Interview: Christopher Barzak

Christopher Barzak once again treats us to an insightful examination of a literary classic. In his retelling of “The Yellow Wallpaper” he flips the narration and delves into issues of abuse, sexuality, and empowerment, with a sprinkling of Gothic horror. Barzak is a writer who leads readers on a journey of discovery, peeling away the layers of manner and artifice until nothing is left but the raw core of his characters. His writing is honest and real, and his stories linger long after you’ve closed the book. It is a pleasure to see Christopher Barzak’s work grace the pages of Uncanny again and to have the opportunity to chat with him about his fascinating and complex approach to an important short story in the feminist literary canon.

Uncanny Magazine: You have said in a past Uncanny Magazine interview that you like to “play around in the stories and novels of other classic genre fiction writers, to right what I thought were some wrongs in the originals, or to emphasize aspects that might have been difficult for the original writers to address in their own times and places.” What made you want to re–examine “The Yellow Wallpaper?”

Christopher Barzak: “The Yellow Wallpaper” has always been a favorite story of mine, since I first read it as a teenager. I appreciated the description of what it feels like to slowly lose one’s grip on reality that Gilman was able to put in words so concisely, and I appreciated the many layers of public and private life that she addressed in the story, and how private life—which these days is something very different, as people publicize many of their days hour to hour, via social media—could also be a prison, at least for the oppressed, in Gilman’s day.

One of the things I wanted to re–examine in the story, though, was the relationship among the women in the household. I remember rereading the story several years ago and thinking, what are the housekeeper (the original narrator’s own sister, Jennie) and the nursemaid (Mary) doing and thinking while this poor woman is essentially kept prisoner in that remote estate? How, as women, might they feel, and what might (at least one of) their stories look like? What would explain their going–along? I chose to write from Jennie’s perspective, since she’s the husband’s sister, and in many ways has to function as Jane’s jailer whenever he is away.

Uncanny Magazine: For many women “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a fem-inist touchstone. Did you have any trepidation that this story was, perhaps, too sacrosanct to be touched?

Christopher Barzak: I didn’t think the story was too sacrosanct, particularly because I had no intent to necessarily “send it up” or to technically “right any wrongs,” which I’ve mentioned being one of my motivations for writing retellings. I mainly wanted to creep inside the text to further explore even more gender dynamics among the characters. If I changed anything in the text that might give the original a slightly different meaning, I believe that would be casting a harsher eye on John, who’s clearly an oaf. I’ve made him much more knowing in my version. I never could believe he was such a dolt in the original. I always felt he knew exactly what he was doing to Jane.

Uncanny Magazine: You draw elements of “The Yellow Wallpaper” origin story into “The Creeping Women,” specifically the threat to send Jane to Weir Mitchell, the doctor who prescribed a “rest cure” for Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Women approach this story from a very specific place of oppression. As a fellow writer, how did Gilman’s/Jane’s experience resonate with you?

Christopher Barzak: While the experience of something like a “rest cure” isn’t in my experience, and while I’ve not experienced oppression steeped in gender specific to being a woman, I’ve felt the sort of oppression a queer person does in our world, and in relation to that, many of the weird kinds of microaggressions that remind one of their difference, and even conflate gender and sexuality in a way that is meant to suppress and disempower. I also related to the feeling of not being heard or listened to. Jane has ideas about what she needs and is ignored. That’s specific in this story in regard to medical treatment, as well as within her marriage, since her doctor is her husband. I think I mainly related to this theme in regard to when I began to define myself as gay, and a lot of other people around me had their own ideas about me, and tried very hard to impose their ideas of me onto me.

Uncanny Magazine: I’m fascinated by the altered view of the characters in this story. John is malevolent and cruel rather than considerate but confused. Jennie not only takes over the role of narrator, but also struggles with the limitations her sexuality places upon her both emotionally and socially. Why was it important to add these particular elements to the story?

Christopher Barzak: When I started to think about how to go about addressing the complex weaving of gender and sexuality identity dynamics that I wanted to explore in this retelling, I asked myself, “What would Sarah Waters do?” And that’s all I needed as my guiding light, really. As I mentioned in an earlier question, I never really read John as considerate and confused so much as patronizing and possibly conniving. I do admit that he might have really been considerate and confused, that any man of his stature and learning in that society would think they were doing something good despite the vast evidence in front of them to the contrary. But my own experience with people who gaslight or who attempt to impose their beliefs or ideas onto another individual has made me, let’s say, a little suspicious of the motives of others. Since I was going to explore Jennie’s role in relationship to her essential position to be Jane’s “warden” whenever John is away, I also felt there might be some particular reason why Jennie would also be pressed into this service. In reading a variety of period novels and stories, I found a lot of examples of women who were subjugated by their own family members, who had been tricked out of their own inheritances (which could have at least made them financially independent, regardless of their status in society) and I thought, yes, let’s open up the edges of “The Yellow Wallpaper” and let some of these other kinds of gender dynamics and examples creep into the story, to open a wider view into that world. And still keep its Gothic atmosphere.

Uncanny Magazine: “The Creeping Women” ends with a victory, of sorts. Do you feel that Jane and Jennie will get a happy ending?

Christopher Barzak: I do think it’s a victory of sorts, and I do think there will be at least a somewhat happy ending for Jane and Jennie. I’m not certain as to whether it will be pure and blissful happiness, but I do think it promises to be a future in which they will both have the chance to construct a life for themselves as they see fit, at least in their own domain, which Jennie will now inherit.

Uncanny Magazine: In discussing your well–received YA novel Wonders of the Invisible World, you’ve said that story was an attempt to save your family, to capture an emotion on the page. That is an intensely personal way to approach writing. What do you, ultimately, find more satisfying: reaching into the well of your own existence, or weaving something beautiful in the spaces and gaps of existing literature?

Christopher Barzak: Honestly, both kinds of writing satisfy me. And also the other types of writing I do provide their own satisfactions. They all satisfy in different ways, of course. One is a more emotional satisfaction, the other a bit more cerebral or intellectual, though neither are just one or the other, to be sure. I enjoy rethinking existing literature, reinventing it and repurposing it, and I find the act of rendering personal stories (however fantastical a sheen they have) meaningful and entertaining for an unknown readership to be a deeply satisfying act.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

Deborah Stanish

Deborah Stanish is the co–editor of the Hugo Award–nominated Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who and Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them. She’s had essays published in Chicks Dig Time Lords; Time, Unincorporated Volumes II and III; Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers; Famous Monsters of Filmland; Apex Magazine, and The Liverpool University Journal of Science Fiction, Film, and Television. Deborah is also the moderator of the Hugo Award–nominated podcast Verity! where six women from around the globe debate and discuss Doctor Who.

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