Humor and Trauma, Bathtub Bacon, and Writing While Parenting
March 8, 2021 § 2 Comments
Heather Frese and Keema Waterfield release their debut books, a novel and a memoir, respectively, this spring. They met while commiserating over launching a book while parenting during a pandemic and bonded over the element of humor in both their debuts, and below, they interview one another about those experiences.
Keema’s synopsis of Heather’s book:
In The Baddest Girl on the Planet bad girl Evie Austin of Hatteras Island, North Carolina, is in a pickle. She’s made choices. Like marrying Stephen Oden and having a baby instead of finishing her first year of college. Like wondering if an affair in adulthood redeems the affair her parents suffered through during her childhood. And before that, letting a boy kiss her under the bleachers at school. But now “Easy Evie” has to figure out what to make of where those choices left her.
Heather’s synopsis of Keema’s book:
Inside Passage is a memoir about the flow of a family constantly on the move. The book opens with the narrator’s birth at a weed-fogged party attended by hippies and musicians, including at least one future stepfather. She was lucky to survive, and this applies to the whole of her childhood, spent traversing the watery passageways of Alaska and the tumult of poverty, abuse, divorce, and uprootedness. This coming-of-age memoir is a love letter to coastal Southeast Alaska, music, and the connection between family that binds even through the roughest of seas.
Heather: I loved Inside Passage. Bad stuff goes down, though. How did you decide to keep the tone humorous when talking about traumatic events?
Keema: This is a huge question that gets to the dark heart of comedy for me. *Spoiler* The first time I heard sarcasm was at gunpoint, at three years old. I’ve had a relentless fight-or-flight response to even the gentlest teasing since then. But I saw how jokes and laughter were a bonding experience for other kids and I pined to understand it. In my 20’s a boyfriend said, “You’re not funny and you make people uncomfortable when you try.” So, I studied it. I studied humor in literature, trying to find the meter. I watched comedy to learn the body language, even though most famous male comics still make me panic. I have a hard story, but I didn’t want to write a trauma memoir. I even tried to leave the trauma out, but then I didn’t make sense on the page. I wanted to bond with my readers, to invite them in to the quirky, goofy, flawed human I am. In the end, I decided to let my nature guide me. I figure if laughter is medicine, then the people who laugh with you when you hurt are an all-out cure.
Evie, your narrator, also goes through some stuff. A family that breaks apart in childhood, postpartum depression, some epically bad romantic choices. How did you decide to tell her story humorously?
Heather: The first thing that drew me to Evie’s voice was that it was so funny. I let her go off on tangents. Her marriage is falling apart but she’s scrubbing the shower and having this drawn-out interior monologue about soap scum. How do you clean it? You can’t use soap; that’ll just make more scum. I found as I went that the funny parts ended up carrying metaphorical weight. In the soap scum rant, she says something like, “How can something clean be dirty and something dirty be clean?” which played into the theme of a girl who gets a bad reputation. And then I used things like the sex lives of lobsters to explore Evie’s evolving feelings on romance. In a funeral scene Evie thinks that laughter and tears exist on the same continuum, which is something I believe, too.
You mention formally studying comedy. That’s fascinating because the funny parts in Inside Passage feel so natural. Was there a lot of wit in your family while growing up?
Keema: My sister and I were incredibly giddy, wild kids, but we were bookish. We rarely had a television and our social life outside of school was fairly non-existent. I had Tekla, and Tekla had me. We had our secret sister-language and no one else to practice jokes on but each other, so our humor grew up in a vacuum. Tekla was really little during our shared trauma and it didn’t scar her in the same way. She hasn’t struggled with humiliation and shame like me, so it was easier to naturally mature into her sense of humor as a social animal. I’m still more comfortable jotting down a humorous observation than trying to get the timing right in a face-to-face conversation with my rabbit heart thumping away at my brain.
I feel like Evie and I would’ve been bosom buddies. Just a couple of kids misinterpreting the world together. I really need to know: would she have been freaked out by a bunch of drunk hippies in a big wet field passing joints and instruments while their kids ran wild in the Alaskan wilderness?
Heather: Oh, I’m 100% sure she’d have been down for kindred spirit shenanigans and festivals. She’d have run around barefoot and muddy, scamming festival food all day.
Speaking of food, I need you to tell me about bathtub bacon. I heard you read my book with bathtub bacon involved.
Keema: All I can really disclose about the bathtub bacon is this: if your partner brings you bacon and a fresh cup of coffee while you’re reading in the tub to ease the lingering pain from a breast biopsy (benign!), it might be VERY GOOD for your partnership after a year of lockdown with toddlers.
You’re deep in book release with kids, too; what does pandemic parenting + writing look like for you?
Heather: I’m at pandemic pod school now, which gives me a speck of breathing room for writing. I’m typing while the two oldest are on Google class meets. One’s in orchestra, so it’s Ode to Joy over and over. The middle one is now coming over to tell me about Komodo dragons. Their drool is venomous. The little guy is sitting on a bin of bristle blocks saying, “I pooping!” I’m not entirely certain it’s pretend poop, but I’m not getting up to check. This is a productive morning. Same question for you!
Keema: I have a lot of selfies from the last five years of my kids nursing on my lap while I’m writing. Most days I login to my computer and write a sentence before I stop to make breakfast. While the kids eat, I write another sentence. Two if I’m lucky. Then I change a diaper, play dinosaurs, breakup a toddler fight, and set them up with a snack and an activity or a show while mentally revising the last two sentences. At lunch I delete both sentences. If I survive putting the little one down for nap, I might get a paragraph in. Repeat through bedtime.
I have a new project brewing, but the last five years have taught me something very important: I can’t do this again without childcare. People are so quick to ask about your next project before your current one is even in the world. Especially given our current challenges, how does that make you feel?
Heather: I’m a slow-ish, recursive writer with lots of fallow periods of not-writing, even without pandemic parenting, so I always feel slight panic when someone asks me what I’m working on next. I recently started this little scene that surprised me and had an engine, and when a story strikes like that, I try to turn on the TV for the kids, sit on the kitchen floor, ignore the dishes, and type.
Keema: Let’s talk craft for a second. Everyone says to avoid second person, and yet we’ve both done it.
Heather: I started using second person in my book as an experiment. I thought it would be fun to write the same character in both first and second person. I love second person, though. I guess it can get old, but I don’t want to be told not to do it.
Keema: I love it too! I love the way it puts me right in the shit with the narrator.
Heather: Yes, that’s it – I wanted readers in the shit with Evie. Once I started playing with second person, I knew I wanted more than one chapter in second and to experiment with form throughout. I also thought that, especially for the chapter where Evie is dealing with postpartum depression, as well as putting you in the shit, it lets Evie distance herself from…herself. Like instead of a straight narration, she’s outside narrating her life. Despite being a really heartbreaking chapter, I still wanted it to be funny. Poor Evie is so desperate she’s writing letters to Dear Abby, and that made me laugh.
One last goofy question: where do you imagine readers reading your book?
Keema: I like to imagine my readers in a camp chair somewhere with good starshine, maybe using it to shoo squirrels out of their soap stash every few pages (squirrels were always eating our soap and it totally baffled me). Or on the deck of a ferry, or a cruise ship, with the wind in their hair.
Heather: In my imagination, someone tosses the book in their beach bag. The slather in sunscreen and start reading, the waves crashing and the sun penetrating their skin until they get that relaxed, melty-boned feeling. But if someone’s reading in the bathroom while a toddler bangs on the door, I hope the book transports them to that beachy state of mind.
Heather Frese is the author of the novel The Baddest Girl on the Planet, winner of the Lee Smith Novel Prize. She has published numerous short stories, essays, and the occasional poem, with work appearing in Michigan Quarterly Review, the Los Angeles Review, Front Porch, the Barely South Review, Switchback, and elsewhere, earning notable mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Essays. She currently writes, edits, and wrangles three small children in Raleigh, North Carolina. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @Heatherkfrese.
Keema Waterfield is the author of Inside Passage, releasing from Green Writers Press in April 2021. Waterfield was born in a trailer in Anchorage, Alaska the year John Lennon was shot, smallpox was officially eradicated, and the first Iran-Iraq War began. Her essays have appeared in Redivider and Pithead Chapel, among others, and her Brevity essay “You Will Find Me In The Starred Sky” was a Best American Essays notable. She lives with her husband, two children, a bunch of extra instruments she doesn’t know how to play, and a revolving cast of quirky animals. She lives and writes on Séliš and Qlispé land. Follow her on Twitter and Instragram @keemasaurusrex.