I read Tara Ison’s first novel, A Child Out of Alcatraz, shortly after its publication in 1997. I’d spent a good chunk of my own adolescence in San Francisco living in Fort Mason while my father was stationed at Oakland Army Base, across the East Bay. At the time, Fort Mason was a smattering of standard-duplex base housing just steps away from the Marina. Whenever I needed room to breathe, I ran down the hill to the water, where the once-infamous Alcatraz prison loomed between San Francisco and Marin County. When my best friend gave me Ison’s novel, I was intrigued to read about everyday life long ago on that mysterious island during the decades that it served as a formidable prison. What I didn’t realize was that in reading it, I would find a little piece of myself—the experience of growing up female in a cloistered, patriarchal environment was not unlike my own experience growing up in a military family.
Since the late nineties, Tara Ison has asserted herself as a fierce feminist voice. In addition to A Child Out of Alcatraz, she has published two novels: The List (2011) and Rockaway (2013). Her latest short story collection, Ball (2015), challenges us to witness female characters breaking beyond convention, often placing themselves firmly within situations that move far beyond the comfortable. Likewise, her recently published essay collection, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies (2015), is an exploration of female identity through a cinematic lens both profoundly personal and political: a must-read for anyone who grew up searching for her reflection on the screen. Ison refuses to bow to the edict that women must be protected or sanctified. Instead, Ison’s women are free to act, think, and breathe on the page—to be fully human, to be flawed, to take up space, to occupy life in complicated ways. In her essay collection’s concluding piece, “How to be a Writer,” Tara Ison speaks to every woman who is struggling to find her purpose as writer in the current political climate when she asserts: “the writer’s job isn’t to save the world; it’s just to keep the faith, and write.”
As a fan of hers since her debut, I was thrilled to talk with Tara Ison about writing, feminism, and the female experience, particularly at a time when many women are experiencing new heights of fear and outrage, as well as the occasional spark of hope. I spoke with Ison by phone on February 17, 2017. Our conversation was, without a doubt, one of the sparks of my winter.
Melissa Benton Barker: I spent my high school years in San Francisco while my father was stationed at Oakland Army Base. My best friend and I read A Child Out of Alcatraz together shortly after it came out. The novel, which is about a girl whose father is a guard on Alcatraz, resonated with me because it was about a girl growing up within a patriarchal, authoritarian environment, and it reminded me of my experience growing up as a military brat. I felt like I was seeing this particular piece of my own experience represented in a book for the first time. In your acknowledgements, you wrote about your research process, including interviewing a man who grew up on Alcatraz, and who became hostile when you revealed that you were writing about a female protagonist, as if a girl’s story is not worth being written. How did you react to this?
Tara Ison: That was such an incredible moment for me, in that it clarified and focused and validated what I was trying to say. It hit me on a very visceral level. It hit me in my body—the dismissal of the female experience. But I didn’t fully appreciate or understand the power of what he was saying until a bit later. I couldn’t put it within the context of the larger dismissal of women’s experiences. I don’t know that I was able to tap into [my] anger about it. I can now. One thing I do remember feeling was gratitude that he was so open in his condescension and ignorance and arrogance in dismissing the female perspective. The mere casualness about it, his blatant casualness, his lack of shame in saying what he was saying, was a gift, because it really showed me in very clear words how prevalent that attitude still [was]. That was twenty years ago. Now we talk a lot about racism, bigotry, sexism and where is it hidden, when is it the soft bigotry and when is it in your face. There’s almost something to be said for when bigotry and prejudice is so in your face, because when it’s so open you can deal with it in an entirely different way. And you can confront and begin to appreciate the more subtle nuances of bigotry.
MBB: What drew you to writing the story of girls and women in this heightened patriarchal environment?
TI: I had always been interested in Alcatraz the way everybody is interested in Alcatraz. I had taken a tour of Alcatraz and somewhere in the tour there was one sentence about women and children, families of the prison staff who lived on the island. It was just one sentence, within this tour. It was this tossed-off comment, this passing reference and it was swallowed up by all of the other information about Alcatraz, the most threatening, foreboding place in the country. The violence, the brutality of the system, and the juxtaposition between [this and family life on Alcatraz] really stuck with me. I started researching [the lives of the families living on the island]. There was not a lot of information.
As I was researching the prison itself and how it was run, I began to see a parallel between the power structure of the prison—the triangle of warden, guard, inmate—and the classic nuclear family structure of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s of father, mother, child. They matched up in terms of the power dynamic, in terms of societal convention, the definition of roles, the definition of behavior, and I thought there was something there. In focusing on the story of a mother and daughter within this system, ideally I was revealing a larger dynamic that I wouldn’t necessarily feel qualified to discuss. I’m not a historian, I’m not a sociologist, but I could tell the story of this one woman and this one daughter and the juxtaposition of this female-centric experience set against this incredibly masculine, patriarchal structure.
I want to create a psychological or emotional aneurysm for my characters.
Something that I also wanted to be careful about was that it wasn’t as simple as the men were the villains and the women were the oppressed victims. I cared deeply about the father in the story, and I saw him almost every bit as much as a victim of the system as the women were. His need to fulfill what he felt was his role as a strong head of the family, the provider, the male presence, the patriarch—he didn’t know anything else. For him the definition of a man, a good husband, a good father, was something that he cared deeply about and he did the best he could with the model that he was given as well.
MBB: In your recent work, you represent the female experience in a way that pushes the reader beyond comfortable notions about feminine identity. Your 2015 short story collection, Ball, fearlessly portrays unexpected women: the vengeful, the shallow, the violent, the “crazy.” Would you talk about what drew you to the unexpected in these stories?
TI: The emotions that the women in these stories are experiencing to a large degree are the emotions that we all have. They are the darker angels of our nature. The pride, the fear, the anger, the jealousy, the insecurity. And I think to some degree we all experience those. We might be in denial about some of them, or we process them in healthy, very functional ways. I am interested in characters who get stuck in emotional turmoil that they can’t talk their way out of, they can’t process their way through. Very often they are unwilling to admit to themselves how deeply immersed they are in the dysfunctional dynamic or the disturbing emotions that they’re experiencing. I want to push them even one step further. I want to create a psychological or emotional aneurysm for my characters. I want to get them to the point where the pressure of either trying to deny the ugly emotions that they’re feeling or the pressure of just trying to restrain or redirect themselves fails until it tips them over the edge into a behavior or a coping mechanism that is not allowed. It’s beyond dysfunctional. Sometimes they get beyond disturbing, but it tips them over into a kind of darkness that isn’t allowed. It might be allowed in fiction. It’s certainly not allowed in real life. That moment is what interests me more than anything. It’s pushing the character just that one step further. I consider myself a realist writer, yet in some of the stories I slightly cross the line into fantastical or absurdist. I’m interested in that very fine line between what is real and what steps just slightly beyond that.
MBB: Do you consider the protagonists in “Ball” (who has an ultimately destructive relationship with her dog) or “Wig” (who is having an affair with her dying best friend’s husband) to be unsympathetic? What informed your choice to write through the lens of the unsympathetic character?
TI: The whole question of “unsympathetic” for writers is interesting in that we’re often told as a criticism that [our] characters are unsympathetic. The issue of whether [a character] is sympathetic: I don’t think that’s the right question to be asking. As a reader, I am not interested in sympathetic characters. I’m interested in characters I can relate to. I’m interested in characters I can understand. I don’t think I was ever consciously wondering—am I taking this character too far? Is this character unsympathetic? From that perspective, all of my characters are deeply unsympathetic. I can relate to all of the characters if not their ultimate behavior. I can relate to the darkness of some of their emotions. I always tell myself as a writer, as a woman, as a human being, if I can relate to that emotion, other people can relate to that emotion as well, and if I’m tapping into a kind of emotional/psychological/spiritual darkness, I don’t think I’m an outlier in identifying those dark places of the soul. I think that those exist within all of us, again, to varying degrees. And to varying degrees we deal, we process those darker aspects of our emotional life. So to me, my characters are just very human. Seriously flawed human, but very human. Even if I push them to behaviors that some might consider inhuman.
MBB: From a craft perspective, what techniques did you draw upon to allow the reader to relate to and/or see themselves in the flaws of these characters?
TI: For me, story always comes down to the question of what the character needs. There’s a Ken Kesey quote that anybody who’s ever had a class with me has heard me say a dozen times. It really gets to the core of storytelling. “Story is about somebody who needs something, and what he’s going to go through to get it.” That always brings me back to why I tell stories in the first place.
If the writer has a clear sense of what the character needs, then the story writes itself to some degree. A need is the fuel of the story.
If I look at “Ball,” if I look at “Wig,” if I look at any of the stories in the collection, the characters are consumed by a need for something. And the action that they take to get that need met becomes increasingly dysfunctional, dark, deranged, but I think that need is what defines us, what makes us human. If the writer has a clear sense of what the character needs, then the story writes itself to some degree. A need is the fuel of the story. Because we all have needs, that is what humanizes us. When I write a story or a novel, if I lose sight of what a character needs and what the obstacle to the need is, and what she is doing in order to overcome the obstacle, if I lose sight of that, I’ve wandered out of the story. And when I’m writing a story if I’m feeling lost or bored, or confused, adrift, I will stop and I will consciously ask myself those questions: What does my character need right now? What is the obstacle? What is it that my character is doing about it? [These questions] will always bring me back to the story in a way that allows the story to move forward and increase the narrative momentum.
MBB: Many of the stories in Ball are explicit in their depiction of female sexuality, which is an area that, unfortunately, remains relatively rare in literary fiction. It’s refreshing to read stories that include sexuality without centering the male perspective and male pleasure, while remaining explicit in their physicality. Sometimes women hesitate to write graphically about sexuality. Have you always felt comfortable doing so? If not, how did you arrive at this place?
TI: I have never felt comfortable writing about sex. I can’t imagine I ever will feel comfortable writing about sex. There are moments in those stories where I remember I sat there with my hands poised above the keyboard, unable to type out certain words or certain phrases, certain descriptions, because I was so incredibly uncomfortable with what I was doing. I was uncomfortable with the mechanics of it, because I have written many sentences of somebody getting dressed, or getting into a car, but I had very little experience in forming sentences drawing on explicit sexuality. From a mechanical perspective—what is the correct word to use, how to structure the sentence, how to avoid cliché—that was very difficult for me. I felt almost like I was having to create a new language for myself. Also, emotionally and psychologically, I felt very naked. I felt very exposed. I thought: are people going to attribute this kind of sexuality to me? If so, why should I care about that? Where do I end and the characters begin? But what I always tried to come back to in writing explicitly sexual scenes was the emotional context and the psychology. For my characters, sex is a means to an end, so it really does come back to what I was saying earlier, about what is it that the characters need in that particular moment and how they are using sex to try and get a need fulfilled. I think a little bit of explicit sexuality goes a long way. [I tried] to keep the balance of the explicitness of the sexual language, the sexual positioning, the description of sexual activity, with what is really fueling the scene. For me [the fuel of the scene] is rarely lust. It tends far more often to be a more vulnerable moment for the character, where the character is grappling with something very profound and sexuality is a way to work through it.
MBB: It’s helpful to hear that even as a seasoned writer you are still pushing through discomfort in your work.
TI: Yes, I’m working on a new story right now, and I’m really struggling. I want it to have a sexual dynamic. And it’s every bit as awkward for me as it has been with any story I’ve written in the past. I feel like I’ve never written about sex in my entire life. I don’t know how to do it. The struggle continues. The discomfort continues.
MBB: That’s probably what makes the writing so interesting. It seems like you went into a lot of cultural taboos with this book. I’m wondering if you received any pushback for choosing to write frankly about sexuality or about unsympathetic female characters? If so, how have you reacted to this?
TI: Absolutely. Not with every story. For example, the story “Bakery Girl,” which is one of the more sexually explicit, I was approached by a website called nerve.com that features very literary sexual writing. I knew that’s what they wanted, so I went into that story deliberately looking to explore a sexual dynamic in a relatively explicit way. I didn’t get any pushback on that one. But yes, for some of the other stories I’ve had editors who were hesitant, who questioned, do you really want to do this? The best example would be the story “Ball.” I had submitted the story to Tin House and I heard back from the editor: “Tara, I really like the story. I’m submitting it above me to the next level, and we’re curious, are you willing to change the ending?” This was my first published short story, by the way. I had a dark night of the soul. I emailed a former professor of mine from grad school who had read the story and I explained the situation and I said, “What do I do?” He wrote back and said, “Sometimes you really need to be open-minded and listen to your editor. The editor is very experienced, this is an outstanding journal, you want the story published, and sometimes it’s a good idea to do what the editor is asking you to do”—pause —“but not with this story.” And I thought, okay, I have permission to stick to my guts. I wrote the editor back this long, rambling, “I’m so sorry, I would really like to change the story because I’d hoped you’d accept it … but I cannot change the ending of the story.” And he wrote back and said, “No, no, no, I’m happy with the ending, but our senior editor is having a really hard time with it. I’ll keep trying.” It took about four months, and he wrote me back and said, “Okay, the story’s in.” I was very proud about that. Cut to many years later when the collection was being assembled, and my editor of the collection said, “The stories mostly have been published. There’s a little editing to do, but I do want to talk to you about the ending of the ‘Ball’ story.” He didn’t so much want me to change the ending, but he did want me to soften it a little bit. He wanted some revision to how I was phrasing a couple of things, and I said no. I wouldn’t change it. I changed other things. Revision can also be a very collaborative process. But you just have to listen to your gut as a writer, and that particular story was one that I’ve had to push back on, I’ve had to fight for, on more than one occasion. And it’s worked out. I’ve never regretted it. It’s probably one of my favorite stories.
MBB: In your 2015 collection of personal essays, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies, you depict the tension you’ve experienced between being a “good girl” and taking on more subversive identities, such as, to quote the chapter headings: Lolita, slut, drunk, and Mrs. Robinson. How does this tension inform the choices you find yourself making as a writer?
The whole thing with being a good girl—don’t make waves, get along with people, don’t be too loud, don’t be difficult, be responsible—I think that those are some aspects of womanhood, of femininity, that I, along with so many women, have internalized as a way to move through the world.
TI: The whole thing with being a good girl—don’t make waves, get along with people, don’t be too loud, don’t be difficult, be responsible—I think that those are some aspects of womanhood, of femininity, that I, along with so many women, have internalized as a way to move through the world. It might be the reason I’m a writer, because a lot of pressure builds up when you feel you should always be a good girl and play by the rules. Writing, for me, is an escape valve. It allows me to access, explore, depict, express, and communicate things about my experience of the world where I’m not such a good girl. It’s at a safe distance. My name is on the cover, my name is on the story, but I am able to fall back on, Hey, it’s fiction, it’s just a story, it’s a character I’ve created. To some degree, every character is an aspect of myself working through something I might not have the courage or the strength to deal with in my own real life, but I force my character to deal with some of those things.
MBB: If writing is an escape valve where you can express things that are “unacceptable to express” as a woman in our culture, was writing nonfiction, publishing this book of personal essays, a different experience for you?
TI: Yeah, there’s no scrim. With fiction, I can say, Oh, I make things up, I make characters up. I think that was why I didn’t feel either capable or interested in writing a straight memoir. I was interested in looking at this actual conflict between the roles we feel compelled to play in real life and the roles that are presented to us through cinema. That took it a little bit out of myself. It gave me something else to talk about. It gave me another way to explore some of the role-playing we do in real life in a larger context. I love movies, so I was really happy to talk about movies. But by working through some of these questions of sexuality, addiction, mental health, faith, creativity, all of the themes of the book, and by working through those in relationship to my relationship to characters—Mrs. Robinson, Lolita, Lillian Hellman—I was able to talk about those cinematic role models and their struggles as a way to illustrate my own questioning of different roles. Yes, it’s closer to home than fiction because I don’t have the ability to say this isn’t really me, but I had company in doing it. If I’m trying to figure out my feelings about having a sexual relationship with a man seventeen years my junior, I wasn’t alone in that because I had Mrs. Robinson keeping me company on that journey.
MBB: In January 2016, you published an article on Salon entitled, “Too stupid to be c*nts”: The new normal of toxic male entitlement on campus,” which deals with your experience as a professor being confronted with casual linguistic misogyny from a male student. The essay speaks to the everyday use of derogatory language directed towards women and girls. How do you think this has impacted our culture? How, if at all, have your views on this changed since the essay was written?
TI: First of all, that was not my title for the essay and I’m not really happy with the title. I was unhappy with the subtitle about toxic masculinity on campus because I thought it was a click-bait title. I was unhappy with defining the essay before somebody might have a chance to read the essay. To me, an essay is an exploration, an essay is inquiry, and once you term something toxic masculinity, that’s making a statement and it shuts down some of the inquiry of the essay itself. That aside, in the essay I refer to a phrase that Toni Morrison uses: “disinterested violence.” That kind of casual disparagement. That term you used, “casual linguistic misogyny” [reminds me of] the guy we talked about earlier, the guy [I interviewed about] Alcatraz, who was so open in his condescension and disparagement of women. The misogyny has become so casual and acceptable. [In the essay], here is this kid walking across campus, speaking very loudly on his cell phone, and speaking about women in an incredibly ugly way, and what was most uncomfortable to me about that moment was that he wasn’t riled up. He wasn’t venting. He wasn’t angry, even. He was casual about it. There’s something very, very disturbing about that casualness. In the essay, I was thinking about how once that kind of attitude gets watered down to the point where it’s permeating casual speech, casual conversation, it spreads. I think it can spread very, very easily, more so than a single violent outburst of anger can. Because people will immediately put their guard up against a rant. But this wasn’t a rant. It gets into the bloodstream more easily that way, and spreads more easily that way. And I don’t see it going away any time soon in our culture. I think if anything it’s spreading. That’s what I was looking to explore in the essay. My feeling is that it hasn’t changed, certainly in the last year. If anything, I’ve become even more discouraged at the level of discourse and I think a lot of people are grappling with this right now. The level of discourse has been so degraded and has descended to a level of such ignorance and intolerance and thoughtlessness. It’s happening everywhere, and it’s very disturbing.
MBB: In your commencement speech at the Antioch University Los Angeles MFA program in December 2016, you quoted Junot Diaz on the importance of providing human beings with a reflection of themselves, in order to prevent us from becoming monsters. [The quote is from Diaz’s speech at Bergen County Community College in Paramus, New Jersey: “If you want to make a human being a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”] In your opinion, how do readers benefit from seeing themselves reflected in literature? What do you see as the role of the writer in this particular political climate in the United States?
TI: There is a responsibility of the artist to reflect back upon ourselves, upon society, upon the world. When it is reflected back to us it inspires a kind of self-reflection, self-inquiry, that I think [is] a more subtle way of getting human beings to confront ourselves. It’s why, even though I write nonfiction, I still primarily think of myself as a fiction writer. You can disguise the interrogation. If you’re holding up characters grappling with things, it allows the reader, invites the reader, to reflect upon their own experiences, attitudes, beliefs, needs, struggles, behavior, in a friendlier way than direct confrontation. I think that’s the power of fiction. Conversely, the flip side to the reflection is that fiction, literature, allows us access into another human being’s inner life, their consciousness, their perspective, in a very unique way. I joke with my students that the only way to get into someone else’s head more intimately than fiction is with an MRI or a CAT scan. We are allowed access into another person’s experience through fiction in a way that we will never be allowed even to understand our best friends, or our siblings, or our parents. There’s a greater intimacy that is allowed in fiction. By the very nature of spending some time in another being’s heart and soul, it creates a sense of empathy; [it creates the] ability to appreciate our shared humanity. In addition to reflecting back on ourselves and ideally triggering a kind of self-inquiry into our own thoughts, feelings, behaviors, it allows us to begin to understand the experience of other human beings.
MBB: As we wrap up our interview, do you have any last words of wisdom for emerging feminist writers?
TI: I feel that anything I want to say diminishes how hard it is. What I want to say is: Don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks or tells you. Be fearless. Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke. Tell your truth. Be strong. We need your voice. But that’s all easier said than done, and those sound to me like cheery slogans. There’s so much work to be done. I am terrified with every sentence I write. But we have to do it. And we have to keep telling women’s stories and being true to their experience.