CLAIRE RUDY FOSTER MADE YOU A MIX TAPE
author of the story collection Shine of the Ever
Interlude Press, 194 pages
interviewed by KC Mead-Brewer
I got to know Foster’s fiction through their first story collection I’VE NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Foster doesn’t disappoint with their new collection, SHINE OF THE EVER, thirteen stories full of humor, beauty, sincerity, and refreshingly nuanced queer and trans characters. Foster’s dedication to challenging mainstream preconceived notions about queerness is well reflected in all their works, from their essays to their flash to their upcoming novel. In SHINE OF THE EVER, they focus their vibrant, energetic style to a deceptively simple task: no sad endings. To learn more, go here.
KMB: I’m so excited about this collection! After your last collection, I’ve Never Done This Before, I’ve been eagerly looking forward to seeing your next big project. How long have you been working on these stories? Did they come together organically, long after you’d written some of them, or did you start out writing these with a book in mind?
CRF: Thank you—I’m excited to share it! The stories in Shine of the Ever run the gamut from very recent to some of the earliest I’ve written. The title piece, a novella, started out as my undergraduate thesis. I finished it in 2006. Since then, it’s changed about as much as I have. Living with, and in, a story is an intense experience. That novella inspired the rest of the collection, which includes a flash fiction piece that is contemporaneous with “Shine” and more recent pieces from last year.
Shine of the Ever is very close to my heart. As I started to come out as both queer and transgender, I struggled to find representations of myself in literary fiction. The stories I wrote reflected a yearning to see my experience and the experiences of the people I loved on paper. My identity came into focus through and with my creation of this book. The process was intimidating at first, but as I looked back, I saw that many of my stories included queer and trans characters. It seems that I’d been working on Shine of the Ever and its themes and people for a lot longer than I thought.
KMB: I love that Shine of the Ever includes both a flash story exploring a bisexual romance and a novella deepening this exploration (albeit in a very different way). How did you decide on the order of the book’s stories? Would you prefer your readers go at the collection from start to finish, or do you mind if they take a hodgepodge approach?
CRF: I associate bisexuality with feeling partly invisible. Bi erasure is common: there’s a sense, for me, of hiding in plain sight. I chose to include two stories about bisexual characters who deal with the ‘seen’ and ‘unseen’ in their relationships. They worry about seeming queer enough, or disappearing into heteronormative-looking partnerships. In both stories, there are many layers of intimacy. Platonic attraction can become sexual, or the reverse, or flow into another kind of relationship altogether. The collection can be read in any order; the stories are not linear, just as people are not. Sexuality and gender are complex—my hope is that the reader will appreciate the collection’s diversity of queer identities, loves, and people.
KMB: You let nothing go to waste in these stories; every detail has an echo somewhere, creating a powerful resonance throughout. I was especially taken with the story “Domestic Shorthair,” where the tension between burying “evidence” and unearthing “evidence,” at hiding identities and revealing identities, is wound tighter and tighter in every paragraph. Are these resonant details brought forward during your revision process, or do they rise up naturally during drafting?
CRF: My goal with Shine of the Ever was to collect stories that oppose, mirror, or challenge one another. I also explored tension within each piece, playing with what each character knows, doesn’t know, and isn’t willing to see. Amit came into my imagination complete, a very smart person with a blind spot that’s at odds with their incredible attention to detail. Amit is not ‘out’ in the conventional sense, but to the outside world, it’s obvious who they are. As “Shorthair” unfolds, the things Amit doesn’t see, about themself and their roommate, force them to come to terms with the consequences of staying closeted. As you said, the circle tightens around Amit, and the evidence they can no longer ignore provides a moment of insight that changes their perception of themselves.
The revision on Shine of the Ever was, I’m glad to say, not a brutal one. I think of my writing as music, a mix tape. The tones have to be right. When the collection was put together, it was easier to hear which sections were falling flat.
KMB: What books/stories/authors were you reading as you wrote these stories? How did they affect your writing process?
CRF: The way the stories feel was really important to me with Shine of the Ever. It wasn’t enough just to write about LGBTQ characters. I wanted the stories to feel queer, too. While I was working on this collection, I gravitated toward books and authors who were dreamy, unusual, and smart. Mostly domestic. I read Maile Meloy, Tessa Hadley, and Alexander Chee. I read Brandon Taylor’s tweets, of course, because he never fails to delight and provoke. I watched Personal Shopper over and over, and Certain Women.
In each of these, I was looking for a private moment of self-identification. A moment like this: a trans girl, alone in her kitchen, looks up from making a sandwich and thinks to herself, Damn, I’m super gay right now. And then she goes back to her sandwich. There’s no reveal; no ‘coming out,’ which we put so much emphasis on. The character is just hanging out with herself. Straight characters do this in fiction all the time. I sought to do the same with characters and voices that were like mine instead.
KMB: This collection reads as a celebration of the complexity and humanity of queer and trans women, characters who are simply and exquisitely themselves. I admire how artfully you build on your characters’ flaws instead of magically “curing” them in the end. How do you go about constructing your characters?
CRF: Queer characters are so frequently shown as two dimensional, or as supports for the straight main character. In art as in life, queer people aren’t allowed the same complexity as straight characters—at least, not without paying a terrible price in exchange. Some of the most nuanced images we have of LGBTQ characters are in film, yet they inflict terrible suffering on queer bodies and hearts: Moonlight, Boys Don’t Cry, and Brokeback Mountain. Although there’s been some positive change in representation, I think there’s still a real lack of queer characters who are not good or pure in a way that is a rhetorical device to invite sympathy and who also do not face painful consequences for being ‘imperfect.’
My characters come from my observation of life, other people. I look in the mirror. I listen to how people talk about themselves and others. What’s omitted. I’m especially interested in flaws, the things we struggle with and why. Redemption bores me.
KMB: In many of these stories, but perhaps especially in the titular piece, the question of authenticity is considered from a variety of angles. The energy and empathy with which you tackle this tricky issue is very refreshing. It reminds me a little of what you’ve spoken about in previous interviews regarding your personal struggle with addiction: “When I was in active addiction … I felt powerful, mysterious, complex. Like a real writer, whatever that is. Even as my drug use destroyed my brain and my body, I held onto the idea that I was part of something meaningful.” How has your wrestling with the idea of being a “real” or “authentic” writer informed your characters’ related struggles with authenticity?
CRF: I sometimes struggle with rejection and self-doubt. Who doesn’t? As a nonbinary trans person, in particular, it’s hard to feel invalidated at every turn. I’m not ‘trans enough.’ The language I have to describe myself is imperfect. I’ve lost important relationships because the people I cared about couldn’t ‘see’ me as I wished to seen, or know me as I desired to be known. However, I’ve never not felt like a real writer. The issue, in my creative work and in my gender expression, is finding people who see what I see—who see me the way I see myself. It’s the same for my characters. They don’t seek acceptance, necessarily. They want to be seen. Identity is a powerful thing. It can also be painful, to wear an identity that other people don’t notice or understand how to see.
Funny, I never feel shame in isolation. I am very accepting of myself. I only start to feel insecure or uncomfortable when I’m around people who don’t accept me. Whether it’s my recovery, my identity, my sexuality, or the way I choose to live—I’m good with myself. I struggle when I have to wait for the rest of the world to catch up.
KMB: As a writer, what things do you particularly love to see in a story when you read? What things aggravate you?
CRF: I read a lot, so my tolerance for trends is pretty low. I think there’s so much emphasis on writing something clicky. Clickbait is dull and formulaic. Every week, I see articles about how people don’t read long stories anymore, or how to optimize your reading with flash fiction. Many writing guides have tips about crafting a “hook,” or using other marketing techniques to grab the reader. That drives me crazy. I don’t even engage with those posts or the insipid debates they incite. Let literature be literature. I hate to see aspiring writers breaking their necks trying to stand out of the slush pile with cheap, attention-grabbing hooks or front-loaded stories.
I love to read stories that are compelling, and flirt a little. I like it when a story can be patient with itself, and when the reader is led into its world slowly, one sentence at a time. This is one of the things I loved about Aimee Bender’s fiction when I was younger; I see it less frequently now, as a style in fiction.
KMB: I know you’ve also been working on a novel recently. How does your writing process change as you move from a story collection to a novel?
CRF: Well, the submission process is more grueling. With stories or essays, I can write one in a day, send it to the journals, and get a response in about a month. With novels, there’s no such thing as spontaneity. The idea may come quickly, but the execution takes time. A novel is not a one-night stand. The novel I’m working on is in the rewrite phase, and my time frame is open-ended. I keep digging in, and it keeps giving me new material, so who knows.
I usually know right away if a story is boring or no good, and I can move on to the next thing. Novels are different—a different frame of mind. A project of that scope requires patience. You work, and you wait, and maybe the story comes along.
KMB: Some of Shine of the Ever’s strongest, most practical-minded characters are also those who engage in practices like tarot and crystal healing. Do you see any conflict or contradiction between these things? Do you practice tarot yourself? If so, are there other ways that it’s inspired or affected your writing?
CRF: I don’t see a conflict between those things. Tarot and other magic are invaluable tools for getting new insight, or seeing a problem in a different way. Who doesn’t want to see the future? We dedicate so much energy to scientific methods, mathematical predictions, and other theories that are supposed to tell us how things will be. I think tarot and other practices are incredibly practical. In my stories, it’s also a marker of time and place: witchiness is enjoying a resurgence in popular culture right now. From Lisa Marie Basile to Joanna C. Valente to the Becoming Dangerous anthology, I’m seeing a smart reinterpretation of what these ancient crafts mean to us in a digital world.
I think superstition, faith, and magic are important to a lot of people in the queer community. Feeling protected, integrated, and healed, connecting to a world that we don’t necessarily see, believing that there’s a higher purpose, even when life is difficult—people need hope, always.
KMB: Your stories here are so full of hope—something I haven’t often encountered in stories about queer and trans people. What does it mean to you to be writing stories of hope right now?
CRF: Representation is so important for growth: when you see it, you can be it. In Shine of the Ever, the rule is ‘no sad endings.’ That’s it. I didn’t want to sensationalize my characters or replicate the stories I see that focus on the extremes of queer life. It’s not all coming out, and gay bashing, and oppression. I object to packaging and marketing of queer suffering. That’s one of the things I appreciate about Interlude Press: they don’t publish books that fetishize queer pain. Making LGBTQ people into exotic or doomed creatures is just another way of other-ing us. We’re people. At the same time, Shine of the Ever is not inspiration porn. I didn’t want to create characters who were just so brave. I’m so tired of that. The constant overcoming. I wanted to write about everyday life, as I see people like me experiencing it.
I hate that being queer is a liability in our culture. I want that to change. There is so much joy for us, too. It’s my responsibility to show that. We deserve to be happy. We deserve to see ourselves happy. We deserve more.
Claire Rudy Foster is a queer, nonbinary single parent in recovery. Their short story collection, I’ve Never Done This Before, was published to warm acclaim in 2016. With four Pushcart Prize nominations, Foster’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, and many other journals. Their nonfiction work has reached millions of readers in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Narratively, among others. Foster lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. (Author photo by Elizabeth Ehrenpreis)
K.C. Mead-Brewer lives in Ithaca, NY. Her fiction appears in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Carve Magazine, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of Tin House’s 2018 Winter Workshop for Short Fiction and of the 2018 Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. For more information, visit kcmeadbrewer.com and follow her @meadwriter.