Earlier this month, we brought you Kim Addonizio’s “The Other Woman ,” a piece that depicts three people in a tight, tense orbit. Addonizio is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer, and we were curious to ask her about working across so many different forms, and about what leads her to write in one over another. Over the course of our back-and-forth, a few things became clear: the assumptions we bring to fiction—even pieces we think we’ve read carefully and several times—don’t always match the author’s conception of what’s happening; that sometimes it’s good to imprint like a duck; and that even failed projects have something to teach us.
Nate Brown: I want to start with the obvious here. You’ve written many forms of work—volumes of poetry, two craft books (one of which I was assigned in college), fiction, and essays. In a 2011 interview with Susan Browne, you said that you primarily consider yourself a poet and that you’ve actually quit writing fiction in the past. And yet, here you are having just let us publish this gem of a story and with a forthcoming collection of fiction due in the fall. What brought you back to the form—or, perhaps, what didn’t allow you to abandon it?
Kim Addonizio: First, thanks for calling it a gem. Kind of cool to think of a story collection as a necklace. I’ve come to every form I’ve written in through falling in love with some piece of writing. I started writing stories back in the eighties, when I first read Anne Beattie. But it was poetry that consistently held my attention, and the more I’m reading in a genre, the more I tend to write in it. I know that if I were reading stories right now, I’d be starting a new collection, but guess what? I’m reading and writing essays. I just imprint on something, follow it for a while, and if another duck comes along I turn around and follow that one.
NB: That’s interesting — are there any essayists you’re reading now who particularly grab you? Did any writer or writers, in particular, play the role of lead duck?
KA: A few years ago I wrote a memoir that was rejected all over New York and a few more places. It had some good moments, but it was also very earnest and kind of whiney. In the meantime, I’d written a couple of essays for specific projects: one for an anthology called Bad Girls , and another for a book that was an encyclopedia of sex. (We each got to pick a word or phrase, and I chose “necrophilia.”) Those two essays were very different in tone from the memoir, and I realized I had another, better voice to write in. Then I read Jo Anne Beard’s Boys of My Youth, and had that “aha” moment. Really, it was more like “Duh. No wonder the memoir didn’t fly.” It’s a terrific book, and it showed me what to aim for—more scene, more humor, and most importantly, more depth. Right now I’m reading and liking two other books of memoir/autobiography: Jessica Hendry Nelson’s If Only You People Could Follow Directions and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.
NB: “The Other Woman” is told in close third, but the privileged perspective shifts in the first three paragraphs from the younger woman to her husband and then to the older woman. The shifts are quick, but the piece never seems disorienting, and I found myself wondering how you came to the decision to tell the story in this manner.
KA: Interesting that you think it’s a husband; I thought of them as unmarried, but essentially, they are married. They’re together, they’re committed to each other. One of the things that interested me was that in our relationships, there are shifting kinds of inclusions. In a conventional relationship there’s the “us” of the couple, but when someone in a couple is with, say, a close friend, another kind of exclusive unit appears. I was going to write it originally from the point of view of the “married” woman, but it occurred to me that it would be interesting to explore what each person might be feeling—to show how the three of them were inside a certain thing, but that in the end, each of them was somehow isolated by the overlapping intimacies. I guess it’s kind of my exploration of non-traditional relationships. What’s the best way to connect with other people—does monogamy really work? What are the alternatives? This was my attempt to explore some of the underlying dynamics. I have to confess that I was also heavily into watching a reality TV show about polygamy, and I was fascinated by the continual “processing” everyone was doing around making it work; it was kind of a bullshit show, but I was interested in how these people were trying to accommodate what seem to be twin and often contradictory needs.
NB: Oh, my. You’re completely right, of course: you never identify the man as a husband. Weird the assumptions we make, even after many readings of the same piece. In thinking of this story as something that operates in pronouns rather than proper nouns, there’s added weight to the idea that the story really is much more concerned with the nature of each character’s relationship to one another than it is privileging any one of the particular personalities at play. A different kind of story might focus on the transgressions of the characters, the fallout of infidelity or abandonment or cruelty, and end with an attempt at redemption rather than in the turning away we see in “The Other Woman.” I’m really interested in that, how despite his new relationship, the man is pondering the past damage he’s done. Why is he thinking of his ex-wife at the end of the piece? Why now, even as his partner rolls over in her sleep and moves against him, does he move away from her?
KA: You’re right, it’s trying not to privilege any of the characters; no one is the bad guy here. These are three characters drawn to each other and trying to figure it out. At the end, I don’t know if it’s a momentary turning-away or not. I wanted that little reversal; for most of the piece, my sense of the male character is that he’s the stable one. It’s his partner who might leave the relationship, and the other woman who may also decide she can’t handle the situation. And then we see that he may not be so fixed, either. Relationships we think are solid can change up on us, and our roles within them can change, too.
NB: Charles Baxter has called moments of irrevocable action in fiction a “one-way gate ,” and he’s done some very good writing about makes the irrevocable such fertile territory in fiction. It seems to me that each character in “The Other Woman” is teetering just on the edge of the irrevocable, and that any one of these characters could easily behave in a way that would bring the whole house down, so to speak. The other woman and younger woman could form a romantic relationship; the man and the other woman could do the same; or the man and the younger woman could split up for any number of reasons that seem just outside the boundaries of the story. But we don’t have access to what comes next, and the story ends in this vivid moment when the un-changeable damage of the past and the dangerous possibilities of the present co-exist. It seems the perfect place to end the piece, and I’m wondering if it came to you fully formed, or if you reached that ending through revision.
KA: It came out of the writing, which is what usually happens. I don’t start out knowing where I’m going. The writing just kind of takes me there.
NB: By the end of the story, my sympathies sort of rested with each of the characters, which is quite a feat given the enormous tension—implicit and explicit—in the piece. I found myself wondering if you have a character in the piece with whom you most fully sympathize and, if so, who that is and why?
KA: I sympathize with all of them. I think any of us could be in any of those positions. I’ve been in all of them: bored with my partner and attracted to someone else. And on the outside of someone else’s relationship, feeling like the third wheel, trying to understand my place. And finally, in a relationship with someone I cared for, who I thought might be slipping away. I imagine most people have been in those situations, whether they involved an overt affair or not. So all of them are me.
Kim Addonizio’s “The Other Woman” is from her second collection of stories, The Palace of Illusions, due from Counterpoint/Soft Skull in September 2014. She is also the author of two novels from Simon & Schuster, five poetry collections, and two books on writing poetry. Addonizio plays harmonica with the word/music group Nonstop Beautiful Ladies. She currently divides her time between Oakland, CA and New York City and is working on a book of essays. Visit her online at www.kimaddonizio.com .