Alissa Nutting is the current fiction editor of Witness and author of the short story collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. At present, she is guest editing The Grey Issue of Fairy Tale Review, a theme issue focusing on Lost Boys & Girls. This fall, she will be an assistant professor of creative writing at John Carroll University.
Juliana Paslay is a features writer and bookstore liaison for Omnidawn. She is currently seeking her Creative Writing MFA at California College of the Arts.
Juliana Paslay: Your short story collection, Unclean Jobs For Women and Girls, is very unified in its theme of women hiding themselves within roles but opens to many variations. How did the collection evolve? Did an individual story come first or the overall theme?
Alissa Nutting: It began with a voice that emerged in several stories where the roles and situations were radically different. Soon, it was very clear to me that the book would be a dress-up party of sorts, with that voice taking on a variety of different jobs and duties, each one being a different chapter.
JP: Your stories have this beautiful tension between humor and sadness. How do you balance that in your writing? Do have an inclination towards one side or the other?
AN: All humor is born out of sadness…when the sad egg cracks, humor is the palatable part of the muck that drizzles out. To me, humor is the only honest way to write about sad things. Straight drama only looks at half of the picture. It ignores whatever might be laughing in the corner during the situation, whether that’s another person, the character itself, or something more sinister, like fate or apathy. There is always something ironic, or unwieldy, or physically disgusting, or paradoxical about a tragedy. I think it’s important to include the whole picture when writing fiction.
JP: Has winning the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction changed your approach to publishing? Has it increased your opportunities?
AN: I’ve been so very fortunate with the book and its reception; I truly feel grateful for that. But no matter what happens in my career, I think that publishing will always be something that’s hard for me to not feel all-glass and delicate about. Putting yourself out there is hard. It’s undoubtedly the most difficult thing I have to do in my life—giving my work over to others to judge. I try to think about it as a testament to my devotion for writing, in an S&M sort of way. Writing is the master that I take pain for. Lots and lots of pain as part of an expression of my love. It has always been like that. Writing has always had a collar on me. I cannot tell it no.
JP: The women of your stories have “unclean jobs” ranging from “Porn Star” to “Alcoholic”. What inspired you to use titles and labels in this way?
AN: My general disgust and hatred of titles and labels, actually. These stories hopefully subvert those labels, because readers get to see the characters in a different light than others (usually the same “others” who would apply these titles or labels) see them. For example, I love the general title “Teenager” and then the depiction of the character’s warped, complicated social life that is anything but general. I also wanted to use titles and labels in conjunction with jobs to drive home the point of how, as a woman, living up to different aspects of societal roles and standards can be a job in itself. At the grocery store I’ll often glance over the magazines during checkout; the ones targeted to women mainly are instructional. As if I should be reading them and taking notes.
JP: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
AN: I’m mainly finishing up my novel draft, but I have a lot of projects going. I like this though. That’s the chorus that gets me out of bed each morning, and keeps me up at night way later than I should stay up…all of my projects’ needy, wailing mouths, all begging for my attention. Every piece of writing that I start immediately feels like something submerged that I have to pull out from below the water and save.