Mental and Emotional Pretzel-Twisting: An Interview with Tara Ison

by Melissa Ragsdale

“Ball” by Tara Ison is featured in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading with an introduction from Rick Moody. Ison’s collection, Ball is available from Soft Skull Press

Melissa Ragsdale: As “Ball” progresses, the narrator goes closer and closer to the edge, and the reader has a growing sense of unease — yet even up to the tragic end we remain very close to her, without really knowing what’s going on in her mind. How do you balance this sense of distance with the nuances of first-person narration?

Tara Ison: I love being seduced by unreliable narrators in fiction, the creeping awareness of something being “off,” that disconnect between what the narrator is trying to assert, depict, convince us of…and the growing evidence of a different, more honest or more-real reality.

In “Ball” I wanted all the intimacy (and ostensible emotional honesty) of a first-person narrator, but I also tried to capture how unreliable we often are to ourselves, how we work to keep ourselves at a comfortable distance from our own most painful emotions. She’s a character who has suppressed her needs and vulnerabilities her whole life — without realizing the price she’s paid for that — but as the story goes on, that distance becomes more difficult for her to maintain. Even at the end, she does what she feels she has to in order to keep convincing herself of her version of reality, and stay in a place of isolation that feels emotionally safe. I wanted to develop the evidence of disconnect throughout the story, so the harder she fights to keep at a distance from herself, the closer the reader is allowed to get to her.

MR: In the collection Ball, a common motif is a dark side of caring/nurturing relationships. For instance, in “Wig,” the narrator takes revenge on her best friend as she dies of cancer, and in the titular story, the narrator turns on her beloved pet. What draws you to this dynamic?

TI: Even the most caring/nurturing/loving relationships can have their dark side, their messier, less-noble emotions: resentment, bitterness, envy, fear, anger. I’ve been a caretaker, and I’ve been taken care of; writing fiction allows me to work through such experiences, and I think it honors the depth of those relationships to acknowledge that complexity. And as both a reader and a writer, I’m not very interested in characters who are saints, who don’t experience the turmoil inherent in those visceral, unsaintly feelings.

MR: Much of this collection is centered around internal conflict. For example, “Ball” is so much more about the narrator’s inner tension with her own desire than any particular conflict in her external life. In your mind, what does it take for a character’s internal stress to break through to the surface? How do you go about showing this in a short story?

TI: It’s that simmering inner tension I find so compelling, how the slow boil of the struggle with the Self can drive the narrative forward. I’m paraphrasing Ken Kesey here: “Story is about someone who needs something, and what she’s willing to go through to get it” — the best definition of “story” I’ve ever heard. For me, the primary and most interesting conflict is always the internal one, the mental and emotional pretzel-twisting a character does with herself to get her needs met. But it’s the writer’s job to create obstacles to that gratification, which drive pr force the character to take action — which then creates a “plot” with narrative momentum. The character’s need has to be so great (as you say, create such stress), that she will fight to the death to overcome the narrative obstacles.

MR: Alongside the narrator’s relationships with Eric and Dayna, “Ball” is very much about the relationship between the narrator and her cockapoo. How did writing about a human/animal relationship compare to writing about human/human relationships? Are you a “dog person”?

TI: There’s a line in “Ball” where the narrator says of her sweet little dog: “I loved her so much it was numbing, and sometimes, to jab a feeling at myself, I fantasized about her dying.” That was a very uncomfortable sentence for me to write, due to its graphic autobiographicalness. Yes, I’m a dog person — and I’m the cliché of a middle-aged woman with no partner and no children, who is/was probably far too emotionally invested in her sweet little dog….

It was the spark for the story, in fact, my wanting to explore that human/animal relationship, how deep that non-verbal, non-human love and connection can be — how its very limitations allow for a profound emotional space. But how to do that without becoming sentimental? And no one really wants to hear about how much you love your little dog, how special your little dog is — everyone feels that way about their own so-special dog (or cat, or ferret, or fish, or whatever animal we bring into our lives and share that space with). So I wanted to push that connection with an animal to its extreme, expand the dimensions of the relationship into uncomfortable territory.

MR: Most of “Ball” is very realistic, yet in the last three paragraphs (spoiler alert) it takes a surprising turn towards a more horrific sphere. When/how did you decide to end it this way?

TI: How else could it end? At least, I hope the ending has that sense of inevitability, while still being a surprise. The story began in my mind with both the first sentence and that final paragraph at the same time — they echo each other, I think the beginning and the ending are inextricably linked. It does step out of reality, which (in addition to the “horror,” of course) made me uncomfortable — I’m essentially a realist writer, and I wondered if I was going too far, if the reader would be put off or feel tricked by the final turn to a kind of emotional surreality (in addition to the horror, of course…) at the end. But there was never any other way to end the story, for me — her final actions are horrific, but I think the ultimate horror is how the narrator is choosing to punish and doom herself.

***

Tara Ison is the author of the novels The List, A Child out of Alcatraz, a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Rockaway, featured as one of the “Best Books of Summer” in O, The Oprah Magazine and the essay collection, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies. Her short fiction, essays, poetry, and book reviews have appeared in Tin House, The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, Nerve.com, Black Clock, TriQuarterly, PMS: poemmemoirstory, Publishers Weekly, The Week, The Mississippi Review, LA Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, and numerous anthologies. She is also the co-writer of the cult-hit movie Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead.

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