Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Anthony Ausiello
The Fiction Editors, Rappahannock Review: You employed an interesting stylistic choice by using strippers as characters in this piece. What was your theory or motivation behind doing so?
Anthony Ausiello: The inspiration for the story was actually an overheard conversation while sitting in a Florida airport waiting for my flight to board—as a quick aside, I encourage all aspiring writers to be discreet eavesdroppers. A young woman in her early twenties was having a conversation with the person sitting next to her. Very casually, she mentioned that she danced in clubs, however, the bulk of the conversation was about the home she’d recently purchased in a new development. She was extremely house-proud in her descriptions—talking about the lawn, the layout, the views, etc. I started to imagine—what if she convinced several coworkers to buy homes in the same development? What kind of disruption would that create, especially if the development was populated by retired couples, likely people from a somewhat conservative background? Right away, you have a juxtaposition of people at different points of their life, different cultural beliefs and backgrounds, and from that starting point, there were several conflicts that could be pursued. That was the initial seed of the story. I knew the arrival of the women in this development would be a disruption and a catalyst to challenge some misconceptions and preconceived notions. I wasn’t sure of the specifics until I started writing and Vivian asserted herself as the main character. Once the story crystallized around Vivian, Jessica and Sofi weren’t just disruptors, they became surrogate family for a woman who was still reeling from loss and was being mistreated and taken advantage of by her own son.
RR: The relationship between Vivian, her son, and her daughter-in-law was very complex, well described, and realistic. What made you decide to use them as antagonists and how do you think it adds to the depth of the story?
AA: Thank you for saying so. I think character and conflict are the two most important parts of a story. Therefore, as I began to invent Vivian and create this unfortunate situation she found herself in, I had to ask some questions. Vivian is a widow, so the first question was does she have any children. From the first moment of the story, Vivian is isolated and feeling trapped. I felt that writing her also as childless would have been excessive; there needed to be some sort of familial connection out there. I began to play with the idea that Vivian’s family contributed to her conflicts. There are two main conflicts – one physical and the other internal – at work here: the housing market crash and her husband’s death has left her stranded in a place she never wanted to live. At the same time, Vivian is trying to assert herself as an individual; she’s trying to overcome a lifetime spent living in a subservient position to her husband and son. Vivian finds herself in the position she’s in because of the actions of her husband and son—actions that she allowed. Howie is the primary symbol of what male dominance has wrought in Vivian’s life. I don’t think Howie is evil, but he’s certainly not a good son. He’s spoiled and selfish. I think people reading this story will probably say, I know a guy like this, I know a family that looks like this. Marisol, Vivian’s daughter-in-law, was fun to write. She’s just not a nice person. Howie at least tries to be sly with his bad behavior. Marisol just attacks. Also with Marisol, I wanted a contrast with Jessica. Marisol really should be Vivian’s de facto daughter, but it’s really Jessica that fills that role, which, hopefully, raises questions about the concept of family. I think the way you phrased the question actually describes the technical role of supporting characters—they should add depth to a story. They reveal backstory, or some aspect of a main character, and they help drive the story forward, either by contributing to the conflict or aiding the main character in its resolution. But, there’s a delicate balance if you want to keep the “short” in short story—too much focus on the supporting characters can dilute the main character’s conflict and slow and muddy the narrative.
RR: Your piece, written from Vivian’s perspective, was very convincing for a male author. What was your process of building a female character and learning to speak and think as one like?
AA: Again—thank you. This was a big departure for me; I was more than a bit apprehensive. Much of my fiction is from a male perspective and is usually set in Brooklyn where I grew up. I was operating out of my comfort zone on several fronts in this story. When I started writing the story, I thought it was going to be from Sam’s POV, but Sam never made it past the first page. (Poor Sam.) Originally I had Sam on the lawn watching Jessica run by and Vivian was peeking out through the curtains from inside the house. There was just something immediately more interesting about Vivian. It was really organic. I think that is the most fun part about writing—when something unexpected in a story happens, when some character or idea asserts itself and you just follow along. When I write, I picture the scene as if I’m looking through a movie camera lense. So, one moment the camera was sitting on Sam’s shoulder, and the next it was inside the house looking over Vivian’s shoulder. In my mind, I panned around this empty living room and it seemed clear that this is where the story starts and that this would be Vivian’s story. The story was written as part of my MFA requirements and one of my goals was to try to stretch as a writer and push myself to write about different people and places—while I had the benefit of working with my mentors and peers in a workshop setting. The apprehension about writing from a female POV faded as I began to write. Much of what Vivian is dealing with—loneliness, fear, isolation—these aren’t issues exclusive to one gender or another. There were aspects of her problems that were gender-related and the direct result of a patriarchal, male-centric society, but my goal was to write the character as honestly as I could. I think if you do that—write honestly, AND, as a writer, you’ve developed an eye for how people you encounter (half of which should be female) behave, how they act, as well as an ear for what they sound like when they speak, then the characters you are presenting should feel believable and familiar to the reader.
RR: “Curves of the Letter S,” is a unique title—what moments in the text were you hoping to highlight by using it?
AA: Titles, for me, have always been very difficult. I wanted Vivian’s development to be laid out in the shape of an S because I like the idea that you could be on a single path but find yourself facing different directions as you progress. And while it’s a single path, the twists and turns suggest being inside a kind of labyrinth. Vivian is essentially stuck inside a maze, due to both external forces and her own decisions and complicity, and she needs to find her way out. Now there’s also a rather obvious pun inherent in the title where “curves” refers to Jessica and the other girls who befriend Vivian. So the curves actually represent both the problem and eventual solution, or assistance in the finding resolution to her conflict. There’s also quick scene where Vivian is being driven back home and just as the van is pulling into the development, they pass under a gated archway where the name of the development, South Springs, is spelled out in these huge, ornate wrought-iron letters. Again this was one of the moments you kind of stumble onto, but looking up at the letters through Vivian’s eyes, I imagined the tips of the letter Ss resembled giant fish hooks, reinforcing that this is how Vivian sees herself at that moment in her life—trapped like a fish on a hook.
RR: Is the location of Vivian’s house based on a real location in Florida or somewhere you came up with? We noticed that you used the real occurrence of the house market crash in your story, so it seems feasible that the location is real as well.
AA: It wasn’t based on any one specific town. For the last fifteen years, some friends and I visit Florida every March for a few days during MLB spring training. We try to visit different parks every year, so we’ve traveled across most of the state. The housing market crash occurred during this timeframe, so I witnessed the housing boom and bust. For a few years, there was construction everywhere, then there wasn’t. The inspiration for the story, the overheard conversation, occurred during a return home from one of my spring training visits. Since a sense of place is important to the story, I did open up Google maps and actually picked a spot where, in my imagination, South Springs was located. Technically, it’s still in the same spot in case I ever feel the urge to go back and visit Vivian and her new friends.
RR: We understand that you are currently in the process of completing your MFA in creative writing. Have you found that an academic approach has spurred growth in your craft or changed the way you write? If so, how?
AA: I’ve just recently handed in my creative thesis and am eagerly awaiting the thumbs up. The decision to return to school and pursue my MFA at this point in my life was huge, and I can’t stress enough how much my writing has improved over the last two years. Different paths can work for different people. For me, the Fairleigh Dickinson low residency MFA program was a great fit. There’s no substitute for writing in a workshop setting—receiving critical feedback from peers and returning the favor, and having accomplished and acclaimed working writers for mentors. In terms of specifics, my MFA program provided me with a much better understanding and appreciation of writing as a craft, which was something I didn’t quite grasp as an undergraduate. Over the last two years, I’ve spent equal time writing and learning to read as a writer, which in turn enabled me to better perceive when my prose was executing as intended and when it was falling short. I was also finally able to develop more disciplined and consistent writing habits. You have to find what works for you and then stick with it.
RR: What are you reading these days? Are there any writers you have found particularly influential?
AA: Two writers that have been influential are Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon. Reading The Fortress of Solitude and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay several years back really inspired me to return to writing. I just finished and enjoyed Amnesia Moon by Lethem. Frank Herbert’s Dune will always be my favorite novel. It’s just a masterpiece. I made it a point during my MFA time to read the works of my mentors and the extended faculty and recommend anyone in a MFA, or BA program for that matter, to do the same. Right now, I’m finishing Louse by David Grand, who was my thesis mentor. I’ve actually read his work in reverse chronological order. I’m currently working on my first novel, so it’s interesting to read his first. I’m not someone who can read two fiction novels simultaneously, but I am also currently making my way through The Gatekeepers by Chris Whipple. It’s a very well written account of the role of the White House Chiefs of Staff over the last half-century. I keep Chekhov, Poe, and T.C. Boyle anthologies handy so I can dip in and read a short story or two every now and again. I also enjoy One Story on a monthly basis and whatever gold I can find every Wednesday at my local comic book store.
Anthony Ausiello’s work appears in Issue 5.1 here.