A Conversation with Maya Sonenberg about Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters & a New Short Story — curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Maya Sonenberg grew up in New York City and lived in Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, California, Oregon, and Paris, France before settling in Seattle, where she teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Washington. Her newest collection of short stories, Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters has received the Sullivan Prize and will be published by the University of Notre Dame press in August 2022. Her previous collections are Cartographies (winner of the Drue Heinz Prize for Literature) and Voices from the Blue Hotel. Other fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Fairy Tale ReviewWeb ConjunctionsDIAGRAM, New Ohio ReviewThe LiterarianHotel Amerika, and numerous other places.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Tell me about your prize-winning short story collection, Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters.  

Maya Sonenberg: The stories in this collection were written over about a dozen years, and in addition to exploring and adapting a variety of forms including the fairy tale, the academic essay, and traditional verse forms (discussed more below), they grew out of my attempts to puzzle through what it means to be a mother, a daughter of an aging parent, and an artist at the same time. Parenthood is an intense joy but also an intense responsibility, and from the moment one shares the news of one’s pregnancy, one faces judgments and guidance (both wanted and unwanted). One faces—and has faced all one’s life—an overwhelming flood of images and words conveying what it means to be a “good” or “bad” mother, but the lived reality of motherhood is infinitely more complex. Once one gets past the most egregious examples of abusive parenting, the concept of “bad” becomes both more interesting and more problematic. I used these stories to muddle through my feelings (guilt, pleasure, intellectual curiosity, anger) about motherhood, mothering, deciding to become a parent, being told how to mother, needing to “mother” my own father, and so on. I hope that readers have a chance to rethink what it means to be a mother or daughter (or father or son) and to define good and bad for themselves.

KMD:  Your new book expertly blurs the boundaries between the traditional short story and flash fiction.  Can you speak to the importance of compression in prose? 

MS: I actually prefer the term “miniature” for very short fiction, because it suggests the quality of compression that you mention, while, for me, “flash” suggests something that speeds by rather than something one might linger over. That said, I have to admit that I don’t often think about very short fiction as a unique genre or set out specifically to write something very short; I think I end up creating miniature fictions through other processes. For example, quite a few of the shorter stories in this collection were generated by adapting traditional verse forms: villanelle, pantoum, sonnet, sestina, haiku. Once I’d committed to that, I found I needed to convey a lot in a limited amount of page space. That led to intense focus, or compression, onto particular images, but also to a sort of expansion. For example, if I was playing around with the sestina form and only allowing myself to include six sentences in a paragraph, I sometimes needed to write really long sentences!

I work through compression in other ways too. For many writing projects, I do extensive amounts of research, only a tiny portion of which makes its way onto the page in a discernable way. This happens more often when I write essays, but even here, writing a story like “Return of the Media Five” meant reading numerous memoirs and autobiographies, and otherwise researching what life might have been like for a 1960s radical who went underground and then chose to reappear. Although that’s one of the longer stories in the collection, it’s really quite condensed or compressed compared to the reading that went into it.

KMD:  Relatedly, what excites you most about hybrid forms?  

MS: In addition to hybrids between fiction and poetry, I’m interested in all sorts of hybrid forms—I think of them as “text and...” Ever since reading Carole Maso’s novel 1990 The Art Lover, I’ve been intensely interested in literary works that include images—not as illustrations but as equal parts of the text, and in works that otherwise manipulate how the text appears on the page. Here I’m thinking of the wonderful Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen. I’m insanely grateful that at the University of Washington where I teach, the library has a collection of thousands of artists’ books and one of the most insightful and knowledgeable librarians in the field. But in addition to these more literary hybrids, I’m interested in performance art that might combine theater, dance, spoken word, and even puppets; in video games that include storytelling and text, and other virtual combinations of text and image such as Toby Ferris’s amazing website Anatomy of Norbiton; as well as Kate and Andrew Bernheimer’s forays into combining fairy tales and architecture. I could go on and on, providing examples of the specific hybrids that thrill me the most, but I think the underlying concept that excites me is friction. In other words, one can think of a hybrid work like the Cosmic Crisp apple, or like a chimera, the fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail from Greek mythology. In the former, a completely new apple has been bred and traces of its origins are weak; in the latter, the original forms remain readily apparent. I’m most interested in the latter type, where the friction among the various elements forces me to think more deeply about them individually and about what it means to combine them.

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a prose writer, you are an accomplished educator.  What has teaching opened up within your creative practice?  

MS: In fact, much of my specific thinking about hybrid forms has come through teaching. I’ve long incorporated book arts into one of my undergraduate classes, and in spring 2020, just as the pandemic drove my teaching online, I was scheduled to teach a graduate class on hybrid forms. The plan was to team up with a visual art class and have students make books collaboratively, but I quickly needed to pivot and that led me to pay close attention to virtual hybrid forms. Students were still required to do some kind of hybrid project for the class—some created amazing websites, one made a film, and others created physical books and shared photographs of their work. I made one of my own along with the students. Although I had already published two chapbooks that included images along with prose, this was my first attempt at a “real” artist’s book. It included cards with my photos on one side, text on the other, and an embroidered map showing how one might arrange the cards that also served as a container for the book.

Teaching my graduate students about prose style has also opened up much in my own practice. About fifteen years ago, I started focusing on this for the times in workshop when no one had stories or essays ready to share. It entails a review of some grammar and syntax basics, sentence diagramming, and readings in rhetoric. When I started I just really wanted to give us a shared vocabulary with which to discuss the sentence and paragraph level specifics of the students’ work—they were already terrific writers, of course, and wanted to discuss the specifics of each other’s prose but they just didn’t have the vocabulary. I also hoped to expand their tool boxes as writers, to give them more conscious options for the types of sentences they might want to write. Little did I know just how much this would expand my own toolbox!

KMD:  Will you share a writing prompt with us? 

MS: I’ll admit that most of my favorite prompts have been created by other people but I’ll suggest two of my own here. The first is for when you’re between projects, or feeling stuck, or only have a short amount of time and know it won’t be enough to tackle the writing tasks waiting for you. When I’m in one of those places, I open windowswap on my computer and just write in response to whatever I’m seeing out the window that opens to some other part of the world. It’s sort of perfect because each video is only ten minutes long. I haven’t tried it, but I bet you could do a similar exercise with websites like driveandlisten or citywalks. I like the randomness of windowswap though.

For a more complex prompt, take another written form and commit to adapting it to fiction. You might take a traditional verse form as I did (I also adapted the five-paragraph essay in the story “Bad Mother”), a recipe, Madlibs (as Eleanor Henderson did so brilliantly in “Thanks for Festooning Me through the Heart”), or any other distinct form that intrigues you. Spend some time becoming deeply familiar with the form, rather than only settling on the most obvious features. For example, when I adapted haiku to fiction, I spent a lot of time reading haiku and learning about it so that I didn’t just focus on the syllable counts per line I was taught back in third grade. Then think about what it might mean to translate that form into fiction. You might end up taking a very direct route, but you might challenge yourself to dig deeper. For example, in “Six Views of Seattle,” I decided to cycle through six characteristics of fiction in each paragraph (character, setting, conflict, etc.) rather than through six end words as in the traditional form. I hope a prompt like that will take you out of your comfort zone and allow you to learn about the original form, about fiction, and about the content of your story.

KMD:  What’s next?  What else can readers look forward to? 

MS: I’m in the midst of several projects. For the past several years, I’ve been working on essays related to or growing from my interest in the work of choreographer Merce Cunningham—another person who created deeply hybrid works. I’m working on a book of miniatures, containing family photos, essays about the miniature, and bits of memoir. I’m working on a longish fairy tale-ish story about an old woman and a black fox growing out of “No Place Safer,” the collaboration I did with writer and artist Ellen Santasiero on the website 7×7. On the back burner is a book about my complex love for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books and my grandmother as an immigrant “pioneer.”

Book Trailer for Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters by Maya Sonenberg.