Hybrid Interview: Rebecca Kuder
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re happy to share this conversation between Rebecca Kuder and Jahzerah Brooks, who also essays about Kuder’s novel, The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival. —CRAFT
Essay by Jahzerah Brooks •
The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival is, at its core, a story about tearing down and building up. In this debut novel set against the backdrop of a working carnival and a wartime munitions factory, Rebecca Kuder explores what it means to be a woman suspended between two selves, and between two men, in a world that sells amusement on one side of the stream and death on the other.
The central character, Mim, has been swept up by a destructive tornado and dropped near the carnival. As the narrative opens, she has no knowledge of who she is or where she belongs. Rescued by the carnival’s fortune-teller, Cleopatra, and her ostrich, Beatrice, Mim is offered work, recuperation, and a place to call home. As Mim heals and finds family among the carnies, she learns that she has developed a gift. She can see into the memories of others. As she explores her new supernatural ability and tries to make herself useful among the fortune-tellers, Mim becomes a pawn pulled between two long-standing male rivals. These heady sources of tension propel the novel’s plot.
Moreover, Kuder frequently uses sound to mirror these intense plot points. The novel opens in the aftermath of the tornado—filled with violent sound—that brought Mim to the carnival:
Misery, a grinding symphony. Drums, cymbals, shouts, and trumpets, a cacophony of sting, rip, ache. Outside her surrounding thickness, she heard water, its constant call, and not far away. And other sounds. Not watery. The sounds came closer. Words moving toward her.
Indeed, the carnival itself is loud, with its constant clanking of rusted metal. At the munitions factory, the machines groan and the air is filled with the laughter and bickering of the immature men who work there. Yet Kuder also peppers her rhythmically paced novel with the noises of the internal: Mim’s vivid visions of others’ memories, the quiet intimacies she shares with her lovers, the easy camaraderie between the carnies. Characters navigate this novel via Kuder’s distinct sense of sound on the page. Kuder writes that “the whole room undulated like a flock of crows in the wind” as the metal in Suspender’s most recent creations churned in his private workshop. Yet, even as Mim withstands so much noise, Suspender’s memories reveal themselves to her in the silence, in the beats between the sounds of his contraptions and his words.
Interestingly, Kuder chooses a setting that is dominated by men to tell a story that is essentially about women. The women, not the men, nurse Mim back to health, clarify for her the workings of her own body. While Lo-Lo, the cook, feeds her, it is a stranger, “the old woman,” who gives Mim the book What Every Girl Should Know, and it is Cleopatra who explains to Mim that she has become pregnant. While Mim’s lovers, Beede and Suspender, set sights on her for their own use, the women make room for her unusual talent:
“Nelda, you never ask me about seeing things,” Mim said.
“What should I ask?”
“About it,” Mim said.
“Do you want to tell me something?”
“I’ll leave your mystery alone. It’s not hurting anyone.”
While the men of the novel offer Mim seeming urgency, the female characters are the true pulse of the novel. The male characters simply seek revenge. They seek to satisfy the needs that remain from their pasts, while the female characters move and grow through their lack of justice. They build where they stand. The story is their story. Cleopatra, Nelda, and Mim are the pegs that hold the Eight Mile Suspended Carnival to the earth and keep all the men from getting lost in the private tornados of lust, rejection, and violence. The women are solid, even in a world where they can be captured by great storms.
In The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival, Rebecca Kuder examines how so many of us are suspended between the past and the present, between what we remember and what we must overcome.
Jahzerah Brooks: The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival is your first novel and you were working on it, in this world, for around ten years?
Rebecca Kuder: Yeah, something like that.
JB: So it’s grown with you?
RK: It really has. It’s one of the challenges, something that takes a long time. [At times] I’ve set it aside and done a ton of other writing. I think that no one can write post-2020 without having a completely different lens on everything. And so, I’m glad that I was able to revise and really reconsider things post- and during the pandemic.
JB: Why did you choose a carnival as your setting?
RK: At first I chose a carnival because of the deception and illusion and all the tricky things you can do. The idea of perception has always been really fascinating to me, unreliable narrators. Playing with perception has always been something interesting.
JB: Is the world of this carnival dark or bright?
RK: The setting? I see it as fairly dark. It’s very rusty. Everything has a patina of rust. It’s dry, so there’s rust and dust everywhere. I see it as a dust bowl. It finally does rain and then there’s moss over everything. I see it as fairly dark although there’s certainly color at the carnival. But it’s also a dusty color. Everything is sort of distressed or patinaed or whatever. Also it’s tired. The carnival has sort of been there languishing and waiting. And it’s time to move on. It’s time to let go of the past baggage and trauma.
JB: You placed the munitions factory, what you call the “death pill factory,” and The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival right across the river from each other. War and folly are within walking distance. Does this novel, for you, speak to the human need to continue on with life even as the strange and unfamiliar take place in close proximity?
RK: I love this question. And I do think of these people as survivors. How do we survive our experiences? How do we survive crafting death pills, breathing in all that death all day? How do we survive even the impulse to create? Is a creation of Suspender’s ever good enough, does it ever live up to what he envisioned? How do we survive creating something that disappoints the inner child, the one who had such a perfect vision? How do we live with ourselves as we pour toxic sludge into the river, just hoping it will flow downstream where we don’t have to deal with it? And when whatever drama we were playing out is done, how can we gather the energy to pack up and move on, or just get out of bed each day? I really don’t know. I have a feeling this question is going to roll around in my head for some time.
JB: With Mim, your protagonist, is there something to learn from her? She remains steady and determined even as she’s in a land of illusions. She’s able to discover herself, to just be herself even though she doesn’t really remember anything, as she is in every way in the middle of a never-ending carnival.
RK: What we can learn from Mim is the idea of resilience. Even though we don’t remember consciously what has made us and formed us. I’ve forgotten a lot of things in my life, some of the stories and the things that have forged us into the strong, resilient people that we are now. Even our vulnerability as humans forms us.
JB: I’m afraid of what I don’t remember. Is Mim? Is that why she can see into others’ memories and not her own?
RK: Maybe? I don’t know. I think—I did have to follow the question for her. At what point does she stop seeking who she is? Because she stops asking. She’s like, okay, she’s resigned to the fact that this is who she is, that she doesn’t have a past. She certainly doesn’t have access to her own past. I think she has some anxiety about it.
I needed it to not be too casual. When I was considering what the story was I had to ask myself, What is driving her? Is it to find home? Definitely. There’s a tornado. Definitely there’s the Dorothy thing, but is that her biggest need? I decided her biggest need was to find a home, to have a place to belong. So at some point she had to accept that she doesn’t know, and despite the fact that she doesn’t remember, she has survived thus far. So those things keep her alive really. Trauma is like that. We have gaps that we can’t put language to.
JB: At one point it seemed like Mim might use her gifts for evil. She was almost used as a pawn. However, later in the novel Suspender’s desire to use her shifts. She’s no longer a pawn. Were you intentional about that, keeping her in control?
RK: At a point, in early drafts, because I lived with this novel for a long time, she did not have a lot of agency. In fact, she was fairly mute in some ways. Not literally but she was traumatized and shaken. A baby being born doesn’t speak at first, if we think of it as birth. More and more as I went along I allowed her to have more agency. And sometimes I literally took other people’s dialogue and put it in her mouth. Which was interesting, and I only did it when I felt like it was legit. I felt, and maybe this is from the theater, I felt I needed to give her more lines at times. She would be in the scene and people were talking at her as if she wasn’t there. Some early readers of this novel gave me some good advice that she needed to have more agency. It was a challenge to have a mute protagonist who doesn’t remember anything. She’s totally disoriented. She’s all torn up. It was hard. It was a weird setup and I had to evolve her and let her have more lines.
JB: Your novel explores how its male characters were torn apart. However, it’s the women who rebuild and endure. The novel is written closely, emotionally. Is this a novel about the strength of women? How does The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival speak to the structure of family? Do you think that it does?
RK: At some point, I remember realizing that maybe this story was turning into a certain type of noir fiction. I remember thinking that maybe dudes would find that interesting. As time went on and my feminism awoke and named/pronounced herself, I sort of sifted and sifted the layers of the story through what I thought was (hope is?) a feminist lens. I don’t know why I thought the sort of hard-boiledness would appeal to men more than women, or that I had to even consider who, on the continuum of genders, my novel should appeal to. I don’t know that I got to solid ground about that.
The notion of a bunch of performers and inventors getting together to do crimes is really amusing to me. I wanted the carnival to be a place with its own ecosystem, a place of pacifism and some type of enlightenment, not exactly beyond patriarchy (Suspender is the boss) but somehow egalitarian. I love the idea of fighting evil and commerce via contraption, improvisation, and moxie, or whatever. But the carnival is not beyond commerce. They need guests to exist. But they are about engaging what I consider noble and clean and authentic in humanity (imagination) versus selling wares for destruction.
And you understood what I was trying to do in terms of the novel ultimately being centered on the women. I started writing this novel a million years ago. I’ve grown up as a human since then. And so especially in terms of confronting patriarchy and white supremacy, I’m always asking myself if/how I’m unconsciously falling into the crusty, violent old stories. I don’t want to be blind to the old stories and defaults. I want to write toward a better world. (Which reminds me of the book, Craft in the Real World, which is really great.)
JB: Before we go, is there anything that you want the reader to know before they begin the book?
RK: I just really want people to have fun. As adults we, some of us, learn to leave behind the sort of joy of imagination. If someone picks up this book, I hope they enjoy it but also [I hope they remember] the importance of play. I think the imagination is something that we need to survive much more than we need to defend our terrain by way of war or whatever. I would love people to be sort of taken away and have fun. I just hope people pick it up and enjoy it. I want people to enjoy my novel.
I also want to say how I love What Books Press, an imprint of the Glass Table Collective. It’s really interesting how they do things. I really love their aesthetic.
REBECCA KUDER’s debut novel, The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival, was published by What Books Press. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Hags on Fire, Bayou Magazine, Shadows & Tall Trees, Lunch Ticket, Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volumes 3 & 5, The Rumpus, and Crooked Houses. She received an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles, and an individual artist excellence award from the Ohio Arts Council. Rebecca lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with the writer Robert Freeman Wexler and their child.
JAHZERAH BROOKS is a writer and mother living in Dayton, Ohio. She is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles and her writing can be found on Lunch Ticket. She is an assistant editor at The Boiler and a reader at CRAFT. She is currently working on her first novel.