LILY HOANG’S first book, Parabola, won the Chiasmus Press UnDoing the Novel Contest. She is also the author of the novels Changling (Fairy Tale Review Press), which received a PEN Beyond Margins Award, and The Evolutionary Revolution (Les Figues Press). Her newest book is a collaborative collection of short stories called Unfinished (Jaded Ibis Press). This fall she will be joining the faculty at New Mexico State University’s MFA Program. You can find her virtually at HTMLGiant.
KATHLEEN ROONEY is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and the author of the memoir Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object (University of Arkansas Press) and the essay collection For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs (Counterpoint). Her first book of poetry, Oneiromance (an epithalamion) was released by the feminist publisher Switchback Books.
Their story in RE: Telling is “So Cold and Far Away,” a contemporary reimagining of The Book of Ruth with a camera.
WW: Lily, “So Cold and Far Away” is part of your series of collaborative stories called Unfinished (Jaded Ibis). You asked a number of writers to send you their unfinished stories and you finished them. Pretty amazing concept. Can you talk a bit about the project?
LH: A few summers ago, as I was struggling to come up with a new book project, I went through my “trash/story starts” folder and realized that everything I had was really trash, but then, I figured out that if I had so many bad story starts I wanted to throw out, every other writer must too. On a whim, I asked 30 or so of my favorite writers to give me their abandoned stories. I didn’t think it would work. I didn’t really think anyone would send me their unfinished stories. But, within the hour, the ever-generous Brian Evenson gave me four story starts, and each one was more than promising. And so, I started writing.
After I finished each story, I emailed it to the original writer, and depending on the writer’s preference, we either did collaborative edits or the writer completely signed the story over to me.
Unfinished also displays “finished” art. Artist Anne Austin Pearce completed unfinished art by her favorite artists, and they are truly splendid.
WW: Kathleen, what was it like, entering into a collaboration like this?
KR: Lily is an amazing writer in her own right, and a total joy to work with. She is the person you would have wanted to work with you on every group project in grade school ever because she has a ton of energy and completely pulls her weight and then some. A-plus. The first phase of the project was incredibly simple since all Lily needed was the beginning of an abandoned short story, based on which she drafted a completely new piece. Then she and I revised back and forth fairly extensively, and that was super-simple, too, since Lily’s quick on the e-reply and not at all opposed to edits and suggestions.
WW: Your story is a contemporary retelling of the Ruth-Boaz-Naomi story from the Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible. Some biblical scholars see the Book of Ruth as Naomi’s story. But would you say that your re-telling is Ruth’s story? Is it Ruth’s story because she has the camera? How does she possess the power in each relationship?
KR: Lily might answer differently, but I’d say our version is definitely Ruth’s story. Susan Sontag—and lots of other intelligent people who observe such things—has written that the camera can be a stand-in for both a penis and a weapon, specifically a gun. So if you look at it that way (or even if you don’t, and the camera’s “just” a camera) Ruth’s being a photographer does give her a measure of control and at least partial invulnerability in each relationship, even though the relationships are unequal (and not in Ruth’s favor) in other ways.
LH: I love Kathleen’s response, and I agree with it completely. Reading the Book of Ruth growing up, I always wondered why it wasn’t called the Book of Naomi. Throughout our story, Ruth takes back that power, whether it is through the camera—yes! A weapon!—or how she denies Boaz sexual fulfillment. Even with Naomi, Ruth is the one with power.
WW: What other retelling(s) have you done? (If none, can you name a few stories that you think are ripe for retelling?)
KR: On and off for the past ten years or so, since I was finishing up undergrad, I’ve been working on a novel-in-verse based on the life and work of the poet and mysterious disappearee Weldon Kees, using his fictional character, Robinson, as a biographical stand-in for the man himself. The project is finished now, and part of it—the first section, set in New York in the 1940s and early 1950s—was published recently by Greying Ghost Press as a chapbook called After Robinson Has Gone. This project felt like a re-telling, definitely, since I’m actively reimagining Kees’ life and using his own creation to do so, but it also felt like a collaboration or even a translation. Kees is no longer around, obviously—he vanished in 1955—and he and I have never had a conversation, per se, but it feels sort of like I’ve been talking to and working with him for a decade.
LH: In my first book Parabola, I wrote a re-telling of the Adam-Eve-Lilith love triangle. Arguably, my second book Changing is a complete re-telling of the I Ching or Chinese Book of Changes. I also have a forthcoming book called Invisible Women, which is a feminist re-telling of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
In general, I’m a big fan of appropriation and often use it as writing exercise in my fiction workshops. Re-tellings engage in an explicit dialogue and offer opportunities to collaborate and pay homage to our writer-heroes.
WW: What are you working on now? What’s next?
KR: Hardly a day goes by that I don’t do some collaborative writing over Gmail with Elisa Gabbert , so I’m always working on a poem of some sort. In terms of solo stuff, I’m in the process of revising the manuscript that I hope will be my first novel, a political coming of age story called (provisionally, anyway) O, Democracy! That’s what’s next from me personally. And Rose Metal Press has just finished an Open Reading Period, so Abby Beckel and I are working on reading submissions for that to figure out what will be next from RMP.
LH: I’m working on a collaborative novel with Molly Gaudry. It’s a long love letter. It’s a funny story because the whole project started because Molly appropriated three love sentences I wrote a year ago. A month ago, we discussed the possibility of doing a big collaborative project and it began with her sentence, which was a mash-up of my three sentences.
Other than collaborations, I only write once a year, during the summer, so I’m just now beginning to think of ideas for a novel, but I’ve recently been pretty obsessed with remote islands. That’s where I think I’m headed, eventually.
Just as a quick pitch: Please look for this anthology I co-edited with Blake Butler called Thirty Under Thirty, due out this summer with Starcherone Books. We have 30 fabulous stories by 32 hot young writers (originally submitted when they were) under 30. It’s been three years since then, so…you know…we age.
Another quick pitch: The gorgeous full color version of Unfinished is available now at Jaded Ibis Press. The black/white version will be released later this summer!