Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Teresa Milbrodt about Instances of Head-Switching, her short story collection blending fabulism, absurdism, and wit to focus on themes of embodiment, disability, and economic insecurity.
There was a phrase in the story “Feet,” which is one of my favorites in the collection. The phrase, “conference with his body,” seemed to speak to a lot of the stories, if not the whole collection. Can you talk a little bit about that phrase’s significance in the collection?
That speaks to a togetherness and yet a separateness with the body. In disability studies, a term that a lot of people are using now is “body mind,” and the idea that it’s so hard to separate them — our mind and our bodies. We are both our minds and our bodies. They really shape our identity, and they work in tandem so much, which is why I really love the phrase “body mind.” But at the same time, when we’re in pain or when we’re having some difficulty, it’s so easy to put that separateness between mind and body. And we say, Why are you aching? Why are you doing this to me? We don’t want to associate it with the self but as this separate entity. So I think it kind of speaks to both that togetherness and the times when we just wish that we had Lego parts — you know, be interchangeable and just switch something out.
In what ways is this collection a voice for these Covid times? How does the collection speak to these times do you think?
Yes, I think it is. Two stories in particular — “The Monsters’ War” and “The Hostage.” When my mother, to whom the book is dedicated, was reading “The Monsters’ War,” she said, “Oh gosh, that just reminds me so much of what’s happening now with invisible monsters” — things that we cannot see and we cannot control, the idea of devastation that everybody feels but everybody has a different solution to, and everybody has a different story around.
Also there’s “The Hostage,” with the idea of somebody having some sort of illness that sets them apart that can’t really be explained, and that does something about creating fear and separating people from others. The idea of illness creating divisions is pretty strong in that story.
I think it’s a good book for these times because so many of the stories focus on disability and frailty, both the prevalence of it that we don’t always think about and the susceptibility. That’s something we talk about a lot within disability studies and disability culture, the fact that everybody is always vulnerable. I mean, that is the state of being human. Everybody loses ability over time. That’s what it means to be human, yet it’s still something that we resent and we deny. We want to be invulnerable, but that’s not what we get with these bodies. We keep having to have these body conferences.
So I think that’s another reason why it’s not a bad book for these times, because it’s one that looks at spaces of vulnerability in different ways, and different ways people deal with vulnerability, including people who incorporate disability into their identity and just say, “Hey, this is part of who I am. I wouldn’t be me without this.”
Do any of the stories inspire or influence the others?
I don’t know if they necessarily influence each other, but certainly disability comes up in a lot of them, because I have a visual disability. I’ve been blind in my right eye just about since birth. And so I’m realizing that I’ve always seen the world differently than other people — figuratively and literally, and realizing that sort of dynamic in my own way of seeing and then in how other other people go through the world with bodies that have some sort of disability. But to those of us who are born with something or who acquired something when we were really young, it never really feels like a disability because it’s just what you do. It’s just how you get through the world.
So I think a lot of the stories might have come into being when I considered one facet of disability in one story and then realized, Oh, I should consider this particular aspect in another one. For instance, “Body Spirits.” That one takes an invisible disability and the idea that a disability can be something that you have pride in. It can be like a political identity in many ways, but at the same time there are a lot of disabilities that can be rough to have, too, particularly things with chronic pain. People still can have pride in those types of identities and at the same time want to cure them, or have less pain. They can feel a political allegiance with other people with disabilities and still wish that they had an easier time with mobility. So I think the stories do inspire and play off of each other in terms of examining different facets of disability.
On the About the Author page of the book, you say that you “believe in” face-to-face conversations. What is it about face-to-face interactions that are important to you, and how, right now with quarantine, how is that affecting you?
I could even modify face-to-face conversation and just say real-time conversation, because, you know, it’s not social distancing that we’re doing right now so much as physical distancing. I very much grew up as somebody who is part of coffee shop culture as a writer. It was the classic space where I would get my homework done when I was in college. But also I could get my writing done. And by just chatting and sharing stories and finding out about people, I got so many interesting friendships from my coffee shop back in Bowling Green, Ohio — Grounds for Thought. I spent so much time there during my undergrad and grad years. So I just really believed in that, particularly because I was in college right as cell phones started taking off. So I didn’t grow up with that same sort of cell phone in my hand thing. It feels really different to me that we seem to be in a world of so much texting and so much social media.
Definitely social media and texting have their place, and I like both of them in their ways and think that they’re very helpful. But then sometimes I think that we lose some of the face-to-face conversation. And we lose some of the people who like calling each other up and just chatting on the phone. Especially as a writer, you think about the text a lot when it comes to conveying meaning. When I’m teaching dialogue to my students in classes, I ask, How much of what you say do you think is action in speech versus how much of what you say is within how you’re holding your body? How do you say something in non-verbal communication, like the way that you look at somebody or making a particular face? So much of our communication isn’t in words. And so when it comes to the text or when it comes to a lot of social media, all we’re left with is words. And it’s so hard to tell, How does somebody mean something? What is supposed to be sarcastic? What is a joke? And so often, you know, with jokes, it’s intonation that does it. And now, with everything that’s happening, precision in communication seems to be getting even more important and even more fragile.
I think that’s gonna be an interesting thing. When we get out of these Covid times, just what sorts of habits will change versus which won’t?
Also in your bio, you talk about haiku. Do you have a haiku habit?
Yes, When I do get on social media, I tend to post or tweet haikus. It’s usually something kind of comic and punchy.
What about music? Do you listen to music when you write?
Yeah, I usually do have something on in the background without words.
So if this book had a soundtrack, what do you think it would be?
Carl Orff — “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana
X Ambassadors — “Renegades”
Uman — “The White Spirit”
First Aid Kit — “My Silver Lining”
Clara Schumann – “Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 7”
Nico — “These Days”
Jennifer Higdon — “Percussion Concerto”
Johnathon Larson — “Seasons of Love”
Camille Saint-Saens — “Danse Macabre”
Lesley Gore — “You Don’t Own Me”
I tried to find music that captured the emotional range of the collection and the quirkiness, and songs with lyrics that highlight a few of the thematic resonances.
How would you define Americana? And how do you think it might apply to your collection?
When I think about Americana, American questions, and American spirit, I think of “Berchta” because that was one that I wrote when I was thinking about my own German heritage and that we’re in this melting pot. With that one, I like this idea of having this protagonist with this German fertility goddess who moves in, and there’s some dragons and some of those tales that her great-great-grandparents would have heard. She realizes, “Oh gosh, I’m really not that far removed from a home country, but it does feel kind of far removed even though it’s really not that many generations.” So I think sort of her coming to this idea of like, “Okay, what is my identity in this big American melting pot that I’m that I’m floating around in?”
There are points where I’m looking at some aspects of American culture — aspects of rugged autonomy, independence, and individualism versus this idea of collectivity and having something larger. In American culture in particular, we pride ourselves on independence as opposed to interdependence. In this collection, there are definitely stories, like “The Monsters’ War,” that I’m trying to focus on some aspects of interdependence and people coming together as a collective, people who are coming together trying to form support groups and understandings.
And there are some fun aspects of American culture with the unicorn ranch and that sort of lifestyle in “White as Soap.”
What was your process of ordering this collection of stories?
I wanted to start with a strong story where disability was playing into the plot. “The Monsters’ War” is, in part, based on the Bremen Town musicians, because I wanted to have four characters being shunted together because they have some sort of disability. But they’re used to their disabilities and they get through everything just fine. So I wanted to start with a scene that had disability front and center and then I move into spaces where it has a little more of a fairytale quality, then a bit more with Greek mythology, and I ended with “Costume Control.” I have a soft spot for that one because that directly plays into my story growing up as a kid who is blind in one eye. People often would ask if I would want to have surgery, if something could correct the vision in my eye? I always said, well it doesn’t really matter. They’d always persist and ask, what if you could have surgery? I’d say no, because this is normal, because this is the way that I’ve always seen. This is something that has shaped what I’ve become. It’s shaped the person who I am, so I wouldn’t change it. So I really like “Costume Control” for that reason — the idea that disability can be part of one’s identity, that that’s important, that you wouldn’t change.
Which authors influence you?
I think: George Saunders, both with the humor, and he uses not only fabulism but some absurdist stuff. I love his play, I love his sense of humor. I love his wittiness but then also his sharp, sharp cultural commentary. It’s just really brilliant social criticism.Then also Katherine Dunn, who wrote the novel “Geek Love,” which was published in 1984 but still just a classic.
Among disability writers, Eli Clare is a really good one. He does mostly nonfiction, but some really, really good writing about disability. “Brilliant Imperfection” is one of one of his books that’s really great. Also in disability writers, Kenny Fries wrote “The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory.” That’s a creative nonfiction book. It has to do with disability and sexuality and Darwin’s theory — not about survival of the fittest but about survival of the most adaptable. How do you shift to work with current climate conditions?
So I think both fiction and creative nonfiction and others writing about disability have affected my writing that I want to do and the types of issues I want to explore. And that’s a gray area because there is not one disability community. There are disability communities, and disability is so wide-ranging. The more that you study it, the more complex it gets. You realize just how many voices there are. You can never make blanket statements about it, because there are so many voices. It’s starting to come more to the fore, definitely in the past 20 years but I think even more so now. There are really important issues to consider, and certainly I think the Covid epidemic has brought that up even more.
What’s next for you?
I am shopping around a novel and then working on a couple of novel ideas. I’m also working on some short stories. I usually have a couple longer projects and then some scattered short stories I’m working on. It’s worked well for my creative process to have things I can work on then put aside for something else. I’ll go back and forth, like, from realistic work to fabulism. I don’t do straight-up one or the other. It’s more about what’s the question that this particular work needs to explore. Is it best to do that with something that’s strange and quirky and fantastic? Or not?
Teresa Milbrodt is the author of the short story collections Bearded Women and Work Opportunities; the novel The Patron Saint of Unattractive People; and the flash fiction collection Larissa Takes Flight. She has an M.F.A. from Bowling Green State University and a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. She believes in coffee, long walks, face-to-face conversation, and writing the occasional haiku.