The Nonfiction Editors, Rappahannock Review: Your essay, “Ghosts in the Womb,” incorporates historical and scientific research. How do you integrate outside research to inform the personal narrative without derailing the momentum of the essay?

Camie Schaefer: One of my teachers, Melanie Rae Thon, talks about “the rapture of research” as being something that underlies everything we write. For me, the momentum of the essay really comes from those explorations. Otherwise you have this story that’s really been told a dozen times over. But to look at what actually physically happens during metastasizing of cancer, or what the cells themselves look like, or how we’ve perceived cancer throughout our history—that’s the heartbeat of the piece.

RR: Your first-person narration maintains a level of distance from the content, even through all of the essay’s dark moments and imagery. Why is that distance important? What effect does it have?

CS: Physical pain has this way of consuming narrative and just reducing everything to this constant cry of it hurts, it hurts. My mother asked me to write about her time in chemo because she wanted to see what it looked like from outside her narrow little bubble of illness. I became her storyteller, who would record what drugs they gave her and who came by to visit, because sometimes she just wouldn’t be able to remember what happened. I think it’s a writerly impulse as well, to imagine almost every moment: “how would I write this? how can I turn this into a piece?”

I also read a lot of Buddhist and Buddhist-inspired texts around this time, and those discussed the need to put distance between oneself and pain. So often we see distance as something that implies emotional coldness, where in Buddhism it’s treated as opening a space for contemplation, of seeing the enormity of the universe; not to lessen your own experience, but mediate it.

RR: You juxtapose life and death through childbirth and cancer, respectively. What is their connection?

CS: Susan Sontag talks about how prior to the AIDS crisis, cancer—particularly women’s cancer—was seen as a result of repression and barrenness, as if the emotional trauma inflicted on the body just eventually overflowed into the riotous life of cancer. And you see that kind of rhetoric is used in the abortion debate. The selfhood of the person who is pregnant just disappears in favor of what the fetus symbolizes. And we see this in the metaphors of pregnancy and cancer: body as battleground, body as incubator, body as mother, body as saint . . . never just the body, or my body.

And, of course, as I talk about in the essay, there’s a strong physiological connection as well. Childbirth transforms a person (sometimes irrevocably), as does cancer and cancer treatment. Cancer is an intruder who is colonizing the body and remaking it over in its image, and we could say the same thing about a child.

RR: How has being an editor influenced your writing?

CS: As an editor, you get a chance to climb up out of your own mind and really see what the rest of the world is thinking about. Reading fifty stories in a day is both astonishing, in how much talent and joy is out there, but also how much we as writers need to be attuned to the wider world of what’s being published. I frequently read stories and would think, oh, if this writer had just seen how else this story could be told, how amazing that would be. But it’s made me a more generous and patient reader as well, and I hope a better writer.

RR: What are you currently working on?

CS: I’m currently at work on my first novel, Illustrating Ruth. Much of this essay came out of the research that I have been doing for the novel, which features a mother dying of ovarian cancer and her daughter’s search to really understand her mother and her own identity. In the novel I get to really delve into what it means to be alienated from your own body: whether it’s by disease or grief or pregnancy or any of the other things that we encounter. I also incorporate magical realism; I’m enjoying the juxtaposition between the strangeness of the body and the more fantastic possibilities in the text. If we leave skepticism behind, cancer—a disease that colonizes cells and makes them over in new image—is as unbelievable as magic.


C.A. Schaefer is a doctoral fellow at the University of Utah, where she has taught creative writing and been a managing editor of Quarterly West. Her work has appeared in Passages North, Tidal Basin Review, Western Humanities Review, Drunken Boat, and elsewhere. She lives in Salt Lake City with her partner and two small beasts.

C.A. Shaefer’s work in Issue 1.3:

“Ghosts In The Womb”