I recently read Heather Fowler’s newest work Beautiful Ape Girl Baby (see review here), and totally and completely fell in love. Fowler takes a traditional self-liberating teenage road trip and weaves it with an authentic and immensely powerful discussion of gender and sexuality. Her incredible main character, Beautiful Ape Girl Baby Chef, is an absolute delight to read and will have you laughing for most of the story. The perfect balance of humor and hard-hitting prose makes Beautiful Ape Girl Baby unforgettable and completely heart-wrenching.
Author Bio: Heather Fowler is a poet, fiction writer, essayist, librettist, and novelist. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans. Fowler’s stories and poems have been published online and in print in the U.S., England, Australia, and India, with her work appearing in such venues as PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Surreal South, Feminist Studies, and more. She is Poetry Editor at Corium Magazine. For updates on Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, drop in at her website, Facebook, or Twitter and say hello!
NS: Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
HF: Reading and living are the simplest answers. I’ve often called myself a “sex and love” author, thinking the exploration of erotic exchange was most interesting to me, but more and more I realize my work is about connection, the creation of memory, and the role “love” plays with defining identity, examined via intimate relationships, romantic and otherwise. If you imagine my mind as a mental salon in which Flannery O’Connor spars with Vladimir Nabokov while Marguerite Duras has ridiculous conversations with Anais Nin, Anne Carson, Angela Carter, George Orwell, and Kurt Vonnegut, that would be about right. Stylistically and ideologically, these authors have been meaningful to me, have lit my path. But I’m also inspired by life—by examining class and gender roles as I experience them in the modern world, by reading poets and playwrights and emails from friends.
At the deepest level, the heart of my inspiration to write comes from caring about people and ideas. I’ve written many stories, poems, and experimental pieces that were two things at once—whatever combination they may be to strangers (which I’d discover, often gratefully, post-publication) and whatever “art gifts” or “arguments” they were to be for the people I considered as I wrote them (where the heart was as the ink fell). But I believe in what Vonnegut advises: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” The most robust tales we ever tell are those of persuasion, aimed at a precise audience. Universality comes from the recognition that one person’s specific truths are shared truths for many.
NS: To what extent did your own personal experiences play into writing Beautiful Ape Girl Baby?
HF: It is a strange thing to say, “Oh this wild book is exactly my life as it may have been in a lucid dream enacted by my subconscious,” so I won’t say that. I will say that personal experience informed all of the book’s characters and their acts. Perhaps the wilder the passage in the book, the more metaphoric the plot became. Here’s an example: Beautiful exists in rebellion against the quiet acceptance of gender expectations, particularly when they are negative toward women. So, let’s say, because I believe that women get progressively more feminist as they age (and I am definitely aligned with that concept), I felt particularly furious one day when a contractor came to my house to give me a window estimate I’d requested because the first thing he said before providing information was, “Can I speak to the man of the house?” As a single parent, a woman financially responsible for my own well-being, my immediate first reaction was to reply, “I am the man of the house and the woman, too. Get on with it, you bastard,” or “Did a man call for this quote? I don’t think so. Check with dispatch,” but instead I took this rage to the page. I likely said something to him like, “I’m unmarried, so either you want to give me a quote or you want to get in your car and go. You decide,” but the feeling that exchange (and many like it) engendered created the need for me to live through a character like Beautiful who calls out these types of subtle slurs—who isn’t about being the weaker sex in any way.
NS: Beautiful absolutely despises behaving submissively in all situations. Why is it important that we have dominant female characters in modern literature?
HF: It is important to have dominant female characters in modern literature because so much literature praised as “beautiful” or “classic” or “important” doesn’t show women’s strength and denigrates the female experience in entirety. You don’t watch a nature show that pertains only to the male of a species, where the females are sidelined or less important, so why do so many literary books give women a short shrift? Why are the role models women have in many works of literature characters who make all the sacrifices in love affairs and/or accept their lives as defined by the successes or failures of their men? Why are there so many “men’s” stories when there are so many women readers?
Note that children’s literature does more for the positive self-image of women and girls than most literature written for adults. I want my work to say: Women are stronger than that—fierce, passionate, intelligent. Beautiful may be many unusual and odd things in my book (a murderer, a therapist, a possible fetal cannibal), but she’s also an individual who determines her own fate, for her own reasons, until the end.
NS: Free will is a concept you explore throughout Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, and there is even a direct reference to Slaughterhouse Five, which is concerned with acceptance of destiny. What are your views on determinism?
HF: I believe some in causal determinism, which is to say that there is a relationship between the antecedents, the laws of nature, and the subsequent results. Only a very poor man would rob a store at low gain and high risk due to his hunger, is one example. A class-based rebellion is caused by the restriction of goods or civil rights. Love for someone else is engendered by some level of perceived kindness in many cases, just as many murders wouldn’t happen without threats. But I also believe in choice and free will causing changes in the exact nature of a path. My views on these things are quite fraught. Perhaps I think free will and choice function as the “butterfly effect” that can alter the landscape of determinism. Determinists would say that whatever happened is exactly what was supposed to happen—but it goes back to whether or not you believe that the tiniest of alterations in thought or action would make the world you now see illusory or non-existent. Still, while in theory I can get behind supporting that many pre-determined circumstances and factors create fate (as I often say amor fati with a certain sardonic expression), I believe that connected to the idea of choice is the idea of hope, so perhaps I can agree that many things are out of our control, create our reality via history (and without cease), but I also believe that an individual’s perspective about events, for that individual, is actually more real than any external factor. And through one’s thoughts, present the shrines of our illusions…
NS: You facilitate serious and important discussions about a variety of things in Beautiful Ape Girl Baby; however, there is always a lightness due to how funny the book is. How do you decide which situations require humor and which don’t? And how do you think that humor plays into the way in which the reader interprets the situation and writing?
HF: The writing of this book was quite a balancing act. I loved writing the humorous scenes that made me laugh, but I was also aware that I wanted to to use humor as a tool to point out societal injustices, invisible gender standards, and just the generally funny parts of life that I enjoy. But I wanted the reader to feel like the book had range and registers beyond simple comedy. Too, I wanted to speak to issues so serious and important to me that only humor could address them in newer, fresher ways. I think humor plays into the way the reader interprets the situation and plot of this book by allowing the reader to pick and choose which issues this book most strongly evokes for her/him. This is not a teaching text—but often, as in life, when you can crack a joke and open a narrative with a new person, you can develop a relationship that’s pleasurable and valuable.
I also think that when I’m the reader, I like my highs sky-high and my lows the depths of despair—so I thought a book this over-the-top should be like a roller coaster: it takes you up, takes you down, stops at the heights and the depths, and may give you a little whiplash here and there.
NS: Beautiful is deeply inspired by radio show host Ida May Haze. Is there a similar radio show host in your life from whom you drew inspiration?
HF: No. In many ways, Ida May Haze is both a nod to Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood—and an exaggerated amplification of some of the wild things my mother has said to me over the years. Her side of the family is Scottish so sometimes prone to exaggeration. You should hear her rendition of why women are genetically superior, which goes all the way back to the chromosomal level!
NS: Thank you so much for answering my questions! I cannot wait to read your other work!