A Conversation With Best Debut Short Stories 2020 Author Willa C. Richards
“I wanted to portray the pain of trying to reach someone who is inside their own, unreachable pain, and how this often puts untenable pressure on relationships.”
Willa C. Richards is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote Fellow. Her debut novel, The Comfort of Monsters, is forthcoming with Harper (2021).
“Failure to Thrive” was originally published in The Paris Review.
Alice read John Mark’s letter, her eyes narrowed, as I paced our tiny apartment. The envelope contained instructions for retrieving two sets of human remains from the University of Florida. I sometimes worked for John Mark, the director of the Milwaukee Public Museum, in exchange for modest paychecks and access to the museum’s research collection. I often did the jobs the museum interns refused to do, like retrieving artifacts originally accessioned by the MPM from other institutions and bringing them back to Milwaukee. I hadn’t taken one of these jobs since before Tess was born, afraid to leave her or Alice, but we were so poor we had begun to eat only the casseroles Alice’s mother sent over in weekly batches.
Alice tossed the letter on the coffee table. She wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead. I thought about how sweaty she used to get after her long runs up and down the Beerline. How good her skin tasted. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone running.
“So you want to go?”
“I don’t,” she said.
“I’ll drop you at your mother’s, then.”
Alice’s mother refused to speak to me because we’d had Tess out of wedlock. Once, she’d called the apartment, and when I picked up the phone, she whispered, You’re my penance, William. She loved Tess, it was obvious, but she acted as if Alice were a single mother. Their relationship had become fraught.
“Like hell you will,” Alice said.
I threw my hands up. “What then? We need this money.”
“Shush,” Alice whispered. “You’ll wake her.” She was right; Tess began then to make low, wet noises from the other room.
Where did you find the idea for this story?
Both of my parents are archaeologists. Once when my younger sister and I were teenagers we took a road trip with our parents to return human remains to the institution that originally housed them. At the time, the situation hadn’t seemed all that strange to me. My mother is an osteologist. Her research is concerned with historic cemeteries, so road tripping with skeletons hadn’t seemed out of the ordinary to us. Though of course when I relayed this story to my peers, I could see how bizarre it was. “Failure” was very loosely inspired by that trip, but it really grew and flourished around the characters themselves.
How long did it take you to write this story?
The first draft of this story took me a few months. I started it in January 2015 and then I workshopped the first draft of it at Iowa in March 2015 or somewhere around then. But I revised the draft that appears in The Paris Review on and off for probably four years.
“Failure to Thrive” looks very plainly at the tolls of motherhood, both on the body and the mind. While Alice, a new mother, is recovering from an exceptionally difficult delivery and a case of mastitis, she is also dealing with what appears to be postpartum depression. What drew you to these issues, and why did you decide to explore them from the perspective of Alice’s partner William, rather than Alice herself?
I come from a very large family. My mother gave birth to five children naturally and I’ve always loved listening to her talk about being pregnant and about her experiences with childbirth. I think these are topics that women talk a lot about amongst themselves, but whenever they’re portrayed on TV or in movies, it’s always the same narrative image—sweating, screaming woman and out pops baby. There’s very little discussion of the medical logistics of childbirth in our popular culture, and almost no descriptions of the healing process afterwards. Both my sisters had caesarean deliveries with their babies, and my oldest sister, though she’d planned a natural birth, went through a very difficult delivery with her son. That was the summer before I wrote “Failure.” I’ve been very affected by my sisters’ experiences. But I’ve also always been fascinated by motherhood, and especially the intersections of motherhood, personhood, (women’s careers), and sexuality, and how much women are asked to juggle when it comes to these issues.
This story was one of three in a linked set. The first story, in which Alice and William meet, was from Alice’s perspective. Alice, a burgeoning archaeologist herself, becomes unexpectedly pregnant, and she considers an abortion because, among other reasons, she believes a child will squash her career plans. I thought it would be interesting to have the second story from Will’s perspective, so that I could explore the ways our loved ones can so quickly and quietly become estranged from us on account of trauma, most especially when that trauma is not shared. I wanted to portray the pain of trying to reach someone who is inside their own, unreachable pain, and how this often puts untenable pressure on relationships. Will can’t know what she is going through—how does he navigate this? How does he manage his own emotional and physical needs given that situation? Further, what does sex mean to us at different times in our relationships? How do we use or maybe even abuse sex to solve the unsolvable issues in our lives?
Alice and William have—we can gather by the way they communicate and the descriptions of their sex—an intense and, in the story’s present moment, fraught partnership. We also know that although Alice is “the actual osteologist” in the family, it is William who accepts a job to retrieve human remains from a university, while Alice takes care of the baby. Can you talk a bit about their relationship, both in its past iterations and its present state, and what you wanted to explore by putting them in tight spaces from start to finish—from the car, to a small hotel room, a pool instead of the ocean?
The first story I wrote about Alice and William describes the beginning of their relationship and attempts to portray that very fiery, sexy time in a relationship where two people are falling in love, not just with one another, but with the current circumstances they find themselves in together. If that makes sense.
Archaeology is one of those careers that very much blends the professional and the personal—often you might live with the people you work with for weeks or even months on end. Often you’re working very closely with these people under difficult circumstances. Bonding is inevitable. The first story explores this moment in their relationship where they’re falling in love, but also loving what they’re doing at that specific moment—which is working in the field together.
I wanted to juxtapose this history with their present moment in “Failure” in which Alice is no longer working, is no longer pursuing her career, and has subsequently shut down both physically and emotionally. The impetus to keep putting them in small places was meant to be a juxtaposition to the previous story wherein everything, for Alice at least, felt expansive, and possible—they were living outside, working outside, moving all the time. I wanted “Failure” to feel like the opposite of that—the stagnation, the claustrophobia, the trapped feeling that both Alice and Will are experiencing in this new phase of their relationship.
I also wanted the spaces they inhabited to be small, because it puts additional pressure on their lack of physical intimacy. Will is always noticing how close together they are, but how physically distanced their bodies remain.
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
The prize came at a really crucial time for me. I was finishing another set of edits on my novel, and my agent was getting ready to go out with the book to publishers. To put it bluntly, I was a wreck. This gave me a much-needed boost of confidence going into what is a very daunting process. I’m so grateful to Emily Nemens for taking a chance on the story, and I’m equally grateful to the amazing PEN judges for selecting “Failure.” It’s been such a great experience working with the editors at Catapult, and it’s a huge honor to be anthologized with so many incredible debut stories. Writing can be a very lonely endeavor so it’s always rewarding when the product helps you to connect to other writers and to a wider readership.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on edits to my novel, The Comfort of Monsters, which Harper is publishing summer 2021. After that, I hope to get back to edits on some other short stories, and I’d like to work on a few different screenwriting projects. And then starting another novel!
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
I always enjoy picking up the Best American Short Stories each year. It’s often populated by a few of the usual suspects, but I think the rotating editors always do a good job of making sure there are fresh voices in there, too. And I always get recs from other writers—people I went to school with, my friends, etc. My PhD advisor Valerie Laken was on a roll with her recs last year—I kept going back to her and asking for more and more! But I also very much miss wandering aimlessly through bookstores and picking up whatever catches my eye. I’m looking forward to when it’s safe enough to do so again!