Interview with Chelsea L. Cobb
Rappahannock Review Prose Editors: We love the mix of scientific details and the family narrative in “Bones.” What drew you to bringing in bones in such different ways, and how much research went into the specifics here?
Chelsea L. Cobb: I’ve always really liked reading work that involves research within a narrative. I’m a big David Foster Wallace fangirl, so his strategy of integrating very detailed research within a creative piece fascinates me. He’s definitely an influence on my writing style. I specifically looked at bones because I wanted to literally pinpoint what was bothering me at the time. And as a kid, my bones bothered me. I figured that really getting to the meat (lol) of it would open up new ideas that I may not have necessarily even had been searching for. For research, I often just used Google. Sometimes, I literally typed in, “what’s that bone that sticks out in your chest?” and got an answer. It was a learning experiment, for sure.
RR: The piece addresses powerful themes of the culture surrounding young black women and their bodies. How do you approach such a heavy subject matter? Do you find specific strategies helpful when addressing such themes throughout your writing?
CLC: I find that approaching this subject matter is nuanced. Black women tend to have a complicated experience when it comes to their bodies, especially under the white gaze. While at the same time, little black girls learn very quickly that beauty standards are different for them because they don’t see a lot of women that look like them on television. For me, I had to look at it from my own experience. I grew up on hip-hop music in the late 90s and early 2000s and the women that I thought were the ideal beauty standard were voluptuous, curvy, and confident. They were women like Beyoncé (when she was in Destiny’s Child), Trina, and Lil’ Kim. Themes like this can be heavy because the idea of the black woman’s body has been scrutinized and, unfortunately, commodified in America. I’ve tried to incorporate my own pain in being in such a hypervisible body while at the same time attempting to find the humor in trying to live up to such unachievable goals, as you can see in the sort of “dream sequence” towards the end of the story.
RR: We’re drawn in by the dynamic form at play in the piece. How do you approach lyric and narrative experimentation in your work?
CLC: My writing style tends to lean on the lyrical side. I like to experiment by really letting myself fall into the scene, describing all of the five senses. Then, I’ll force myself to scale it back and form short sentences that force the reader to stop or pause. I think of writing a piece as a sort of music, in a way. There has to be some nuances and changes to make it interesting.
RR: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process–for example, do you keep a notebook for drafts, or listen to music, or is there anything specific that works for you?
CLC: I tend to hold a story in my head for a long time. I have a list of ideas in my Notes app on my phone. When I get the time to sit down at my computer, I’ll write out an outline in bullet points. Sometimes, I’ll have a line that I specifically want in the piece. I listen to music, too. When I revise, it’s often lo-fi music, something without words. For this piece, though, I listened to a lot of hip-hop music while I initially drafted it to get into that headspace. I actually wrote the first draft of this piece around 2016 in a creative writing workshop seminar in my senior year of undergrad. I incorporated a lot of my classmates’ and professor’s feedback. Over the years, I added more, and as a nonfiction piece, it felt like I could keep adding to this forever, as my body and my relationship to it are ever-evolving.
RR: Do you have a favorite bone in the body?
CLC: It’s technically a tendon but the Achilles’ heel! Because it’s named after the Greek hero and I love Greek mythology. I also love that every single person who has an Achilles’ heel, no matter their gender, sexual orientation, belief, creed, etc., has this body part on them that is named after a (rumored) queer demigod.
Chelsea L. Cobb’s work appears in Issue 9.2 here.