Interview: Rachel Swirsky

(Content note: discussions of suicide)

Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop where she, a California native, learned about both writing and snow. Last year, she traded the snow for the rain of Portland, Oregon, where she roams happily under overcast skies with the hipsters. Her fiction has appeared in venues including Tor.comAsimov’s Magazine, and The Year’s Best Non-Required Reading. She’s published two collections: Through the Drowsy Dark (Aqueduct Press) and How the World Became Quiet (Subterranean Press). Her fiction has been nominated for the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award, and twice won the Nebula. “Birthday Girl” is a difficult and gorgeous tale of family and mental illness.

Uncanny Magazine: There are moments in “Birthday Girl” that took my breath away—the pain, the dissociation, the loneliness, and love. What inspired this beautiful, bittersweet tale?

Rachel Swirsky: I’ve recently moved to a new city, and I love it here very much. I spend a lot of time at the house of some of my friends, one of whom is the fourteen-year-old niece of a man I’ve known since grad school.

Adelaide is awesome. Hanging out with her, and chatting about school and goth fashion is great. Adelaide is queer, and mostly dates people who are female- or nonbinary-identified. She wore a rainbow bow tie to her middle school graduation. She has crushes on female media figures, and she can talk to her friends about shipping (imaginary relationships between) various characters, and while there’s still some homophobia extant, by and large, she has the support of her family and her community. It doesn’t have to be secret; none of her friends are risking homelessness (that I know of); if someone at school decides to make fun of her for being queer, there are plenty of students and teachers who are more than happy to tell that person to knock it off.

When I was in high school, we didn’t have reliable AIDS medications yet. My friends did get kicked out of their homes. One of them was sent to a camp which focused on drug rehabilitation, but also pressured the students to “become straight.”

I do not wholly blame my friend’s parents for sending her to the camp. Rae was very, very ill, and nothing else was working, so they took a stab at the last thing they could think of when they thought her life was at stake. They were right. Her life was at stake. Unfortunately, like everything else, the conversion camp didn’t help. She died.

It hurts so much sometimes to think of my friend Rae who never had a chance to become the full-fledged, beautiful, eccentric, kind adult she was on her way to being. I look at fourteen-year-old Adelaide, and I am so, so happy that she has access to all these things Rae did not.

I think about it in relation to myself, too. Kids Adelaide’s age have access to mental health care that I just didn’t. I’m so grateful for that. I want to celebrate all the people whose lives are improved and made possible by these changes.

Sometimes, I just also feel a bit jealous. What would it have been like to grow up in a world that didn’t do its best to kill Rae? What would it have been like to grow up in a world that didn’t tell me I couldn’t have depression problems because I had good grades? What would it be like not to have to bear that burden?

I am so happy for Adelaide—and a bit sad, from time to time, for the outcast, struggling kid I was at thirteen.

Uncanny Magazine: Narrative voice is as important to a story as plot and character. Bella and Natalie are the only characters addressed by name in the narrative, centering the focus on them and the shared diagnoses born of genetics. Was this an intentional choice from the beginning or did it come in later revisions?

Rachel Swirsky: That was a deliberate choice from the beginning. I think the sister and her husband have names somewhere in the text, but I didn’t come up with those names until I needed them in dialogue.

I wanted to write something with a Carver-esque feel. I don’t think it ended up that way ultimately, but I was trying at first to approach the story with sharp, driven focus. The naming convention was part of that, reducing extraneous information to the most important, pressing parts.

Uncanny Magazine: With this work you tackle such issues as institutionalization, something of what it’s like to be a sibling of a disabled person, mental health, the burden of shame and guilt, and the challenges of parenting a child with a disability, all presented with dignity and honesty. Representation matters. Representation done right matters even more. What was the hardest part of writing this story?

Rachel Swirsky: The story actually came fairly easily, but I did work back and forth with a couple of different editors on some of its parts. The story doesn’t have a lot of interiority—I added some in the last round of editing. The conflict is extremely internal, relayed mostly through dialogue and detail. It doesn’t have any O’Henry-type twists. So, I suppose the most difficult thing for me is taking a type of writing I don’t usually do, and trying to decide how I feel about what came out.

Uncanny Magazine: It has been said that writing is the act of bleeding on the page in new and interesting ways. How much of Rachel Swirsky made it into “Birthday Girl”?

Rachel Swirsky: In addition to being a disabled person, I am the close relative of someone who attempted suicide due to disability in their early twenties. It was an upsetting event for me—I was in middle school—and it definitely moves to the fore when I’m writing about relationships that are disrupted and sent into chaos by the prospect of suicide.

When you’re a kid, it’s hard to know how to contextualize suicidality in others. For me, it felt as if the person wanted to leave me, and that was crushing. As an adult, I know there were a lot of other things going on. Probably, the person who attempted suicide didn’t think I cared enough to be upset, or thought they were a net negative in my life, and didn’t want to keep hurting me (or anyone else) by existing. Those ideas are completely false, of course, but a suicidal brain will try to convince you they’re true. But when I was a kid, all I saw was someone I loved, one of the few people who felt like light in a time of my life that felt very dark, who wanted to leave.

Uncanny Magazine: If you could reach out to all of the writers struggling to balance their disabilities with their creative work, what would you tell them?

Rachel Swirsky: Be gentle with yourself. It’s very tempting to take all the advice given by (primarily) abled people and take it too seriously. “Write every day,” for instance, just isn’t advice that is going to work for a lot of people who have chronic illnesses.

It’s even trickier if your chronic illnesses are things that you’ve been trained to think you can work through—what’s a little depression, after all? Your fingers still work. What’s a migraine? Close your eyes, and type in the dark. And sure, you can do those things for a while, but for most people, it’s going to be exhausting and draining, and gives you a limited number of useful words.

A lot of people don’t believe in writer’s block—except that it’s one of the terms people use to refer to the kinds of problems one encounters while writing during a disability flare. (It’s used to refer to other things, too). If someone’s telling you that your writer’s block is illegitimate, and you just have to work harder to get things done, and you’d really do that if you cared, and you’re just being overdramatic and lazy—and 90% of the time the person telling you that is yourself—don’t listen. Working yourself into knots about it just makes everything harder, and it’s even worse trying to work through a chronic disability flare while self-loathing and anxiety about not writing are winding you up and making you feel even worse.

Treat yourself gently. Do what you can. Compare yourself to yourself. It’s all you can do.

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

Sandra Odell

Sandra lives in Washington state with her family and an Albanian miniature moose disguised as a pitbull. Her work has appeared in such venues as Jim Baen’s UNIVERSE, Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and three of the four EA Podcasts. She is a Clarion West 2010 graduate and an active member of the SFWA.

She is currently hard at work on her novel or plotting world domination, whichever comes first.

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