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Writer Gwen Kirby on debut collection and how being a complicated woman is empowering

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If I told you that Gwen Kirby's debut collection of short stories was wild, that would not begin to capture it. There's one in which the female characters grow fangs and become radioactive cockroach warriors seeking revenge on men who annoy them. There's one titled "Mary Read Is A Crossdressing Pirate, The Raging Seas, 1720." I mean, how can you not want to read that? The title of the first story contains not one but two words that I am not allowed to say on public radio, and it manages over five short pages to tuck in mentions of tap-dancing, Twizzlers, NAFTA, the cordless Hitachi Magic Wand, and Trojans - both the condom and the guys who fought the Trojan War. The title of the book, which I'm also not allowed to say, is "[Expletive] Cassandra Saw."

Gwen Kirby, welcome.

GWEN KIRBY: Thank you so much, Mary Louise. It's a pleasure to be here.

KELLY: Did you have as much fun writing these stories as I had reading them?

KIRBY: Almost all of them, yes. I loved just sort of letting myself loose in these stories. But I think letting yourself loose as a writer is actually one of the most difficult things to do, especially when you start to get towards the end of writing your book and you think, like, oh, my gosh. I just need to finish this. That's a very unfun mindset. But, I mean, once you've got a radioactive cockroach on the page, you just kind of have to...

KELLY: It's going to scutter somewhere.

KIRBY: ...Chase that dream. Yes, exactly. So I did have a lot of fun. Writing these stories often felt incredibly cathartic, and I've really needed that over the past, well, many years at this point.

KELLY: God, yeah. Well, and I hadn't thought about it, but specifically after coming up on two years of the pandemic, a little cockroach escapism must have been welcome. Stay with the cockroach story, which also includes werewolf women. How did you come up with it?

KIRBY: I was living in Exeter, N.H., and it was the day of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. And I was - I had a lot of time on my hands, and so I was just listening to them all day. And I was so angry, I think as a lot of women were. And I wanted to write, and I had no idea what to do. And so I just sort of started writing these paragraphs where I would just start with, like, a man is annoying, and a woman eats him.

KELLY: (Laughter).

KIRBY: And I just - it was just sort of this, like cathartic - I mean, you know, I wasn't thinking, like, this will be a piece of serious literary fiction that will go in my book or something. I just wanted to feel for a moment like we just wouldn't have to take it. And as I kept writing, you know, and those sort of - those little fantasies started to spin out a bit more and more, I, you know, started to then think about what's the price for those kind of fantasies? I mean, I don't think anyone wants to imagine harming another person. I certainly don't. The story's not suggesting anyone should do that. But I - it was sort of both the pleasure of imagining it and the sadness of needing to imagine it I feel like ended up really colliding in that story for me.

KELLY: That's so interesting, the sadness of needing to imagine it, because the title, I'll mention, is "A Few Normal Things That Happen A Lot." I don't know anyone - any woman - who has not experienced men acting like a jerk or harassing her. And you shouldn't have to grow fangs to fend off lecherous men. So it was - I won't say pleasurable to read you imagining that one might, but it was - it's an interesting balancing act between the real anger that's in the story, and it's awfully funny as well.

KIRBY: Thank you. It was a little pleasurable to write. I'm not going to lie.

KELLY: I mean, I almost hesitate to ask if there's a common thread among these stories because they're all utterly original. But if I were trying, I might go with empowered women. What do you think?

KIRBY: Yeah. I think that that's true. I think empowered women, and I really want to then add on the word complicated women, I guess, perhaps because it's really empowering to get to be complicated, to be imperfect, to screw up. I feel like the women in my book lie and cheat and fight and love and do everything that the male characters that I grew up reading got to do and I never thought about it. No one really ever called them an unlikable male narrator or something like that. So I think, yes, empowered women, but I just think - I don't know - alive women, just normal, real women.

KELLY: Yeah. Give us another example. Tell us one of the other characters in here that was - that was a lot of fun and maybe empowering to write

KIRBY: I loved writing the story, "Midwestern Girl Is Tired Of Appearing In Your Short Stories."

KELLY: Yeah. It's like the title is its own story.

KIRBY: (Laughter) My titles may have gotten away from me. That story was inspired two-fold. I was at this reading at a writing conference. And this man was reading a story, and there was a woman in the story who was just called Midwestern girl. It was so jarring and strange. And as I stood there, I just thought like, that'd great name for a superhero, you know, Midwestern Girl.

KELLY: Right.

KIRBY: And at the same time, I was reading the slush pile for a literary magazine. And I was really struck how many sort of, like, nameless women were there to say something to the male protagonist to ootz (ph) him along his journey. And then they would just fade away again into the background and I guess a little bit like with the cockroach story just sort of began writing these small instances where Midwestern Girl sort of becomes sentiment and realizes that she's trapped in these stories that she doesn't have any control over. But as the story goes on, she takes herself to the front of the narrative, and she sort of breaks the control of the writer, if you will, to become her own person. And I felt that it was deeply pleasurable to write because I've read way too many stories where the woman just doesn't get named at all.

KELLY: Yeah. What kind of reaction have you gotten from male readers to these stories so far? Is there a recognition, or are they like, hey, wait a minute, no?

KIRBY: I have heard a lot from male readers. I mean, I have male friends who are writers who have been very, very supportive of what I do. I will say when I read "The WikiHow Article About Re-Tiling The Bathroom" (ph), which is about this woman who is going through a divorce and so she decides to retile her bathroom to rather disastrous results, I've had a number of male readers come up to me afterwards to correct me on how to properly retitle a bathroom.

KELLY: (Laughter) That's that's what caught their attention, is the grouting aspect of the story?

KIRBY: Yeah. Yeah. They're like, I don't - I wouldn't put the thin set on like that. I was like, I think you may have missed the forest for the trees with this one, sir. So I don't know yet completely how men will react. But I - you know, I think it's so defaulted for women to read men's stories and to think like, yes, of course I identify with - the male experience is the universal experience. And to be a woman writing women stories, it's like, oh, well, you know, these would be for women. But I think that's absurd. There's no reason a man wouldn't connect with the experience of feeling lost in the world or alone in the world or battered by the world just because it's a woman writing about it. I think people should open their minds and consider it. And don't tell me anymore about bathroom tiling. I know. I know. It's - you know, I did my best.

KELLY: (Laughter) Gwen Kirby - her collection of short stories is "[Expletive] Cassandra Saw." It has been a total pleasure both to read them and to speak to you. Thank you.

KIRBY: It's been a joy. Thank you so much, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.