Rita Bullwinkel - “I was the type of man who got his ears cleaned,” “People kept dying and I was made to sleep in their beds,” “There was a period of my life in which my primary source of income came from being a piece of furniture”
Rita Bullwinkel, Belly Up, A Strange Object, 2018.
story Black Tongue
story In the South the Sand Winds are Our Greatest Enemy
BELLY UP is a story collection that contains ghosts, mediums, a lover obsessed with the sound of harps tuning, teenage girls who believe they are actually plants, gulag prisoners who outsmart a terrible warden, and carnivorous churches. Throughout these grotesque and tender stories, characters question the bodies they've been given and what their bodies require to be sustained.
"These stunning stories take place in the spaces between ordinary objects and events. They are mysterious, strange, and fearlessly funny in their expression of human isolation, and they contain the existential surprises of great literature. BELLY UP is a powerful debut by an unusually gifted writer."--Lorrie Moore
"At the intersection of the surreal and the real, Rita Bullwinkel has carved out a unique space in which the mundane and the strange cohabitate and sometimes frolic. The sharp, precise writing and careful observations of the human condition in her excellent first collection BELLY UP signal the debut of a major new talent."--Jeff VanderMeer
"Bullwinkel's delightful, passionate stories of disturbance and worried words have the best kind of frenetic energy."--Deb Olin Unferth
Characters obsess over physical and emotional metamorphoses in this debut collection.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses lurks in the DNA of these 17 stories, as characters reckon with the changing forms of the bodies (and minds) they are in. Two teen girls fantasize about turning into plants, using the story of Apollo and Daphne as their model, after they are sexually harassed (“Arms Overhead”). Bullwinkel also writes movingly of the late middle-aged and the elderly grappling with the transformations of aging, as in “Mouth Full of Fish,” about two ill patients going for a night swim. But if Ovid is here, so too is the deep surrealism of Max Ernst. Bullwinkel has a gift for the eye-popping opening line: “People kept dying and I was made to sleep in their beds” begins “Burn,” a tale about a middle-age man helping widows through their grief in an unorthodox manner. “Nave,” a flash piece about the devouring impulses of religion, starts, “My father told me that our church had a belly.” Sometimes the surprise is less in the opening than in the strange turns the tales take once they launch; in one of the collection’s standouts, “Décor,” a young woman working in a luxury furniture showroom has her ennui punctured by a communication from a prisoner with a flair for home design. In “Clamor,” a medium holding a group session must navigate the conflicting desires of her clients, both dead and living. Weirdness is almost de rigeur in short fiction these days, but Bullwinkel also shows impressive range and deep emotional intelligence.
While the shortest pieces in the book can be frustratingly oblique, when Bullwinkel gives herself a larger canvas to dive into the grief and panic of characters caught between one thing and another, her stories approach brilliance. - Kirkus Reviews
Some of the stories in Rita Bullwinkel’s debut collection, Belly Up, take place in a world that we could call real, and others take place in a world we could call supernatural, but in the hands of a craftswoman like Bullwinkel, both are somehow equal in their strangeness. While reading, I would arrive at the end of a story in which nothing truly paranormal had happened and be nonetheless filled with a sense of disquiet, a sense that I was looking at a photograph of my own world, the light and color settings tweaked ever so slightly. Reality, in Bullwinkel’s hands, is subverted with nuanced strokes of the surreal, in much the same way that David Lynch tilts our perception with his depictions of suburbia. The forms of the stories vary, and Bullwinkel is just as good in a longer traditional narrative as she is in a two-page piece of poetic prose. They’re joined by a macabre thread, peopled with dead husbands, teenage girls obsessed with the idea of cannibalism, and zombies. But even stronger is the sustained interest in the mystery of human connection; in “Harp,” a wife tests out a double life after witnessing a fatal car accident, and “Phylum” interrogates selfhood and intimacy. As much as Bullwinkel asks us to reconsider the strangeness of our external reality, she asks us to question our internal reality as well; this collection, which absolutely heralds an exciting new talent, takes place at a four-way crossroads between the mind and the body, the reality we can know and the reality adjacent to our own, which we can only glimpse through fiction. —Lauren Kane
Rita Bullwinkel’s debut collection, Belly Up is as exquisite as it is absurd. The real glides so closely against the imagined that when a grieving widow hears her neighbors through their shared wall, she finds it necessary to check that they are real people and not younger manifestations of herself and her husband. She wonders whether she has invented them, and, as readers, we are not quite sure. We’re never entirely certain where these stories of recognition and reinvention are going to go, of what the rules are. What keeps us here is the intelligence and precision of Bullwinkel’s prose, which allows her to mine the deeply strange and deeply intimate with abandon and exactitude.
In a recent tweet, award-winning author Victor LaValle posited: ‘The last word of your first book was the theme of the whole thing…” If that is the case, the theme of Belly Up is “thread.” That seems apt. Belly Up is woven together with thick, peculiar strands. In the hands of a less-assured writer, these threads might feel loose, disconnected—under Bullwinkel’s guidance, they pull together to arrive at moments of profound revelation.
These stories are bound by their unwillingness to conform, by their insights into the human mind, by their wicked authenticity. Belly Up is full of reckoning, full of curiosity, full of characters attempting to pull themselves out of the mundane, out of what is expected of them. This feels akin to yanking a plant out of the soil from its root; the experience is intensely odd and simultaneously invigorating.
Belly Up is perhaps best described by a moment in one of the collection’s best stories, “Arms Overhead,” in which two adolescent girls imagine themselves as plants:
As Mary read from several psychology journals that posited theories about why one might have the desire to eat oneself, Ainsley put her head in Mary’s lap and listened.
At the close of the collection’s first story, “Harp,” about a woman whose day, and perhaps, life, is upended by having witnessed a car crash, I jotted down the word: curious in the margins, followed by a cascade of my thoughts: unexpected, unsettled, unusual. Then I paused, indented my pencil and wrote: But, something opens, something begins. All of Bullwinkel’s stories unlock something. The strongest pieces fling the whole thing open. Burn the house down. Others are a mere suggestion of what lies outside, a hint that things are not as they appear. That is like life. Sometimes blaringly loud and other times alarmingly silent.
These stories are populated with the strange: a child with a black tongue, an insatiably hungry church, the commingling of the dead and the living. It is in this strangeness that we are reminded of our humanity; while we are enchanted by the elaborate conceits, we become vulnerable to Bullwinkel’s talent for emotional wounding. She crafts unexpectedly tender scenes that are ripe with revelation.
Belly Up’s standout is “What I Would Be if I Wasn’t What I Am,” an epic narrative of marriage, of identity, of grappling with whom we become in the face of both marriage and loss:
It is difficult for me to distinguish which parts of myself are the original me, which parts of myself predated [my husband], and which parts were developed while I was with him. And, for those parts of me that were developed while I was with him, how am I to tell which parts I would have developed on my own, without him, and which parts of myself never would have come to pass if I had never met him?
Embedded within all of these surreal narratives are similar moments of contemplation, of reckoning, that sting with incredible precision.
In the collection’s opening story, the narrator muses: “I wondered if maybe I should suggest that my husband and I stop talking. Perhaps we should only communicate through touch and feel. Maybe that is a truer way to be with someone.”
At their most profound, the stories in Belly Up name and subsequently interrogate states like adolescence, marriage, self-identification, motherhood. When a mother stares at her son who has just arrived home after driving drunk, she is unable to separate the possibility of what could have happened to him, from what actually did: “…All I could see was a corpse, [my son] dead, an alternate history that had been so close to happening that it drove me mad. People should be driven mad, temporarily, when they see things like that, their son in a near-miss state.”
By the time we are two stories into Belly Up, when the dead return, we are expecting them; if we flinch, it is not from disbelief, but from the thrill of finding out what it is they’ve come to tell us.
In thinking about Bullwinkel’s debut, I found myself returning to the work of the great writer Augusto Monterroso, particularly his collection, Complete Works and Other Stories. Monterroso’s stories venture similarly into absurdity, joy, and exuberance, while also being wedded to philosophical rumination. The juxtaposition of the surreal and the introspective strikes a remarkable a balance that is alive and well in Bullwinkel’s collection.
The characters in Belly Up demand our attention, they demand to be seen, to be recognized. What is perhaps most moving are the moments in which these characters learn to know themselves better. Throughout our reading, we accompany them on their journeys for truth and in the wake of each discovery, we begin to question our own lives, our own interpretations of reality. - Jenessa Abrams
RITA BULLWINKEL’S FIRST COLLECTION of short stories, Belly Up, jangles with the voices of other writers. Her fearless characterizations echo Jincy Willett (Jenny and the Jaws of Life); her stark, unsettling sentences evoke Joanna Ruocco (A Compendium of Domestic Incidents); her crafting of a tautological biosphere that only contains the kind of people who would appear in her stories suggests Miranda July (No One Belongs Here More Than You); and, for many reasons, her work calls to mind Guggenheim fellow Mary Gaitskill (Veronica, Don’t Cry). Singing through this braid of whispers is Bullwinkel’s own confident voice, which displays a talent for compression staggering in a debut collection and proves that the prose belongs to her alone.
Yet the writing feels elusive. This could be a function of narrative distance, something Belly Up has in spades. In one of the longer stories, “Arms Overhead,” events are fairly ordinary, but the two adolescent girls at its center provoke unease. Mary and Ainsley talk about plants, the ouroboros, and school, and a creepy teacher mildly humiliates one of them. But it’s never clear who they really are or what they are really like — by the end of the story are they going to turn cannibal or cheerleader?
Bullwinkel never shortens this distance, despite delivering insights both mundane and exceptional. In one scene, for instance, Mary watches her baby brother while her mother is in the kitchen:
He bunched his eyebrows and opened his toothless mouth as if he were going to scream. He sat there for a moment, silent, open-mouthed in his pre-tantrum. Mary looked at him in this state and thought it was one of the scariest things she had ever seen.
This passage is typical of Bullwinkel: from a certain vantage, yes, a child on the verge of a tantrum is terrifying, and how insightful of the author to point this out with such acute observation. But it’s not clear why it’s terrifying to Mary, or whether it matters that she is afraid.
In the opening story, “Harp,” the main character, Helen, decides to split and compartmentalize two aspects of herself after she is strongly affected by the sound of harps being tuned. There’s a deliberateness to Bullwinkel’s characterization of Helen that’s meant to indicate a comprehensive profile of the character, but the reader is kept at such a remove that it’s impossible to empathize.
Which is not to say this is essential for successful fiction, to generate empathy for characters. After all, Gaitskill’s detached stance toward her characters is part of why her work is so hypnotizing. She, too, creates characters without necessarily investing them with empathy-ready qualities, and she, too, writes with a narrative distance that approaches hostility. It’s never clear whose side she is on. Bullwinkel appears to be on the side of language, but beyond that her loyalties are murky.
Gaitskill’s 1988 debut, Bad Behavior, was a book of extraordinary, mature, complete short stories, none of which had been previously published. Bullwinkel’s collection mirrors this, as well. Her stories have appeared in tough-nut markets such as NOON and Tin House, but most of the longer stories in Belly Up are appearing for the first time, which is a surprise; these stories, like Gaitskill’s, are extraordinary, mature, and complete. They also showcase a knack for killer first sentences — “I was the type of man who got his ears cleaned,” “People kept dying and I was made to sleep in their beds,” and “There was a period of my life in which my primary source of income came from being a piece of furniture,” among them.
Gaitskill has never quite shaken the reputation — half literary wunderkind, half unabashed dominatrix — bestowed by Bad Behavior, but her later work is more interesting. This prompts curiosity about what Bullwinkel’s third or fourth book is going to be like. Will her stark sentences ever open wider than a fist? Will she combine her remarkable insight with greater empathy for her characters?
In a scene in “Clamor,” Bullwinkel describes a séance from the perspectives of everyone in the room, including a young military veteran and a retired woman and her granddaughters. Feelings are matter-of-fact and quickly dispensed with, while thoughts go on and on, such as in this passage:
the older teenage daughter, Izzy, who couldn’t help thinking that for all old peoples’ whining about children being stuck in their computers, that it was the older people who were the ones usually trapped in their own world, trapped in their made-up self-constructed narratives, not the youth. It was the older people like Lillian and her Grandma Carol and most well-off retirees that just told the same origin stories over and over again regardless of whether or not they were even true.
These stories play at the boundary between work that is thought-provoking and work that is thoughtful. A consequence of the utter lack of sentiment in this volume is the sense that although the reader may be fascinated, it’s hard to say if the author or the characters are. The characters often seem to act out of boredom or routine, and the author seems implacable to the point of incuriosity. Such clinical distance reveals the ineffable from a philosophical perspective but without human warmth.
Yet, again, warmth is not necessary for exceptional fiction, just as likability is not a necessary trait of female characters, and this clinical distance is generally an asset that makes Bullwinkel’s stories appealingly alien. In “Black Tongue,” for example, the narrator performs a gruesome act and muses on her brother’s inability to cope:
[T]here are the types of people who constantly envision what it would be like to be beheaded, and there are those who don’t. My brother is the latter. He is very satisfied with his veins and the work they do to keep his blood within him. He never thinks about what would happen if they exploded and it all went wrong.
It’s hard to find fault with such skillful sentences. Still, what would these stories sound like if they had heart? In Belly Up, a profound talent has manifested, one that is experimental in the best sense. All of these stories unspool in an atmosphere of exploration. But are Bullwinkel’s future explorations going to remain remote dissections of the outside world, her pen as sharp as a scalpel? Or will she, one day, decide to crack her own sternum to see what’s under there? - Katharine Coldiron
Rita Bullwinkel doesn’t write about the usual things. Her debut story collection, “Belly Up” is filled with the offbeat and the unexpected.
The worlds she creates — and the thin membrane called “reality” that separates them — seem to captivate the San Francisco author, whose stories have been described as surreal, fantastic, dark and often very funny.
For Bullwinkel, the line between real and unreal is where her interest lies. And she says those things aren’t necessarily in conflict.
“I think something different about this collection is that it does inhabit many different worlds,” Bullwinkel recently explained over coffee near the city’s waterfront. “Some of the stories do take place in a world that looks like our own, and others immediately pronounce themselves as being of another world.”
Indeed, there’s a wide range in “Belly Up.” The first story, “Harp,” begins with a woman witnessing a car accident, which leads to her become obsessed with the sound of harps tuning. “Arms Overhead” introduces two girls who fantasize about turning into plants. “Burn” features a desirable bachelor skilled at exorcising the ghosts of dead husbands. “God’s True Zombies,” set in Florida — well, let’s just say it involves brain-suckers in strip clubs amid the palm trees and pink flamingos.
In each story, Bullwinkel’s writing is characterized by an exquisite sensitivity to language, one that allows her to explore the borders between her characters’ inner and outer lives.
“We do live our lives as both interior and exterior people, but we are so rarely asked to articulate our interior lives,” said the author. “For me, reading books that are set in the interior is always a very moving experience. It’s something that no other art form really does. The opportunity to experience life as another, the way another person thinks, is really something you can only do in fiction.”
Bullwinkel, 28, was born in Redwood City, but her family moved to Portola Valley when she was a young girl. Her grandfather and two uncles owned Lombardi Sports — the longest-running business in San Francisco, she says — until it closed after 66 years.
Growing up, she was deeply involved in sports. As a competitive water polo player, she participated in eight Junior Olympics. “You are pretty much trained to disassociate from your body, which becomes this tool that you wield for results,” she recalls.
Those experiences affected her view of the body, she adds. As a result, many of her stories deal with mind-body questions such as how and what we consume.
“The book does circle around that — consumption, and what we require to survive in terms of emotional need and also just physical need,” she said. “The superb strangeness of having a body in general: I find it a very strange experience.”
Bullwinkel, a graduate of Brown University, admits that for much of her life, literature didn’t interest her. “I had very talented teachers,” she said, “but the common core and what ‘needs to be taught’ did not speak to me.”
She credits writer Joanna Howard, a professor in Bullwinkel’s sophomore year, with opening her eyes to fiction: works such as Jesse Ball’s “The Way Through Doors,” which Bullwinkel says was “the most beautiful book I had ever read.”
From there, she became a fellow in an MFA program at Vanderbilt, where her teachers included acclaimed author Lorrie Moore, who introduced her to stories that were “really radical and intense.” It was Moore and others, says Bullwinkel, who gave her the sense that a career in writing was “attainable.”
Since then, Bullwinkel’s work has been published in Tin House, Conjunctions, Vice, NOON and Guernica. Both her fiction and her translations have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes.
Bullwinkel, who lives in the Inner Richmond with her partner, musician Alex Spoto, enjoys writing nonfiction as well. She’s an editor-at-large at McSweeney’s, the nonprofit San Francisco publishing house founded by Dave Eggers, and has interviewed other writers.
But fiction is her passion. Bullwinkel is currently writing a novel about a youth women’s boxing tournament in Reno. She’s been working on it for about two years.
“I really do love language,” she said. “I compose almost everything out loud. Other writers I know have different reasons for coming to writing. But fiction moves me more than any other art form. It completely consumes me and alters the way I walk through the world.” - Georgia Rowe
Belly Up, the title of Rita Bullwinkel’s debut collection, feels like a wave of the hand, beckoning us to cross the threshold of a serving house, walk over to the bar, and lift a shoe onto the brass footrest – and if the bartender standing on the other side of the sticky varnished surface is Rita, then settle in. She has a few stories to tell.
Even if accidental, the allusion to a serving house as a metaphor for a work of fiction fits Bullwinkel’s sensibility, as she affirms the value of physically sharing time and space in order for us to not feel so alone in the universe. Conversation helps. Argument even. However, nothing replaces the energy transfer that occurs when one body touches another. Otherwise we risk getting trapped in our mindspace, where things can get rather strange in a hurry.
Because of their focus on the transcendent possibilities of human interaction, the pieces in Belly Up are all, in a way, love stories, or their opposite, which is sort of the same thing. From this starting premise the narratives typically progress in one of two ways: after having drifted into the fantastical, they relax back into a more mundane moment in which existential pain is alleviated, to some degree, by connection; or they move from a common situation to the mystical, which often feels like a phantasmagoria in which the characters’ increased isolation is expressed through a grotesque vision of the physical body.
Consider “Clamor,” the final story in the collection, where the perspective shifts across the minds of nine characters, eight of whom – Phyllis, Carol, Lillian, Izzy, Olivia, Anna, Cliff, and Sam – have gone to experience the performance-art of the ninth, a medium, in order to contact their dead. Most of them, like most of us, have a cynical appreciation of the psychic’s game, which involves vaguely describing a ‘presence’ of some sort, allowing the people who have agreed to submit themselves to the ritual to project their unresolved traumas into the middle of the circle. We sense the reluctance of the participants to being spritzed with “holy water to keep the ghosts from following them outside her home.” But then, suggesting there indeed might be something to it, the medium seems to see those who are absent more clearly than those with her in the trailer – hence her fantasy of cutting open her clients’ “brain containers” and “dipping into each of their brain buckets with a ladle and pulling out from the depths of their bowls their thoughts, which looked like sticky thick woolen thread.” Has there ever been an image more opposite to the idea of an ethereal soul?
While these are not linked stories, it does feel that Bullwinkel’s characters have something to say to each other. At first blush, Joe from “Burn” seems like he’d be the type to get how to cope with the vagaries of intimacy, as he has a history of helping widows when the ghosts of their dead husbands won’t leave them alone, in part by feeding their grief with his delicious food. When Nick King dies, Joe marries his wife Miranda, cooks for her, and then when Joe himself dies it turns out Nick’s ghost had been there the entire time, in the attic. When Joe says, “What did you really want me for, Miranda?” he means, Why can I not be everything? It seems Joe could stand for a shot of whimsy contained within the advice Austin gives to his girlfriend in “God’s True Zombies” on how to zig-zag in order to escape an alligator: “They’ll never catch you if you run like a goon.” She proves she understands the metaphorical gist of this idiom when she talks about Austin having dated a stripper who worked at the “world-famous Mons Venus.” These strippers, these experiences, are always there, like a demented ghost: “They dance in your brain…Dancing, dancing till the rest of the plastic lining your brain cracks under the weight of their tiny feet, splintering into the bloodstream, and God decides it’s time for you to leave Florida, it’s time for you to go home,” which means back to her and the more normative life she provides.
It comes down to perspective. Nick King’s ghost doesn’t have a problem with Joe, because he’s preferred. Whereas conversely the unnamed protagonist of the opening story “Harp” has a problem with her own marriage because she can’t accept the selfless affection of her husband, who, like Joe, expresses love through preparing food. Bemoaning her lack of reciprocation, she says, “Why couldn’t I just take my new feeling and give it to him?”—the ultimate fantasy of the solipsistic introvert. (Oh that we all could subscribe to that service.) She experiences a halting epiphany that allows her to come to terms with the fact that she can’t ever be fully known because she is more than one thing, that it is okay for the halves that comprise her whole to remain unknown to each other. The presence of love in her life will not make her complete, but at the same time this love doesn’t necessarily have to fall apart in concert with the chaos of the universe. However, after a pleasant morning of love making and her husband then serving her “a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon,” she finds herself again riding the rhythms of her moods, honking at a couple taking too long to cross the street, making “her eyes bulge and look out at them.” We understand. Morning commutes can derail all of our best intentions.
The “Harp” woman is young. In a later story, “What Would I Be If I Wasn’t What I Am,” Franny, an aging woman coping with the loss of her husband, with whom she had shared over four decades of her life, proves the best love can survive even the death of the person providing it. Franny has gained the wisdom that another’s mind is always, in part, unknowable – and she understands the importance of the physical taking over when language fails. “When we had sex,” she says, “I knew I was coupling with some combination of Ray’s mind and his body, but mostly I just liked thinking of us as two bodies. It was simpler that way and easier for me to understand.” Ray’s presence within her speaks to how we don’t need a frank vocabulary to feel how bodily impulse transcends conscious thought. In the denouement, Franny is by herself at her artist’s residency in Yellowstone, in Cottage 18. She sees “creep in” at the edges of herself “only a wanting, only a desire to not be left…a desire to be more than a single person trembling, a wish to be forever coupling so that [she is] not just simply alone.” Amazing how that “only” feels thankful, that she is able to feel what was right in her long marriage to Ray, despite its problems. Her wish, a prayer, is not just for herself, but for all of us. - Trevor Payne
(...) There are too many great first sentences in the book to pick just one. So I want to show you several, to demonstrate what is possible with the opening line of a story. Here is the first sentence from “Burn”:
“People kept dying and I was made to sleep in their beds.”One of the things that Bullwinkel has in spades is a wry, understated tone. That’s a strategy that works best when there is something to understate, which means the story has to be about something grander than a slice of dry-toast life. Clearly, this story has got that. The distance between premise and tone is the first thing the sentence does well (and you’ll see that again and again in the story in Belly Up).
It also introduces the premise as an ongoing routine. In workshop, we often talk about starting stories in media res, and the bad version of that is something like “So there I am, fighting a wildcat with laser eyes, and I’m thinking, who’s going to have the coffee ready when my stupid husband wakes up.” Such a sentence might start in the middle of the action, but it has a kind of artifice to it that can drag the story down eventually. In real life, nobody tells stories like that. We start at the beginning. The trick is to make the beginning sound as if the story is really about to launch into something good.
I also love how matter-of-fact the sentence is. The temptation in stories that reach beyond the bounds of usual happenstance is that they reach into the realm of the stories that third-graders tell: “And then the ninjas popped out. And the dinosaur ate the school. And aliens landed.” Bullwinkel starts with people dying and then moves to an essential part of any life: sleeping.
The story “What I Would Be If I Wasn’t What I Am” starts like this:
“I had a husband.”In that sentence, Bullwinkel has managed to create suspense and intrigue out of one of the most boring verbs in the language. In this sentence, have would be unremarkable. But had is weird, a tense nobody would choose. Even if you were divorced or your husband was dead, you probably would say this particular combination of words. As writers, it’s tempting to reach for the fireworks, but anything unusual, no matter how small, can grab a reader’s attention.
The story “Hunker Down” starts this way:
“By the time my daughter came of age, the economy was so bad that it was cheaper to hire someone to hold her breasts up than it was to buy her a bra.”As with the opening sentence from “Burn,” there’s a level of understatement at work here. But there’s also a razor-sharp wit, something that George Saunders has and Paul Beatty and a whole lot of grandmas and grandpas: the ability to cut someone (often you) down with only a few words. They do it by making it personal. Imagine all the ways a sentence starting, “The economy was so bad that…” could end. It’s like one of those old-school comedian jokes. The challenge is to finish it well, and Bullwinkel does it by moving toward the personal and physical. As Tim O’Brien wrote in “How to Tell a True War Story,” in a good story, the body knows what’s true before the brain does.
In “Decor,” she starts this way:
“There was a period of my life in which my primary source of income came from being a piece of furniture.”Again, there’s that wry, understated tone. There’s also the joke set up (my primary source of income came from…” and the finish that swerves in a direction you couldn’t have predicted. Again, it implies the physical: what does it mean to be a piece of furniture? And also the mental and moral: what does it mean to be a piece of furniture?
Finally, she starts “Fried Dough” like this:
“A particular type of love story takes place in twenty-four hour donut shops.”The understated tone, the joke setup and…the sense of place. One of my high school English teachers liked to say (just as yours did, no doubt) that nothing original had been written since Shakespeare; this sentence proves that statement wrong. There are plenty of unexplored places in fiction, places that your readers know so intimately that to be reminded of them is to smell them, to touch parts of them. A 24-hour donut shop is a place that lingers in your brain the way bad smells attach to your skin and clothes. When you find a place like that, stay there. Put the reader there as quickly as you can. And then bring life to that place. There’s no better way to do so than to start a love story. - readtowritestories.com/2018/05/16/how-to-write-a-great-first-sentence/
Weird Fiction Is Alive: Decades apart, the stories of Robert Aickman and Rita Bullwinkel channel an eerie spirit. by Josephine LivingstoneBelly Up (A Strange Object) opens thusly: “By the time my daughter came of age, the economy was so bad that it was cheaper to hire someone to hold her breasts up than it was to buy her a bra.” Other stories feature a medium with unruly clients (“What gives you the authority to tell me who these spirits belong to?”) and a man who comforts widows by baking food and fighting their husbands’ ghosts. These are fantastic and surprising premises, but what is even more surprising is the way Bullwinkel employs these surreal set-ups to expose the connections and disconnections in our daily lives. The expertly crafted stories in Belly Up veer between surrealism and realism, present day and the past, short and long, but they always leave the reader with a new way to look at the world. I talked to Bullwinkel about reading, writing, and imaging your soul in a head of lettuce.
Feeling Changed: Rita Bullwinkel Interviewed by Lincoln Michel