The Beatrice Interview

Erika Krouse

"If I were that wild, I wouldn't waste time writing about it."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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"I wrote poetry for eight years," Erika Krouse recalls, "but I was an awful poet. Just lousy. I got published, but not very well, and people made no secret about how they felt about my poetry, either." She laughs, and then explains that since she always preferred to real novels and short stories anyway, she decided to try writing stories for a while."I was used to rejection from the poetry, so it was a really big surprise to me when the stories started selling." Within a few years, she had enough pieces to fill out her first collection, Come Up and See Me Sometime, which came out on the heels of Krouse's appearance in the New Yorker's 2001 summer fiction issue.

RH: Why is each story introduced by a quote from Mae West?

EK: I could give you a lot of academic reasons, but the main reason is that she was cool. She was a dumpy, short woman who decided she wanted to be a sex symbol, so goddamn it, she became a sex symbol. She created that image for herself and miraculously everyone bought it. Because she was smart, funny, and irresistible.She wrote almost all her dialogue for her movies, and she didn't direct her films, but she picked directors who would do what she said. She created the person she wanted to be, and then she created a demand for that person.

That fit in with what I was exploring in terms of identity and women. How do you make yourself fit into the world? How do you make the world fit you? And I love her sense of humor, her brassy non-feminist feminism.

RH: There's a real take charge attitude in her personal and professional life that your characters strive for.

EK: With moments of success and many, many moments of failure. But they do try to be the masters of their own lives the way she was.

RH: Why are so many of your stories in the first person?

EK: It's a good point of view for me. My life isn't really that exciting, but you can write in the first person and pretend you have a much more adventurous life. It's easier for me to get inside a character's head that way. Even when I write a story in the third person, I'll write it in the first person and then translate it over. Somehow that first person voice is more spontaneous and fresh for me.

There's something very revealing in what a character tells you about themselves. They're not only telling you about their character, they reveal things that they aren't even aware of. They'll say things that they believe, but you'll recognize what's missing from what they're saying. Nabakov was amzing at that type of unreliable narrator, in Lolita and Pale Fire especially.

RH: There's one story in the collection, "Impersonators," where the character takes a lot longer to figure out what's happening than the reader, who has a pretty good sense early on of where the story might be headed.

EK: That story was tricky. Even today, people are really closeminded about relationships and sexuality. I wanted to write a story about a woman who chooses a woman over a man, but I'm still getting criticism for it even now. I would think it was no big deal anymore; I didn't think it was a big deal when I was writing.

RH: But the sexual component of the relationship is so subdued. It's barely there in the telling of the story, and it's not the main reason that the narrator chooses to be with Anna. It's not a story about wanting to have sex with another woman...

EK:'s because she loves her. She's fascinated with Anna from the beginning. That story, funnily enough, is one of my most traditional, even though it's "girl meets girl," not "boy meets girl." I wanted it to evolve along very comfortable lines, so that you would be rooting for them to be together by the end. But it's strange--even though you can tell throughout the story those two women belong together, people get very homophobic about it.

RH: Do you hear a lot from ex-boyfriends who think they can see themselves in your stories?

EK: I haven't heard from any exes, but I have dated since I wrote those stories, and some of those guys are nervous about whether I'm going to write about them. (laughs) Usually, and it's sad but true, but my old relationship stories are kind of cliched, and I wouldn't want to write them. A lot of people are composite characters--I take from life, just not necessarily my own. Maybe I'll take a detail from a person I met or dated, or from somebody who was friends with somebody, but that's not all there is to any character. (pause) There's one story that's totally true, but only one. The rest are made up.

RH: Like you were saying, one of the best parts about writing fiction is that you get to lie dramatically.

EK: And you can't get blamed for it. (laughs) I'm writing an essay now, and I'm realizing that I have to be accountable for everything I say, and it's difficult not to be able to say, "Oh, I can change that so it works this way." My imagination's much better than my life, but this isn't fiction, so I can't do it.

RH: Are you working on more short stories as well?

EK: I'm working on a novel now, but it's hard. I keep throwing it away; I've already thrown it away at least seven times and started from scratch. I keep writing stories, too, so I can feel like I'm finishing something. I have ideas for my next three projects, so I feel pretty scattered. I want to work on them all, but I only have so much time and brain space.

RH: Are you writing fulltime?

EK: Yes. I have a job as a night manager at a bed and breakfast, but I don't do anything. I have free rent, I live in a mansion, and all I have to do is be there five nights a week, from 10:00 to 7:00.

I have an office in town, so I'll go into town and write, and the job forces me to stop writing at some point and go home and sleep. It's great to have a different space just for writing. My office is a wonderful place to have; nobody knows where it is, I won't tell anybody. It's a secret place where nobody I know can disturb me. I don't even have a phone there. I've had the office since January of this year, and it's increased my productivity a lot, maybe as much as three hundred percent. It's been a total life saver.

When I was writing at home, I'd work all night sometimes, and then other times I wouldn't work at all. I've done everything for money, even reading tarot cards in the street. When you're a writer, money translates directly into time. You get a thousand dollars, and you're automatically figuring out how many weeks that gives you that you can write. And I'm not one of those writers who can work forty or fifty hours a week and then write at nights or on weekends. I need to have a long period of concentrated space to focus and get into my writing or I just get too scattered. Now I work every day, I go to the office and then I come home, like a regular person.

RH: How do you like living in Colorado?

EK: I love it. People here in New York ask me why I'm there, but I look outside every day, and I think, "It's a beautiful day, and it's going to be beautiful all day, and the night's going to be beautiful, too." All that sun does something to your attitude. I feel very alive. And if I want to get out of town, I drive five minutes, I'm in the mountains.

Boulder's a mountain town, and the attitude is very quirky and odd. It attracts strange people who have a lot to say and are very approachable. You can interact with them a lot more easily than in a big town. New York sometimes makes me uncomfortable because it's like you're not allowed to have eye contact with anybody. I see an interesting person on the subway and I can't look at them. In Boulder, you could just strike up a conversation with them and try to figure them out while you're talking.

RH: You had already sold the collection by the time you appeared in the New Yorker, but what impact did it have for you?

EK: First of all, I never thought it would happen, not in a million years. They'd looked at my work the year before and rejected it, but this year they were interested. The thing is, we were going to publish the book in May, but that would have conflicted with the magazine, because you need to be unpublished to be in the fiction issue. So it was a big question--should we postpone the book or not? And we had a publisher in England, too. They didn't have anything to gain by waiting for the New Yorker to publish first, but they weren't going to ruin that chance for me, either.

I still really can't believe it happened. After that...I live in Colorado, so I was really divorced from whatever impact it had in New York literary circles. I did get a lot of emails from people, though. Some of them were really weird. A lot of people assumed that the story was an article, that it was all true, that I really did sleep with my sister's husband. My sister doesn't even have a husband. I don't even sleep with women's boyfriends. I've never done anything like that, but people assumed that I was that wild girl. I just write about it; if I were that wild, I wouldn't waste time writing about it.

RH: But because you write in the first person, people often assume the stories are true, that you left an abusive husband in Texas and drove to New York, for example...

EK: ...or that I'm infertile, or whatever. People will actually tell me they're sorry I have such bad luck with men. It is fiction, though, and I try to tell people that, but they don't believe me. I think maybe it's because they don't do that weird thing I do, sitting around imagining things all day. Most people do their job, or maybe watch a movie; they don't want to live in an imaginary place. But I do. And if they do, it's a much more upbeat place. They don't want to imagine what life would be like if they were infertile...

EK: ...or they were dating a drug addict. But for some sick reason, I like to do that.

RH: You're a very morbid young woman.

EK: I guess so! (laughs) It's funny how people react to the stories. I don't think they're happy stories, but I don't think they're as unhappy as everybody makes them out to be. People tell me how devastating they are, and I want to say, "But they were funny! Isn't that worth something?"

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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Marisa Silver | Complete Interview Index | Elissa Schappell

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan