FLESH OF MY FLESH:
A Conversation with Tatiana Ryckman
by Kaitlyn Andrews-Rice
Tatiana Ryckman is the author of the novella, I Don't Think of You (Until I Do) (Future Tense Books), and two chapbooks of prose. She is the Editor of Awst Press and has been a writer in residence at Yaddo, Arthub, and 100W. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Lithub, Paper Darts, Barrelhouse, Split Lip, and other publications.
I was lucky enough to hear Tatiana read from I Don't Think of You (Until I Do) during the Split Lip/Future Tense Books AWP18 reading. I was taken with her concise, hypnotic prose that is simultaneously sexy and devotional. I immediately wanted to talk to her about writing, life, and God, and I wanted to know her secrets, how she could write about human longing and carnal desire in such a small space. I Don't Think of You (Until I Do) may be small, both in length and physical size, but its ideas are huge. Tatiana and I chatted recently over email to discuss her book, her writing process, and the relationship between faith and love.
Kaitlyn Andrews-Rice: First, I have to ask about the physical size of I Don't Think of You (Until I Do). It's perfectly pocket-sized. I'm not religious but it reminds me of a pocket-sized devotional or prayer book (which Google tells me is a thing). How much did you envision the look and layout of the book before you started writing?
Tatiana Ryckman: Well I didn't know I was writing a book when I started. I had only written one chunk of it (section 1) and I thought it was a stand-alone piece. So, to that extent, I envisioned it not at all. But over time, after the book had taken shape, it did occur to me that a smaller format would be better. I thought of Chloe Caldwell's Women and Maggie Nelson's Bluets and how nice those are to hold--they indeed feel very "devotional", which seems fitting for the subject matter of all three of these books is as well.
KAR: So interesting to me that you didn’t know you were writing a book! I always find that my best work comes about when I don’t have any expectations of what it’s going to be. When I start thinking “Oh, this is my novel, this is my important story,” nothing good ever happens. I become almost paralyzed by my own expectations. When you're starting something new, are you always coming from a place of “I don’t know what this is going to be?”
TR: Oh god yes. The summer I wrote the majority of I Don’t Think of You I was bitterly disappointed in myself. That summer I also edited the first manuscript for Awst Press (David Olimpio’s This is Not a Confession), as well as another title for sunnyoutside press, and had written a short story for each card in the Tarot and wrote a chapbook with this great artist, Clayton Kalman (it’s called Chance Meatings and is just a bunch of weird meat stories), and was co-hosting a podcast and running an artist residency and when August came I looked back and just thought, “I haven’t done anything.” It wasn’t until later, when I went through my piles of papers that I realized I had any material at all.
I worry that sounds self-congratulatory, but what I mean is that the only way for me to write is to trick myself. It’s a sleight of hand more than anything. I always need something else to distract the eye so I don’t see that I’m writing. Because--just as you’ve said--making a plan and thinking it’s Important is a kiss of death.
So, I don’t know that I always start from a place of acknowledging that I don’t know what something is going to be, as much as I can’t let myself know.
KAR: Do you have a writing routine? Can you write in public? (I’m writing to you from a coffee shop where I’m supposed to be working but mostly I’m listening to a man's conference call. He really loves spreadsheets.)
TR: Because of the reasons mentioned above, I am very afraid of acknowledging any sort of routine if I have one. This is also difficult to respond to because after I finished editing my book last year I couldn’t write at all. I had no interest in reading or writing. Only last week did I start reading or jotting any lines down, and it felt like a very noteworthy event. I’m afraid of jinxing my modest progress, so I’ll leave it at that.
This is of course not what I instruct my students to do. A regular writing practice is advised over staring at the wall.
KAR: There's an undercurrent of religious devotion throughout the book. You write about an almost animalistic devotion, the idea that to fully understand something you have to consume it, a subversion of the Catholic taking communion.
In 1.3. "I am not a cannibal, but how else could I execute the full expression of my desire to consume you, for my cells to know you, for my body to be your body.' and in 1.9 "I repeated Flesh of my flesh."
Talk to me about religion. How much of a role does faith play in your work? What's the intersection between love and religion? Do both require a faith leap (pun intended), a belief in something you can never fully know?
TR: Religion doesn't play a role in my work except that I've avoided it for so long! It felt like a very big step to include the allusions to religion that are in this book. I grew up in a very strict, religious household and have found that, even if I reject the content of the program, it's impossible to undo all of the programming itself--the mental pathways and deep grooves in thinking. So, naturally religion plays a role in my work, but I think I'm many years away from understanding how and being in control of it. Maybe I'll never be?
I think the idea of devotion is shared by both love and religion. But that doesn't make it a good thing. If you're trained in sacrificing everything about yourself for The One, but you have no one, I suspect you'd spend your whole life trying to make someone into your private god so as not to confront the absence of self. It's a way that love and religion can intersect, and have at times for me, but I don't know that I'd recommend it. And for the last part of your question--do love and religion share a requisite lack of knowability--I would give a resounding yes, and that is so much of what I was trying to parse out in this book. The narrator is constantly fighting their own devotion because they recognize that their own worship erases the beloved, making them into a sort of doll to be manipulated at whim from afar. Eventually, in the presence of the beloved, the narrator worries that they're "getting to know each other too well to really like each other." (I think that's the quote! I don't have the book in front of me and may be a little off...)
But I also think that self-awareness--knowing how little one knows--is key to maintaining the sense of wonder rather than, you know, believing you've become god yourself. I think religious extremism and toxic love are the result of losing our sense of curiosity and believing we can know the mystical Other. How often in our lives do we have the feeling of being known perfectly? To then assume we are ourselves capable of such a feat is comically self-aggrandizing.
KAR: Do you think writers write to explore the things they don’t yet understand about themselves? I wonder if it’s our own way of “undoing the programming” as you say? Or at least attempting to?
TR: That seems likely. Though I would assume it’s not always known at the time that that’s what’s happening. The religious aspects in the book sort of snuck in, and then when I saw them in the editing process it was a thread that I was able to deliberately develop.
KAR: I took a religion course during undergrad. Pretty sure the title was “Introduction to World Religions,” and we met from 6-910pm in a basement classroom that smelled like popcorn. I don’t remember much from the class, but I do remember my professor, frazzled and wrinkled, saying with 100% seriousness (paraphrasing): "People try to fill the hole in their heart with stuff, cars, vacations, shoes, pants, lipstick, and when that doesn’t work, they want more. It’s not until they try God that they stop wanting.”
At the time, I found this to be 1. Unsettling and 2. Accurate, and I think it speaks to your book. This idea that us wanting love is just another way of avoiding the absence of self. In 4.8, the narrator says, "I had faith that the faraway, real you could be animated by the you I told everything to in my mind, that you were there no matter where you were. A childhood friend from church once told me, That’s how I feel about God.”
But now I'm thinking my undergrad professor was wrong? Isn’t religion just another version of love? Isn't the pleasure in the waiting and wanting, not in the getting?
KAR: Just to take a break from God for a moment, how about a craft question? I love the genderless narrator, how the reader can insert themselves into this book. And this is another subversion: a romance that isn't necessarily about a woman pining over a man. Did you know the narrator would be genderless from the beginning?
TR: Thank you for asking!
The first section I wrote did not have any gendered pronouns or descriptions, and honestly I didn't notice. It wasn't until later, when I had no other projects and kept writing these little notes just to be writing something, and a gender popped up that I realized they were unnecessary. I decided to keep the characters genderless for the reason you identified--the reader can insert themselves into the work. I am increasingly drawn to work which necessitates active participation from the viewer/reader/listener to be itself, and this was an accidental precursor to that. For a brief moment I toyed with the idea of not giving any characters genders, but trying to get around the gender of "dad" did not seem worth however clever I would feel for accomplishing it, so I gave that up. Otherwise it was fairly easy to maintain. Unless one is sending very explicit sexual messages to their beloved, there's very little reason to refer to one's own or another's gender. It was reassuring somehow to think that in romance--an area where gender can seem so important--gender might not particularly matter.
KAR: I have to quote from my favorite section before we talk about something a little more lighthearted. In 3.5 ,“My feeling for you was like the feeling everyone has a few weeks after a global tragedy. The disconnect between the grocery store and war rendering everything meaningless. What is senseless about killing when meat is on sale?”
I couldn't help but think of our current political situation. Sometimes writing feels frivolous. Who cares about Submittable when the government is on fire? It seems like your book is a conversation between competing priorities, between being human and being a citizen. Is it foolish to care about love? Or maybe it isn’t foolish at all?
TR: Is it foolish to care about love, or is love—as mentioned above—the only fucking thing that matters? And I don’t mean love as I’ve described it in the book, which is indulgent and selfish, I mean a love that is more like the mycelium of mushrooms, some invisible web that tells me I care about you and my boss and the lady standing in front of the pickles at the grocery store for a very long time. I don’t think it’s foolish, I think it’s what stops us from being tyrants.
As for the other part—writing feeling frivolous—it’s hard enough as an artist to convince yourself that your work is worth making because probably no one is valuing it with the one metric by which our society determines value (money). I don’t know that we benefit from further crippling ourselves with current events.
Many of my writer and artist friends have expressed this same sentiment—that writing and making art feels like a silly waste of energy in the face of mass shootings and deportations and pending nuclear threats and foreign tampering in democratic elections. And yet. I’d say the thing that makes terrorism (a word I’ll use loosely to describe anything that causes terror, such as the news) so awful—and so effective—is not that people die or suffer in the direct face of that violence, but the resulting debilitating fear that stops everyone from living their lives. From going to the movies, or walking to school, or making art. It is another sort of death that reaches far beyond the measurable impact of the tragedy.
KAR: For the record, the man at this coffee shop is done with his conference call so it feels appropriate to now ask about writing "which requires active participation from the reader viewer/reader/listener to be itself." This is fascinating to me! I find that strict form often helps to open my writing up. In a weird way, self-imposed parameters allow me to say what I really mean. So while some people might call these kinds of conceits clever, I think they’re just a way of getting more and more honest with what a writer is trying to say. Did you feel that here?
TR: I too love arbitrary confines, Oulipo exercises for example have always pushed me out of my ruts of language and well-worn grooves of thinking.
And while I can’t claim there is any intentional or intelligent mapping that links I Don’t Think of You to this work, when I first read Dante’s Inferno I was amazed by the obsessive structure—the 3 works of 33 cantos with the introduction making an even 100. When I wrote the first chapter made up of ten sections, I saw this as an opportunity to try my hand at that repeating structure, and that was the formal limitation that I forced myself into.
However, I believe you’re referring to the confines of genderlessness. I found that much less limiting than the narrator’s behavior. Why, my preliminary readers kept asking, is this person still doing this? And so I had to challenge myself to be less coddling of my protagonist. Sometimes while writing, I find myself with my head cocked to the side like a dog listening to a far-off squeal beyond the frequency of human hearing. There is this inner listening that needs to happen and I don’t pretend to be any good at it. The best I’ve learned to do is admit I’m an asshole. Which is to say, to be frank with myself about my human flaws. This is a gift I tried to share with the narrator. They were not the victim of fated romance, I realized, but the director of their own failures—because as you noted above, it’s the wanting one wants, and the only way to protect desire is to sabotage its fulfillment.
KAR: I love this idea of listening beyond the frequency. I feel like there is always an instinct for writers to make fun of or judge a character’s bad behavior, but I think the best stuff comes when writers try to understand their character(s), flaws and all.
I wonder if you can apply this listening concept to revision. One thing I loved about your book is the succinct and compact descriptions. Using only a few words you set the scene. For example, in 3.9, “The beige concrete of the South slipped by my window at a speed above the posted limit, and my skin clung to the car seat.”
Did this voice come immediately in the first draft or did you have to find it in revision? How do you suggest writers find the voice of their piece?
TR: It is a struggle, and I rarely succeed, but I try not to judge people—real or fictional—even when I think I know better than they do. I know this is something we’re all supposed to say. But I’ve had this line “I am an ear of corn with all the meat cut off, I am crippled by listening” looping in my head, which is an inelegant line, but I think conveys more closely what I mean. It’s not just “reserving judgment” as Nick Carraway’s father would have us do, which allows for the judgment to wait in the wings, it’s literally setting one’s ability to judge—and therefore the whole self—aside. To let parts of the self atrophy and wither like unused limbs. Killing one’s self in this way is deeply painful, and is probably what made editing this book so hard for me. I was very depressed for a long time. But it is also optimistic. It requires faith that the thing that will grow in that limb’s place will be better evolved. To my own mild embarrassment, I can’t help but think of this line from Nada Surf’s song, “Popular.” “I propose we support a one-month limit on going steady. I think it will keep people more able to deal with weird situations, and get to know more people.” It is the sarcastic tone of the rest of this verse that fills me with glee, but somehow this first bit feels applicable insofar as judging others keeps us from getting to know more people, and makes what would ideally be weird situations into debilitating commentaries on the state of the world today and our ability to understand one another. If we are unwilling to try to understand, I do not know what language is for. Or art. Or living, or any of it.
I’m very glad to hear you appreciate how succinct the book is. I’m afraid I can’t write any other way. A few people have asked if it was difficult to “cut it back” which I find hilarious because it took the expert coaching of two editors at Future Tense to get me to add another 1,000 words—an increase of more than 10%. I literally struggled to add description such as the one you quoted above. “Who cares about what it looked like!” I kept saying to myself. But they were right, and I’m glad I did it.
How does one find one’s voice? I don’t know. I could maybe tell someone how to find my voice: Attempt to look at everything cooly and objectively, and then fail miserably. But I suppose only “one” knows how to find “one’s” voice. It always surprises me when I learn that my friends work differently than I do. My dear friend Jon-Michael Frank listens to music constantly including while he works. I think that would kill me. I’d never be able to hear myself. (Perhaps I am still too quiet?)* The one bit of advice I give my students, though, and actually take myself is the only thing I have any faith in in terms of practice, and that is to be available to it. I have written in the bathtub, while driving, in church, at the gynecologist, in the middle of the night, at work, while hiking, while lying in bed with someone new. Which is not to say that I’m always working, just that when it happens I will put everything aside for it.
KAR: I have to end with my typical Split Lip interview question: Do you write to music? If so, what kind?
TR: *See above.
I absolutely cannot write to music. It’s too much. I get sucked into it. I would just end up writing all the lyrics to whatever I’m listening to. There is no such thing as background music as far as I can tell.
KAR: If your book were an album, what would it be?
TR: This is so hard! I do associate the book with Tina Turner because I listened to “What’s Love Got to Do with It” about a million times around the time I was editing it. But I don’t know that that’s the right album. Probably The Hate Yourself Change by Neva Dinova, or Paper Television by The Blow. They both do such a wonderful job of vacillating between tender and broken and self-defeating (and sometimes a little pissed off).