Molly Gaudry on Influences, Doll Houses, Desire, and the Next Book, an Interview
Updated: Mar 21, 2020
What you see before you is a room in a tiny house made for dolls, a doll house actually, embodying the spaces of Molly Gaudry's literary work, made by Molly Gaudry.
While I'd run into her at past AWPs, had interviewed her for a writers' craft related series in 2016, and had been watching her social media for years, we began to talk in-depth quite recently when I noticed not just the dollhouse project she was working on, but also the tiny books she had begun to create to fit into this dollhouse featured above. Then, more miraculously for someone like me who can hardly make a Christmas ornament that doesn't look toddleresque and full of craft-making failure, she offered other authors on her private page that she would make a tiny version of their own book. Just upload your cover, she said. Of course, I was seduced by this, and I will show you her version of my collection Suspended Heart, later, held in her very hand. But for now, enjoy the view of her book Desire, A Haunting on a tiny dollhouse bed and note that later Molly and I will chat about how this dollhouse she's made with Desire nested in it may fit into her next forthcoming book Fit Into Me. It's all very meta.
If you aren't familiar with her work, Molly's poetic prose is vivid, dense, layered, minimalist, so many things I admire. I am pleased to share this interview with you below--where we talk about dollhouses, books, desire, hobbyhorses, and influences.
Grab a cup of coffee and hang out for a spell
(As an aside, I am thrilled to feature the work of such a talented literary woman on this blog and hope to do more of this in the near future. I also hope that we, women in literature, will do more about supporting each other and the innovative work we do, particularly during this COVID-19 period of social distancing!)
Fowler: Hi, Molly. Thanks for making time to chat with me! You know I've been a longtime fan, so I'll jump right in with my most burning questions. As in the emptiness of this stripped room below, the image of which I Iove for this precise emptiness, you're constantly, or often, at play with the unsaid in your narratives, such as in your novel in verse We Take Me Apart. Can you speak to the role of white space in your work?
Gaudry: I didn’t intentionally set out to make use of white space in We Take Me Apart. I just know that at some point I made a decision to break my lines at commas and periods, and consequently the white space took on the energy of breath, of pause.
This led to a particular rhythmic tic that the narrator had and that I wanted to reproduce and pass down to her daughter, who narrates the sequel, Desire. But I didn’t want to just end stop everything again.
I wanted my second book to be bolder, to take more risks—in content and in form. I spent a lot of time rethinking my line breaks. The daughter’s voice had to sound like her mother’s, but I needed it to look different on the page. Ultimately, it ended up taking several years to figure out the breaks, to decide upon consistently different white spaces to signify different punctuation. White-space commas before a line of dialogue looks different from white-space commas in the middle of sentences.
White-space periods after dialogue looks different from white-space periods at the end of sentences. I hope that once the reader figures out my “code,” which should only take the length of the Prologue, ideally, that they can then read the text with ease, while appreciating that every page looks different, that every page looks like an erasure, that the book’s form performs the book’s genre (ghost story) and content, in that my narrator’s version of the violent event revealed at the end of We Take Me Apart is a re-vision of her mother’s version of the event. Two versions of the same event, two truths, two subjectivities, can exist side by side and complicate or enrich each other. At least, that’s one small message I hope these books, together, communicate.
Fowler: I am so looking forward to reading all the connected narratives and think I will reread them all together at once when they're all available, as in binge read. There's always more to see in deeper readings of your work. I can see Anne Carson’s and Marguerite Duras’ influences in the excerpt you sent me of your next book, Fit Into Me, for example. You also quote Sappho and Atwood. *The reader has a little swoon all to herself*. What else influenced this new work?
Gaudry: Mostly, I just want Fit Into Me to enlarge the world that I began to create in my first two books, as it focuses on a character called the tea house woman, who appeared as bride-to-be in We Take Me Apart and then as widow in Desire. Now, her story takes center stage, and unlike my other books Fit Into Me sticks strictly to realism. Lately, I’ve been calling this book “my turducken” (thanks, Samyak Shertok!) because it’s a collection of essays, inside of which is a novella, inside of which are poetic sequences, and collaged into all of these are literary quotations about reading and writing and love and sex and life and death. In the Prologue and first chapter alone, I’ve included lines that have changed me, changed my thinking, changed my writing, lines by Salman Rushdie, Bruno Bettelheim, Kelly Flanagan, Rebecca Solnit, Charlotte Brontë, Sara Ahmed, Roald Dahl, Jeanette Winterson, Melanie Kimball, Kate Bernheimer, John Keats, Walt Whitman, Carole Maso, Andre Dubus III, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Arundhati Roy, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Mary Barnard, Louise Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Amy Bloom, Truman Capote, Bernadette Mayer, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Gustave Flaubert, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, J. M. Barrie, and Charles Chesnutt. Of these, perhaps the most suggestive for what this book is about are Burnett’s (“Everything’s a story. You are a story—I am a story.”) and Mayer’s (“it’s only fair for a woman to come more / think of all the times they didn’t care”).
Fowler: What is the role of footnotes rather than direct quotes in your work?
Gaudry: So, when I incorporate other authors’ lines into my own, I don’t use quotation marks. Their sentences fit into mine. But I mark these lines and footnote the authors’ names. I’m debating now whether I should also add the full citation, maybe using Chicago Style? When I read from Fit Into Me, I show slides of the quotations that include the authors’ names and book titles. Today, though, as I type this now and try to tell myself to make a decision once and for all, I think the full citations are too much, too clunky at the bottoms of my pages, and End Notes would probably disrupt the flow too much. Tomorrow, though, I’ll likely go back to thinking they’re necessary.
Fowler: How many books on desire did you read to find so many quotes that could fit so neatly into adjacent language?
Gaudry: I didn’t, intentionally. I keep notebooks of quotations, and finally, with this manuscript, I’ve been able to make use of my ever-growing collection.
Fowler: I love this collection. When I see a quote about love or love's failure go by in your social media feed, it often causes me a pause, an abrupt intake of breath. But your process itself also fascinates me, probably because I love hybridity and employ it myself, especially in the context of genre-bending. How did you come upon a strategy of the fusion of fiction and non-fiction in your work?
Gaudry: In 2014, I began writing about the tea house woman (these fragments are online at Necessary Fiction), and then, during the summer of 2015, I realized I could fit these fragments into some of my blog posts, that together they resonated more deeply than either did on its own, and then that led to incorporating diary entries, writing-journal excerpts, reading notes, found quotations, etc. It took maybe a month or two for me to fit these all together, and once I had some time away and could come back and assess the whole somewhat objectively, I began to think maybe I had something. Now, in late 2019, I’m taking one final pass at this manuscript, and my primary focus is ratcheting up the tension between the nonfiction and fiction. For instance, in one essay, I write about being a Korean adoptee, about my Russian-Hungarian mother and my father’s (most likely) French-Canadian ancestry. In the fictional world, my tea house woman is the first mixed-race tea house woman in a long line of Korean tea house women, and she’s wrestling with her confusion about whether a Russian-Hungarian / French-Canadian / Korean woman has any business running her family business.
Fowler: Identity is pivotal in so many narratives. I can see it even in the possessions we give characters in books. What do you think are your hobbyhorses, your themes you continue to revisit with your work?
Gaudry: Love, sex, women, family, violence, trauma, death.
Fowler: All the big ones that shape women's narratives so intensively! I see that...and, not coincidentally, I notice you have a way of giving honor to other female authors in literature in this work, giving honor to feminist content by women that celebrates the cerebral nature women are capable of embodying in their analysis of the primal and the erotic against the losses they sustain when or if erotic fulfillment becomes their only currency in the world of men. Was the exclusion of male authors from reference in most of the footnotes deliberate?
Gaudry: At first, yes, I did exclude men. But in my last revision I added them. The Dickens and Whitman and Keats lines, among others, are gorgeous. But I made the decision because the first line of Fit Into Me, the first line of the Prologue that is titled “Fit Into Me,” has always been: “Because I am an orphan.” Then one day I was rereading Midnight’s Children, and there was that line, even including the capitalized “Because” at the beginning, which was not insignificant. I wanted to ignore this coincidence, but because “Because” was there, ultimately I chose to quote the line and footnote Rushdie. It serves to signal to the reader that this is what I’m up to—all this quoting and incorporating—from the start. It also raises the question: “Which came first?” And in many ways that’s what this book is flirting with—did the nonfiction inspire the fiction or did the fiction inspire the nonfiction? The old life v. art debate, I suppose.
Fowler: In the excerpt of Fit I read, you discuss writing and completing Desire: A Haunting, your second book of a five-book series, and that strange space of pause between one oeuvre and another—moving from Desire to Fit.
I find it terrifying to even think about whether I’ll move forward long enough to finish whatever book I’m currently writing, one could say in conscious denial pretending I don’t care whether a full book results from whatever I’m writing until a whole draft is done. Talking about it too much before a whole draft diffuses and destroys my will to write the rest. You’ve committed so far ahead of creation. Is it an act of courage to commit to five books at once? Do you think in sagas?
Gaudry: I don’t think in sagas, but sometimes I wish I did. Instead, these books are tangentially related. We Take Me Apart is narrated by a traveling dressmaker (who at some point comes to the tea house and makes the tea house woman’s wedding dress before moving on). Desire is narrated by her daughter, Rose, who becomes the tea house woman’s foster daughter and grows up at the tea house, but then leaves and lives happily-ever-after after marrying the ghost of Pearl Prynne. Fit Into Me is about the tea house woman after Rose leaves. My next book, The History of Beauty and the Beast: A Novel, begins with Pearl Prynne, alive and well and “the richest heiress of her day,” living abroad, marrying a merchant, and having many children, the youngest of whom is Beauty (sort of, there’s a switched-at-birth and adoption plotline in Madame Villeneuve’s 1740 version, which is the one I’m retelling). My fifth book, The Queen, is a mash-up and a retelling of the Beast’s mother’s story (she wages war against neighboring kingdoms and fights on the front lines leading her troops after the king dies, for decades) and the story of St. Olga of Kiev (who also wages war and utterly obliterates her enemies after her husband’s death). The Beast’s mother and Olga have the same motives—to not remarry, and to preserve their kingdoms for their sons.
Fowler: When did you know this would become a five volume series?
Gaudry: I didn’t. Jason Cook at Ampersand offered to reprint We Take Me Apart after Mud Luscious Press shut down. We began talking about my next book, and he offered to publish it as well. One thing led to another and we found ourselves committed to five.
Fowler: Shout out to Jason Cook! It's great you have support for such a long term project. How much say in an editorial capacity does your publisher have?
Gaudry: A lot. I’ll say again: a lot. In many ways, Desire was a collaborative effort. I sent Jason some new pages about a ghost, and he liked them, asked for more, and as fast as I could write them he read and responded to them. I’d call him sometimes and talk out my ideas, ask him to weigh in on whether this should happen or that should happen instead. We’d discuss and debate, and then I’d go write and he would read and lather, rinse, repeat. Things were different, though, for Fit. Jason weighed in on the fiction after I’d finished, but the nonfiction all came as a surprise to him, I think. Moving forward, I know he’s just letting me write Beauty, even though I’m fairly certain he’s not as psyched about it as the others, but in exchange I’m writing The Queen for him, at his request. Like I said, it’s a very collaborative process. And he’s got a lot of say in it.
Fowler: How much more is there to write of the current book and how long will we wait for it? This interest is purely selfish.
Gaudry: Fit Into Me will be done by April 2020, and so it should be published no later than 2021/2022.
Fowler: Though I've been showing some pictures of it, we haven’t much talked about your doll house yet and how it fits into Fit Into Me. Can you tell me more about what drew you to miniatures?
Gaudry: I was sort of obsessed with @ibuildsmallthings and @lavenderbelle_miniatures on Instagram. The way they’ve made these incredible 1:12 scale miniature houses, the way they photograph their creations to trick us into thinking they’re full-size interior spaces. But often, these two in particular, include their hands in the photographs, revealing the truth of their illusions. I began to wonder, though, what it was about these photographs that so captivated me, and I realized: these accounts, like novels, offer fictional, fantastic worlds that invite viewers to imagine themselves into them, or to imagine themselves just outside of these worlds but looking in. It’s a different kind of storytelling, and at least as far as Fit Into Me is concerned, there was a clear connection between their stories and mine—the interplay between fiction and nonfiction, illusion and reality, imagination and experience.
Fowler: Your dollhouse project first caught my eye as I watched the rooms coming together when you posted them on social media. As each new image emerged, I felt a surfeit of awe, thinking: How does she make such elegant representations of life so very, very small? Tell me, how did you conceive of building the tea house woman’s actual house, as a doll house, with so many intricate features?
Gaudry: Last academic year, I was working six different jobs. Around April, one by one they dropped away until I only had two jobs. I was exhausted but didn’t really know it until July, when suddenly I had no jobs and nothing to do but write. I had about three-and-a-half weeks before the first of my jobs would start back up again, and I had looked forward to this short break all year—these few weeks to get to deep-dive into my revision, to give it my full attention. But I couldn’t do it. A day went by, and then another. I couldn’t let that time pass without doing something, so on a whim I searched our local classifieds for dollhouses, and someone in Utah had an antique version of the exact model I wanted (it’s got two open sides, not just one). Even better, it wasn’t perfect. It was Pepto-pink outside, and for the most part unfinished inside. Bare, particle-board walls, etc. It was made to be renovated. So I bought it. And I got to work. Every day, I would wake up and say, Today I will take down the wallpaper, Today I will paint the kitchen walls, Today I will cut the floorboards, Today I will lay the floorboards, Today I will install the lights. And every day, I saw progress. Looking back, I think that’s what I needed. I needed to be doing something creative, to be working with my hands, to be making progress on something, on anything. And the tasks themselves were largely repetitive—prime the attic, paint the attic, cut the floorboards, lay the floorboards, etc. And yet, they required just enough concentration that my mind didn’t wander to more serious stuff. For whatever reason, I couldn’t think about more serious stuff. All I could do was prime, paint, cut, lay, stain, sand, paint, seal, install. By August the house was done and I was back to three jobs again. I haven’t dealt with the house, or even really looked at it, at all since then, except to move it, and in the process break a banister, which I haven’t fixed.
Fowler: I understand that the occupation of making the house turned out to be the restorative thing for you, but is there any possibility the house could exist as generative to text at a future subconscious level—or could create its own postlude of imagery? There seem to be so many possibilities.
Gaudry: Seriously, for the past several months I’ve been really annoyed about how much space it’s taking up in my living room. I wondered, frequently, what to do with it. I thought it had served its purpose, it was proof of my having created something in a short amount of time. And maybe that was supposed to be enough? For a while, I considered using it for some kind of art installation—maybe projecting images of the house onto a gallery’s walls, and then documenting real people as they moved in and out of the rooms. Then, after I decided that all sounded like way too much work, I mostly leaned toward donating the thing to Shriner’s. The problem was, it’s not
a toy, and just about everything inside the house is a choking hazard and if not a choking hazard still fragile beyond belief, and that’s why I gave up that idea. I think, more than anything else, I really did just need that mindless and easy manual labor for those few weeks, to create not with words but in a new and different way.
Fowler: It's funny to hear you speak of getting rid of it now. I'd imagined as you were making such beautiful tiny rooms, replete with furnishings and dishes and flooring and lights, that you must have found new details in your imaginary literary settings as a result of the real construction of things, the selection of miniatures, and that they enchanted you. They certainly enchanted me. Even so, if the project feels complete and less useful now, do you imagine the doll house and that labor of building it, of remembering having made all those choices, will inform some aspects of your awareness?
Gaudry: You’re right, yes. I have a house in my house, and when I renovated it I did set out to make the tea house from my books, and now as I finish up Fit Into Me, I have actually revised and written new chapters as a result of being able to actually see and interact with this house. I’m also considering adding an essay about the history of doll houses. Which came first? The tea house or the doll house? Art v. life v. art, I guess, right?
Fowler: Right. Doll houses have such long and varied histories. Either would be interesting to read. Let's chat now about those days, months ago, when you offered the authors you know to add tiny little copies of their books into that house. The tiny copy you made of my collection Suspended Heart (See below how she added a wineglass with it on the table!) seemed quite appropriate to add to your flow of narratives concerning desire—not to mention the mirroring or echoing of placing tiny books in a tiny house that exists in a larger narrative that also references other books. This I kept finding absolutely continuously fascinating in the way of a mobius strip. It’s almost an infinity concept. As you deliberate on which photographic images of this house (which I'm sure you'll keep) and which items within it may be used in combinatory play with your future text or art, what will inform this decision? If it were me, I would hoard some of the cool little miniature things. I would put a few in stories. I might sneak a few into friends' purses or backpacks to astonish them. It would be hard to let all the physical objects go.
Gaudry: It’s funny because, right now, I don’t remember what’s in the house. I’d have to go look at it to see what’s on the shelves, what patterns of china I picked out, if I did or didn’t buy a rug for Sam’s bedroom, if any of the stuff has fallen off the walls, and I know I bought a ton of cakes and pies and desserts but I don’t remember the details. And the idea of going back and taking a look, for the first time in many months, just sparked a little joy for me—the thought of taking a little bit of time to look at all those tiny details. I definitely spent the most time, effort, and money on the kitchen, so I remember certain things there with more clarity—a First Aid kit filled with bandages, a fire extinguisher, a stand mixer, dozens of brown and white eggs, open shelving overflowing with glassware, martini glasses, juice glasses, wine glasses, beer mugs, coffee mugs, latte mugs. I’m actually really glad we’re doing this interview, Heather, and that you asked me these questions, because maybe what I’ve just realized is that I needed time away from the finished product to be able to see it from a new perspective, to go back now with a writer’s eye, to see what I made and to be inspired by the possibilities of what I might use and how.
Fowler: My pleasure, Molly! You had me in the palm of your talented hand! So glad you could chat with me today. Best of luck with all five books of the series. I can't wait to read them.