Even though most of the stories in the collection are rooted in a more realist environment, there’s usually some kind of surreal quality.
Many writers of that ilk, such as Kelly Link—who selected “Night Beast” (the final story in the collection) as winner of The Masters Review fiction prize and is a major influence on your own work—propose the term “night time logic” or “dream logic” as one of the organizing or
disorienting functions behind that surreal quality. How do you capture this kind of logic that seeks to evade understanding? Are there strategies or steps writer can follow to become more attuned to the subterranean recesses of their own stories?
This may be cheating a bit, but I find that the easiest way to create night-time logic and dream logic (not interchangeable terms) is to start with dreams and nightmares. Many of my stories either draw their concept from a dream or include images from dreams (for instance, in “The Twilight Hotel,” the image of the man with sand crabs burrowing into his back comes from a dream wherein I saw a man with dozens of holes in his back, sort of like an advent calendar filled with tiny crabs instead of chocolate).
Often, starting with the inherent strangeness of a dream helps you avoid boring the reader or writing something expected, something they’ve seen thousands of times before. Just like phrases or clichés, scenes can become overly familiar, so I’m always looking for new ways to disrupt those expectations and familiar narratives. When I want to explore something, I don’t dig down but instead approach it sideways.
I also like to play with memories, particularly the memories of dreams. In my experience, memory doesn’t stay constant. It shifts with your emotions and how you change over time, and memories often conflict with each other or with someone else’s version of events. When two people believe different things about the same event, such as the main characters in “Night Beast,” they’re forced to reexamine it and see it from another viewpoint.
Dreams and fantasies in Night Beast also seem to engineer a kind of escape at times for characters caught in difficult situations. In “General, Minister, Horse, Cannon,” a lonely boy commissions an autobiography about the empire he builds in his Chinese hometown. And, in “The Twilight Hotel,” a grieving woman imagines herself “landing in an impossible place where the sun never stops setting,” walking us through an entire day here, before she returns to the reality of her botched evening and her crumbling relationship. This second story struck a poignant chord for me. It seems to hit on the limits of imagination. As hard as you try, you can’t escape what’s coming. How do you find where to leap, though, from the real, grounded setting to the imagined, and then back again?
For this story, it was a matter of writing up to the end of the dinner, before the fantasy unfolds. It’s that moment when you realize you’re in a different place than your partner. You have to figure out what to do when you get to a place like that, what to do if you can’t accept it. I’ve been in relationships where you think that if you can just change one thing, everything will be fine. That is where fantasy begins. So this story is about how that fantasy gets corrupted by your knowledge of the truth and also how you use that fantasy to get yourself to confront the truth. Fantasy as temporary therapy, I suppose. I don’t really believe in writing as therapy, but I think escaping can be the thing that gets us to the next place. In this story, the next step for this couple is so close. They don’t have to do a lot, but getting to the next step requires a lot of work, which is what the fantasy is pushing them to do.
I admired the way you so deftly maneuver readers into the fictional worlds you create, and then into the fictional worlds your characters create. There are so many layers to peel back, yet never any confusion as we cross these thresholds. Your skill shines particularly for me in Weekend, a story where two actors masquerade as a couple on an avant-garde television show that documents their remarkably heteronormative weekend lives. After fifteen seasons, real and filmed identities begin to meld, along with desires. The set-up is fascinating and I wondered what inspired this story—our cultural fascination with reality TV or perhaps the way we spin our lives on social media?
With that one, I was really thinking about the ways we perform, even in our own lives. The stories you tell yourself about yourself. When we go about our days thinking, what should I be doing, what are the models that I use to guide my life? those things can really get into your head and fuck you up. The main character is an example of someone who is caught up in these illusions, who is unable to distinguish between what he wants and what he thinks he should want. The boundaries disappear between who he’s pretending to be and who he is, and he is unable to know himself anymore. Sometimes, the emotional life of the fantasy is more fulfilling than in your actual life, and that’s indicative of something wrong with the choices you’ve made.
Now that’s a line. Sharp and insightful.
Not all but many of the stories in Night Beast are propelled by or troubled by some kind of romantic desire. There is a wide range of representation of different types of relationships, but the title piece seems to pay special homage to Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, published in 1936 and widely considered a classic work of lesbian literature. The opening line of your titular story, “Somnambule, I called her. Somnambule pirouetting in the night” recalls Barnes’ description of a character as “the born somnambule, who lives in two worlds.” A character in Night Beast exhibits this as well, with her queer desires expressed only in an altered state at night.
Do you find this kind of liminal existence or parallel life common in queer literature? Does it tie to the thread of the subterranean or any other literary inheritances?
Absolutely. Queerness for me has been the experience of not knowing who I was and then spending years getting closer and closer to my true self. This journey necessitates living in a kind of darkness where you’re always trying to see yourself and your world more clearly (and to change what you see). As a child, I became aware that queerness is often depicted as monstrosity in literature and film, in which villains are queer coded so often that many people just read queerness as evil, in the same way they read fatness as evil even though it’s not. I wanted to show how this assumption of monstrosity has impacted queer life and created silences in our conversations, distances in our relationships, and gaps in our understanding of ourselves.
Thanks for sharing about that. Do you have hopes for how queer literature can change or what it could explore in the future?
Queer literature in the past and even now has been very pigeonholed. You only get to be one kind of queer. There was a time when we only had coming-out stories or gay-bashing stories. As more queer writers are published, we can help show that there is so much more to our community. There are so many ways to exist other what you’ve been told. And it’s not only about showing that queer writers can be successful but showing the multiplicity of queerness, and that it’s okay to be who you are and to be loved.
We internalize so many messages about love and relationships, yet it’s so hard to remember that we are deserving of love.
Common to all the relationships in Night Beast, whether they are straight or queer, romantic or platonic or something else, there seems to be underlying awareness of the power dynamics at play. Was this exploration another theme of the project? Have other rhetoric or movements influenced this work?
Power is definitely a core theme of my work, in particular my more recent work. In Night Beast, the thing that fascinated me most about power was how unspoken it was, particularly in romantic and platonic relationships. With friendships, we often develop our own power dynamics without discussing them or even consciously realizing them, which results in unwritten rules about who’s allowed to say what or demand this or expect that at any given moment. Sometimes, these rules are innocuous, like: we always sit together on the bus. Sometimes, these rules are more dangerous, like: we don’t talk about the sex we’re having or acknowledge what we have in broad daylight. That can be really damaging, not in the least because it feels like if you dare break the rule you risk losing the relationship altogether. That happens again and again in Night Beast.
A few of the relationships in these stories are also purely predatory. This is especially true in the first half of the book, which features younger characters who are often displaced and vulnerable to adult authority figures, whether strangers or family members.
There’s this unwillingness to think that childhood isn’t a safe space, but it just fundamentally isn’t. Kids are going through so much that we are unwilling to acknowledge—sexual abuse, physical abuse, homelessness. These became very important to me to explore. I wanted to show that childhood is not an idyllic space. There’s this assumption in day-to-day life that the people around us all had these basic things growing up (parents, a house, a car), but that isn’t always the case. A good percentage of homeless youth are queer people who have been kicked out and have nowhere else to go. This is a real epidemic.
It’s important to acknowledge that these problems actually exist in fiction, rather than ignoring them or having them fade into the backdrop. With literary fiction, a lot of stories seem to take place in amorphous time, with no indicators or markers of the events or problems or conflicts that coexist. (I’ve been guilty of this myself and am working to correct it in my fiction.) I know why people do it—they don’t want to be time-stamped—but the way we see the world and the way we interact with each other is very specific to where we are. The tendency to not talk about bigger issues is a mistake, and it’s not allowing us to explore our interactions or how we address systemic oppression.
That’s a great call for all writers. There are a lot of hard issues that are difficult to confront head-on, but speculative and fabulist writers find other ways to tackle them.
You have another series of vignettes or flash pieces about childhood, called “One of the Lies I Tell My Children.” [#5] and [#14] are included in this collection as “Two Lies.”
The ugliness of the world is something we tend to lie to our children about, but we also use fiction to exaggerate potential dangers. We tell the cautionary tale. How does this project grapple with the uses of fable and folktale in creating boundaries of childhood?
“One of the Lies I Tell My Children” is an ongoing series that attempts to turn traditional fables and stories of parenthood on their head. It endeavors to depict the most extreme, absurd, heartbreaking version of a cautionary tale in order to reflect a parent’s fears for their children back on themselves, revealing those fears to be rooted in their own beliefs and traumas. I said before that childhood isn’t a safe space. I would argue that neither is parenthood. That many people are broken and attempt in their brokenness to raise children anyway. I want to show the beauty and the terror of that by using language and structures that people are familiar with from fairy tales and making them stranger and more personal.
Yes, parenting seems terrifying. But I like that you highlight beauty of the endeavor as well. As you move between the vantage point of younger and older, and sometimes parental, characters, have you found any difference in how their age and perspective impact the narrative?
In general, my younger characters are thinking a lot less about what other people are interpreting about them. The character in “I’m Unarmed” just doesn’t have the time or energy in her life to think about what other people are thinking of her. There are some larger trends of what’s expected of a young girl and whether queerness is okay, but she doesn’t engage with them as directly as older characters. When you are in that kind of situation,
your life by necessity is focused on survival, and survival requires very little life. It wouldn’t be considered a good life or a healthy life. Life, at its bare minimum, is brutal.
How can writers help with survival?
Showing that there is a way to exist other than what you’ve been told. Writers in general are attuned to other ways of being and existing other than the status quo, the zeitgeist. But for their work to be read the publishing industry has to champion their work. That’s a struggle we will continue to have in the next few decades, and writers of color will continue to struggle to break through and will have to brute force it through sheer talent.
Writers can also help tackle the nightmares in our communities. There are so many ways to do this, depending on your means. Donating, organizing events, lifting up voices, calling people out, and, in our work, acknowledging that these problems actually exist.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Five.