Lisa Grgas: Congratulations on the publication of your first book, Animal You’ll Surely Become! How are you feeling now that it’s out in the world?
Brittany Hailer: Thank you! This experience has been very surreal. I still can’t believe my story is in the hands of strangers and dear friends. I never expected this book to get picked up the way it did. The original manuscript was rejected over twenty times. After rehabbing the book and writing a few new pieces, the manuscript was accepted about a week after I submitted it to Tolsun Books. I was their second unsolicited author to ever submit. Things fell magically into place after years of hitting walls. I think I am still shell shocked sometimes. It’s a great feeling! It’s just one that is hard to place.
LG: I’m glad that you found a good home after such persistence. It’s common, I think, for writers to become discouraged or doubtful of their work when the immediate response isn’t positive. Writing and publishing are endurance sports, for sure.
Let’s jump right into Animal You’ll Surely Become. It’s a complex book. Sarah Shotland praised it as a “shape-shifter of a book” that “reinvents itself with each chapter” and I agree. You experiment with many voices and angles, merging memoir and poetry, and applying techniques traditionally designated to one or the other form in unexpected ways. How did you land on the hybrid form of the book?
BH: I think I’ve always existed in some in-between place. Sometimes a story wants to be a fairy tale and sometimes it wants to be an unflinching essay that cuts right to the bone. I also think too much of one thing can be overwhelming. If I was lyrical all the time, I couldn’t sit the reader down and say, “Hey, this exactly happened.” If I beat the reader over the head all the time with the truth, there’d be no mystery left.
I like merging genre and expectations. I like pushing poetry that’s so fantastic, the reader hopes it is real. I like nonfiction that’s so strange you question whether the author or her family is really telling the truth. I think this also mimics alcoholism and trauma. The reader is in a balancing act between sobriety and drunkenness throughout the book. When you’re intoxicated, things are surreal, beautiful, strange. When you’re sober, the world is so concrete and visceral. You see things through a magnifying glass.
LG: As you mentioned, Animal You’ll Surely Become explores the complex landscape of personal trauma. As the book progresses, you discover that you and your father share a history of sexual abuse. How did you navigate sharing these experiences?
BH: Therapy. I would never have been able to write “A Body Marching Blindly Home” had I not been in therapy. It’s the last long essay in the book that directly addresses both my sexual trauma and my father’s. That essay in particular was really hard to write because the other small pieces that address or hint at my sexual trauma are lyrical. They use symbolism and magic to talk about rape. The nonfiction piece at the end required me to stop hiding and actually face the truth, and that was hard.
LG: I want to circle back to your use of symbolism when confronting rape in just a moment. First, more broadly speaking, I’m curious what challenges you faced that are possibly unique to writing about trauma. What was your process like?
BH: I couldn’t write “A Body Marching Blindly Home” in one sitting. I’d write a paragraph then pace around my house, or sing, or walk the dog. It was very manic and uncomfortable. I kind of blacked out in places and went back and couldn’t believe what I had written. But, afterwards, I felt a huge weight was lifted.
It was while going back and editing it that the story became mine again. I could shift the words, move them, change images, restructure the piece. I could almost feel the story physically changing and becoming mine again in my brain.
LG: Thank you for sharing, Brittany. I’m encouraged to hear that, in telling your story, you may have begun a personal healing process.
Let’s talk about your use of symbolism. Some of my favorite chapters utilize a recurring image of deer – for example, in “The Little Deer,” “Deer Skin,” and even the introductory quote by Frida Kahlo. What drew you to deer?
BH: I’ve always been fascinated by deer. Their eyes intrigue me. I find their grace alluring. It’s amazing how quiet they are despite their size. I am not a graceful or quiet person in real life, so that’s part of it.
But really, “Deer Skin” was the first poem I ever wrote about my own sexual assault. In downtown Pittsburgh, a deer was shot and killed in a parking garage after it was cornered for an hour by police. This came on over the radio while I was driving to work. It was on the ten-year anniversary of my sexual assault, which happened in a garage. I had to pull over. I felt so scared for the deer, so angry with the city for cornering it and killing it. I wrote a draft of “Deer Skin” that day at work. From then on, that deer haunted me. After that, I dreamt about deer, searched for deer in the woods while taking walks. I wrote poem after poem about deer. I think their innocence and vulnerability represented the person I used to be, the girl in the garage who was attacked.
Kahlo’s “The Little Deer” is my favorite portrait. I love how stoic she is despite the nine wounds in her pelt. I felt so drawn to that: women remaining upright despite the wounds buried in us and bleeding. What happens when the victim refuses to run away and hide? What happens when she stares back?
LG: Thank you, Brittany, again for sharing your personal experience with me. I imagine it must be very difficult. I have to admit: I completely read you as Kahlo’s “deer staring back.” In the final chapter of Animal You’ll Surely Become, the narrator says, “Girl with a crown of bone, fill your lungs, show your teeth. Howl for your mother. It’s the only thing that will scare them.” That’s a woman (or animal?) you don’t want to mess with!
I don’t want to dig in too deep and unintentionally strip the lyric chapters of their magic, but I’m curious about the animal described in the final, title chapter. The narrator tells us her grandmother “picks the wolf coat from my torn skin” and, later, seems to undergo a physical metamorphosis. Can you talk a bit about this symbolic shift?
BH: Sure. I wanted to re-imagine Little Red Riding Hood as the wolf. How would the story read if her father was who she met on the path? Little Red is both predator and prey, then. She is a werewolf, cursed by her own blood. She can repeat the cycle of violence or she can educate her daughter about her own body and past.
I think all of us possess the capacity to hurt and be hurt, to hunt and be hunted. I wanted Little Red to reclaim what is hers. Women are animals. Women are vicious and powerful. Women are deer, too – elusive, vulnerable, majestic, targeted – but they can change into wolves. They can show their teeth and fight back. Little Red’s metamorphosis destroys the body that’s been claimed / attacked by another. She becomes something else more powerful, something scary, something grotesque. This challenges the idea of victim, damsel in distress, girl who needs to be saved, etc.
It casts her as the “villain” but in becoming monster or animal, she is liberated.
LG: I love that you’re challenging traditional female archetypes. There’s a long literary tradition of essentializing women. We’re seductress, spinster, witch, virgin, victim. The shedding of wolf skin feels both maternalistic (due to the grandmother’s assistance) and seductive… and exposing the very real power of a liberated woman is so unexpected and necessary.
This is an exceptionally personal book for any writer to send out into the world, let alone a debut author. What was your thought process as you moved this project from a personal endeavor to a published book?
BH: I had bouts of anxiety for a year. I vacillated between feeling really confident and really scared. I was constantly checking in with my dad and making sure he was comfortable, too. Eventually, I had to trust the story and believe it in it. I kept reminding myself of the other people in silence who have had experiences similar to my own. Those are the people I’ve always written for.
LG: In an interview for Bloom a few years back, Lidia Yuknavitch described reaching a “now or never” moment that led to the completion of The Chronology of Water, which tackles themes similar to AYSB – namely sexual abuse, reclaiming one’s physical body, the ways traumas can resonate emotionally throughout a family. I thought of her comment while reading “A Body Marching Blindly Home.” It felt to me like this was the first chapter to fully pull back the veil and tell readers “This is what happened” and “This is what I think about it.”
BH: First of all, I am a massive fan of Lidia Yuknavitch. The Chronology of Water changed my life. I identified so much with that book. I had countless people recommended it to me before I had the strength to dive in. She’s a huge, huge influence. She’s in my bones.
LG: That’s so exciting! I struggled with The Chronology of Water when I first read it but benefited from attending several of Lidia’s workshops. She helped me better understand the historical context or function of writers’ use of symbolism and other traditionally “poetic” modes to share traumatic experiences as they edge closer to their “now or never” moment. Did you experience something similar?
BH: “A Body Marching Blindly Home” was the last piece to be written and the manuscript didn’t really exist, then. After writing it, I put the manuscript together because I realized that everything I’d written over the past year or so was leading to this moment.
I had been sitting on the comparison between my sexual trauma and my father’s for maybe a year. I would walk around at night and write the essay in my head. It was just so hard for me to sit down and physically do it. It’s almost as if my body didn’t want to relinquish it. Everything in me screamed NO, but my head kept chewing and chewing.
I knew I had to take an explicit approach. I knew I had to say plainly how my father’s confession affected me and how we both endured something that forever shaped our lives. I knew there had to be countless others who experienced the same trauma. I just felt I had to finally say it. I don’t know if that’s the journalist in me or what, but after keeping things in for decades, I just felt it was time to come out with it.
LG: You mention in that essay that you hid your own experiences from your father, but you’ve mentioned a few times now that you checked in with him frequently as you geared up to publish. Am I overstepping to ask how he reacted to the book?
BH: After the book was edited and looked like we were ready to go, I called and told him about my sexual assault before the book was published. He, of course, was devastated, but there was this sort of “me too” moment between us. I think we find comfort in the fact that we are both survivors, even though we hid it from each other for so many years.
Now that the book is out, he’s insanely proud. He keeps one copy by his nightstand and one in the bathroom. He reads and re-reads it all the time. After he first got through it, he called me and said, “This is so good! I find myself so engrossed I forget that I am reading about me!” I’ve also read “A Body Marching Blindly Home” at different events and each time, there’s been an older gentleman who tells me he was also molested by a priest. (This has happened three times). Each man said they found the story cathartic and valuable. I called and told dad one day and he said, “Well, then, it was all worth it.”
LG: That’s beautiful, Brittany. I’m understating wildly how necessary it is for women and men to hear stories like yours and your father’s. I think it will bring comfort to a lot of readers to know that you were and still are supportive of each other.
I think I’d be remiss not to ask, too, whether (or how) your work fits into the larger women’s justice movements that have re-surfaced in the last couple of years. I’m thinking specifically of #MeToo. The timing of your book’s release kind of inserts you into that dialogue. Is that a dialogue you want to be part of?
BH: Absolutely. While the book was going through edits, the #MeToo movement evolved and gained momentum. It was so encouraging and empowering. It helped with that anxiety of coming forward.
But, I will say, I think the #MeToo movement kind of turned into a Hollywood thing after a while. Tarana Burke founded the movement in order to talk about violence against young women of color. Black girls experience assault and rape at rates much higher than their white counterparts. And while the Weinstein case is shocking and abhorrent, I hope we didn’t lose our way when talking about how sexual assault affects those of us who are most vulnerable. I hope women and men remember that sexual assault happens to every day men and women, transfolk, sex workers, boys, girls, etc. Like anything, I hope the dialogue continues to be as inclusive and intersectional as possible. My story is, of course, a part of this discourse, but it is also because I have a ton of privilege. I am white. I am able to publish. It is safe for me to tell my story. I won’t receive retribution for sharing my story. So, yes, I want to be a part of the dialogue, but I also hope the dialogue continues to expand and include those it was originally meant for.
LG: Thanks, again, Brittany. I try (hard!) to stay positive that the #Me Too movement will find its footing again. But, as we all muddle through the process of asserting ourselves and sharing our stories, I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to create new spaces and include each other in them.
Before I let you go, I hope you’ll indulge one last question. What do you want readers to know about you and your work?
BH: That I just want to tell a real good story. I want it to feel like I am sitting right next to you. It’s always felt urgent to me: “Quick! Sit down. I have something to tell you.”
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Lisa Grgas is the Associate Poetry Editor at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Tin House Magazine, Luna Luna, Web Del Sol Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Animal You’ll Surely Become by Brittany Hailer is available now from Tolsun Books (Tolleson, AZ, 2018)