Introduction to Katie Farris by Bronwyn Mills


Tupelo Quarterly here offers an excerpt from Katie Farris’ Part I, Elementary Indivisible, from her new novel, The Restoration of Dolores Eliana Reyes.   I was struck by her use of small layered sections, no more than a paragraph or a few long; and I asked her about that technique as she saw it. What had sparked me was of course Farris’ sensuous language and subject matter (despite her claims of “horror”) in combination with her way of working: that and the death of the tremendously important Latin American writer, Eduardo Galeano. Having included some thoughts about Galeano in a piece I wrote for TQ 3 (“The River Road“), and then, in a commemorative piece for another site[1], his similar technique—probably begun when Farris’ was still in short pants—was fresh in my mind. Galeano referred to these short, layered pieces as “ventanas”—windows; and when I first encountered them in his three-volume Memoria del Fuego (Memory of Fire) and had asked him about them, he patiently explained that these allowed a distilled glimpse into the private lives of his subjects, often historical figures or figures caught in history’s machinations. (Indeed, I remember hearing it elsewhere explained that such a technique allowed you to become a fly-speck on the wall while El Colón, for example, was at the barber shop.) Further, it is of interest to me that while Latin American writers have been hugely interested in North American writers, North Americans are not always interested in Latin American writers. Mind, Farris’s title character clearly has Spanish, probably non-peninsular, roots. Thus I was pleasantly surprised to see Farris not only use a similar technique as Galeano, but to actually know who Galeano was and what he employed. Our exchange was brief, but, I think, instructive:


BM: Your format, oddly, reminds me of Galeano who spoke of those short, layered excepts as “ventanas.”  Oddly, I don’t remember folks doing much of that –if at all–before him. So what are your thoughts on the use of the aforementioned “ventanas”?

KF: I love the idea of short layered prose pieces as “ventanas,” as Galeano put it. It brings Rothke’s paintings to mind—windows or doors into elsewhere, a sort of Platonic world of color. Windows are a sort of emptiness or absence that reveals other presences; they are dialectical—they create a dialogue between the inside and the outside.

Short prose, especially short prose in sequence, plays as much with absence, with silence, as it does with presence. A novel-in-shorts (a ventana novel?) tweaks the idea of “realism” by engaging more with what isn’t said than what is said—making the reader fill in the gaps however they choose. For me, this porosity appeals, as The Restoration of Dolores Eliana Reyes is a book that plays on the line between realism and the fantastic, between psychological horror and straight-up gory horror. Letting the reader take up the reigns of interpretation—letting them figure out the relationship between the fantastic and the realistic—implies them in the action of the story, and that is something that I always aim to do in my work.


BM: Then what, would you say, is your general approach to prose writing?

KF:   When beginning any piece of prose, I almost always come to the page with a sonic inspiration rather than an image or a sentence or an idea. Sometimes it’s a bit of assonance, sometimes a rhyme, often a metric pattern. Every once in a while I’ll get an image in my head—usually something horrifying—and I find the best way to exorcise it is to write about it.

Beginning is always easy, while finishing a piece is more difficult, especially since narrative isn’t ever my primary drive. Sustaining a piece of writing for me usually revolves finding a metaphor or a concept to play with—what might be the implications of a girl with an actual mirror for a face? What does it mean to have a large body in a culture where success is measured by continuous growth in most every realm—our private net worth, our country’s GDP, our social media presence, our possession of scientific data (which doesn’t always translate into greater knowledge, alas), our skills, our home’s square footage—but where our bodies are supposed to remain as small and tidy as possible?


BM: I had posed the question, “How do you begin working on a novel-length piece?”, and Farris skipped it at first, but she later answered that in an email. I thought her comment was worthy:

KF: I honestly don’t have much to say other than to say that I stumbled around for about eight years, and then finally….


I suspect that if Katie and I were having a coffee at our favorite cafe, we’d have even more to say, but, without further ado—Dolores!
[1] “Bronwyn Mills on the Death of Eduardo Galeano” on The Wall.
Katie Farris is the author of boysgirls, (Marick Press, 2011), a hybrid form text which has been lauded as “truly innovative,” (Prague Post), and “a little tour de force” (Robert Coover). She’s a co-editor of Gossip and Metaphysics: Russian Modernist Poems and Prose (Tupelo Press, 2014), and has also co-translated several books of poetry from the French, Chinese, and Russian. Her translations and original work have appeared in anthologies published by Penguin and Greywolf, as well as literary journals including Virginia Quarterly Review, Western Humanities Review, and Hayden’s Ferry. She received her MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University. Currently, she is an Associate Professor at the MFA program at San Diego State University as well as a core faculty member at New England College’s MFA program.