Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors:  “Sicko” opens with three wigs—fake hair—judging our main character. Fake items are highlighted throughout: fake tits, makeup, and dyed hair. In this way, the story carries a strong theme of authenticity versus false appearances. To what extent did you intend for this theme to describe the society we live in?

Persephone King: Authenticity—and what it means to be our authentic selves—was very much at the front of my mind as I was drafting this story. So much of our current society is filtered through a lens of the artificial, whether it’s social media posts, influencer culture, or widely-held conceptions of physical beauty. In addition to these physical or visual ideas of authenticity, I was also pondering what it means to feel our authentic emotions versus whatever it is we “should” be feeling in a given situation, especially when faced with something like toxic positivity from others.

The story is also looking at questions of authenticity on a personal level. The protagonist has had her body altered and changed dramatically, all due to an illness over which she has no control. She has had a bilateral mastectomy. She has lost her hair due to chemo. A person’s physical appearance is so closely linked to their self-identity—it’s interesting to explore how something like an illness can permanently affect your body, and how that sudden change can affect your sense of self.

RR: The narrative provides plentiful sensory images, from copper and bitter tea tastes to the pricks of fuzzy hair and sharp needles—sensations that our protagonist goes out of her way to chase. This tactic reinforces the feeling that the character’s senses have faded. How much of this came from a desire to be true to the experience and how much comes from the desire to convey that lack of physical sensation to the reader?

PK: Yes. Can I answer “yes” to this question? Yes to both of these things.

I’m a breast cancer survivor, and I was deep into chemotherapy treatments while I was drafting this story. I don’t normally write about things that I’m undergoing in real life, but this story just popped out of me one day. While the character’s personality and viewpoint are very different from mine, I drew heavily from my own cancer journey when writing about this character’s experience and sensations (or lack thereof).

RR: “Sicko” is full of jagged and off-putting details that would make most readers uncomfortable, like the poison flushing into veins, the implication that the character may not survive, and reduced sensations, yet the story comes off as wickedly charming. Can you share your process for how you found the right mix of humor while respecting the seriousness of the situation?

PK: Thank you! That is such a lovely compliment. I like that you use the phrase “wickedly charming.” Can I borrow that? I must admit that I do find this particular protagonist wickedly charming. Although I’ve been working on other projects lately, my mind keeps floating back to my “Sicko” gal. I feel like she has so much more to say.

Writing this story was a constant balancing act between anger, humor, and horrifyingly visceral details. In the first draft, I leaned heavily into the protagonist’s incandescent rage and dark gallows humor—while it was funny, this approach didn’t really serve the protagonist, making her too one-note. It also veered into satire, which I deeply appreciate but didn’t feel quite suited to this particular narrative.

I solicited perhaps too much feedback from early readers on the balance of the competing elements within the piece, and I decided I was probably in the right space when one reader asked me if it was wrong that they were laughing so hard while reading this.

RR: We saw on your website that you are a creative writing and publishing arts MFA candidate, while also teaching writing classes at the University of Baltimore. In what ways has your dual life as a writing teacher and student impacted your writing?

PK: For better or worse, I find myself constantly thinking about writing—both my own and other people’s. It borders on monomania; beautifully effective prose is my white whale.

As a student struggling with my own unique writing problems, I feel that I have a lot of empathy for and appreciation of what my students are going through to produce something for class. We talk about ways to overcome writer’s block. We talk about ways to deal with performance anxiety that often accompanies perfectionism. We talk about fear, fear that our writing won’t be successful. We talk about how to let go of all of that stuff and just give ourselves permission to write really shitty first drafts.

Then, I try to practice what I preach. Procrastination, anxiety, and fear have been the biggest roadblocks in my life. Sitting down every day with the goal of writing truly awful prose has been freeing. Highly recommend—five stars.

RR: We love how “Sicko” maintains a wicked sense of humor. Do you have any favorite works or writers that share this tone?

PK: I love reading anything that makes me laugh. Humor plugs right into pathos, and I believe that humor can add complexity and texture to almost any piece of writing.

There are so many writers that do humor well, but a few pieces that I’ve recently reread immediately come to mind (in no particular order): George Saunders’s short story “Sea Oak,” Haruki Murakami’s short story “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey,” Danez Smith’s poem “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” Louise Erdrich’s novel The Sentence, Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain,” and Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis.


Read “Sicko” by Persephone King in Issue 11.1.