Luke Rolfes: Whitney Collins is the author of the award-winning collection of stories called Big Bad from Sarabande books---one of my favorite books released in the last year. Thank you so much for talking with us, Whitney! I’d love to hear about the genesis of this book. Can you share how you got the idea for Big Bad, and when you felt like you had a full collection of stories?
Whitney Collins: Well, first off, I’m thrilled to answer questions for one of my all-time favorite literary magazines, so thank you for having me. I remember being so excited when one of my original Big Bad stories (“The Horse Lamp”) was accepted for publication at The Laurel Review. I was hoping that story would find a special home with an enthusiastic team of editors and readers who “got” it, and I lucked out with you guys. And interestingly, all this brings me to a nice transition for the first question: the genesis of Big Bad. I started working on the collection in 2016, when I began my MFA program at Spalding University, but I didn’t originally set out to write short stories. At the time, I was actually attempting to write a novel about a babysitter who “accidentally-on-purpose” drowns a baby. It was a dark, twisted idea that never made it into a novel, but it became a story. And guess what the story was called? “The Horse Lamp.”
Thankfully, during that first semester of my MFA program, my inaugural mentor at Spalding, Leslie Daniels, urged me to pursue short stories instead of a novel. She took a hard look at a bunch of my odd stuff and insisted I go read Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble. That was a turning point for me. Link’s collection basically gave me permission to do all kinds of experimental stuff with horror and magic realism that I am resisting. After I read Get in Trouble, Leslie assigned Ramona Ausubel’s A Guide to Being Born. My mind was blown, again. By Thanksgiving of that first year, I was like: BYE NOVEL, HELLO WEIRD STORIES.
LR: “The Nest” is the opening story in this collection. It’s a delightful and heartbreaking piece. I am always fascinated with opening stories. They seem to be responsible for setting the tone for the entire book, as well as establishing ground rules for what can and cannot happen in this imagined space. Big Bad seems to wander back and forth between the surreal and the real, but this piece is much more grounded than the title story or “Lonelyhearts.”The relationship between the characters of Frankie and Uncle Eric is so refreshingly raw and real in its imperfection. I’d love to hear about this story. What inspired these characters and relationship, and why did you choose to lead off this collection with this piece?
WC: I wanted to start the collection with a reality-based story, because out of the thirteen stories, I think only four are truly speculative fiction. The other nine may have bizarre dreams within them, or tangential imaginings that are fantasy- or horror-based, but most of the stories actually take place in reality. So, I began with “The Nest,” because I didn’t want to scare off readers out of the starting gate with something too “out there.” Of course, pretty quickly after “The Nest” I just yank the rug out from under the reader with an amputation story and some unexpected self-birthing, but things start off somewhat “normal.”
But back to “The Nest.” This was a story that I didn’t really outline. I knew I was going to open with an emergency premature birth—and I also had the peculiar Thanksgiving scene laid out in my head—but other than that, I was writing blind. I let this story lead me for the most part. The more I wrote, the more I saw the theme of sibling rivalry. And then the making of the actual nest in the story just happened organically. It doesn’t always work out when I don’t have a plan or an outline, but I enjoy when a story reveals itself to me, instead of me manhandling it. “The Nest” was one of those stories that took the lead.
LR: There’s a scene in “The Entertainer” that has stuck with me where two rich sisters, Devlin and Davenport, beg Rachel to eat a full meal in front of them at a restaurant. Rachel obliges, but the whole scenario feels voyeuristic and dirty. That scene always gets me---entrancing and disturbing at the same time. Did you set out to write a piece about people’s problematic relationship to food, or did that sort of evolve naturally from the story itself?
WC: It’s weird. That story was originally just going to deal with the theme of money: elite versus middle class. I was angling to write a story about two spoiled sisters and how wealth had rendered them clueless and useless and utterly unentertained. Rachel, the middle-class guest, is brought along on this vacation to inspire the rich sisters, who have absolutely everything they want, except meaning. Rachel is like a court jester, really. She’s been “imported,” in a way, to show them how to live, how to experience joy. Then, halfway through the story, that creepy food scene just cropped up while I was writing, and I was like: Okay, maybe people are going to think this whole story is now about food, but I’m just going with it. To me, overall, it’s less a story about eating disorders and body image, and more a story about privilege. And how when people are spoon-fed every luxury and get to bypass discomfort, they will ultimately engage in some form of self-destruction or self-hatred because they are so uninspired, so STARVED (in this case, literally and figuratively) for genuine entertainment, for feeling.
LR: Another favorite of mine is the title story “Big Bad,” about a character named Helen who gives birth to herself repeatedly. It’s deliciously weird and imaginative. I’ve noticed that sometimes folks describe some of your stories (especially this one) as speculative or surreal fiction. I’m curious: How would you label yourself? Are you one who leans into a specific writerly identity, or one who leans away from having one?
WC: Hmmm. I think I might write “Real-ish Fiction”? I really love incorporating elements from genre fiction into literary fiction any way I can. Literary fiction can sometimes feel serious or dry to me, like it needs something absurd or experimental to keep the reader’s (or maybe the writer’s?) interest, so I try to inject the far-fetched whenever possible. I also think that because I tend to write about difficult topics—untimely death, gruesome accidents, abandonment, compulsive liars, addiction—the injection of fantasy helps these tough subjects to feel less scary, less plausible. In my forthcoming second collection, once again about three-quarters of the stories are real, and a quarter are fantastical in some way. I guess you could say I can’t quite commit either way, but I lean literary.
LR: A follow up on “Big Bad” (and I suppose some of your other surreal pieces): How do you know when is the right time to go realistic and when to go surreal? Is that a decision that comes to you right away or does it emerge more organically when you are working on a draft of a story?
WC: I’m just now realizing this as I answer your question, but it occurs to me that when I sit down to write a realistic story, I often have no real outline. And when I sit down and write a magical realism story, it has almost always revealed itself to me, in full, beforehand. I’m thinking back on my surrealistic stories, and I do think they all kind of appeared to me like a complete dream before I wrote them down. The realistic stories aren’t quite as fully imagined when I begin to write. Still, there are elements of the absurd in the “real” stories. Usually when a “real” story feels dry, I try to jazz it up with an otherworldly dream or daydream.
LR: I was flipping through your book, and I bunch of pop culture artifacts jumped out to me. Wheat Thins, Wal-Mart, Doritos, Zest soap. TV shows: The Young and the Restless, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Jeopardy. I love that stuff appearing in here, though I can’t quite put my finger on why. Can you talk a little bit about your choice to embed popular culture into these narratives? How does something familiar help your shape the worlds you’ve created that are familiar but entirely unique?
WC: I like to include pop culture, but only if it is something widely popular. It’s distracting to read a story where something is referenced that you don’t understand but feel you should be familiar with. I know I’ve left stories to Google something, and I would prefer a reader not put down a story I have written to Google something. So, when I do include pop culture, I want it to be something really well-known. And the reason I include pop culture is, in many ways, the same reason I will add a surreal element: for comfort. A popular item or reference can feel like a friend to the reader. A surreal element can feel like a welcome distraction. These are both necessary tools with heavy subject matter, I think, so I sprinkle them around like little oxygen masks and life preservers.
LR: I’d love to hear about your inspiration. Where do Whitney Collins stories come from? Are they entirely in your head, or do they come from things around you that you’ve observed?
WC: I need to pay more attention to this, because I always have to stop and consider where my stories actually come from. Most, I think, come from observation. I see something odd or hear about something peculiar, and then I just riff with it. But sometimes a story is really a gift. I’ll be driving along or shampooing my hair, and an opening sentence will just glide into my brain: a gift from the literary gods, if you will. Those unexpected sentences happen about once or twice a year, and I get really excited, because I know it’s going to be a story that comes out like a sneeze. With those sudden stories, the whole experience is inexplicable. It’s magical and spiritual and I’m basically just there to type it out.
LR: What’s next for you and your writing?
WC: WC: Well, I hope a novel. I just had my second collection of stories, RICKY & OTHER LOVE STORIES, accepted by Sarabande Books for publication in January 2024, so I want my next project to be a larger undertaking. I already have the opening scenes to a novel typed up, but they keep getting jumbled around. I keep doubting myself and the order. I know I’m overthinking everything. But overthinking, at heart, is just procrastination. I need to suck it up and move forward. I’m assuming a novel is harder than a story, but I won’t know until I do it. So, that’s what’s next: actually doing it. Worst case scenario, it’s another novel that becomes a story that tries to sneak into The Laurel Review!
Bio: Whitney is the author of the short story collection, BIG BAD (Sarabande Books), which won the 2019 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, the 2021 Bronze Medal INDIES Award for Short Stories, and the 2022 Gold Medal IPPY Award for Short Story/Fiction. Her second collection, RICKY & OTHER LOVE STORIES (Sarabande Books), is forthcoming January 2024.
Whitney received a 2020 Pushcart Prize for her story “The Entertainer,” a 2020 Pushcart Special Mention for her story “The Pupil,” the 2020 American Short(er) Fiction Prize for her story “Ricky,” and won the 2021 ProForma Contest for her story “Cray.”
Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, AGNI, Gulf Coast, The Pinch, Ninth Letter, Grist, The Best Small Fictions 2022, and Tiny Nightmares: Very Short Stories of Horror, among others.
Previously, Whitney was a contributing editor for The Weeklings, a book reviewer for Barnes & Noble, and an editorial board member of The Big Jewel. Her nonfiction has appeared on various sites, including: McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Salon, and Huffington Post.
She received her MFA from The Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing and is an Author Academy mentor at The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.