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Horror, fairy tales, and writing the surreal: An interview with Paola Ferrante
In her genre-bending short story collection, Her Body Among Animals (Book*hug Press), Paola Ferrante uses horror and fairy tale conventions to challenge the boundaries placed on women’s bodies, while also highlighting how toxic masculinity devastates women and our planet. We talk to Paola about her book, how poetry has taught her how to do fabulism, and why reading before she writes is a motivating practice.
Photo credit Rob Skuja
All Lit Up: Congratulations on the publication of your short story collection, Her Body Among Animals. Can you tell our readers a little about your book?
Paola Ferrante: Thanks so much for the congratulations! Her Body Among Animals is a short story collection that is a genre-bender; in these speculative literary stories, I use horror, fairy tale and sci-fi conventions to show how women challenge the boundaries placed on their bodies while living in a world “among animals,” where violence is intertwined with bizarre ecological disruptions. In these stories you’ll find a sentient sex robot rebelling against her creator “boyfriend’s” programming, a couple bound for Mars discovering the power shadows have over them on a road trip through Texas, a grad student weighed down by depression in the form of an ever-present albatross, and a young girl who possesses a magic mirror fighting to save her sister from growing a mermaid tail like their absent mother. The stories in Her Body Among Animals are thematically linked, investigating the complexities of living in a woman’s body, and looking at the ways toxic masculinity enacts devastation both on women and also, in light of the climate crisis, on our planet.
Her Body Among Animals by Paola Ferrante
ALU: We loved your poetry collection What to Wear When Surviving a Lion Attack, and the way you connect horror films and fairy tale motifs to the experience of living as a woman. How does writing poetry inform your prose? As a multi-genre writer, what’s it like switching between poetry and fiction?
PF: As a multi-genre writer, I like the freedom moving between different forms gives me to explore themes, or writerly obsessions, from different angles. The first half of the stories for Her Body Among Animals I wrote in between the poetry I was writing for my poetry collection, What to Wear When Surviving A Lion Attack. Looking back at these poems now, I can see my earliest uses of animals as both metaphor and kin to women’s experiences, leading to stories in Her Body Among Animals like “The Underside of A Wing,” where a grad student with depression who is feeling the pressures of academia and the need to hide her mental health concerns literally experiences her depression as an albatross around her neck. My poetry also gave me a way to experiment with bringing horror conventions into a literary space, which shows up in stories like “Everyday Horror Show,” where a mother experiences postpartum anxiety as a poltergeist haunting, or “The Silent Grave of Birds,” where a teen boy is haunted by a grave of creepy dolls with bird feathers, a surreal manifestation of his guilt in bullying another boy and keeping silent about a sexual assault his brother perpetrated.
Poetry itself can be a very surreal thought process, and fairy tales lend themselves extremely well to this surreal space. Poetry, in essence, taught me how to do fabulism, so in Her Body Among Animals, I could have stories where girls grow mermaid tails and women turn into spiders. It also taught me to Emily Dickinson, that is, to “tell the truth, but tell it slant.” It’s hard to write stories about issues like domestic abuse or postpartum anxiety that readers will actually want to read if you tell them from a realist perspective, but when you can tell a hard truth with imagery, like using a dragon for an abusive partner, I think it is easier for the reader to stay with you in that head space and hear the truth of the story.
I’ve heard, more than once, people describe my prose as having a lyrical quality, and I can say that starting in poetry has definitely influenced the way I construct my fiction formally as well as thematically. I often spend a lot of time (maybe even more than I should), considering how scenes work not just at the character, plot and thematic levels, but at the level of how the prose moves. When I edit my prose, I find I need to read everything out loud to hear the way the scene is going, and if I don’t like the way it sounds, I sit there and add and reorder and cut sentences until I like the flow.
Lastly, even though I am a multi-genre writer, I would say I’m not great at multi-tasking my projects. I find that I although I can work on both poetry and fiction consecutively, I can’t write poetry in the middle of finishing a story, or a story when I’m still working on a poem. So, as the stories in Her Body Among Animals got longer I found I was writing less and less poetry! Now that I’m working on a novel, I’m definitely finding that if I’m working in one genre, I need to finish that piece completely before I can go back to the other genre.
ALU: Do you have any writing rituals? How do you begin writing?
PF: Tea is highly involved in my lunchtime writing routine, which takes place at the Second Cup near where I work. I find just sitting in a space where I am alone but with nice background noise, and knowing that I only have a certain amount of lunch break time to write really motivates me to make my 500-1000 word count for the day. One of the ways I find it easiest to begin writing is to start by reading what I like to call my “buddy books” for a few minutes before I start the day’s work. My “buddy books” are novels or short stories where I feel like the writer is doing a similar kind of work, whether it be with character, genre, or technique. So for example, when I was writing “Among Chameleons and Other Ghosts,” which features a young couple doing a road trip through Texas in order to eventually become colonists on Mars, I was reading Karen Russell’s Orange World, particularly the story “The Bad Graft,” which has these beautiful descriptions of the desert, as well as crappy motels. And when I wrote “Cobwebs,” which features a woman turning into a literal spider when faced with the unhappy prospect of suburban life and motherhood, I was reading Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach, for how he has the main character interact with the world when he is in his insectoid form. Starting with reading helps me feel like I’m having a conversation with the literature before me, which usually motivates me to actually sit down to write.
ALU: What’s on your reading list these days? Is there a book you recently read and loved?
PF: I’m very much loving the current trend towards speculative fiction, which is probably not a surprise considering we get Mars-bound couples and the “ultimate” parenting guide in a Mother hive-mind consciousness in Her Body Among Animals. I just picked up Camp Zero by Michelle Min Sterling, and I’m excited for her chilling vision of utopia turned dystopia, and her world-building that involves the elite living in floating cities while everyday survivors of the climate crisis find themselves fleeing to Northern Canada. Also in the speculative vein, I’m just starting Marisa Crane’s I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself, which features a surveillance state where offenders are given an extra shadow, exploring the injustice of a system where people, quite literally, live in the shadow of their mistakes forever. And I’m also dying to read Mona Awad’s Rouge, because I can’t resist a book with a fairy tale opening, which again, might not be surprising, given my penchant for using fairy tale motifs, including transformations into mermaids and spiders, in my own work.
Although it is decidedly not in the speculative vein, I recently read Amy Jones’s Pebble & Dove and absolutely loved it. When it comes to stories, if there’s an animal in it, I’m pretty much hooked, and of course, this features the incredible manatee Pebble. But it was Jones’s depiction of unconventional motherhood in the character of Imogen Starr that really spoke to me. As a mother and a writer, I was so happy that Jones chose to tackle the subject of how incredibly difficult it is to be an artist and a mother, and to do it in a way that acknowledges the complexities of the person without reverting to judgment.
ALU: Lastly, what do you hope readers will take away from your writing?
PF: I’m hoping that these stories offer the reader hope, despite the darkness inherent in some of the subject matter. These women are resilient, and just like Gavin, the adolescent protagonist of “The Silent Grave of Birds,” I hope the reader feels that these stories move them from a place of being haunted by the mistakes of the past (along with creepy dolls) to a place where they know there is a way to move forward, and change the systems that need changing.
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Paola Ferrante is a writer living with depression. Her debut poetry collection, What to Wear When Surviving a Lion Attack (2019), was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Prize. She has won Grain Magazine’s Short Grain Contest for Poetry, The New Quarterly’s Peter Hinchcliffe Short Fiction Award, Room Magazine’s Fiction Contest, and was longlisted for the 2020 Journey Prize for the story “When Foxes Die Electric.” Her work appears in After Realism: 24 Stories for the 21st Century (2022), Best Canadian Poetry 2021 (2021), North American Review, PRISM International, and elsewhere. She was born, and still resides in, Toronto.