Soft Skull Press
“Tara Ison’s stories locate the pleasure in pain, the victory in betrayal, the beauty in depravity—they walk the line between love and debasement.”
—Sarah Gerard, author of Binary Star
Shelf Unbound: What’s the starting point for your stories, such as the title story in which a woman sets strict emotional boundaries with her boyfriend but not her dog?
Tara Ison: First, I love how you’ve focused the core of the story, “Ball”—that’s exactly what I was trying to capture, a character who is so terrified of revealing any kind of vulnerability that she shuts down around people while investing her entire emotional life in her dog. (With horrible results, of course…)
This story came about when I woke up in the middle of the night with the first two sentences in my head, and I couldn’t fall back asleep. So I finally got up, wrote them down, and then went back to bed—and in the morning was, well, a little disturbed by this beginning to a story. But I felt it immediately established a character whose emotional focus is off-kilter. And then the ending came to me, and I decided to write toward that. I was intrigued by how to get the character from that opening paragraph to the final one.
That “waking up in the middle of the night” experience had never happened before, and hasn’t since. But the starting point for my stories in general is a sentence, or sometimes an image, that I can’t shake. And then I want to know why that sentence or image has gotten under my skin, is disturbing me, and I have to write the story in order to find out.
Shelf Unbound: These stories contain depravity and cruelty, much of it shocking. What interests you in exploring these themes?
Ison: I’m interested in our in-the-dark, undercover, not-for-public-display emotions, the messy, ugly, ignoble feelings we suppress, or tell ourselves we don’t feel, or chastise ourselves for: envy, hatred, resentment, bitterness, fear. My characters think they know what they “need” in life, because they aren’t willing to take an honest look at what is driving them or why they behave or feel the way they do, and it’s my job as a writer to force them to a reckoning, to slowly increase the pressure until there is a kind of psychological eruption—I call it the emotional aneurysm—that drives the character to one of those acts of depravity, or cruelty. I’m not looking to shock just for the sake of shocking—it’s too easy to use violence or explicit sexuality in a “shocking” way. I’m far more interested in the gradual building of inner tension the reader can identify with. I want to carry the reader along so when that “eruption” finally happens, the reader is shocked at herself, at her emotional complicity, as well as by the character. Even if the character’s actions are extreme, I think we can all identify, on some level, with the emotional pressures the character faces. And perhaps better understand ourselves …?
Shelf Unbound: In “Multiple Choice,” constructed as a series of multiple choice plot points, you ratchet up the creep factor bit by bit with Hitchcock-like stealth. How did you come up with this story format?
Ison: Wow, “Hitchcock-like,” thank you! When it comes to form, I’m not a very experimental writer—“Multiple Choice” is quite a departure for me. (“The Knitting Story” is the only other story in the collection that could be called experimental.) I’m always worried some kind of obvious structural device will feel imposed on the story, or gimmicky, that the story will become about its form, rather than about the authentic experience of a relatable character. But when the device is used to illuminate the emotional truth of a character, it feels earned—which is what I was aiming for here. In the relationship with an older, wealthy, powerful man, the young woman initially feels empowered, that she is the one making all the choices, the decisions about where their “story” will go. The man turns out to be a manipulative sociopath, which I hope is revealed to the reader at the same pace the character discovers this … but by then it’s too late. She realizes the question of “choice,” or agency, has been an illusion—that she is an interchangeable “option” for this man, one of many. I began with that relationship dynamic, and the “multiple choice” form grew out of that—so I decided to take a chance with it, because I felt the story created the form, rather than my imposing the form on a story.
Shelf Unbound: You wrote a nonfiction book, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies. How has watching and studying movies influenced your writing style?
Ison: I’ve always been a movie freak—and I worked as a screenwriter for seven years before I wrote my first novel, so both movie-watching and movie-studying/writing have had a huge influence on my work as a fiction writer. I don’t think I could have written that first novel without my background in story structure—screenwriting is all about structure!—and my “training” in how to develop, sustain, and build narrative momentum, the critical importance of conflict to fuel the story. The importance of environment and atmosphere, too—while I love the interiority of fiction, every now and then it’s good to “show” the reader where we are, what we are “seeing.” And the function of dialogue—when I began as a screenwriter, I thought a screenplay was a story told in dialogue, but no, that’s a radio play. A screenplay is a story told in image, and so I learned that dialogue is actually very precious, something to be used sparingly, and only when the character has a very clear agenda that can only be advanced through speech rather than action. Which leads to the creation of scene, and when we choose to bring the reader in to an actual moment, rather than sweep past events in narrative summary. I don’t consciously think of these things as I write, at least not in a first draft—but I’m aware of these principles in revision.