By Leslie Lindsay
Rare and enchanting (fairy) tale about magic, gruesomeness, women, and so much more, WHAT SHOULD BE WILD is dark, sublimely written, and spellbinding. Join me in conversation with the lovely Julia as she chats about how teaching inspires her, her amazing reading list and so much more. Trust me, you’ll be swept away.
I quickly fell under the spell of Julia Fine’s debut, WHAT SHOULD BE WILD (Harper, May 2018). We’re talking a gorgeous setting filled with trees, mysterious elements, an old ancestral home, and magical realism. There is so much going on in WHAT SHOULD BE WILD–at heart, it’s a coming-of-age story, but it’s also an abduction tale, an allegory, and just darn good writing.
Maisie Cothay is a special 16-year old girl–not only because she was born of a dead mother, but because she comes from a long line of cursed women, going back to 591 AD. Maisie has never known the touch of human flesh–she was born with the power to kill or resurrect at her slightest touch–and therefore has been sequestered to her mother’s ancestral home at the edge of the wood and raised by her anthropologist father.
Peter Cothay sees Maisie more as an experiment than daughter and has warned her of venturing into the woods. Local folks speak of strange occurrences in the forest, people disappearing, etc. but what Maisie doesn’t know is her female ancestors have all vanished in these woods, never to emerge again.
And then her father goes missing. Maisie must venture out to find him. This is where that classic hero’s tale emerges, bringing forth the spirit of allegory, a dark, twisty atmosphere, and also the what it means to be a woman in our society.
I found the writing absolutely glimmered and Fine’s imagination is brilliantly dark, magical, and stunningly extraordinary. The backstory of the historical women enticed me most and I loved how far back (591 AD) we were able to ‘travel.’ WHAT SHOULD BE WILD is a study in literary layering, and is strikingly unique.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely Julia Fine to the author interview series.
Welcome, Julia! I was so intrigued with WHAT SHOULD BE WILD. I understand the seed for this story came from a radio piece about a brain-dead pregnant women in Texas…you took it a step (or two!) further: what if that mother were entirely dead? What would happen to the child? Can you talk a little about your initial spark—those first few days, or weeks—as the story germinated?
I wrote the first paragraph of the book immediately after hearing about Marlise Muñoz, a woman who was declared brain dead after a pulmonary embolism in 2013. She’d asked not to be on life support if ever under these circumstances, but because she was pregnant the hospital kept her on a ventilator anyway. The legal battle made the news, and as soon as I heard about it I started wondering what it would be like for her child were there any possibility of survival. I was doing a lot of reading about old growth forests—where death is literally fertilizer for new life—and was fascinated by the questions of agency at play in this particular situation. What is it about women’s bodies that both scares our society and simultaneously seems to demand such paternal control? How have issues of female agency changed over the past several hundred years—or have they really changed at all? Why are women socialized to placate and please, and what would happen if we decided to reject those roles? Maisie’s power over life and death seemed like the perfect metaphor to explore female bodily autonomy, legacies of trauma, and the way stories—both those we tell ourselves and those others tell us—form our identities.
Like me, you’re a Chicago writer—but WHAT SHOULD BE WILD isn’t exactly set here. Is it?! In fact, I am not really sure where we are and that leads to some of its charm. Where did you see the setting of WHAT SHOULD BE WILD—and does setting really matter or is it more a sense of ‘atmosphere?’ Also, can you tell us what informed Maisie’s ancestral home?
I’m drawing on British history as the model for the situations the Blakely women find themselves in, and the landscape is semi-British, but I really see the book as taking place in a fairy tale space. In keeping with the themes of doubling and shadows, Maisie’s world is a shadow of our own, where folk traditions are still common and mythology is interwoven in the fabric of daily life.
I certainly think setting matters, though my definition of setting isn’t a literal place you can find on a map. Unless a book is really engaging with the culture and history of an actual place, I’m totally fine with not knowing where things are “officially” happening, as long as I have a sense of where they’re happening in relation to the rest of the story. I think about something like [Franz] Kafka’s THE TRIAL, which interrogates a culture of bureaucracy and urbanism without naming the city—setting is such a huge part of that book but we never get any actual names. Of course, this isn’t everyone’s taste, but in attempting to write a genre-blending, semi-allegorical fairy tale, I felt like a once-upon-a-time far off kingdom-type setting made more sense than an actual real world place.
The house itself is a blend of multiple influences. I’m a huge fan of Gothic fiction and so Wuthering Heights and Manderley and other great English literary manor houses were certainly on my mind. Urizon is also a manifestation of one of William Blake’s central poetic characters. Blake wrote and illustrated a whole mythology featuring Urizen, an old testament God figure who represented reason and order, rule-following, constraint, etc. and stood in opposition to the more feminine, rule-breaking, nature-inspired figures in Blake’s work. I loved the name (though changed both spelling and pronunciation to suit my purposes) and loved the idea of the house being a manifestation of the forces that lead to the Blakely ‘curse’.
I love, love the touches of nature. I feel like you must have done some major tree research. I quickly fell under the spell of the forest. Can you talk about your research, particularly when it comes to trees?
I did a lot of reading about trees—it’s amazing how magical forests actually are! Trees can send each other warnings, share resources, argue over space. Older trees parent their saplings, and feed the forest once they finally fall. It’s really not much of a stretch at all to imagine and write an enchanted forest, which is one of the reasons the woods are such a lasting character in fairy tales. I read a lot of science books—a highlight being The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben—but also older anthropological books about the influence of trees on European folk traditions and fairy tales, like The Forest in Folklore and Mythology by Alexander Porteous and The Golden Bough by James Frazer.
I’m in awe with how historical things get in WHAT SHOULD BE WILD—I mean, we’re talking 591 AD—that’s pretty impressive! What sources did you look to ensure historical accuracy—or did you?
Thank you! The historical parts were some of the most fun to write! It was important to me that the Blakely family stories be historically accurate, and much of my research was trying to perfect details and tone. Marina Warner’s book From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers was a huge influence, and inspired the particular women and historical periods I decided to focus on. So many fairy tales we still tell today are direct commentaries on social roles women were forced into at the time they were originally told, and I wanted to pay homage to these histories. I did a lot of index searching to make sure the language and details (proper names for places and characters, meals eaten, clothing worn) were accurate. I also read a lot of historical fiction that helped me get into the minds of the older characters: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I tried to find books that were written with immediacy and would help me tap into to what it would feel like to live in these particular time periods.
“Gorgeous and exhilarating.”
–Chicago Review of Books, The Best Books of 2018 So Far
I understand you teach at DePaul University and also worked closely with Audrey Niffeneger (THE TIME TRAVELERS WIFE, HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY) at Columbia College here in Chicago. 1) Is writing harder or easier because you teach and 2) Can you give us a little glimpse in what it was like working with Audrey?
I’m currently in between full-time teaching jobs, but hoping to head back soon. I’m still teaching part-time, though! (I have a six-week online course with Catapult coming in January.)
It can be harder to find the extended blocks of time to focus on my own work, but writing is definitely easier because I teach. Teaching helps me attend to the craft aspects of writing in a way I might not otherwise. I’ve always been someone who loves championing the art I’m currently obsessed with, and teaching lets me nerd-out about my favorite things in front of a captive audience while exploring how we all can become better artists and people because of them. I love seeing my students get excited about a piece of writing, or a way of looking at the world. It’s also immensely gratifying to pass along the wisdom I’ve learned from my own teachers, and to watch as students’ work improves over the length of a course.
I’m incredibly lucky to have gotten to work with Audrey Niffenegger—she’s a generous teacher and mentor, and an all around lovely human being. Audrey read my earliest drafts of this book as I was writing, and asked a lot of questions that shaped the direction I eventually took. She was never prescriptive, always just asking “what if” or “why” or “how” in a way that made me think about what I was trying to do, and what might happen if I turned the kaleidoscope ever so slightly. She also gave me excellent reading recommendations that were great fertilizer for my own work.
Julia this has been so fun. One last question—Maisie’s power was to kill or resurrect at her slightest touch—if you had a magical power, what might it be?
This is an easy one—I want either power over time, or the ability to live on only an hour of sleep a night. I have a one-year-old and I would love to be able to put him to bed and dive into my own work without feeling exhausted. Plus think of all the good TV I’d get to catch up on, the books I’d get to read…
I lied—was there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Can I use this space to talk about some recent books I’ve read and loved?
Good! I’m going to! This has been such an excellent year for women writers, and I haven’t been able to read as many books as I would like (as we just discussed!) but want to plug a few that really stood out to me: Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt, If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim, and Jell-O Girls by Allie Rowbottom. All three are books about subversive, scrappy women figuring out their roles in a male-dominated world. Each is beautifully written, and each made me cry, which is my litmus test for literary excellence.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of WHAT SHOULD BE WILD, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Julia Fine is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s MFA program. She lives in Chicago with her husband and their son.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of HarperCollins and used with permission. Artful book image created by L.Lindsay and remain in personal archives. Follow on Instagram @LeslieLindsay1]