Online Fiction Interview: Courtney Sender

Courtney Sender author photoIn Courtney Sender’s “The Solidarity of Fat Girls,” three sisters raise their younger brother following abandonment by their mother. The story traces their little family’s trajectory only in the broadest sense, noting the major events of their lives, including the illness and death of one sister as well as the engagement of the younger brother to a fat girl who “doesn’t assume that people’s brothers should love her.” A spare yet lyrical mediation on loss and loyalty, the story seemed a fitting choice for this shortest month of the year. We recently emailed with Sender to ask about the story, as well as her other work, which includes a novel-in-progress that we’re itching to read.

 

Nate Brown: I want to start with the title, which is clever and a bit tricky, too. The story deals with three sisters who either are—or were formerly—“fat girls.” But, as we see, these sisters are different sizes. We’ve actually got one sister whose illness had made her thin (Karen), one “middle-sized” sister (Geraldine), and one sister (Elise) who is a size 18. How conscious was the decision to call them “fat girls” while actually describing them as notably dissimilar? 

Courtney Sender: Good question!  Which contains two questions, I think—why give them all the same physical descriptor, when they’re physically different?; and why make that descriptor “fat girls,” when they aren’t?

To the first:  I meditate often on the question of how we’re seen by those we love. I’ll quote a line from my novel that centers my thinking here—”Love takes an image of a person as you knew her, and projects it forever.”  For the most part, I can’t really see when my parents’ hair goes gray, or my childhood best friend loses weight, or my housemates’ wrinkles deepen. From certain sudden angles and distances, I can see it; but more often I look right past what these people look like now, and into my memory of what they’ve looked like in the past.

That’s what I’m getting at in this story with the line, “Your three sisters look the same to you.”  The brother loves his sisters equally, and so deeply that what they really look like has no bearing on how he sees them.

That leads me into the second question.  What the sisters really look like also has no bearing on how they see themselves.  In the world of this story, “There are two types of girls: fat girls and thin girls; and within those, there are two types of girls: those who know which they are, and those who don’t.”  So “fat girls” is how the sisters conceive of themselves, not necessarily how the world conceives of them.  And that fat girl/thin girl divide is a shorthand for whether or not they’re a little afraid to touch the world; a “fat girl” in this story asks people to pull in their chairs, writes copy for a crafts catalogue, wants a barrier between herself and the world.  Presumably, a self-identified “thin girl” would have the aplomb to impose more actively on her surroundings.

NB: In a story that is about a brother and his relationship to his three sisters (and his fiancée), you leave the brother figure unnamed, which places some additional emphasis, I thought, on Elise, Geraldine, and Karen. But you’re also using the second-person as a sort of veiled third-person. Can you talk a bit about how you came to choose this perspective?

CS: The second person came about because there’s a sixth character in the story, I think, which is the narrative voice. The first line (“It is your luck…”) announces early on that this is not an objective narrator; it’s a narrator who’s willing to declare ‘you’ lucky. And what happened with that sixth character, in the third person, was that this narrative judgment seemed to descend on the sisters the instant “you” became “he.” “It is his luck to be the brother of three fat girls.” The third person makes the family seem like some kind of sideshow. Whereas I wanted the story to be an elegy of sorts to the love this brother had for his three sisters. Second person added elements of both mysticism and direct address that neutralized that judgmental tone.

NB: I actually hadn’t given due consideration to the way the story functions as an elegy. Looking at it now, it seems pretty clear that the protagonist’s grief at the loss of his sister, Karen, is at least partly responsible for his abandonment of his fiancée. Is that a fair reading? 

CS: Yes, I think so. I wouldn’t draw a completely straight line from one to the other, but there’s certainly something there about the loss of a whole, a unit that was the three sisters.

NB: You’ve written and published both flash fiction and longer works. You were a finalist for Esquire‘s 79-word story contest, and also had a really lovely, long story in Five Chapters. Can you talk a bit about the differences in writing long versus short? What draws you to each form?

CS: Thank you! I’ve got a story in this spring’s Glimmer Train that’s in three parts and rather long, as well. For me, while all of my stories tend toward being voice-driven, the propulsive force of the voice has to be even more sharply defined in very short works. A longer story can afford to track psychologies very closely, moment by moment; it can hang out for a paragraph or two describing the apartment in which characters are sleeping; in other words, the voice can rove. But in a short piece, the voice has one function, and the story is structured around a laser-like focus on that function. In the Esquire story you mentioned, for example, the rule is that every line tracks another event in another year of the protagonist’s life. In a longer story, those rules can relax, the voice can fulfill multiple functions.

NB: Do you prefer one form over the other? Is one more interesting or enjoyable to write? 

CS: Well, very short stories are satisfying because my brain is big enough to contain the entire piece at once. I can more readily see the shape of short work—it’s more like a painting that way. A friend and I joke that we need two brains to see our entire novels at one time. But there’s a great freedom to being able to include so many parts of the world in the longer form.

NB: Speaking of longer-form work, can you tell us a bit about the novel you’re writing?

CS: Thanks for asking! I’m working on a novel that follows three characters, from each of the Abrahamic religions, as they come in and out of one another’s lives over the course of forty years in America. Now that you’ve asked about the long/short story dynamic, I notice that I’ve done that in the novel, too; the main storyline is cut with shorter vignettes that move backward into the histories of the characters’ families, nations, and faiths.

 

Courtney Sender’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Crazyhorse, Esquire, Tin House online, The Carolina Quarterly, and Michigan Quarterly Review.  She holds an MFA in Fiction from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and a B.A. in English from Yale.  She is currently working on a novel, for which she completed a MacDowell Colony residency this January. More information is available at her website,  www.courtneysender.com.

ASF Reads