Hybrid Interview: Ariel Gore
Welcome to our new hybrid interview series, in which we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. Kicking this series off is Melissa Benton Barker, writing about Ariel Gore’s We Were Witches. The essay is followed by a conversation between the two, about structure, plot and non-plot, inverting Freytag, magic, and more. —CRAFT
Essay by Melissa Benton Barker •
In this cultural moment when bodies and embodied experiences that resist conforming to the cisgender, heterosexual male norm are increasingly marginalized and criminalized, Ariel Gore’s We Were Witches, feminist novel and anti-shame manifesto, offers a blueprint of writing craft as both a radical disruption of the patriarchy and a powerful healing tool for those who live outside the patriarchy’s prescribed norms. When the embodied experience of the writer defies these norms by virtue of being female, queer, or raising children outside of the hetero-capitalist nuclear family, then to disrupt the systems that shroud the subject in shame is to heal from the damage perpetrated by these systems. Ariel Gore disrupts shame by naming it and by her refusal to normalize a society that continually marginalizes, punishes, and places at risk feminine bodies, queer bodies, and the bodies of children. In We Were Witches, words become “a magical spell, like an alchemical furnace, built with the conscious intention of transmuting shame into power.”
Form follows content, ergo this furnace of a novel is written outside the traditional narrative arc of Freytag’s pyramid. Classified as a novel because it straddles the narrowing space between memoir and fiction, We Were Witches is the story of a young writer named Ariel Gore as a teenage mother—living in poverty, juggling parenting and college life as she uncovers her identity and her power as a writer, a queer woman, a mother, and a witch. The text is comprised of short chapters, tracing the mostly linear story of Ariel’s journey from young mother coping with poverty, shame, and her burgeoning independence to a place of self-realization and refusal of shame. These chapters are written in past tense, from first-person point of view, a form that mirrors the traditional memoir. But here, the linear tradition is challenged as Gore interweaves young Ariel’s story with the stories of familiar archetypes and historical figures as well as conversations with mentors and wise women, both living and from the beyond. To this effect, Gore writes: “…we would build altars to Artemis and to Tillie Olsen and to Mary TallMountain and to Maya Angelou and to Adrienne Rich and to Audre Lorde and to Luisah Teish and to my Gammie Evelyn, who I still loved like a tomato.” In addition, the text is punctuated with tragicomic lists, such as “Things That Are Red Besides the Scarlet Letter,” “White Lady Feminism 101,” “Insults Reserved for the Feminine Besides ‘Brazen Hussy,’” and infused with spells to ward off evil neighbors and to keep money flowing, etc. The resulting tapestry is beyond anything found in a traditional memoir or coming-of-age story. By tying her story to archetype and infusing it with magic and humor, Gore expands the personal to the universal.
We Were Witches takes the power of truth-telling a step further by Gore’s use of fabulism as a tool to open space for healing and renegotiating trauma, much like narrative and somatic therapeutic practices where one is invited to reimagine and renegotiate experience by bringing in whatever it was that one would have needed to feel safe at the time of the trauma. This narrative technique brings the reader in as a close witness to healing. In one of the novel’s early scenes, for example, the goddess Artemis appears in the aftermath of a traumatic birth, arrows at the ready to take down the medical professionals who have callously disfigured the body of the young narrator who has just given birth to her daughter. The appearance of Artemis nudges the text into the realm of fiction, according to traditional ideas about narrative “truth,” just as the appearance of the goddess proclaims to the reader that we are now entering new narrative territory, a text that opens space for an adolescent girl lying in a hospital bed to claim her power: “…Artemis appears—head of a goddess, body of a deer—a day late, shooting arrows into the necks of the doctor and my boyfriend. They both fall, bleeding from their jugulars…. I gesture toward the fallen men as Artemis rides on.” Reading this, and reflecting on my own wounds, I wondered how Gore’s bold choice to reclaim her own history had transmuted her experience, and whether this potential space could be opened for others—words wielded at the intersection of craft, healing, and identity. If magic is one of the ways that the historically marginalized have found voice and power, then here is narrative at its most primal: communicating the story of the self, an intimate communication binding the reader and the writer—the craft of writing as a magical, alchemical tool.
I spoke with Ariel Gore by phone on April 29, 2019, curious to hear her thoughts on writing and healing from shame, and on finding her way out of the patriarchal pyramid. The following are excerpts from our conversation. —Melissa Benton Barker
Melissa Benton Barker: We Were Witches is classified as a “novel,” yet the main character, a young writer and mother, is named “Ariel Gore,” leading the reader to assume the bones of the book may be closer to memoir than fiction. How did you walk the line between these two genres?
Ariel Gore: I wanted to free myself from the truth of memoir, the journalistic truth, and yet still be telling my story. I also really wanted it to be this meditation on shame. My idea was that through the process of writing you could go back into different periods of real life and take your power back. So what I would do is write a scene exactly as it had occurred in real life, but I would let the moon wink at me—something where I could have some support that I didn’t really have at that time. And of course I have characters turn into possums while they’re talking to me and you can’t really call that nonfiction.
MBB: In this book, you wrote: “My words could form a magical spell, like an alchemical furnace, built with the conscious intention of transmuting shame into power.” Can you speak to the notion of writing as an act of revolutionary self-healing?
AG: I do think [the process] works. I’ve talked with other writers and have read about writing as a way to heal from trauma…and it’s probably not the only thing one needs to do to heal, but for me it’s really the most powerful. It’s the reason I’m a writer and it’s the reason I make art. It’s a way to make sense of my life and it’s a way to heal from trauma and chaos…. With this book I felt like I powered through a lot of that and integrated a lot in a way that I hadn’t been able to do in my other writing.
MBB: Early on in We Were Witches your narrator asks: “What would happen if we inverted Freytag’s pyramid?” How did you find your way out of the pyramid? What advice would you give to other writers who are interested in exploring different structures?
AG: With a book length project you need a structure…. A lot of times when we want to go outside traditional plot structure, [we] say things like: “I’m gonna have no structure at all.” It’s fun to experiment with anything, so I wouldn’t necessarily discourage that, but for a book-length project it’s hard to wrap your mind around that. The utility of story is to make sense of chaotic experience. Even though your real life may not have a satisfying arc, that’s the thing about making art out of it, you want to give it more meaning than you got to feel in the experience before you turned it into art. So I was just playing with different things, like if you’re looking at Freytag’s pyramid, what would it look like if we turned it upside down? Or what is it you’re resisting in terms of a hero’s journey? Well, I’m not a hero, and I don’t want to tell a story from a single perspective, so starting to play with what it would look like if my experience was, in fact, reflected in story structure. What would that be like? Somebody made up [Freytag’s pyramid] and so you can make something up that’s just as valid.
MBB: It’s rare for women to find experiences of childbirth, breastfeeding, and female sexuality, let alone queer female sexuality, represented in literature. Did you ever find yourself faced with difficulty or resistance–either internal or external–as you wrote about the body? If so, how did you overcome?
AG: It’s something that we’re all discouraged from writing about, women and femmes and nonbinary people are really taught that their bodies are not right, and that the experiences we have with our bodies don’t have a place within story. Again, we’re working with these super-patriarchal models of storytelling. I think the message as a woman writer, a lot of times, is that you should just deny the body. I came up in a very feminist subculture, and some of that culture was very body positive and sex positive and childbirth positive, and some of it was more like: “No, if we talk about these things then that’s going to be a bigger vulnerability in a man’s world, so shut it down, don’t talk about breastfeeding. My God, you’ll give them an excuse not to employ you!”
This kind of feminist writing is something I’ve been working with a long time and it’s certainly a way that…readers connect to the work, and at the same time I think it’s a way that my work has been marginalized. So I think both feminist camps that I’m talking about were right.
MBB: The other taboo that you write about is money and poverty. The novel explicitly confronts the role capitalism plays in the oppression of women. In fact, student loans, as you wrote in the penultimate chapter, are the worm in the apple of your happy ending. Can you talk about your decision to include the banking system as one of your antagonists?
AG: I think it [goes back to] this question of shame…. When I was working on the book I just kept going back to [the question of], what have I felt ashamed of? What have other people tried to make me feel ashamed of? It’s money and sexuality and your female body that are the big shame balls. I didn’t want to do a happy ending in part because that would have wrecked my idea of disrupting the plot line. I actually tried to end on a more tragic note. I tried a couple of drafts of that, and I couldn’t do it—because we’re happy! When I was working on this book I wrote an article about my student loans…. You have these giant student loans that you’ll never be able to pay off and you’re always getting tricked into some higher interest rate. It’s so embarrassing, like: “I can’t even believe I got snagged in this classic trap.” But if you start talking about it, you find out that half the people you know are in [the same] situation, and the other half are completely embarrassed because they didn’t finish college, so everyone is just steeped in shame around their education or lack of, and the people who had their education paid for, they certainly can’t open their mouths, because everyone will hate them.
MBB: So by putting it out there you’re lessening that collective shame.
AG: I hope so. Also looking at the fact that these aren’t all personal failures, these are systemic things that are quite easy to get snared in.
MBB: In We Were Witches, feminist elders, such as Tillie Olsen, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Gloria Anzaldua, act as mentors, wise women, and spirit guides. I felt like I was witnessing the young character “Ariel” becoming one of the wise women through the act of writing her story, and now I imagine women integrating words from your text into their own journey. Can you talk about your process of inviting feminist elders into your narrative? Why was this important to you?
AG: Thinking about my character, at that time in my life I was, in a way, extremely isolated. I didn’t have that many friends who I talked to—the general isolation of the American mother, and all the more so when you’re a single mom in suburbia at a college where there’s an intellectual life but where no one has kids…. [But] I didn’t feel all that isolated all the time, and what was going on in terms of my lack of loneliness was these relationships that I had with writers living and dead, where I had a relationship with their books, really. And then in my imagination I had a relationship with them, so I liked bringing them in as real characters.
When I was working on the book I thought, I’ll just make a list of all my teachers, and this book is going to be a kind of document in honor of my teachers, whether they were my professors or my friends or my daughter or the feminist writers, I was going to bring them in as equal character…. I had an editor, Megan Kruse, read an early draft of the book when it was really not making any sense because I was just having the hardest time with how to make a non-plot structure work. Megan really liked [the appearance of] these teachers throughout and she said one way you could do it is just have these altars that you build throughout the book, whether they were to Cinderella or Adrienne Rich or Augustine Gleizes…so I went through and [gave them each] their chapter or spotlight moment. Really, I’m treating it almost devotionally.
MBB: Your forthcoming work is titled: Hexing the Patriarchy: 26 Potions, Spells, and Magical Elixirs to Embolden the Resistance. Is there anything you could share today about the role of magic in the current battles we are facing as women in our culture?
AG: Hexing the Patriarchy is a collection of spells from a lot of different witches and magical practitioners. It jumps from some themes in We Were Witches when my character is understanding what it would mean to be a witch and looking at both the historical and political implications of that, but also the magical implication. If the world tells you you have no power, but you’re a witch, then you do have power, you do have agency, and you do feel that sense of empowerment to face your life and still insist on having some power in it and still insist on having joy. In Hexing the Patriarchy I jumped off from that mindset and offered all these spells to destroy capitalism, destroy patriarchy.
MBB: Is magic a part of your writing process?
AG: Definitely. I use a lot of automatic writing exercises when I’m working on stuff, I talk to spirits when I’m working on stuff, if I’m stuck with a plot I’ll draw a few tarot cards and think, okay, I’m just going to take the plot in this direction no matter what the tarot cards say, and then I have to do it! So I think it’s both a way to tap into artistic intuition but also a way to allow for more chaos in a narrative structure. A cool thing for me in the experience of writing We Were Witches was bringing that magic into the narrative more than I had previously in my writing. It gave me the chance to see how integrated everything is, that I’m not a writer and a mother and a witch, I’m not all those identities and practices separately. They’re very much integrated in my life. I appreciate that you haven’t asked me how I find time to write when I’m a mother, but that’s a question that a lot of people ask. For me, personally, it’s partly because I never separated all the parts of my life, and that was one gift of being a really young mother—I never got into this child-free work habit that I would imagine is very hard to get out of once it’s entrenched.
MBB. I feel like we’ve been fed a myth that you can’t do those two acts together. Would you agree that your life speaks to breaking that myth of the dichotomy between writing and parenting?
AG: Absolutely. In some ways it is a male model of “profession” that says that anything we call work has to be removed from the domestic, or it’s not work. Those things are so hard to pull apart. We have to leave behind the old questions.
ARIEL GORE is the founding editor and publisher of Hip Mama. Her novels and memoirs include The End of Eve, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, All the Pretty People, How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead, The Mother Trip, and The Hip Mama Survival Guide. We Were Witches was a finalist for the 2018 Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Fiction. Ariel Gore’s writing workshops can be found on The Literary Kitchen. Her forthcoming work, Hexing the Patriarchy: 26 Potions, Spells, and Magical Elixirs to Embolden the Resistance will be released in October 2019.
MELISSA BENTON BARKER’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Moon City Review, Jellyfish Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. She lives in Ohio with her family, and is currently completing her first collection of short fiction.