Saturday, August 14, 2021

Willa C. Richards

photo credit: Emma Daryl Richards
Willa C. Richards is the author of The Comfort of Monsters. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she was a Truman Capote Fellow. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review and she is the recipient of a PEN/Robert J. Dau Prize for Emerging Writers.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I think the title of my book The Comfort of Monsters is a good entry point into the novel’s thematic heart. Interestingly enough, it was a late piece of the puzzle. I had a couple of other working titles. For a while I was very fond of The Torturer’s Horse, which is a reference to the W.H. Auden poem “Musée Des Beaux Arts”. I was thinking about the ways that smaller, or perhaps more specifically, less visible kinds of suffering are always going on in the shadows of more public, more visible kinds of horrors. This is certainly the situation in my novel, in which a teenage girl named Dee McBride disappears in the city of Milwaukee, at the same time that Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes are discovered by the MPD.

But The Comfort of Monsters came to me from a book by Jack Halberstraam called Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. This book investigates a few films, one of them being the Silence of the Lambs, in order to discuss how the monsters in these movies are indicative of our culturally conditioned fears. One quote from the essay, which also appears as an epigraph to my book, proposes that modernity has ended the comfort monsters could provide for us. Partly because, as demonstrated in Nazi Germany, for example, modernity has shown us all to be so much a part of our institutions, and our systems, that evil no longer lives within specific individuals, i.e. specific monsters. It lives very much in the banal. Evil exists so much in our everyday existences, which require us to move through these systems, and therefore forces us into collaboration and complicity.

I think this work is in conversation with the novel, which also shows how it’s much easier to identify and isolate one person as the monster-- (a serial killer, a violent ex-boyfriend, a bad cop)-- and to turn that person into the sole source of evil. It’s much harder to admit our interconnectedness within our institutions and therefore the roles we all play when institutional failures occur.

What's in a name?

Sometimes, I truly feel like the character chooses their own name. That seemed like the case for my narrator Peg McBride. (Her full name is Margaret.) My novel started as a short story, and I don’t remember entertaining any other names for her. Of note, I suppose, is the fact that my aunt, my mother’s sister’s name is Peggy. My mother’s relationship with her sister was one among many of the sister relationships I used to inform the writing of Peg and her younger sister Dee.

In my family, nicknames are a big deal. They are a real language of intimacy, of love. Everyone has different nicknames for one another. So I also wanted Peg’s sister Dee to have a nickname for Peg, which was Pegasus, because Dee was really into Greek Mythology. And Dee’s name is shortened from Candy, which is shortened from Candace.

I think because the sister relationship is at the core of the novel for me, it was important to show that level of intimacy on the page, which is demonstrated even in what they call one another. Sometimes they even call each other babe or baby too. Which I know some readers have resisted, or felt creeped out by, but again, when I was growing up this language of intimacy was very common.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

That’s a tough question. In some sense, I think my teenage self would be very surprised that I even wrote a novel. When I was a teenager, I very, very much wanted to be a poet. The summer before I left for college, I sent a bunch of my poems via email to Ron Wallace who was the head of the Creative Writing program at UW-Madison at the time. So embarrassing.

But he was really chill about the whole thing. And I did end up taking some poetry classes at Madison, but I also took some advanced fiction classes. Going into those classes, I barely knew what a short story was, because we just didn’t read them in high school, so I was really blown away by the form. I remember I turned in a short story to one of my professors and she handed it back to me, and said, “Well, one day you’re going to write a novel.” It seemed like an absurd comment at the time, but I guess she was right.

On a thematic/content level though, I don’t think my teenage self would be very surprised. I have been interested in many of the issues the novel explores for a long time.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I love beginnings. Probably because I enjoy the generative stage of writing the most, where I still feel that sense of wonder and awe, like anything could happen. I change beginnings a lot, and will often try many different ones on for size.

Writing endings is more difficult for me. I particularly struggled with the ending to this novel, because, as one friend pointed out, when you evoke a missing person’s story, generally there are only two outcomes. This was a huge constraint for me, especially since I wasn’t strictly writing a thriller or a mystery, and I didn’t want to be confined to only these outcomes. So working within those constraints and finding a way out of them, while staying true to the specific story I was trying to tell, was a real challenge.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

With first person narrators especially, I find it difficult not to let parts of my personality, elements of my own consciousness into my characters. I often do character sketches so that these elements are used deliberately and so I can distinguish the character from myself really clearly. One writing teacher I had liked to perform interviews, where he would have writers answer questions as if they were their character. It sounds silly, but it’s effective for differentiating the character from yourself, and also for fleshing out simple details, like a character’s favorite color or ice-cream flavor, as well as elaborating on their more complicated, messier attributes like secrets, fears, anxieties, dreams, motivations, etc. I think these two things combined are what create complicated, fully-realized characters.
Visit Willa C. Richards's website.

--Marshal Zeringue