Carmen Maria Machado and Rebecca Rukeyser became friends 12 years ago, when they were classmates at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “I remember that you were the person that I would talk to about female desire. I think that’s really where our friendship took off—that we were really interested in writing horny women,” Rukeyser recalls. Now, Machado is based in Philadelphia and Rukeyser in Berlin but the distance hasn’t weakened their connection. They shared a memorable trip to Italy where, as Machado recalls, “we had went into the mountains and ate a rabbit stew. It was an entire rabbit. It was a whole rabbit. Every part of the rabbit was in the bowl.”
This month Rukeyser released her debut novel, The Seaplane on Final Approach, a coming of age story about an 18-year-old girl spending the summer on an Alaskan homestead. Recently, she spoke with Machado for ELLE.com, about the tenderness of being on the verge of adulthood, reimagining what a western can be and the definition of sleaze.
Carmen Maria Machado: This is a novel about many things, including adolescent naivete and coming of age. These are really powerful themes that obviously exist in the book, and I wanted to ask you about your own relationship with adolescence and what it means to write a character who’s at the sort of the cusp adulthood in this very strange and vulnerable place, and what her relationship is with you, if any.
Rebecca Rukeyser: I’ve been thinking about this a lot just in talking about the book and apart from this being an interesting age to explore because of the phenomenal potential that one has at 17, 18, not just to make your life, but to derail it. I was really interested in that potential and on the dancing on the lip of that volcano that comes with being 17 or 18. I was interested also in the different ways you can convince yourself you’re going to lead exactly the life that you want to lead at that moment.
Prior to coming of age, you think of yourself as a protagonist. You are the protagonist, everyone else is important, but can be incidental. Coming of age, in a way, is realizing that you may not be the protagonist of your own story, that you’re actually peripheral to someone else’s. I love the way that that idea plays into regret and the immense overwhelming desire you could feel before you realize that you might actually be the bit player and not the protagonist.
CMM: It’s funny because this book has these beautiful gestures where we see into the future. We see this character go off and teach English in various countries. It’s sort of recounting, ‘It’s many years later when I was doing X, Y, Z.’ And you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s not even slightly what she had imagined.” The thing that she keeps kind of coming back to over and over in this book. Yet I really love those moments because it also creates this opportunity for tenderness, I think, between the adult self and the teenage self. Do you also feel that tenderness? Is that interesting to you, that gap in time?
RR: Absolutely. I think there’s this tenderness that’s coupled with, again, an intense ambivalence. I’m interested in intense ambivalence in all things. Thinking back on myself and I really want to throttle young Rebecca for being a little deluded and I also have a profound, grudging respect and admiration for that doggedness, the same sort of doggedness you have before you’ve ever had your heart broken. Where you’re like, oh, I feel this thing profoundly.
CMM: I want to talk a little bit about Alaska as a setting. You spent some time in Alaska when you were a wee thing, but I think what makes me so interested in the setting in particular, besides the physical specificness of it, which is so beautifully written in this book, is also the quality of it being the last frontier. This idea, the way they talk about, it’s very westward expansion, homesteads. There’s even this quality of almost colonialist storytelling. It’s constantly a space of invention and just forging ahead and authenticity. Can you talk a bit about Alaska, not even just as a physical landscape, but an emotional landscape that you chose?
RR: One of the reasons that I chose Alaska has to do with the micro-setting of the novel, which is on a remote island. It’s a homestead that has been turned into a tourist destination. One of the things I was interested in the beginning of this book, which started in ways as a flirtation and a perversion of Western tropes, was realizing that the Homestead Act, which started in the 1860s and was this land grab mechanism for people for fueling westward expansion, actually existed into the 1970s in Alaska. One of the reasons that this mythology of the wild west is so alive and well, and being regurgitated in Alaska and Alaskan lore, is because there’s a very real way in which it was playing at the colonialism that you talked about through the late 1970s.
CMM: This book has something I’m calling the erotic, aesthetic theory of sleaze, which is this philosophy the protagonist has about sleaziness and the nature of sleaze. [She] spends a great deal of the book outlining various things that are or are not sleazy and also trying to identify and pursue sleaziness, as she recognizes it. It’s a tremendous engine for the book, way more than I would’ve expected if you just described it to me. It’s the general idea of a character having a philosophy that they follow to their own ruin or seemingly into their own ruin. Can you talk a little bit about sleaze as a concept, what brought you to it, why it felt like that was the thing that she needed to be following into the wild unknown?
RR: With all of these answers, there’s my intellectual answer and my practical answer. My practical answer is that a while ago I realized this makes an immensely amusing party game. If you want to talk to someone outside of a bar, bum a cigarette, talk, start up a conversation, I learned that talking about the definition of sleaze was an interesting intro because it’s really hard to pin down exactly what it is when you start looking at it granularly.
The theoretical angle goes back to westerns. One of the conventions of the genre is this young guy going into the unknown, the young man in ‘Go West, young man.’ Generally, he’s propelled forward by an interest in some flirtation with purity. I just thought, well, this is slightly dull. I’m interested in a young woman and wouldn’t it be interesting if that’s the thing that she’s chasing.
CMM: Mira is both a hero and also somebody I’m very concerned about. But no, it’s amazing. Her voice is so singular, which I really love. There are so many other interesting female characters in this novel as well. There are men and they’re sort of incidental to everything that’s going on, but you have her marvelous aunt who appears in a flashback scene. You have these other young girls who are staying at the lodge, who are in their own formative moments and are perhaps the protagonists of their own novels that we’re not seeing. Right? Can you talk a little bit more about those characters and the role that they serve? What is it about these variations on womanhood and female experience that interested you so much?
RR: Let me fuse this back to Alaska. I wanted to look at the things about Alaska that were under sung or under discussed in a novel about Alaska. So, Alaska can be synonymous with the great outdoors and manly dudes doing manly work. I was interested in looking at something other than that, away from the purity of the glaciers, towards the laziness of the bars, away from either the intrepid guy walking through the wilderness or Timothy Treadwell trying to be buddies with bears and looking at what was happening inside, in the enclosed spaces in this vast area, and also towards female characters rather than male characters.
I wanted to have a look at what was happening when you had a young woman, given the sort of singular arrow thought of as a young heroic male protagonist. Surrounded, not by male foils and characters that the guy is learning from, but from other women.
CMM: I like that idea of the arrow of thought. That feels very singular.
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