Squaring Inherent Darkness and Femininity: A Conversation with Maria Adelmann

Maria Adelmann is the author of the short story collection Girls of a Certain Age and the forthcoming novel How to Be Eaten (2022). Her work has been published by Tin House, n+1, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Threepenny Review, Indiana Review, Epoch, and many others. She has been awarded prizes by the Baker Artist Awards and the Maryland State Arts Council, and her work has been selected as a Distinguished Story in The Best American Short Stories. She has an MFA in fiction from The University of Virginia. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram @ink176 or visit her webpage www.MariaInk.com


Gabriella Souza: First, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me about your short story collection Girls of a Certain Age. I identified with it so much as a woman and as a woman writer. Not surprisingly, what stood out to me most were your characters—young women working to understand who they are in spite of the situations the world puts them into. They are often self-destructive, but I found myself pulling for them. I’m curious how you came to write this collection and what was behind the choice to showcase them as your protagonists.

Maria Adelmann: I wrote the stories over many years, not realizing they would be part of a collection. I wrote the first drafts of some of these stories in my late teens; I wrote others in my 30s. When I decided to put together a collection, I saw that I had written a lot of stories with first- or second-person female narrators. My stories often relate to me or my interests in some way, so creating female characters was less of a choice and more what I naturally kept returning to.

GS: I had this thought while I was reading your collection that first-person point of view allows the reader to identify more with the narrators because they are truly seeing their worldview. More so than in third person, which shows the reader the totality of the world and not just the narrators’.

MA: Yes, definitely. As a reader, I can get pretty judgy about characters in third-person stories. With first-person narrators, I feel more empathy for a character’s stupidity or misguided decision-making because I understand how they got there.

People’s blind spots create such interesting tension in a first-person story, too. There’s that layer between what the reader and author know and what the narrator knows. In a few of my stories, the characters basically announce, “I’m self-destructive, I’m ruining everything,” and that pronouncement can’t quite be trusted at face value. It’s hiding other issues beneath it.

GS: That comes up even with your youngest protagonist in the story “Pets Are for Rich Kids.” Early in the story, when her supposed friend calls her callous, the narrator ponders what the word means; but by the end, she’s calling herself callous, owning this part of her identity, while beating up the girl who called her that. Part of me was glad she owned her experience and fought back, even if her acting out was just a momentary fix and the deeper problems weren’t going away.

MA: At first, I thought, “I can’t write this ending where I, the writer, get joy out of this girl smashing mud in her friend’s face.” But then I thought, yeah, I can, because the character can realize what I realized, that she’s not supposed to be enjoying this. And the reader can realize that it’s only a brief moment of catharsis. 

GS: That character in particular exemplifies just how complicated our upbringings are as women and the contradictory messages we receive. This understanding in your characters doesn’t seem to be defined by age. At the end of “The Wayside,” the protagonist, who has just graduated from high school, explicitly states all the conflicting information she has learned in her last summer before college. That character has the self-awareness to understand these pushes and pulls and how much change she is experiencing, even though on the surface it could be described as a boring summer. 

MA: The main character in “The Wayside” is young but has more insight into herself than many of the other, older characters in my collection. She gets conflicting messages, and she realizes she has to make her own choice. In many of my other stories, characters get conflicting messages and don’t know what to do because they don’t know what they want. 

The main character in my story “None of These Will Bring Disaster” has no idea what she wants. I wrote the story sometime after reading the Deborah Eisenberg story “Days.” Far be it from me to write a story based on Deborah Eisenberg’s work… but I do love “Days” in part because it has very little plot and deals mainly with a passive main character who is in the process of realizing what she wants. In “Days,” the narrator quits smoking and starts going to the gym. But then she starts wondering if she even wants to be going to the gym. At the end of the story, she comes to this realization that people are just out there doing the things they want to do, and that she can also decide to do the things she wants to do, too. 

The protagonist in “None of These Will Bring Disaster” is almost behaving the opposite way, getting further and further from understanding what she wants. She is somehow both self-destructive and passive. Maybe it’s best described as a kind of flailing. Instead of quitting smoking like the character in “Days,” my character starts smoking so she can join a study about quitting smoking. 

GS: I really enjoyed your stories about relationships. “Middlemen,” for example, in which a young woman harbors feelings for her manipulative female roommate, or “Human Bonding,” where a college senior caught in a spiral of partying falls for a freshman. I notice a tendency in the literary community to praise stories that center around plot, but in your collection the stories that dealt with the internal plotting that accompanies navigating relationships were particularly compelling. It also made me think of the trope of female-centered literature that we women writers spend too much time in our characters’ heads. What was it like balancing the relationship-related stories with those that are more plot-based in your collection? 

MA: I like the way you framed “Middlemen” and “Human Bonding” as stories focused on relationships rather than plot. I have a major problem with plot, which is that I’m less interested in it than character development. In “Unattached,” my story where a woman’s world literally turns upside down and she floats into the sky, I was so excited because the conceit really took care of the plot. But even so, that story is driven less by the plot or conceit and more by the character’s internal dialogue. The conceit is almost an excuse, it carries the story along narratively and adds some thematic texture, but it’s more a backdrop than the point.

Stories can’t be completely formless. If you think of plot in the loosest sense, of creating a body for the story to inhabit, then I agree that a story has to have some kind of plot. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who said that a character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. Although it’s funny because, now that I think about it, a lot of my characters and characters in other stories written by women are actually somewhat anti-plot. They are about characters who are passive or are floundering or are unable to make decisions because they don’t know what they want.

GS: You said before that your writing draws from personal experience. What does that look like for you? Are you drawing from events in your life or is it more about you sharing emotions with your characters?

MA: I construct a lot of my stories by asking, “What if?” What if the thing that I was super worried about had actually happened? What if this woman got pregnant after a one-night stand, what would she do next? Then the story evolves naturally from that premise. I think writing can feel stiff if you simply set a goal and you accomplish the goal. The open-ended question gives space for intuition to take over and allows the story to develop organically.

GS: Were there stories in your collection that surprised you, that were starting out in one direction and turned into a different world?

MA: Yes! In particular, the story “The Replacements,” which has to do with an abusive boyfriend and a dead dog. The original premise was that the narrator sees Jesus in a piece of toast and saves the toast in a drawer for months because it’s the only thing in her life that has meaning. But what made her life so terrible that she became so obsessed with this piece of toast? I kept adding layers—her boyfriend was abusive and then there was this mean dog, and by the time I finished the story, it really wasn’t about the Jesus toast, so I took it out. The process of writing the story is the process of finding the story. I really can’t stay stuck on the original idea or else the story becomes stunted. 

GS: How do you allow yourself the freedom for the story concept to evolve?

MA: That was really hard for me when I started writing. I had a hard time letting go of old drafts and I had a hard time knowing how to follow my gut. But I’ve gotten better at letting my intuition take over. Since I’ve had editors, I’ve really taken the cliché “kill your darlings” to heart. If something is not in service to the story, no matter how many hours or days or months you spend on it, no matter how beautiful or elegant the writing is, you just have to kill it. Now, I just save the cut portions in another file. I never go back to them, it turns out, but it’s easier for me to let go knowing they still exist. So it’s more like “send your darlings into exile.” 

GS: I was struck by the structure of “None of These Will Bring Disaster,” which is organized in chunks with header titles. You use this in other stories in the collection as well. Did you begin those stories with that structure in mind or did it evolve on the page? 

MA: I tend to know what kind of structure I’m going to use from the very beginning. Clearly my second-person stories were influenced by Lorrie Moore, who wrote the collection Self-Help in this chunked style. I think there’s a poetic impulse in that style, but I also question if I’m just lazy. The style is attractive to me because it creates a form for the story that doesn’t have much to do with plot. It essentially eliminates transitions and just leaves the juiciest parts. There’s a quote by a writer, I don’t remember who it was, that said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”I tend to use the choppy structure when I’m writing a story that hits me hard emotionally and the writing is more frantic. The more narrative stories tend to be born in calmer moments, when I sit down with a coffee and think about what I’m going to write. 

GS: Which of those two types of writing happens more frequently for you? 

MA: I much prefer—and I mean, who wouldn’t?—to have a flash of inspiration and then spend days just going with it. It’s so great when that happens. When I was in my MFA program, I would call those my “black bean days” because I was so invested in writing that I couldn’t be bothered with food, so I would open a can of black beans and eat them straight from the can. That’s the fantasy about writers, that inspiration just hits us. But that only happens once in a while, and then, great, you have one draft of a story. You can’t bank on inspiration. A lot of writing for me is the hard, terrible work of sitting down at the computer and trying to fix whatever disaster I’ve created. That’s 90 percent of it for me. 

GS: As a reader and a writer, what parts of speech and elements of craft could you do without? 

MA: For me, finding a writing style I really connect with trumps plot any day of the week. I actually find that when I read, I’ll skip over descriptions unless I really love the writing style. I’d rather have just a little detail to tell me the room is messy. Which is why it’s been difficult for me to write a novel, because I delete most of what I’m supposed to keep and then I only have five pages. 

I find the short story and the novel so different. I don’t think you can play with a narrative timeline quite so much in a novel or it can become very difficult to follow. The novel I’m working on is about classic fairy tale characters in a modern-day setting. There are five main characters, so I was able to write their stories separately, which gave me some room to be looser with the plot in each individual story. But I still had to keep the timeline fairly linear throughout.

I like to see short story writers who make the jump from the short story to the novel by writing what I call a “cheater” novel. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, for example. Clearly he didn’t want to write a novel in the classic sense, and he didn’t, though I’m glad he could sell it as one. The Joy Luck Club is another. It’s obviously a linked short story collection. Each chapter is so distinct, and I’ve even seen them anthologized as separate short stories. It’s an amazing book and more people probably read it because it was marketed as a novel.

GS: Yes, that idea of a book being the way the author wants it to be is freeing. It always seems to me that short story collections could sell better because of the modern reader’s attention span, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

MA: I always like thinking that, but when I’m super busy or traveling, I tend to pick plot-heavy books. It’s like I’m going to be too emotionally drained if I read a short story collection. I think it would be almost harder to digest a Lorrie Moore story written in little chunks while on the train than a plot-heavy novel. You have to do more work as a reader when there’s less text on the page. 

GS: We’ve talked about Lorrie Moore and Deborah Eisenberg, but what other writers do you turn to as models in your writing? 

MA: In school, I read a lot of books with straight-forward narrative structure, and many of them were written by men. I love, for example, Goodbye, Columbus, which is Philip Roth, and now we’re learning how much of a dirtbag Philip Roth was, as if we couldn’t know that from reading his work. I do wish I’d read more women writers earlier. She wasn’t on the scene yet, but if I had read Carmen Maria Machado when I was starting writing, that would have been very helpful. Or Kelly Link. Or Karen Russell. I was missing a lot of information, I think, early on.

GS: I think the popularity of those three writers in particular serves to show what a wellspring of female writing we’ve had recently and hopefully, how the literary world is redefining itself. Did you have the experience of wanting to read female writers but being told that they weren’t literary enough? 

MA: I actually only realized much later that some genres or styles were being sold to me as more literary than others. I read an essay by Michael Chabon about genre literature, how writing is considered genre literature until everyone agrees it’s amazing and then it’s moved over to literary fiction. Now, since I’m writing a novel about modern-day fairy tale characters, I feel very much like, oh, am I writing in a lesser genre? But I do think Kelly Link, Karen Russell, and Carmen Maria Machado have broken that apart. But it also strikes me that the problem isn’t new. Two of my favorite books are Slaughterhouse Five and Beloved. Both of the books are speculative fiction. One is a ghost story and the other is about a time-traveler. And no one is like have you read that sci-fi book Slaughterhouse Five?

GS: Or have you read this horror novel Beloved?

MA: Right! I do think it’s interesting that you end up writing inside these little preordained concepts of genre or even length. In Denmark, where I’m currently located, there is no such thing as a novella. The word for short story is novella and then there’s a word for novel. A lot of the novels are like 120, 130 pages long, which I love. My story “The Wayside” is a novella in the American sense of the word. It’s a crisis when you’re writing a novella, which is notoriously hard to sell in the US. It’s like, ok, it’s getting longer than a short story but it’s too short to be a novel, what do I do now? If you didn’t have to think about it, you would just write the thing you were trying to write.

GS: I wanted to talk to you about humor, because some of the stories in your collection are so funny. In the first story, “Only the Good,” one of the secondary characters, Zona, says the most outrageous things, like, “Baby, schmaby, I had a baby when I was thirteen and threw it in the garbage.” I found myself laughing, but also worrying that that was true, which is such a delicate balance. How does dark humor like this come to you in stories? 

MA: It comes naturally or else I don’t think I could pull it off. For a long time, I used to think my stories were so funny and then when I started getting feedback on them, people called them dark and depressing, and I was like, wait, what? I think I have this certain personality that no matter how dark things get I’m always making jokes about it or making fun of myself. These stories would be a real drag if they were humorless. I did this experiment once where I tried to name the stories based on what they were about, like “Abortion Story” or “Dead Dog Story” or “Deployment Story.” I was horrified. I was like, what kind of book did I write?!

GS: Your stories did highlight the inherent darkness in female life. There’s a line in “The Wayside” when the narrator asks herself if all rites of passage include blood. 

MA: It’s just wild to me that women are supposed to be squeamish about blood when many of us bleed every month and also, you know, have babies. It can be difficult to square the darkness of female life with the concept of femininity. The female experience doesn’t really fit the definition of “girly.”

GS: When you were first starting to write, did you think about your work as being feminine? 

MA: I didn’t. Many men, particularly straight white men, write about the male experience, and I don’t think they think about their work as particularly masculine because it’s considered the neutral experience. I was worried about my cover being too feminine, especially along with the title. I love my cover, by the way, but I kept thinking a guy would never pick up a really pink book. And maybe that’s true, but why shouldn’t they? I love Jesus’ Son, the Denis Johnson book, and no one’s like, “This is a male book about the male experience written for male readers.” It’s a book for me, too. In the end, fiction is about specific stories or characters, and there are many reasons someone might relate to a certain book. So why can’t a guy enjoy my book, too?


Gabriella Souza

Gabriella Souza lives and works as a writer and editor in Baltimore. She won the 2021 Carlisle Family Scholarship at the Community of Writers and the 2020 San Miguel Writers’ Conference Writing Contest. She recently completed the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she received an Eloise Klein Healy Scholarship. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in North American Review, New South, Essay Daily, BULL, Lunch Ticket, and Litro, among others. She is at work on a novel.

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